Crimes & Misdemeanors (of a literary sort)

crimes-misdemeanors2As "crimes" go, the literary ones are of the lesser sort: plagiarism and phony memoirs don't injure, maim, or kill anyone.

Even so, a few misdemeanors on the docket have managed to show a depressing lapse in ethics or taste.

1. The money grab.
The "discovery" of Go Set a Watchman ranks at the top of the list. Harper Lee's lawyer Tonya Carter claimed to have discovered the original manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird in February 2015. But others insist it had been discovered in 2011 by an agent from Southeby's—and that Carter had been present when it was found.

Only after Alice Lee, Harper's sister and long-time protector, died did Carter announce her "discovery" of the book. The entire episode reeks of an easy money scheme and, worse, the manipulation of an 89-year-old stroke-afflicted woman. You can find two good articles here: one in the New Republic and another in the New York Times.

2. The tattle tale.
Elena Ferrante's real name, a long-kept secret, was just revealed the other day. In the scheme of things, it's hardly serious—except perhaps for the author of My Brilliant Friend (plus two sequels).

So for what higher purpose did Italian journalist Claudio Gatti spill the beans? Sheer self-aggrandizement, most likely. As the owner of Ferrante's publishing house put it: If someone wants to be left alone, leave her alone.... She’s a writer and isn’t doing anyone any harm.” Amen to that.

3. The whitewash.
Although I haven't read it all the way through (God knows I tried), the new YA novel, My Lady Jane, shows a tone-deaf insensitivity toward one of history's more horrific events—the beheading of 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey. I'll let the book's opening speak for itself:


[O]nce upon a time, there was a sixteen-year-old girl named Jane Grey, who was forced to marry a complete stranger (Lord Guildford or Gilford or Gifford-something-or-other), and shortly thereafter found herself ruler of a country. She was queen for nine days. Then she quite literally lost her head.

Yes, it's a tragedy, if you consider the disengagement of one's head from one's body tragic. (We are merely narrators, and would hate to make assumptions as to what the reader would find tragic.)

My Lady Jane
Cynthia Hand and Brodie Ashton

What?

Okay, maybe I'm overly sensitive. But I recall an account of Lady Gray Jane in a grad school course on the English Renaissance; her short life was depressingly sad and her end brutish. Sugar-coating is one thing, but there's enough misappropriation, misreading, and misuse of history—why must we have "just plain fun" with this? (That quote comes from a Booklist review, which also suggests "joyfully punting" history "out of the way.")

More to the point, the world has been horrified by certain news from the Middle East—and, yes, we do consider those kinds of events tragic.

See? I'm sensitive AND cranky.



Lady Jane's beheading had a powerful effect on artists, even 300 years after the fact. Here are two renderings: The Execution of Lady Jane Gray (1833) by Paul Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey Preparing for Execution (1835) by George Whiting Flagg.


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