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Kill Your Darlings: The Editor’s Role in Character Representation

Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenæum has long been a staple in the local literary community prevalent in the Boston area.  Its most recent panel was entitled “Letter from the Editor: Literary Tales, Trials, and Tribulations.”

The editors featured in this talk all work for publishing houses that “incorporate notions of social justice, the exchange of ideas, and respect for diversity into their mission statements.”

The Panel:

Meghna Chakrabarti, host of Radio Boston and Modern Love: The Podcast, presided over the evening’s events. While Chakrabarti asked general publishing questions, a probing question came from the audience, “Who has the right to tell certain stories?”

In my opinion, the question was no doubt sparked by the controversy surrounding Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling, about a father sexually abusing his daughter. Published at the end of August, the novel’s release immediately incited criticism because the author is a white male. Electric Literature has explored the associated ire in-depth. Which returns us to the pertinent question: Who has the right to tell certain stories?

My Absolute Darling

The three editors brought up a valid point: Censorship is a slippery slope. Any writer should be able to write about any topic they desire. Atwan invoked the example of a young black woman writing the character of a middle-aged white man. His characterization would be valid based on the author’s experience of middle-aged white men, but a middle-aged, white male reader may feel the representation was inaccurate. It is the reader’s choice to continue reading or to put down the book.

Tallent’s novel was never specifically broached and, perhaps, the three editors had not been exposed to it or the arguments surrounding its content. But for me and the asker of the question (I assume), the specter of sexual abuse and removal of a victim’s voice from their story hung in the air.

The tacit follow-up questions for the editors were, “What is the editor’s role when navigating an author’s relationship to a subject? Should the editor question a writer’s handling of a subject based on the author’s identity or trust them to their creative interpretation?”

Without a definitive answer from the panel regarding My Absolute Darling, the question became one of censorship, a practice universally frowned upon. So, the question is left up to each individual editor as they encounter a new project: Who has the right to tell this story and do I have the right to tell someone else their account may not be valid?

–Brooke, intern

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Why Didn’t We Get a ‘Fun Home’ Sooner?

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a Broadway musical. That’s right—the 2006 graphic novel now is a musical. And if you stop to think about it, the leap from panel to stage makes perfect sense: one visual medium often begets another, i.e., translations of plays to film.

Playbill

The intensely personal “tragicomic” is part memoir and part mystery: an element that the musical adaptation does not forsake, although it treats the death of Alison Bechdel’s father with more certainty than the questioning comic’s treatment. Perhaps Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, the adaptors of the text and cartoons to music and movement, felt a more definitive perspective regarding the Bechdel patriarch’s demise was necessary.

As an avid fan of the graphic novel and the intertextuality it displayed, I was disappointed that a large portion of the literary references were stripped from the stage version. However, I understand that every adaptation works to bring an old story to a new audience. The Fun Home musical is no different from many adaptations in that manner: it worked the poignancy of the Bechdel family’s story into music, set design, and an intricate light setup. A musical’s audience is more likely to appreciate the repeated refrain of “Maybe not right now” versus an in-depth analysis of Wallace Steven’s “Sunday Morning.”

Even still, the staging of the family reflects why it worked so well as a graphic novel: like the panels themselves, Alison, her father, and her mother are in close proximity but still unable to reach each other. This is accomplished in the musical with shafts of light separating the different family members as they progress through key moments of their respective lives—in tandem but out-of-touch with one another, much like the experience of the entire LBGQT community and the ‘mainstream’ United States.

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And the gravity and implications of this production’s existence in the United State’s current climate cannot be ignored. Slate’s June Thomas pronounced Fun Home as “the first mainstream musical about a young lesbian.” Considering that same-sex marriage was just legalized in 2015, the progress of the LBGTQ community in recent years has been astronomical, but we can’t help but think: why hasn’t this all happened sooner? What new thresholds will the LBGQT community pass and surpass?

And surpass it has. Fun Home’s original 2015 Broadway production has won Tony awards for:

  • Best Musical
  • Best Book of a Musical
  • Best Original Score
  • Best Leading Actor in a Musical
  • Best Direction of a Musical

It was also nominated for:

  • Best Leading Actress in a Musical
  • Best Featured Actress in a Musical
  • Best Orchestrations
  • Best Scenic Design of a Musical
  • Best Lighting Design of a Musical

The Broadway in Boston production closes October 29, making this week your last chance to catch it while it’s in the area. And you should—not only is it an excellent show, it’s a piece of history.

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LBGTQ+ History Month Spotlight: Take My Wife

October is LGBTQ+ history month, and I want to celebrate it by talking about the T.V. show, Take My Wife. Take My Wife was a television show on Seeso that focused on the marriage of two comedians, Rhea and Cameron (played by real life wives Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito). The show had an all female writer’s room, 43% of whom were women of color, employed LGBTQ+ actors in more than 47 roles in their second season, and actively sought out queer people in the industry to be a part of their production team. The show is considered one of the most inclusive T.V. shows available today. On August 9, 2017, Seeso announced it would be shutting down, throwing the fate of Take My Wife into limbo.  

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Photo courtesy of Seeso

I’m a huge fan of T.V. This started at a young age when I became captivated by the various adventures of those little guys on The Rugrats and continued when I heard my parents laughing in the living room while they watched Friends and Will and Grace. Anytime I scampered in to join in on the fun, they shooed me away, saying I was too young to watch and the beautiful people on the screen were just being silly. I started calling Friends The Silly People Show for this reason, and ever since I was (appropriately) censored from seeing it as a five year old, I have wanted to consume as many sitcoms as possible.

As I’ve gotten older and more pretentious, I’ve been drawn to more sophisticated stories that explore deeper, more complicated themes. However, I haven’t been able to shake my love for the sitcom. There’s something comforting about the genre, but I’ve become intensely frustrated by these shows’ lack of diversity. I’ve come to expect the same patterns when I watch these shows: predominately white, straight, and written by men.

Enter: Take My Wife.

Women write the episodes, the stars of the show are openly queer, and the supporting cast and folks behind the scenes are diverse in their race, gender, and sexuality. The aura of the show, unlike the shows I had grown used to, is completely inclusive. I had finally found a sitcom I could get excited about.

For the sake of time, I’m going to focus specifically on the pilot, which you can watch here. The show had me immediately after the opening. Close shots of everything in twos: toothbrushes, mugs, crusty cereal bowls. We are welcomed into the intimacy and warmth of our two main characters’ world. We don’t know how they came together, we don’t know how they came out, but we know that in this moment, they are together, and they are happy.

Except they aren’t quite happy, it turns out. Each are unsatisfied with various elements of their careers. They’re trying to find their rhythm, their balance. They face misogyny and failure and frustrations in the work place. Rhea practices her standup and gets continually interrupted by her needy boss, and Cameron eats soup alone in her car. They celebrate one another. They argue. They spoon.

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Photo courtesy of ew.com

And that’s what makes Take My Wife so innovative: its normalcy. Rhea and Cameron play a couple pursuing creative careers. They miscommunicate, make mistakes, support one another, and manage to slip in some wacky escapades along the way. No one dies (sorry, that’s a spoiler I guess), the main characters aren’t made to feel morally compromised for their sexuality, and the show’s lack of toxic masculinity feels like a breath of fresh air. Sure, there are ways the show could improve, but it only had six episodes to find its voice. The fact that it succeeded in that venture in such a short amount of time is an indication that Cameron and Rhea and their team are on to something really great and innovative.

I think this show is important to highlight during LGBTQ+ history month because it does what few shows before it have done: it celebrates queer people, it celebrates diversity, and it doesn’t cast queer characters in the margins of the show as quirky sidekicks or characters fated for tragic endings. This is enormously important. I can’t help but think that if more stories like Take My Wife were on mainstream networks, there would be less fear and hatred surrounding queer people—less discrimination, more empathy. At the end of the day, what Take My Wife shows is that Rhea and Cameron are just two gals trying to navigate their careers and personal lives while remaining deeply in love and attracted to one another.

My love for T.V. remains as strong as it did back in the days when the sitcom remained a mystery to me. I think I love television so much because I believe it has the capacity to bring about real social change due to its ability to showcase the stories of so many different people. However, these diverse stories only get told when someone takes a chance on them. So take a chance on Take My Wife; get lost in the warmth and complexity of the world Rhea and Cameron have created, which reflects the lives that they live. America needs to see lives like these because, to me, they look a lot like hope.

Madeline Sneed, Intern

 

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Don’t Overlook the Newly Published Novel, Drag

As our intern Brooke Knisley has suggested in her blog post “The Intellectualization of the Genre Novel,” we’re apt to skip novels excluded from the list of Editor’s Picks: those novels considered ‘under the radar’. When Brooke refers to genre novels, she includes thrillers we can’t put down; romances that play on our sentiments; and murder mysteries published by all but a select set of recognized serializes. The Genre Novel tag has often extended, when they first appear, to works pockmarked by expletives; while in retrospect so many of these rise to occupy the status of classics, such as Kerouac and Burroughs.

Nonetheless, whether mood or presentation/sensibility relegate Genre Novels to airport turnstiles–on the one hand–and beer-soaked basements–on the other–they are, as Brooke contends, far more than “guilty pleasures.” For they are “indicative of larger events surrounding (their) creation.” Perhaps best poised to present to our current condition is the after-work writer, seated at the kitchen table, under the glare of the florescent lights. If we read only hardbacks displayed in bookstore windows, though, we are we are apt to miss out on new voices, keyed in when the house is silent. It is in this spirit that I choose to write about a recently published novel, Drag, by Domenic D. Augustus & S. M. Dudley, and edited by CambridgeEditors.

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When Drag’s main character, Vincent, initiates his divorce, he checks off every decency point: “(He) would pay bi-weekly child support, and cover Kaye’s and Emmy’s health insurance, and Emmy’s future college tuition.” (p. 47) Displayed here are Vincent’s eerie, picture-perfect planning skills. Scanning into the future and back through the past, he fends off blame before his ex-wife, Kaye, has time to vocalize it. Besides, insofar as his daughter is concerned, Vincent wants to continue seeing Emmy, a foot-in-the-door but authentically held gesture. Nonetheless, father-daughter outings, once Vincent has severed all conventional ties, feature the consequences of Vincent’s break with the American Dream. When moments of routine togetherness turn aggravating, Vincent’s bitterness rears up, and is expressed in gratuitous side-remarks playing within his closed-off psyche. Common-place pleasures increasingly evoke sarcasm. His obsessions are on autopilot. What thoughts come to mind when his daughter drops her ice cream cone? “They should put a human kiddie car wash in these family bathrooms. Slide the kids on a conveyor belt to clean face, hands, and fannies all at once.” (p. 99) Relationships with family members have become strained.  He no longer perceives their three-dimensionality. The experience of washing up his daughter concludes inwardly with the comment, “So gross.” Involuntary thoughts document the Twitter feed of his decline.  With tunnel vision he maps out his master caper.

In the divorce’s immediate aftermath, Vincent allows his appearance to go messy. Once his plan for the future coalesces, though, Vincent rebounds as if to the call of duty. Re-employed and respectable, he dons the look and trappings of his former self. This holds true even after the snag that bungles the first run of his caper—when he is called in for questioning: “[Vincent’s] intent is to remain calm and cool and emit the emotion of a man not entering into a police station to be questioned in a crime, but rather that of a man entering into a post office to retrieve his mail.” (p. 86)

A twinge of ‘wrong’ does tap on Vincent’s shoulder sometimes, personified by his mother in heaven, and by his interrogating officers, their suspicions not entirely quelled. Nonetheless, he enjoys a spell of successfully duping those with whom he comes into contact: on a daily basis as the company man; and when a try at his plan short circuits, receiving the sympathy owed the hapless, injured patient. So why does the ruthless risk that drives him not dissipate? Having found his way out of the status quo, why does he push his luck? The thrill that Vincent derives from each new dare is, the novel suggests, psychologically diagnosable. Nonetheless, what are readers to infer from the way the novel progresses with increasing speed away from Middle Class family conventions, occupations, and expectations of sustained intimacy? Here, I suggest, Drag breaks new ground.

On the theme of perfectly good marriages ending in divorce, when Drag’s central character leaves his life–unlike in Cheever’s and Updike’s novels–his goal is not to maximize seductions–others’ wives–nor is it the pursuit of a generalized lust. The trope of consummating, bonding with another, for however briefly and even when that “other” is objectified, cannot be the motivating feature here. It is precluded by the focus self-preoccupation. None of Vincent’s reasons fit familiar, prior molds. Although Vincent is wistfully envious of those born into the haves, greed is not a motivation. In the course of the novel, drink and bad company are too transitory to count. And although apathy precludes guilt, Vincent wishes no one harm. This would explain why we are inclined neither to damn, nor pity, the character or his plight.

Vincent may be a character to whom the paradigmatic American notion of responsibility does not apply. Does it give way to a determinism of sorts? And if we yield to this notion, does it apply, by extension, to the incomprehensible landscape of our new, American times?

Find out more at the author’s website: https://writtenraw.com/.

– Dr. Harte Weiner

CambridgeEditors founder and lead editor

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Representation Matters: We All Want a Seat at the Table

Emerson College’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing program offers many literary events throughout the year. On October 3rd, one of these events entitled Gayly Forward: The Future of LGBT Publishing brought together a panel of queer writers and editors to speak on the topic of queer representation in the publishing industry.

The Panel:

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Although the panel consisted of four well-spoken, well-versed, and well-read writers, only two letters of the titular acronym had a presence on the panel: lesbian and gay. Ironically, the topic of representation composed a large portion of the event: should queer writers have their own section in bookstores or be interspersed among the different genres within the store? Are queer writers more inclined to take the position of activist or journalist when covering gay events? Are Young Adult novels the only texts doing a good job of portraying queer stories and characters?

The panel had a large load to unpack over the hour and a half talk. First, unanimously, the group made a quasi-tongue-in-cheek decision that queer novels should appear alongside of non-queer books and have their own section, claiming to “want it all.” And after so long without adequate representation, why shouldn’t the gay community have it all?

The moderator, assistant professor Benoit Denizet-Lewis, broached the question of conflicting identities for queer writers, especially on the newspaper and magazine side of publishing. Activist or journalist? Is there a way to embody both identities without sacrificing the integrity of either? The group was unable to reach a verdict, instead deciding that the truth mattered most, no matter which stories were being told.

Young Adult novels, the panel concluded, not only have been doing an excellent job of representing queer stories but are planting the idea in the minds of young writers that these stories can—and should—be told. Chee’s comment on J.K. Rowling’s post-publishing reveal that Dumbledore had, in fact, been gay was especially poignant: he said it sounded as if she had regretted not explicitly adding that detail in the text and only felt “safe” to make that apparent after the book series’ completion.  This is the crutch of representation: safety. When do we feel safe to be ourselves and share our own stories?

The panel and the panel’s audience constituted a strange moment for me, a cis woman who identifies as pansexual. I felt like an outlier in an already sidelined community—not just underrepresented, but lacking all and any representation. Outside of a brief mention of the ostracized bisexual community, the panel focused on only the experience of gay (the majority) or—severely limited—lesbian experiences. No trans men or women made an appearance either in physicality or anything more than a passing mention.

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Writing this post harkens back to the moderator’s query: activist or journalist? I was hesitant to describe the event as anything other than an all-around positive experience with meaningful talks of representation. And, for all intents and purposes, it was a great look into the publishing future of “L” and “G.” Although the length of the acronym itself was briefly touched upon, not all of the letters it contained received equal representation.

–Brooke, intern

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The Intellectualization of the Genre Novel

Academics and those concerned with literary theory turn their noses up at the concept of “writing in genre.” And yet, those same critics of genre surreptitiously consume popular fiction in the bowels of their favorite bookstore, saying to themselves, “I know this is trash, but…”

The debate of genre versus literary fiction is not a new one: The New Yorker and The Guardian have both discussed the topic in the past. Chances are you’ve actually been assigned genre fiction for a class during your high school education. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed Sherlock Holmes is part of the detective fiction tradition, a subset of the more generalized crime fiction faction. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is an example of 19th century adventure fiction. The list continues.

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Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon

But it’s undeniable that these novels have merit—so what about the intellectuals who read notoriously bad genre novels, both in form and content? Is it pure escapism or fulfilling another need?

The phenomenon of certain texts gaining in popularity reflects more about the society that embraces them than the actual texts. Think about the political and social climate that gave rise to the first Twilight book.  The year was 2005, President George W. Bush had begun his second presidential term, Chris Rock was the first black man to solo host the Academy Awards, and Terri Schiavo’s right-to-die case spurred activity from the pro-life movement, the right-to-die movement, and disability rights groups.

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Twilight fans camping out, photo by National Post

The first Twilight book did not deal with these issues, but by the end of the saga the notion of violent versus non-violent conflict resolution, racial (or species) prejudices, and pro-life arguments found their way into the story—and not just as casual mentions. These topics situated themselves as pivotal plot points, and, in the case of non-violence, the actual climax and dénouement to the entire series.

The next time you find yourself ensnared by a piece of genre fiction, don’t think of it as a “guilty pleasure.” Instead, turn it into an intellectual exercise—a sociological experiment, if you will. What is the larger rhetorical situation this text is responding to? What about it is drawing the attention of its audience? What is that audience, for that matter? And how do you fit in with that audience?

Remember, no text—novel, poem, or otherwise—is created in a vacuum. A discerning reader will look at the larger events surrounding its creation—and the implications of its existence. Reading “guilty pleasures” doesn’t have to be something to be guilty about; all you have to do is approach ‘mindless’ reading mindfully.

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Intentionally Introductory

Introducing myself in any capacity always reminds me of the opening pages of a novel. Just as Holden Caulfield quips in the opening pages of The Catcher in the Rye, maybe I should start with where I was born and “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”

But where’s the fun in that? Instead, I’ll start by saying I actually hate The Catcher in the Rye. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t hate J.D. Salinger’s writing style or anything; I just feel the book is a poor example of a coming-of-age story and thusly shouldn’t be taught as such in the general high school curriculum.

However, I will say this: My name is Brooke Knisley, a new intern at CambridgeEditors. I’m also in Emerson College’s Writing and Publishing M.A. program. My main concern is hearing and acquiring stories, and my definition of “stories” is a broad one. I like to know why people elect to share certain stories and what narratives are intrinsic in seemingly innocuous pieces of text: a scribbled note, an improvised tune, a birthday invitation. Graffiti counts too.

Me

I’ve traveled throughout the world in search of stories (Chiapas in Southern Mexico being my most recent destination) because the literary landscape is as diverse as our physical one. No text exists in a vacuum and the place of creation affects the production of a text as much as the narrative’s locale, whether intended or not.

But intentionality does matter in any story. The choices an author makes (or doesn’t) reveal the project at work behind the narrative. Which is another reason every introduction reminds me of the beginning to a novel. Why did this person use that piece of information to construct an identity? And why did they want to show you that specific side of their personality?

Which begs the question: If every introduction is a contrived text, why did I choose to introduce myself this way to you all? What is my larger project?

I look forward to revealing it to you over my tenure as an intern at CambridgeEditors. Hopefully, you will stick around so we can work through it together.

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