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When, Along with her Characters, an Author Gets In Trouble

By Ellen Levine

I’ve just written a novel about teen pregnancy in which someone actually has an abortion.  The story takes place in 1956, pre-Roe v. Wade, and the novel, In Trouble, will be published by Carolrhoda, available in July 2011.  Although I’ve written about “difficult” and “controversial” subjects before, I was startled by what I’ve learned over this long haul.

It was, to say the least, a challenge to sell the book, even though editors knew me and told my agent they admired and respected my work.  (I’ve written over twenty books for young people.)  I was told by one editor that the house would never publish anything that has a character who has an abortion. Pregnancy is a regular topic these days, but abortion is rarely mentioned except to be considered and rejected, or tolerated if it happens well off-page and not in present time.  You can write about teen pregnancy, but only if the girl has the baby.  (The “Juno” scenario.)  You can be pregnant from rape, incest, etc., so long as you bring the pregnancy to term.

Author and friend Susan Fletcher once gave me a terrific piece of advice.  When you get an editorial letter, it often begins with one line—“this is a fine manuscript”—and then continues for three to seven pages, detailing everything the editor thinks doesn’t work.  I call it the Fletcher 48-hour rule: put it in a drawer and don’t look at it again for two days.  Two days later you can reread it with a degree of calm, recognizing points that have validity as well as acknowledging when there’s a legit disagreement between you and the editor.  Then you assess if, when, and how best to make your argument.

I do listen carefully to editorial comments (after two days) and have often made changes based on an editor’s notes. It’s a wonderful experience when an editor with great insight helps me strengthen the work, as was the case with In Trouble.

But there have been times when I’ve recognized there’s something else going on. I did bump heads with several critics about my nonfiction book, A Fence Away from Freedom. It’s the story of the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII.  I had visited the remaining barrack at the former prison camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming—a gorgeous setting, which the prisoners viewed through barbed wire.  I interviewed dozens of former internees, and the book is comprised of their stories.

A tremendous amount has been written about the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and the extraordinary service of the Japanese American soldiers in the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team.  Very little, however, has been written about the prisoners known as the “resisters,” or the group called “the No-No Boys.”  I wanted to let people talk about their pre-internment lives and their prison camp experiences.  One reviewer dismissed the book because I didn’t tell the JACL story.  (Note: the JACL is discussed in the book.) Several years ago I spoke at a book conference about the effects of war on children.  Another speaker, a well-known children’s book writer, stood in front of the audience and declared the imprisoned Japanese Americans, whom she called Japs, “got everything they deserved.”

When I wrote a novel that took place during the height of the McCarthy period, Catch a Tiger by the Toe I admit I was stunned by some of the reactions, all offered in the name of editorial critique. As a routine matter, I don’t think one usually needs a Note to the Reader in a novel. But with certain historical periods I do think that backmatter is helpful. And so I wrote a Note, since I knew few if any young people would know who Senator Joseph McCarthy was, or what happened during the Red-hunting era. I wanted to tell the story of the effects of this political war on young people. I read extensively about the period and interviewed many people who were in elementary or middle school in the 1940s and 1950s and grew up in politically left families. The details of their lives gave me the color I needed for fiction.

The subject, however, made more than a few people very uncomfortable. At a New York City public library roundtable discussion of middle grade books that touched on social issues, one librarian (probably in her early 40s) dismissed the book saying, “I just don’t believe anyone would ever be fired for signing a petition.” This from a librarian is at the very least troubling.

With a novel in which an abortion happens, I knew I was raising a controversial subject. But I stumbled on something more: an insidious, often subconscious censorship largely through avoidance of the subject. And not just in books for teenagers, but in adult media as well. The NYTimes published an article (“Staging the Politics of Abortion,” April 14, 2011) about playwright Theresa Rebeck (Pulitzer finalist) who also wrote for NYPD Blue and couldn’t sell a script to that police show that had an abortion storyline. And Lifetime, the cable channel (“Television for Women”) wouldn’t buy her abortion story.

In a rare instance the show “Friday Night Lights” had an abortion story, and the NYTimes article about the show (“Abortion in the Eyes of a Girl from Dillon,” July 10, 2010) highlighted the fact that this was an extraordinary exception to the blackout on the subject. The article went on to describe instances of self-censorship/avoidance, e.g., in “Sex and the City” (a show about four high-powered sexually-active women) where in one episode an abortion is considered and rejected. Another stunning example of the free-floating fear about the subject happened in the soap “All My Children.” The show had featured a legal abortion in a 1973 episode. Thirty years later the earlier story was rewritten with a mind-bending plot twist—the abortion had never really happened because the embryo had in fact been “kidnapped,” implanted in another woman, and brought to term!

All this is happening in our world where one in three women in the U.S. will have an abortion in their lifetime. So this isn’t just a routine controversial topic; the media silence has silenced all of us, so that women’s stories, common to so many of us, are not being told.

I’ve no doubt some of the editors who rejected In Trouble didn’t like the characters, plot development, or curve of the arc. But I also think I bumped into a self-imposed wall of silence. The problem for writers is we’ll never know with certainty unless told directly, as I was by one editor.

My novel is not a polemic. The characters struggle with all their questions, fears, hopes.  It’s curious that a story about pregnancy and giving birth is simply a story, whereas a story that has an abortion is considered political. That shouldn’t be.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Skulander July 13, 2011 at 10:25 pm

This is AWESOME!!! Stigma on abortion must go, that’s an obvious fact. Stigma is shaming, intimidating, and playing dangerous games with women’s lives. Art and literature is a great way to educate the public about this matter. I will buy the book, and I hope many others will do the same, to show editors that YES, it IS possible to write a story with an abortion in it and still be economically successful. I will re-post this article to raise awareness of this book.

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