Voice Purification and The Birth of Literary Segregation

Jan 25, 2021 by Michael J. Coffino

Dateline: January 31, 2022

 

On December 31, 2021, the big five book publishers, Penguin Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan, announced the formation of a trade association dubbed the Literary Voice Association of America (LVA). The LVA’s avowed mission is to “ensure that authors in all genre align the content of their published work with who they are and what they personally know.”

 

The formation of LVA follows the tumultuous controversy surrounding the best-selling work American Dirt by Jeannie Cummins. American Dirt told the fictional tale of a Mexican mother and her son’s escape from Mexico after a cartel wiped out their entire family. While Cummins claimed some Puerto Rican blood in her lineage, she is not Mexican; she is, for all intents and purposes, white. Once that pesky detail reared its head, a tsunami of criticism deluged her and her publisher, Flatiron Books, along the lines of how dare she write and they publish a story about immigrants of a different race than hers, especially in respect of a Mexican culture with which she had no personal connection. The shame of it.

 

The media explosion spawned a hue and cry about whether authors of one race should be permitted to publish fictional works about another race. The situation so enflamed the larger community that one powerful media influencer, who originally fell all over herself lauding the work, initiated a national debate about “who gets to publish what stories.”

 

Enter LVA armed with the solution.

 

LVA in its infinite wisdom devised a three-tier rating system to protect readers from “content that is not appropriately sourced.” The three rating levels are:

 

W: W signifies Worthy, the highest LVA and most coveted rating. To earn a W rating, “a work, whether fiction or non-fiction, must in all meaningful respects derive from personal experiences and, where relevant, be consistent with personal genealogy.” More colloquially, as one anonymous LVA board member is reputed to have said, “the author must know their shit.”

 

MB: The Mixed Bag rating is based on a “roughly equal balance between personal experience and personal genealogy, on the one hand, and diligent and focused research and painstaking investigation, on the other.” Or, as the same anonymous source put it, “the author had better stockpile sources that mitigate the manifest racial disconnect.”

 

UW: The lowest rating, Unworthy, is based on the benchmark that “the author lacked a legitimate foundation to write the work.” Or, as the anonymous source casually put it: “what were they thinking?”

 

Specific ratings are placed in a prominent square and affixed on three places of a published work: the lower left corner of the front cover, the lower right corner of the back cover, and inside the book in a conspicuous font on the title page under the title and name of the author.

 

LVA has an internal review system that allows authors to challenge preliminary ratings before they are disseminated to the public.

 

The most publicized early victim of the rating system is a work by Jaime Fields, the author of The Arrival of Her Past, a fictional work that tells the story of a Black girl who grew up in the Gramercy Park section of Los Angeles. It is a riveting tale of survival, resilience, and success. Born in Vietnam in the mid-1970s, author Fields is the daughter of a Vietnamese mother and a mixed-race father. Her dad, who served as a combat Marine in the Vietnam War, is the progeny of a white European (Serbian) mother and a father born of white (Irish descent) and African American parents.

 

LVA rated The Arrival of Her Past UW. It was later revealed that LVA, as a condition of a higher rating, required Fields to undergo genetic testing to substantiate her claim that she had sufficient black genes in her blood to justify writing about a black heroine. According to leaked LVA records, the “author’s facial features belie any claim that she is of African-American descent. In the absence of bona fide scientific proof to the contrary, the appropriate rating must be UW.”

 

Fields refused to provide genetic data to LVA to change the rating. The book got published with the UW stamp—the Scarlet Letter of the literary industry—and book sales suffered accordingly.

 

Be aware that the LVA jurisdictional reach extends far beyond works involving race. LVA also stamped a UW rating on The Things They Left Behind, a searing non-fictional account of how Vietnam Veterans left their souls behind in the jungles of Southeast Asia, by author Brook Carter Hansen, a draft dodger who fled to Canada rather than serve in the military; The Jury Is In, a fictional work about a gangland murder in Chicago that features a riveting three-month criminal trial, by Jennie Jocelyn Fissure, who practiced law for one year as in-house corporate counsel at Wal-Mart before becoming a software engineer; and Nothing But Nylon, a fictional tale about an urban youth who overcomes a bipolar disorder to become a prominent basketball player in Europe, by J. Dirk Dalton, a non-athlete raised in Scarsdale, New York who once had a relationship with a woman who, accordingly to Dalton, suffered from a “schizophrenic personality.”

 

The silver lining from the dust up over who should be allowed to write what has spawned a cottage industry of faux co-authors. Fearing MB or UW ratings, authors have begun paying fees for the right to use the names of people with life experiences and genes that can fix rating problems. Despite industry disdain for this practice, it has exploded, with prices normally ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 to secure the right name. One notable example is Donald John Trump, who reportedly paid $100,000 to porn star Dusty Samuels, to be co-author for his much maligned but bestselling post-third divorce book, Once An Escort, Always an Escort. He got a W rating.

 

And, in the category of “can you imagine,” LVA has launched a pilot program for retroactively rating prior works. By way of example, word from reliable sources is that LVA is on the verge of issuing a rating of MB to Ken Kesey’s iconic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, zeroing in on the middle ground between the fact that Kesey never took up residence inside the walls of a psychiatric institution and his well-known penchant for bouncing off figurative walls due to a copious diet of psychedelics.

 

Stay tuned . . .