11 Juicy Literary Scandals
Bethanne Patrick, host of the Missing Pages podcast, spills the very hottest bookish tea
Whether you refer to it as “hot goss,” “spilling the tea,” or attempt to sound refined by using “talk of the town” (we’re looking at you, The New Yorker), everyone loves a good juicy story, especially those involving schadenfreude. We delight in the downfall of our friends and strangers because, for a little while, we can forget about our own mistakes (and some of us, yours truly included, make a lot of those). So, when The Podglomerate approached me last year about hosting a podcast covering literary gossip (which would become Missing Pages), I was intrigued—especially when they presented an initial slate of ideas. I mentally rubbed my hands together with glee, eager to record something light while I finished working on a book that is less so. (Mark your calendars: Life B: A Memoir will be released by Counterpoint Press in May 2023.)
As I worked with the production team on Missing Pages, we all realized that to simply tell these stories as narratives of wrongdoing wasn’t just superficial, it was doing a disservice to our listeners, who, like most readers, have little knowledge about how the book publishing industry works. Each anecdote we examined deserved deeper examination, including analysis of the original situation, interviews with those involved and subject-matter experts, and reflection on how current and former aspects of the book world affect these stories.
Does that mean we wrung these juicy stories into dry husks of facts? Hardly. There’s structural inequity, and then there’s personal bad behavior. No amount of stress at work can account for pretending a beloved family member is dead just so you can eke out a promotion (that is, unless you’re writing an episode of Seinfeld). Sure, it’s tough out there, but when you have to resort to setting up an OnlyFans account in order to pay back your publishing advance, perhaps you haven’t made the best choices. In other words, Missing Pages has plenty of tea still to spill from our very full pot.
That full pot inspired my list. Below is a list of literary scandals from the past several years that are still boiling hot, and also bring up questions about the way we look at books, art, authors, and culture in this troubled—and gossip-ridden—world.
The Lost Author: Elena Ferrante Outed (2016)
When My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, appeared in 2014, everyone knew “Elena Ferrante” was a pseudonym, and, as the linked piece from Entertainment Weekly indicates, that the author wished their real identity to remain unknown. In 2016, however, a fellow Italian writer, Claudio Gatti, “exposed” Elena Ferrante as a woman, a reclusive translator. The real scandal here was not anything Ferrante did or didn’t do, but rather Gatti’s digging through years of financial and real estate records to “prove” her identity. He got a severe whipping on The Twitters although that probably didn’t bother him one bit. Worse, he tried to infer that the “real” Ferrante couldn’t have written her books without editorial support from her husband. At the time, Ferrante said being “outed” by name might deter her from writing. One of her older novels, 2005’s The Lost Daughter, has already been made into a stellar film starring Olivia Colman, and the Neapolitan Quartet has been made into a highly regarded television adaptation. Will we see new work from Ferrante? Only time will tell.
TERF Wars: JK Rowling (2014) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2017)
For anyone who might need catching up, TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” and refers to people who deny that transwomen are women. Not a good look if you ask me, but plenty of high-level authors seem to believe it’s just right for them. In 2014, JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame declared her support for an Australian woman named Maya Forstater, who was fired from her job for sending tweets that were deemed “bigoted.” (Sample Forstater tweet: “men cannot change into women.”) Meanwhile, in 2017, superstar novelist from Nigeria Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie declared, “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women,” a statement that resulted in a deep rift across the years with Adichie’s one-time protegee, writer, and trans person, Akwaeke Emezi.
Cultural Blinders: American Dirt (2020)
Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a novel about a Mexican woman and her son attempting to migrate illegally to the United States, triggered backlash early when the book launch-luncheon floral centerpieces featured decorative circles of barbed wire. The wire, of course, was part of the book jacket design, but it’s also a clear symbol of the border fence meant to prevent immigrants from entering the country. Classy, right? The insensitive decorative choice launched a thousand diatribes. However, the backlash ultimately went much deeper than table decoration. Rightfully, Latinx authors and readers object to the inappropriate cultural appropriations, including reductive caricatures of Mexicans, made by a non-Mexican author.
We Still Have Questions: Where the Crawdads Sing (2021)
We’d be remiss not to include blockbuster novel Where the Crawdads Sing, recently adapted as a major motion picture by Reese Witherspoon, because its author, Delia Owens, has long been associated with the mysterious death of an elephant poacher in Zambia (trust me; you have to read up on this to really understand). Owens, 73, is a wildlife scientist and conservationist whose protagonist, a lonely girl named Kyra who grows up obsessed with animals in the marshes of North Carolina, might be her doppelgänger. Kyra has something else in common with her creator, too: they’re both implicated in murder cases. For Kyra, it’s the death of a local quarterback; for Owens, it’s the 1995 murder of an elephant poacher in Zambia, a case also involving her estranged husband Mark Owens and their son Christopher Owens. In her novel, Delia Owens can wrap things up neatly, but in real life, her involvement in the crime remains unresolved.
Manuscript Mischief: Filippo Bernardini (2021)
If you were an aspiring author and received an email from someone at “penguinrandornhouse.com,” would you catch the typo amidst your deep excitement at hearing from someone you thought was an editor? You say yes, but plenty of other authors, agents, editors, and publishing execs were caught out by a Simon & Schuster UK employee named Filippo Bernardini, who conducted a high-level manuscript-phishing scam so that he could . . . Well, we don’t really know. I mean, he couldn’t, and didn’t, sell the manuscripts—that would have required using a proper email address. Was he just collecting manuscripts as trophies? When he was arrested in January 2022 at JFK airport, Bernardini alone was indicted; S&S UK was not involved in the case in any way. Will we ever know what the manuscripts stolen, which included works by Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke, meant to him? This Vulture article provides clues about his ego, need for attention, and obsession with authorial fame, but no one except Bernardini can speak the truth. Alas, that might mean he’s working on a memoir while in prison.
Not a Clean Hand in Sight: My Dark Vanessa (2020) and Jumi Bello (2022)
Novels that involve the #MeToo movement are hot, but that doesn’t mean they should be hot off the pages of someone else’s book. When Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel came out in 2020, it was acclaimed as an authentic perspective of a high school student groomed by her English teacher for a sexual relationship that turns sad and tawdry. But even more tawdry were the accusations from Latina writer Wendy C. Ortiz, who read My Dark Vanessa and recognized its plot as “eerily similar” to her 2014 memoir Excavation. Ortiz also raised concerns that Russell’s story, which is told from a white woman’s point of view and covers themes similar to those covered in Excavation, was given robust marketing and publicity support, while Ortiz was told her memoir was “unsaleable.” Ultimately, it was revealed that Russell’s novel was based on her own experiences as a teenager, and that she had not plagiarized Ortiz’s memoir.
In 2022, another high-profile debut novelist, Jumi Bello, had a title coming out from the stellar imprint Riverhead—but was dropped when editors discovered that not only had Bello (who struggles with mental illness) plagiarized, but she had plagiarized from established authors, including Carole Maso and venerable (and deceased) author James Baldwin. Bello wrote about her actions and challenges for Lit Hub, but unfortunately that essay was retracted because parts of it were, ironically, plagiarized from plagiarismtoday.com. The story continues to unfold; its most interesting part may not be the author’s mistakes, but rather the publisher’s last-minute recognition of significant plagiarism in the manuscript.
The Biographies of Monstrous Men: Blake Bailey & Philip Roth (2021) and Blake Bailey (2022)
Biographer Blake Bailey was riding high when his account of novelist Philip Roth’s life hit bookstores, and felt comfortable enough during interviews to mention Roth’s bad behavior toward women, stating that it was all part of a great artist’s time on earth. But when Bailey that same year was accused of sexually assaulting two women (one rape is alleged to have taken place upstairs at literary critic Dwight Garner’s home during a book party), his publisher, W.W. Norton, halted shipping, distribution, and further printing of the Roth biography. In June 2022, Skyhorse Books announced it will be publishing Blake Bailey’s latest book . . . on cancel culture. Wheel in the sky keeps on turning . . . and who knows, a Missing Pages episode on Skyhorse, which has an incredible track record of publishing books no one else will, might be forthcoming.
Playing the Donor Card: Bad Art Friend (2022)
Bear with me for a moment as I share personal information. I’m in a writing group. (Maybe you are, too.) Never and not for one second would I consider poaching any of my fellow group members’ work or ideas, and, because we are in a supportive, professional group, I don’t think of their shared conversation as material. Your mileage may vary. “It’s all material” is a common writerly adage. But when someone in your writers’ group announces a huge personal decision, and then you use that decision as the basis of a short story that you get published, and continue to discuss in a gossipy group email . . . well then you are a Bad Art Friend. All of this went down in a group formed through Boston’s Grub Street Writers Center. Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson were acquaintances from Grub Street, and when Dorland decided to create a private Facebook group for support in her decision to donate a kidney, Larson was included as a member. In 2016, through a mutual friend, Dorland heard that Larson had given a reading of “a cool story about giving out a kidney.” The gloves were now off, scalpels drawn: Dorland wanted to know why Larson had based a story on Dorland’s donor act when Larson hadn’t even seemed to care about it at announcement time. (There are a LOT of hurt feelings in this story. I highly recommend the above NYT link if you want to piece it all together.) Larson wrote, “I hope it doesn’t feel too weird for your gift to have inspired works of art.” Dorland and Larson’s brouhaha has inspired so much discourse that an anthology called “Bad Art Friend: Stories from the Writing-Group Trenches” has to be in the works.