From Listener to Storyteller (Z Turns Three!)

z is threeWhen most toddlers have been asleep for hours, my youngest daughter insists, “I’m not tired. See, my eyes are open. Can you tell me a story?” If it’s a typical night in our household, we’ve already read a couple of books at bedtime. I won’t grab another one from the shelf. Instead, in an effort to keep the lights turned off, I resort to giving her the next installment of The Adventures of Little Z in Room 3, a set of stories I make up on the spot.

The cast of characters is always the same–a fictional version of my daughter, Z., her best friends, Chloe and Theo, a new friend, Frederica (“Freddy”), and her rival, Olive (“Ollie”)–while the challenge they face is different in each story.* The favorite hangout spot in their daycare classroom is an elaborate wooden train set, which becomes a source of discord when Ollie grabs Thomas the Tank Engine right out of Z.’s hands. There are only four trains–Thomas, Percy, Rosie, and Edward–and all five children want to play with them. No one wants to be Sir Topham Hatt (“He’s not a train!”).

Meatballs 5On another day at school, Ollie wears a winter hat with black pom poms on it that reminds Z. of a very similar hat she has at home. Thinking it is her hat, Z. chases Ollie into the cubby room, yelling, “Give me my meatballs!”

In the stories that feature a conflict between Z. and Ollie, the girls have to work through it. They learn to share, or they find other ways of restoring the peace in Room 3.

Interestingly, my daughter sees Ollie as a worthy adversary for the fictional Z., and she enjoys hearing about all the fun the two have once they have resolved their disagreement. When we discussed the possibility of Ollie moving away, the real-life Z. insisted that Ollie stay. For now, new children may enter room 3, but they are not allowed to leave!

When the story is done for the night, Z. often treats me to one of her own.** It’s usually a ghost story, full of good advice like, “Don’t pet any ghosts.” Over the last year, going from 24 to 36 months old, Z. has transformed from someone who just listened to stories, sometimes adding a detail here and there, to someone who actually tells them.

In honor of her third birthday, which is today, I’m sharing one of her early stories from a few months ago (the only one we’ve managed to record so far). She told us this story while we were hanging out in one of the conference rooms at my husband’s office.

For those who watch it: Whatever you do, don’t laugh at the end. My daughter won’t like it if you do. ;)

*Z.’s real-life best friend is named Chloe, and Theo is the name of a real child in her class, which is actually Room 3. Freddy and Ollie are entirely fictional. The conflict is never between Z. and Chloe/Theo.

**None of this helps Z. fall asleep, but she’s a night owl like her parents. There’s no use in fighting it.

Julie of the Wolves: An E-Book My Children Won’t Read Until They’re Older

Kindle Julie of the Wolves (2)Jean Craighead George’s novel, Julie of the Wolves, has been on my mind since the federal court for the Southern District of New York decided in HarperCollins Publishers v. Open Road Integrated Media that a 1971 contract gave HarperCollins the e-book publishing rights to George’s novel, after George had contracted with Open Road to publish the e-book in 2011. Around 1,600 e-books were sold through Open Road, but now, most likely thanks to the dubious district court opinion, the e-book version is currently unavailable (as of April 10, 2014):

Kindle purchase of Julie of the Wolves

On April 7, 2014, I was lucky enough to buy the e-book before the option disappeared from Amazon. As I explained in The HarperCollins Lawsuit: Keeping Authors Aboard as Traditional Publishing Sinks, I disagree with the district court’s analysis of the 1971 George–HarperCollins contract because the terms of the contract (1) gave HarperCollins the right to publish the novel in book form (as defined in 1971); and (2) reserved to George all other publishing rights. Plus, even if the 1971 contract included e-books (back when there was no such thing as even a household computer), HarperCollins breached the contract by insisting on a meager 25% royalty instead the 50% royalty referenced in the very same sentence of the 1971 contract they claim gives them the e-book rights.

Right now, according to a March 28, 2014 letter (PDF) to the court from HarperCollins’ lawyers, the parties are attempting to negotiate a settlement. We’ll see what happens. Let’s hope that this litigation won’t withhold the e-book version of Julie of the Wolves from the public for long.

In 1973, Julie of the Wolves received the Newbery Medal, which the Association for Library Service to Children awards annually to “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reading this novel for the first time. It’s a fascinating story about an Yupik girl in Alaska who is caught between the “old ways” of her people and the “new ways” of the outside world.* In English, she is “Julie,” while in Yupik, she is “Miyax.”

I’m two decades older than this novel’s intended audience, 8-12 year-olds, but I’m always on the lookout for novels to add to my children’s bookshelves. While I’m happy to introduce my six-year-old twins to advanced reading material (such as Anne of Green Gables), and I’m especially interested in novels featuring ethnically diverse protagonists like Julie/Miyax, I’ll probably wait until my daughters are closer to the publisher-recommended age before I give them a copy of Julie of the Wolves.(Hopefully, the e-book will be available again by then!)

The well-written novel contains short descriptive sentences that younger readers can easily understand, but it also includes mature themes. At only thirteen, in order to escape her aunt’s house, Julie marries Daniel, a boy with intellectual disabilities. She adjusts to life in Daniel’s home (acting more like Daniel’s sister than as his wife), until he attempts to rape her. Julie runs away from home, into the Alaskan wilderness, where she must rely on her Yupik skills and the kindness of wolves to survive.

The attempted rape scene is not particularly graphic, but it is inherently upsetting, and I can see how it could shock a young reader who is not aware of these issues:

“You!” [Daniel] shouted. [Julie] looked up in surprise.

“You. You’re my wife.”

“Daniel, what’s wrong?”

“They’re laughing at me. That’s what’s wrong. They say, ‘Ha, ha. Dumb Daniel. He’s got a wife and he can’t mater her. Ha.”

He pulled her to her feet and pressed his lips against her mouth. She pulled away.

“We don’t have to,” she cried.

“They’re laughin’,” he repeated, and tore her dress from her shoulder. She clutched it and pulled away. Daniel grew angry. He tripped her and follower her to the floor. His lips curled back and his tongue touched her mouth. Crushing her with his body, he twisted her down onto the floor. He was as frightened as she.

The room spun, and grew blurry. Daniel cursed, kicked violently, and lay still. Suddenly he got to his feet and ran out of the house. ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow I can, I can, can, can, ha ha,” he bleated piteously.

Reacting to these lines, some people have questioned whether this novel is appropriate for children who even fall into the publisher’s recommended age: 8-12 years-old. As one Amazon reviewer said (click on the image to make it larger):

Amazon Review

This novel has been controversial enough to prompt efforts to remove Julie of the Wolves from library shelves, making it one of the top 100 challenged books in the 1990s and in the 2000s.

Incredibly, George (who passed away in 2012) felt that her critics simply misunderstood the scene. A few years ago, she explained, “I don’t know why “Julie of the Wolves” was banned, but the critics seem to be fussing about Daniel’s pushing his wife, Julie, to the floor and tearing her dress. They call it ‘rape’ because they didn’t read it correctly.”  Marital rape wasn’t a crime in the United States at the time George wrote this novel, but there is no question that the scene still exposes readers to the topics of sexual and domestic violence.

While I may agree with the critics who say that this novel raises the issue of sexual and domestic violence, I do not advocate removing it from public libraries and schools. I’ve never been a proponent of book banning, which I discussed most recently in Please Stop Parenting My Children, even though some of the books my children have chosen from the library have surprised me — such as when a book I thought was about butterflies turned out to be about the Nazi occupation of France. (See How Do You Talk To A Child About The Holocaust?).

In this case, a book like Julie of the Wolves can help broach a subject that is challenging to talk about with children, but one that must be discussed and not simply in the context of a fictional child marriage in a remote Alaskan town. We’ve already begun this conversation in our household, and someday, Julie of the Wolves may be part of it. Hiding books like this from children will not make the issue of sexual and domestic violence disappear. Keeping our children in the dark about this important topic can only perpetuate and exacerbate what is already a dire situation in our society.

*The 1972 novel refers to “Eskimos.” Today, there is a question about whether the appropriate term is “Eskimo,” “Inuit,” or some other word. Many people believe that the term “Eskimo” is derogatory, while others believe that the term “Inuit” is under-inclusive because it does not include Yupik people. The protagonist of Julie of the Wolves is Yupik. [Edited to add: I'm not suggesting the novel be "cleansed" of the term "Eskimo." I'm just explaining why I didn't use it in my post]

The HarperCollins Lawsuit: Keeping Authors Aboard As Traditional Publishing Sinks

HarperCollins v. Open Road

In March, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, sitting in Manhattan, handed a victory to HarperCollins in its lawsuit against Open Road Integrated Media over the e-book publishing rights of Jean Craighead George’s award-winning children’s novel, Julie of the Wolves (1972). This “victory” for HarperCollins, however, highlights for authors one of the perils of pursuing the traditionally published route: desperate publishing corporations will stop at nothing to make sure “its” authors go down with the ship.

Let’s start with the facts of the case:

  • In 1971, author Jean Craighead George signed a contract with HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) to publish Julie of the Wolves “in book form” for a $2,000 advance (just over $11,000 in today’s dollars) and royalty payments between 10-15%.
  • Although the grant of publishing rights was in Paragraph 1, the contract also contained a provision (Paragraph 20) that said: “the Publisher shall grant no license without the prior written consent of the Author with respect to the following rights in the work: use thereof in storage and retrieval and information systems, and/or whether through computer, computer-stored, mechanical or other electronic means now known or hereafter invented and net proceeds thereof shall be divided 50% to the Author and 50% to the Publisher …” (Emphases mine.)
  • The contract between George and HarperCollins also had a “reserved rights” clause that reserved to George “[a]ll rights in the Work now existing, or which may hereafter come into existence, not specifically herein granted.”
  • In 2010, Open Road, an e-book publisher founded in 2009, offered to publish the e-book of Julie of the Wolves for a 50-50 royalty split with George. George approached HarperCollins to see if they would match the royalty. HarperCollins wanted to publish the e-book, but insisted on giving George a meager 25% royalty for the Newbery-award winning novel.
  • In 2011, George contracted with Open Road to publish Julie of the Wolves in e-book form, which sold around 1,600 copies.

Spurned, HarperCollins filed a lawsuit against Open Road for copyright infringement on December 23, 2011.* George, who passed away in 2012 at nearly age 93, was never a party to this lawsuit, even though interpretation of the contract between George and Harper Row—whether it assigned e-book publication rights (in 1971!) and whether it was breached—was key to this dispute.

Clearly, through the 1971 contract, George had granted HarperCollins the right to exploit the copyright through printed publication. But now a federal court in Manhattan, in granting the Plaintiff-HarperCollins’ motion for summary judgment, has determined that the 1971 contract also covered later-developed ways of exploiting the copyright (“new uses”).

The Southern District of New York opinion, available here (PDF), is disappointing.

In law school, property rights are often referred to as “a bundle of sticks.” When you own something, you can grant another person some rights to that property while keeping others, or you can give them the whole bundle. There’s a big difference between granting all of the rights in the Work — which would be the whole bundle — and granting the right to publish a Work in book form. So, when a 1971 publishing contract gives rights to the Work “in book form,” that does not necessarily include the right to publish an e-book decades later.

Back in 2001, another judge in the same New York federal court found that a very similar contract (the publishing contract for a variety of works, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five) that granted a publisher the right to “print, publish and sell the work in book form” did not grant e-book rights.Random House, Inc. v. Rosetta Books LLC, 150 F. Supp. 2d 613 (S.D.N.Y. 2001), aff’d, 283 F.3d 490 (2d. Cir. 2002). Also, importantly, in George’s case, while the full contract has been kept confidential, we do know that the royalty schedule in paragraph 17 of the contract only discusses print forms, like “bound copies of the original edition” and “unbound sheets” and the “cheap edition” (an industry term to describe paperback editions), and a “plate royalty” for books sold by a book club.

To me, those two points largely answer the question in this case: the “book form” referred to in George’s contract meant printed versions of the Work, and nothing more. Rights to everything else were “reserved.”

But the Court held exactly the opposite, concluding “the e-book format constitutes a permissible extension of ‘book form’ via ‘storage and retrieval and information systems, and/or whether through computer, computer-stored, mechanical or other electronic means.’” That language comes much later in the agreement, in Paragraph 20 of the contract (see “facts section” above).

The phrase “and/or whether” in Paragraph 20  isn’t just bad English, it’s bad legal writing as well, and the parties and the Court spent a long time debating what that language could possibly mean, with the Court concluding that “and/or” somehow trumped “whether” and the rest of the contract.

To me, regardless of how the “and/or whether” question is resolved, the overall point of Paragraph 20 remains clear, particularly when viewed in the context of the technology available in 1971. HarperCollins’ memorandum of law gives some examples of what those “storage and retrieval and information systems” could be: in 1969, MIT created “an experimental computer system for accessing the full text of 10,000 journals,” and in 1971, Project Gutenberg was set up to “create electronic books of public domain works that would be stored, retrieved and read on computers.”

That seems to be what the contract was getting at: if the publisher wanted to put the text of the book in some sort of electronic database (either then known or later invented)— which under copyright law would require its own separate license — then George had the option of saying “no” or of receiving 50/50 royalty.

I disagree with the Court that a reference much later in the contract to antiquated database systems is the same thing as an e-book license — indeed, from the 1990s onward, HarperCollins’ own contracts drew a clear distinction between rights relating to e-book versions and rights relating to information storage systems — but even if we assume that Paragraph 20 granted HarperCollins publishing rights in the e-book form, it requires a 50/50 split. That would just mean HarperCollins breached their agreement with George by refusing to publish the e-book form unless she accepted a 25% royalty instead of the 50% royalty required by the very same sentence they claim covers ebooks.

Apparently, it seems to be the norm for publishing corporations to present their authors with the choice to either accept a 25% royalty for e-book publication (regardless of the royalty on the page) or not have their novel published as an e-book at all (even though this would mean that the publisher has failed to “exploit the copyright,” probably breaching its obligations to the author).**

In You Can’t Buy That! The Great E-Book Royalty War, Salon writer Laura Miller explains that publishing corporations insist on the 25% royalty even though e-book production costs are limited. As she points out about George’s book in particular:

[I]t’s unlikely that HarperCollins is still paying off the cost of editing and promoting “Julie of the Wolves,” a title that has sold 4 million copies in print since it was first published 41 years ago. It’s also unlikely that they’d be doing much to promote the e-book if they did publish it, since publishers tend to concentrate those resources on new titles.

At the end of the day, this case suggests that one of the ways big publishers are trying to stay afloat in the current market is by holding e-books of popular authors for ransom, a strategy that has now been blessed by the Southern District of New York.

The shaky legal reasoning in the HarperCollins v. Open Road Media court opinion will likely do nothing but encourage publishing corporations to threaten authors with years of litigation if they dare to try to bargain for even equal treatment (such as a 50-50 split) for “new uses.”

So, what are the lessons from the HarperCollins lawsuit?

Well, if authors have any bargaining power at all, it may be worth it to consider the possibility of limiting copyright grants to ways of distribution known at the time of the contract. However, a better course of action may be to avoid traditional publishing entirely.

*By the way, Jane Friedman, cofounder and CEO of Open Road, had actually been the President and Chief Executive Officer of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide. I remember having seen Friedman quoted in George Packer’s Cheap Words piece in The New Yorker, which I criticized in my post, What’s Troubling About Amazon?.

**The entire contract isn’t available for public view. So, apart from the paragraphs discussed in the court opinion, I don’t know what the terms are.


“Women & Money Don’t Mix”–Even When the Woman is on the Coin

Earlier this week, the Royal Canadian Mint revealed to the world its newest commemorative silver coin, inscribed with “5 dollars,” but retailing for $69.95. Meant as a keepsake, according to the Mint’s president, it celebrates Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro’s “tremendous body of work.” The coin depicts a female figure materializing from a pen who embraces herself in front of an open book with a quote from Munro’s The View from Castle Rock:

And in one of these houses — I can’t remember whose — a magic doorstop, a big mother-of-pearl seashell that I recognized as a messenger from near and far, because I could hold it to my ear — when nobody was there to stop me — and discover the tremendous pounding of my own blood, and of the sea. (appearing in English and in French).

Having seen this news, some people may have mistakenly concluded that the Nobel Prize-winning Munro had passed away. In the U.S. (where I live), for example, the law prohibits the placement of images associated with living individuals on circulating coins, a tradition that seems to have developed as one way of differentiating ourselves from the British Empire, which had its monarch’s profile all over its currency (and still does).

Even in the U.S., though, a commemorative coin like the one Canada is producing in honor of Munro can depict a living person. The purpose of a commemorative coin is to celebrate or honor a particular person or event, often with the intention of raising money. Munro, touted as the “master of the contemporary short story,” is certainly an author worth celebrating. For one thing, she is one of only 13 women (out of 110 winners) to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.

So, does it mean something for gender equality to honor Munro with a coin?

Maybe, though (1) it may be less meaningful in a country like Canada, which has the effigy of a queen on most of its circulating change and on its $20 bill; (2) the design overemphasizes the female body; and (3) it’s just a coin–a non-circulating one at that. However, at least it draws attention to the achievements of a woman who has excelled in an otherwise hostile literary world, hopefully encouraging other women to persevere as they navigate similar challenges.

I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since the news broke last summer that Jane Austen had “ousted” Charles Darwin on the British £10 note. Many praised the decision; some said that it was a “victory for campaigners demanding female representation – aside from the Queen – on the country’s cash.”

While I love Jane Austen’s novels–and I think men should appreciate them as much as women do–I highly doubt her appearance on cash is such a significant “victory” for sex equality. The acceptance of these coins as currency may reflect progressive attitudes, but it doesn’t do much to instill these attitudes in an otherwise biased population. That’s what a couple of American examples suggest.

Remember Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea? Anthony, a social reformer and suffragist, and Sacagawea (Sakakawea), a Shoshone Indian guide to the Lewis and Clark expedition, have both appeared on U.S. dollar coins, a historically unpopular denomination.

The U.S. Mint has tried several times to interest Americans in replacing dollar bills with dollar coins, which, if used, are more cost-effective. After almost forty years without a dollar coin, the U.S. began issuing President Eisenhower dollar coins from 1971 to 1978. Then, from 1979-81 and again in 1999, the Mint issued Susan B. Anthony dollar coins. In 2000, Sacagawea took over as the token woman on circulating U.S. currency until Helen Keller joined her as the reverse design on Alabama’s circulating commemorative quarter in 2003.

While I imagine that the Alabama quarter with Helen Keller is just as successful as any other quarter, the Anthony and Sacagawea dollars have been spectacular failures. People just don’t like to use them, despite all the U.S. Mint’s research into designing a palatable coin and despite the fact that the representation of Sacagawea with her child comports with stereotypes of women as mothers. To some degree, it almost feels like a slight that, apart from the Alabama quarter (which is one of 50 designs), female representation on U.S. currency is solely on a marginalized coin.

In the hopes of increasing the popularity of dollar coins (without taking the step of removing dollar bills from circulation), the U.S. Congress passed a law in 2005 to issue $1 coins with dead presidents on them in addition to Sacagawea. Many of these coins just stayed in vaults (I’ve never seen one in circulation).

So, what’s the problem?

Consciously, I think most people would say the problem is that Americans are just reluctant to accept a dollar coin. We are creatures of habit, and it’s easier to fit dollar bills in our pockets than dollar coins. The failure of all $1 coins in the US–Eisenhower, Anthony, Sacagawea, and the Presidents–would support that position. However, Eisenhower would obviously struggle to gain acceptance after so many decades without a $1 coin, and, at least according to NPR’s Planet Money, there actually had been some demand for the presidential $1 coins–But not for Sacagawea.

Indeed, NPR’s Planet Money went so far as to place the blame for the failure of the $1 coin on Sacagawea, specifically focusing on the part of the 2005 law that required production of one Sacagawea coin for every four presidential coins when Sacagawea was so unpopular (check out the podcast, starting at 15 minutes).

The snide NPR Planet Money hosts have left me thinking that it isn’t just American inability to adapt that has caused the failure of the $1 coin. Rather, it may be the association of the $1 coin with women (including a non-white one) that has led to its current degree of unpopularity. Implicit bias –”a positive or negative mental attitude towards a person, thing, or group that a person holds at an unconscious level”– is, by definition, more pernicious than people realize. It could be that the perpetual failure of dollar coins in the U.S. is an offshoot of that old stereotype that “women just aren’t good with money.”

The test is whether Americans would switch entirely to electronic financial transactions if we put Sacagawea or another woman on our dollar bills!

Happy Birthday: Another Year of “Toil and Labour of the Mind”

I cant fit 33 candles on a cupcakeWithout giving Mrs. Clay of Jane Austen’s Persuasion any undue credit, I think she may have been onto something when she said:

[E]ven in the quieter professions, there is a toil and a labour of the mind, if not of the body, which seldom leaves a man’s looks to the natural effect of time. The lawyer plods, quite care-worn; the physician is up at all hours, and travelling in all weather; and even the clergyman … is obliged to go into infected rooms, and expose his health and looks to all the injury of a poisonous atmosphere.

In this nearly two-hundred-year-old observation, the fictional Mrs. Clay referred to only men, but her comment would apply equally to women today. In the U.S. (where we spell “labour” without the ‘u’), just under half of all law school students are women, and the “toil and labour of the mind” of the profession into which they will enter — its demanding hours, the adversarial nature of what lawyers do, and the poisonous competitive culture in many firms — is at least as unkind to women as it is for the men. It may even be more taxing for women in light of the discriminatory practices that result in lower salaries and fewer partnerships and the societal expectation that working women will still shoulder most of the duties at home.

Conventional wisdom suggests, as Jane Austen via Mrs. Clay observed, that stress can affect physical appearance. Scientific research also suggests a relationship between chronic stress and wrinkling, greying, and other physical characteristics associated with aging, though the exact effect of stress hormones on appearance and health is difficult to discern.

For example:

  • Women in “high strain” jobs — i.e., “a demanding job that provides limited opportunity for decision-making or to use one’s creative or individual skills,” which frankly describes most lawyers below the senior partner level — have a 70% greater risk of heart attack, and both job strain and job insecurity predisposed women to having “high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, and excess body weight.”

  • Stress even affects DNA, reducing the length of telomeres (the caps on the ends of chromosomes), and thus increasing the risk of “cancer, stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes.”

And, of course, having high work and life demands doesn’t leave much time to take care of ourselves, probably making many of us look much older than we otherwise would for our chronological ages.

Whatever we look like, though, the more concerning effect of stress is its potential impact on our quality of life and ultimately on our longevity.

Thankfully, some research suggests that our telomeres can bounce back with an adjusted lifestyle, and, obviously, there is enormous individual variability when it comes to how we handle stress, how we age, and how long we’ll live.

That’s good. I’m actually really looking forward to my 80s. As author and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in July of last year on the cusp of his 80th birthday in The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding), “I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”

As of today, I’ve got only 47 years to go until I am “freed from these factitious urgencies.” The big question is whether economic conditions will allow retirement by that golden age.

PS. My darling daughter told me this morning: “Happy Birthday! You’re older, but you only look about eight.” She’s six!

Anonymity Doesn’t Only Protect The Trolls (It Protects Nice People, Too)

trolls amazon change misfortune

There has been a lot of talk lately (and in the past) about the merits (or lack thereof) of anonymous reviews on Amazon and other websites.

Many believe that anonymity encourages the trolls, those mean-spirited people whose only purpose on the Internet is to irritate and harm others. So, the argument goes, removing anonymity will improve the discourse on these websites.

Thousands of people who believe this argument have signed a petition on to encourage to prohibit anonymity in reviews (which I call “forced attribution”).

The petition is directed at Jeff Bezos and Jon P. Fine and asks them to “protect users and indie publishing authors from bullying and harassment by removing anonymity and requiring identity verification for reviewing and forum participation.”

I certainly sympathize with these authors. It can’t be easy for an author to pour her heart and soul into a book only to have it ripped apart by a faceless reviewer who might not have even read it. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that there is a difference between reviews that offer genuine criticism and reviews that are harassing or defamatory. The former may be rude and sarcastic but is otherwise legitimate, while the latter is inappropriate in our society and thus potentially illegal.

While I believe that Amazon should make an effort to prevent harassing or defamatory conduct on its websites, I question whether it should impose a speech-chilling solution (forced attribution) on its users when there are less extreme alternatives.

First, as the petitioners admit, Amazon already has the tools in place to address the problem of unduly mean-spirited reviews. Per its own guidelines, Amazon “reserve[s] the right to remove reviews” that contain “spiteful remarks.” The “Important Note” to the petition says, “If Amazon simply enforced their own guidelines, much of the problem would be resolved.”

I do not know how (or if) Amazon enforces this provision, but I would hope that they would not invoke it for every comment flagged as potentially abusive. There is always the possibility that the offended person is just overly sensitive to the criticism, or that an author is trying to cull honestly-written negative reviews. Removal should be reserved for only the comments that truly target an author in a personal and intimidating way (harassment) or that allege untrue facts that damage an author’s reputation (defamation).

Second, if a comment on Amazon is actually defamatory, the author has the option of suing that commenter under state law. These cases are notoriously difficult for plaintiffs, but not unheard of, and the harmed party could get the identities of pseudonymous or anonymous commenters by court order. See Pilchesky v. Gatelli, 2011 Pa. Super. 3 (2011)(“The court must expressly balance the defendant’s First Amendment rights [to speak anonymously without government intrusion] against the strength of the plaintiff’s prima facie case [that the defendant defamed the plaintiff].”).

As a private company, to which the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not apply, Amazon may allow as much or as little speech on its websites as it likes; however, given Amazon’s role in our society, and the longstanding tie between books and free speech, I would hope that they take into consideration First Amendment principles. As the New Jersey Superior Court recognized in Dendrite Int’l, Inc. v. Doe, No. 3, 342 N.J. Super. 134 (2001), there are many good reasons to protect the right to speak anonymously:

People are permitted to interact pseudonymously and anonymously with each other so long as those acts are not in violation of the law. This ability to speak one’s mind without the burden of the other party knowing all the facts about one’s identity can foster open communication and robust debate. Furthermore, it permits persons to obtain information relevant to a sensitive or intimate condition without fear of embarrassment. (Quoting Columbia Ins. Co., v. Seescandy.Com, 185 F.R.D. 573, 578 (N.D.Cal.1999)).

Exactly. Anonymous speech encourages debate and allows us to speak our minds more freely. Removing anonymity on a major reviewing website would have effects far beyond trolling, harassing, or defamatory reviews. It could decrease the prevalence of honest negative reviews (which is good for authors, but not so good for readers trying to avoid books they won’t like), and, indeed, it might reduce the number and enthusiasm of positive reviews. For example, people might not feel comfortable admitting publicly that they read books in certain genres (erotica? self-help? romance?), about certain subjects (AIDS? sexual assault?), or by certain authors (E. L. James? Franzen?). What about a book for child abuse victims? It’s not hard to imagine that forced attribution would result in far fewer genuine reviews of books about intensely private matters.

Anonymity or semi-pseudonymity doesn’t just encourage spiteful trolls; it also encourages speech from the self-conscious, the perfectionists (who wouldn’t ever publish something under their own name without at least a proofreader!), those of us trying to keep a line between different facets of our lives (personal vs. professional, online vs. in real life), and people with medical or personal secrets that they want to keep private.

Besides, while I suspect that forced attribution would decrease the number of unduly harsh reviews, it certainly wouldn’t prevent it completely. Readers aren’t necessarily nice people. In fact, research suggests that their love of books might even enhance their ability to bully effectively by improving their assessment of their target’s emotional state. Let’s not forget that some of the harshest reviews are actually called “literary criticism,” written by people using their own names, and published in places like The New York Times. Remember William Giraldi? Well, he’s not only responsible for equating book bloggers to leeches, but also for incredibly mean-spirited reviews. There is even a “Hatchet Job of the Year Award” for the most hostile reviews, all written under the reviewers’ actual names!

Forced attribution of reviews on Amazon isn’t the answer. For situations that aren’t severe enough to warrant a lawsuit or removal, the best alternative solutions to objectionable speech are to respond with “more speech” (which I wouldn’t recommend to an author) or to simply ignore the review. An overly harsh comment speaks for itself. Any sensible reader browsing for books on Amazon will just roll their eyes at it.

Or, just maybe, they’ll buy the book to see what all the fuss is about.

Down the “Rosy” Rabbit Hole: A Practically Pornographic Photo (For 1878)

Portion of 1878 photograph from Edmund Morris BookIn describing Theodore Roosevelt’s first picture with his future wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, biographer Edmund Morris writes in the award-winning first volume of his trilogy on the 26th U.S. President, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979):

Alice, seated lower, leans toward him, almost touching his right thigh. Her skirts droop sexily over his shoe.

Nothing in the surviving picture seems particularly “sexy” by today’s standards (see image above), but I can imagine that the contact between the outermost layer of Lee’s skirt and Roosevelt’s shoe might have been suggestive for 1878. I’m particularly amused by the fact that the picture is not of two people, but of three, the chaperone being Rose Saltonstall, whom historian Stacy A. Cordery calls “the ubiquitous Rose” in Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker (2008)

I’m in the middle of both Morris’ and Cordery’s Roosevelt books right now.

The Rosy Rabbit HoleI fell into this Roosevelt “rabbit hole” — where one book leads to another — when I read Rebecca BehrensWhen Audrey Met Alice, a middle grade novel published last month. It features a thirteen-year-old girl named Audrey, whose mother is President of the United States (three cheers for a female president!). Audrey struggles with the same challenges many thirteen-year-olds face, from uncomfortable social situations to seemingly unrequited crushes, with the added difficulty of dealing with it all under the watch of the public and the secret service. An only child, Audrey finds a kindred spirit in the headstrong Alice Roosevelt, a former “first daughter,” when she stumbles upon Alice’s old diary in the White House.

Audrey manages to keep this discovery secret, despite living in a “fishbowl,” having concluded that if she “showed [the diary] to [her] parents, they’d probably find a way to ruin it too.” She blames her parents for upending her comfortable life in Minnesota by moving into the White House. The choice was theirs, not hers. Alice’s experience with a similar transition shows Audrey just how much the two “first daughters” have in common despite a century of time between them.  Alice’s stories encourage Audrey to push her boundaries, initially resulting in a series of missteps that ultimately teach Audrey how to make the best of her situation.

While the novel’s 9 to 12-year-old reading level is a little advanced for my 6-year-old early readers, I’m always on the lookout for novels to add to their library in the future. There are some examples of Audrey’s rule-breaking that might concern some parents, such as when Audrey sneaks onto the roof with a pack of cigarettes or when she sneaks a boy into the White House, but Behrens doesn’t glorify these behaviors. Nor will discouraging a child from reading this book prevent that child from engaging in similar behaviors. In my opinion, it’s better to use Audrey’s behavior as a conversation-starter with my kids than it is to pretend that teenagers are nothing but angels 100% of the time.

Overall, what I like most about this novel is that it introduces young readers to an interesting female historical figure from a time period when women couldn’t even vote. After reading this novel, I decided to learn more about Alice Roosevelt by picking up Cordery’s Alice, which I have enjoyed so far but have decided to put on hold until I finish Morris’ biography of Theodore. I think I will appreciate Alice even more after I better acquaint myself with her family.

*Top Image: A portion of the 1878 picture that appears in Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, originally from the Alice Sturm Collection.