Book Scandals of 2018: Race, Fanfiction, and the Pre-Movie Industry

It’s about time for everyone to come out with their end-of-the-year retrospectives, and if I don’t write mine now, I likely won’t get to it until March of next year.

There’s no question that 2017 has been marked by scandals and controversies. It felt as if every other week, another news-breaking unsettling development came to light in politics, pop culture, technology, and other fields.

It was interesting, in a voyeuristically thrilling sense, to have attended the premiere and panel discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center, where Elisabeth Moss and other cast members refused to describe their TV adaptation of the book as a feminist work. I was more awed than mad at the lack of understanding of the term “feminist,” really.

It was interesting, again voyeuristically, to have seen The Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar before the major news outlets covered the controversial depiction of Caesar as a certain orange Cheetoh. The qualms I had about the modernized aspects of the production slowly dissolved and were replaced with anger at the corporate sponsors that withdrew support from The Public.

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Delacorte Theater stage for Julius Caesar

And in retrospect, I’m haunted and disgusted by the memory of attending Kevin Spacey’s Clarence Darrow, by all means a disappointingly lackluster one-man show, a memory made more unpalatable by the fact that Spacey invited the students of his youth arts foundation to the stage after the play’s end. It’s nauseating to remember how he was surrounded by these teenagers for photographs as we gave him a standing ovation.

But! I imagine better writers will also be covering these events in their takes of 2017 (and many have already covered them as these scandals unfolded), and I am not a TV or theater person. So instead, I want to discuss the scandals that happened within the industry I’m part of – books.

The scandals in the publishing industry that come to mind and encapsulate 2017 for me are (chronologically):

  1. The Pen Literary Award nomination and quick withdrawal of nomination for John Smelcer’s Stealing Indians, after it was brought to light that Smelcer had been faking his Alaskan Native identity
  2. The scamming of the New York Times Young Adult Bestseller List by Lani Sarem’s debut novel Handbook for Mortals, which stole the #1 spot through underhanded means before being removed from the list
  3. The author of the anonymous “worst fan fiction ever” My Immortal revealed to be Rose Christo, only for the reveal to be proven false after Christo was found to be forging documents and Christo’s brother stated that she had lied about her story

I want to focus on these three, even though I know there are many more book scandals that happened this year. It’s not that hard to find better articles about Milo Yiannopoulos’s cancelled book deal, Hachette’s shutdown of their Weinstein Books imprint, Kirkus amending its review of American Heart, the resignations and suspensions of Leon Wieseltier, Lorin Stein, and Leonard Lopate due to allegations of sexual misconduct, and more.

There are a few similarities that stick out to me in these scandals: all three happened within or were at least strongly connected to the YA world, all three either directly or indirectly hurt marginalized people in some way, and all three were uncovered through social media.

It’s self-evident that all three of these scandals are each based off a series of lies. Smelcer has pretended to be of Alaskan Native descent for years, going so far as to spout literal gibberish and saying it was an ancient Native American language. His book also contains a falsified blurb from Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013.

Sarem will still not admit to cheating the system to gain bestseller status despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and has hinted that she may fudge her numbers again with a second book. Many have speculated (probably correctly) that Sarem sought bestseller status solely to boost the chances of receiving support for a film franchise.

Christo’s tale involves foster care, a dubious Cree heritage, and growing up queer, stating that the writing of My Immortal was intentionally bad as a convoluted attempt to find her long-lost brother (the same one who claimed her story was completely inaccurate). Like Sarem, Christo has stuck to her story and given her own excuses as to why her book deal was cancelled.

I think it’s telling that these scandals all happened in the YA world, both in terms of how these writers view YA and how the YA community actually works.

Smelcer has been writing YA and poetry for years. While many Native and non-Native scholars have known about his dubious claims at Native identity (as well as his propensity for recycling or making up blurbs from famous writers) for just as long, Smelcer’s Goodreads reviewers and general audience don’t necessarily have that same information shared with them.

Perhaps this is how, say, the Kenyon Review received enormous backlash when they published two poems by Smelcer, then very quickly removed those poems from their online site, but the Pen Literary Awards judges for the Young Adult category may not have been among those same circles. To some degree, Smelcer probably knows this and has taken advantage of this oversight, as his target audience isn’t usually included within these “high literary” circles.

Full disclosure: I am friends with one of this year’s Young Adult Pen Literary Awards judges. I was also an intern at the National Book Foundation in 2015, when Sherman Alexie was a judge for Poetry as well as a guest editor for the Best American Poetry series, for which he received flack when he included a white poet who had used a Chinese pseudonym. My friend and the other Young Adult judges were horrified when they learned about Smelcer’s background, as I remember hearing how Alexie was horrified when he learned how the white poet he had chosen was using yellowface to get published. While many blame the judges for not knowing better, I do not – it’s an incredibly difficult and stressful position that, first, requires sifting through hundreds if not thousands of submissions and, second, requires a high degree of mental stamina and the ability to ask essential questions about what to put forth as the defining voices and issues of a certain moment in time.

In the case of Smelcer, it makes sense that the judges wanted to find marginalized perspectives that would speak to young readers. Smelcer fit that bill before it was found out that he had been taking the spotlight away from real Native writers – like the title of his book, he was literally “stealing Indians.” It was truly a shame that this disaster happened, and I hope this rattled enough of the book world to make sure it’s not repeated again – especially in the very popular but still vastly underrated YA world.

In another case of stealing the spotlight away from a more deserving, marginalized voice, Sarem’s Handbook for Mortals scam is the scandal I’ve listed that I’m personally the angriest about. When news broke about the book that had taken the top spot, the YA community instantly looked into the author and the novel. Despite the book’s classification by the first-time publisher GeekNation (a fan site) as YA, the protagonist is not within the age range for that genre and there is other content in the novel that clearly does not align with other contemporary YA books, much less other YA books on the bestseller list (a positive view of smoking, gratuitous internalized misogyny, incredibly outdated references, etc.).

Moreover, the readers who read the sample pages that Amazon provided (I am among them) and those who went so far as to purchase an e-book have all shared the same conclusion: Sarem’s writing is absolutely atrocious. As someone who regularly reads the slush at a literary magazine and who took numerous college courses and writing workshops, the quality of Sarem’s writing is below that of even the most amateurish Intro to Fiction Writing student. To have her conflate herself to being good enough for the bestseller list is the equivalent of me drawing a picture of a horse and demanding it be good enough to hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sarem’s interviews and other public appearances since the scandal show that her working knowledge of the YA world, and the book world in general, goes only so far as books that have become franchises. In this wonderfully shady Huffington Post article, Sarem only names the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games trilogy, the Twilight trilogy, and the 50 Shades trilogy. With the exception of 50 Shades, it seems that Sarem connected these YA hits as having a better chance of being optioned as films and spent her effort towards cracking the bestseller list rather than caring about the content of her book or the readers she would need acclaim from. She is set to star in the movie adaptation of her own novel, and her background is as an occasional actress and band manager.

Her attitude toward the book world as the “pre-movie industry” is what I find most infuriating. I’ve already mentioned that my career is in book publishing, and yet I have often been bombarded by questions from friends and family about whether I would consider going into television or film. I have had a friend ask me, not once, but twice whether I could, as someone in book publishing, help her land a job in writing for movies or TV. First off, if I wanted to be in those industries, I would be. And it’s a disservice to treat my industry as less than these other forms of media, especially when I find books so compelling and the community that shapes it (readers and writers alike) so encouraging, accessible, and forward-thinking.

And it’s this forward-thinking and support that makes it more aggravating to me that Sarem took the #1 spot from Angie Thomas and her debut novel The Hate U Give. Thomas’s book (which is getting its own movie adaptation after becoming a critical darling and a sweeping success among readers) is about a young black girl who witnesses her unarmed friend get shot by police. It’s a YA novel that discusses the Black Lives Matter movement, code switching, and growing up as a black girl, and it comes from a first-time author who worked incredibly hard to get where she is.

However indirectly Sarem thought her motives were in placing her book above Thomas’s and everyone else on the bestseller list, however briefly Handbook for Mortals was on that list (less than a day before Thomas was reinstated as #1), it’s still a matter of a white woman taking the focus away from a black woman’s hard work and success.

As for Rose Christo, perhaps her scandal is the least damaging of the three. Her story is not as closely tied to current YA book trends, but it does touch on mid-2000s YA culture and nostalgia. The 2006 fanfiction My Immortal was lauded similarly those same early- to mid-2000s audiences lauded the 2003 film The Room – terrible in so many inexplicable ways that it was entertaining, almost endearing. In the same way that The Room was a spot-on distillation of a mediocre person purporting their work to be a singular masterpiece, My Immortal encapsulated perfectly the particular adolescent attitudes of that specific time – the angst, strange and sometimes nonsensical fantasies, goth aesthetic, “more ‘real’ than thou” mentality – while also using the same annoying slang and terrible writing tropes of that era to disastrously hilarious, parodical effect.

The authorship of the fanfic had also been widely debated. While the author had posted under the name “Tara Gillesbie,” many readers speculated that, not only was it a pseudonym, but that My Immortal was so amazingly bad, that perhaps a team of unknown authors rather than just one. When Christo revealed herself to be the writer of the fanfic, brought to light after it was (jokingly?) speculated that Sarem was the author of the fanfic, the internet who had grown up with My Immortal had excitedly latched onto any more details about how the fanfic came about and what the author was up to now.

The early interviews and articles about Christo paint a picture of a self-aware, now-grown woman who, in a somewhat charming way, embarrassingly owns up to the fact that she had written a bafflingly ridiculous story in her teens. The book deal she had at the time with Macmillan’s imprint Wednesday Books was a memoir about the various hardships she faced while in foster care after a traumatic and abusive childhood that involved child pornography and separation from her brother. The memoir would go into why she had believed that writing the worst fanfiction ever and becoming internet-famous would lead her to finding her brother.

When said separated brother publicly called Christo out for fabricating the whole story, and Macmillan cancelled the book deal over documents that Christo herself admitted to forging for the sake of “protecting her family,” the public didn’t seem to react with outrage like the other two scandals. Rather, Christo’s story had gone through such a whirlwind of various twists and turns in such a short period of time that it seemed the public didn’t feel so much betrayed by Christo as it was perplexed. With the over decade-long mystery ending on the same note it started on, there was little to feel besides confusion over why any of this had to occur.

While these three scandals are only part of my corner of the universe’s troubles this year, I feel that they’re also a microcosm and product of what this year has done as a whole. The idea that these three scandals targeted generally younger, less seriously taken audiences is not lost on me either in terms of its relevance to many other issues that we’ve faced this year.

Additionally, it’s become a familiar scene to see others lying for as much attention as possible, getting caught in lie after lie but vehemently denying it, deliberately misconstruing evidence to turn themselves into victims of a corrupt system that they already benefit from and have certain privileges in. Through some combination of ego and mediocrity, it’s somehow become a more popular method of achieving notoriety for these people, not even fame, this year than most others.

I brought up the social media aspect of these scandals as a means of embracing whatever truths can still come to light and be circulated widely among those who seek it in this post-truth era, and how facts still have the power to overturn deceptive narratives, stories completely removed from reality.  It’s been a rough year, one that we’ve somehow survived, though not without the pain, stress, and, often, horror. The scandals that I mentioned started off hoping to play the rest of us for fools, and ended with these scandals uncovered, its instigators humiliated, and us better for finding the truth. If at least some of the victories we can claim are these, if we can set the real world right again in these instances, perhaps there will be more. Perhaps this is too optimistic of me, but holding onto this hope that such things are still possible is what I want to keep in mind as we enter 2018.

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