Kobe Bryant’s Children’s Book Is Not Welcome in My Store
Why I won’t be stocking “The Wizenards”
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This month, retired basketball player Kobe Bryant adds new lines to his resume — publisher and author — with the first volume of a children’s fantasy book series, The Wizenards, published through his multimedia content company Granity Studios. When Granity’s film Dear Basketball won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 2018, I watched in disgust as an audience that had been applauding presenters and winners for their open acknowledgement of the #MeToo movement paused to give an award to Mr. Bryant.
I grew up one township away from Lower Merion, PA, where Mr. Bryant’s athletic career began. He was two years ahead of me in high school, and even I, not a basketball fan then or now, couldn’t escape the excitement and hype generated by such a talented player. When he was put on trial for allegedly raping a hotel worker in Colorado, in 2003, I followed the case in the news. The woman who brought the suit was subjected to the usual reputation tarnishing by his lawyers. She ultimately refused to testify in the criminal trial, which I interpreted to be a result of the intimidation tactics used by his representation and fans. A civil trial was settled for an unknown sum of money and a public “apology” from Mr. Bryant, in which he never admitted wrongdoing but expressed a vague understanding that she viewed their encounter differently than he did (i.e. as nonconsensual).
In January of this year, I attended an annual conference for booksellers at which Mr. Bryant was allotted a spot to pitch The Wizenards and his entry into our industry. The applause as he took his place at the podium was shocking to me, and felt very similar to the experience of watching him win an Oscar. My career has been spent in various areas of the book industry, a field generally understood to be a liberal stronghold and a place where women can rise through the ranks as quickly as men. But here I was, surrounded by female and male colleagues alike who were cheering a man who had settled that lengthy, nasty, highly publicized rape trial. Speaking with a number of booksellers throughout the day I was surprised to hear how many of them had forgotten about the case, or had never heard about it in the first place.
My industry is not unfamiliar with allegations of assault and misconduct against popular and critically acclaimed authors. These claims are particularly troubling when they are against authors who write for children and young adults. In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how, and whether, I should give space to these authors’ work within my limited square footage when accusations surface. As the buyer for a small store, part of my responsibility is deciding which voices get placement. The selection of books I carry is carefully curated with the dual goals of serving my specific community of customers and turning a profit, but there is a third goal I try to keep in mind as well: ensuring that I can stand behind the books that pay my bills. Is it my responsibility as a business owner to cater to customers who may want books like Mr. Bryant’s (“Harry Potter meets the Olympics” was his pitch in that Albuquerque ballroom), or is it to disseminate books by authors who meet my own moral criteria? I have chosen the latter as my approach, inasmuch as it can be. “Ethical capitalism” might not be fully possible, but it’s a goal that informs my decisions as a business owner every day.
As the buyer for a small store, part of my responsibility is deciding which voices get placement.
Of course, committing to thoughtful use of my power as a bookseller means that I’ll constantly be asking myself that question — what is my responsibility here? — and not every case is clear-cut. In the past few years, bestselling authors like Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), James Dashner (The Maze Runner), and Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) have all been accused of misconduct. Unlike in Mr. Bryant’s case, the accusations have not yet led to criminal charges. If I make room for their titles on my shelves, am I implicitly denying the claims of the women who say they have been mistreated? If I choose not to carry bestselling books, will I lose sales, jeopardizing the health of my small business? Is it my responsibility as a cultural gatekeeper to educate my customers about my decision-making process and to let them know why they might not find certain authors in our Children’s and Young Adult section?
I take these questions very seriously. But how far back in the catalog should I go with this line of thought, and does it apply to books published for adults, as well? The late David Foster Wallace allegedly assaulted Mary Karr. Should I decline to carry Infinite Jest? I genuinely loved Junot Diaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and my customers still buy it regularly. Is it enough to have removed the shelf-talker for that title, calling attention to the book and offering a positive review from one of our booksellers? Or should I take it off the shelves altogether in light of allegations against Mr. Diaz? If there are no criminal charges, am I off the hook for continuing to profit from these authors’ books? (And continuing to put money in their pockets in the form of royalties?)
One response I’ve considered is to donate a portion of proceeds from these authors’ books to RAINN. But who are “these authors” and what are the criteria for deciding that? Is an anonymous comment on a message board sufficient to add them to my own Bad Man list? And what of the cases I don’t know about, either because I missed a headline or because the people involved have remained silent? I’ve asked myself if seeing an accused author’s book on our shelves will be triggering to visitors to my store who might themselves be survivors of assault, possibly from the author in question. New York is a city with an active literary community and we host authors for events regularly (in addition to serving them as customers), so it is certainly possible that someone on my shelves did something terrible to someone who might come to my store. It is important to me that people feel safe in my store at the bare minimum, but I simply cannot know every bad deed committed by each of the authors we carry. And so if I take on this curatorial responsibility (which I have by default in my position as the buyer for a bookstore), where does my complicity begin and end? For now, I continue to consider each case on its own as new rounds of allegations surface and make the most informed decisions I can with input from my staff and other colleagues.
With that in mind, for me it’s an easy decision not to carry the Wizenard series. There are enough men on my shelves already — whether currently writing, retired, or deceased — whose personal misconduct has caused me to reevaluate my carrying their titles. We, as a community of book professionals, all curators of literature at various stages in the creative process, must find strategies to address these difficult issues before we invite yet another accused man into our ranks whose behavior raises similar questions. Especially in the case of authors who write for children, we must look more closely at the person as a whole, and not just the work product that we sell and profit from.
We, as a community of book professionals, all curators of literature at various stages in the creative process, must find strategies to address these difficult issues before we invite yet another accused man into our ranks.
No one gets into books to get rich; we work in this field because we love books and literature and sharing stories and introducing readers to new authors and vice versa. If I wanted to make lots of money and didn’t care about the people involved, I could work in finance. Instead I chose a low-margin, labor-intensive field where the impact I have is small and very personal. The wages I pay myself are not enough to compensate for the moral dilemma of putting a book written by a potential rapist into the hands of a 10-year-old child.