Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Geeta Thee To A Nunnery

Geeta Sharma Jensen wrote a piece in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the controversy surrounding the book Whores on the Hill by Colleen Curran. Apparently, the school Colleen attended (Divine Savior Holy Angels) has taken a disliking to the book, which follows the lives of three teenaged girls known as "the whores on the hill" at the fictional Sacred Heart Holy Angels school in Milwaukee. Administrators at DSHA have warned parents and students about the book, assuring the parents especially that the sex, drugs, and bad behavior that the narrator describes in the book (NOTE: I said "narrator"), has no basis in fact. Yeah, right! I guess the school believes that sex, drugs, and bad behavior don't happen at the school now, and didn't happen there 20 years ago either. I feel relieved, don't you?

by Colleen Curran

From what I can tell by talking to women who have gone to catholic school, behavior among these students is far more racy and risky than anything happening at public school. It seems that the more these students are repressed socially and sexually, the more they act out secretly. And for a school to presume this doesn't happen (not now, and not ever) just demonstrates what a willingly-blinded, out-of-touch institution it is. [Such institutions and administrations seem to be quite popular these days]

From the article:

"Although the author stresses this is a work of fiction, its first-person style and its familiar sounding references to Milwaukee may lead some to wonder if it has any basis in fact," wrote school President Ellen Bartel in the letter dated April 6. "I can tell you that the author has stated clearly to us that the novel is not about DSHA nor is it autobiographical . . . . We are committed to the intellectual, spiritual and personal growth of young women in an environment that fosters faith formation, academic excellence and responsible decision-making."
The school, however, has not banned the book. Nor does it intend to, Bartel said Monday. "We have noted there is a similarity in names (and setting) . . . I imagine that some people might be tempted to conclude that it is about Divine Savior," she said. "So we're letting parents know. . . .
We're not going to tell the students not to read it." Bartel said she had read a copy she had received from "someone in the book business," and "it's not my particular taste in fiction."

One has to wonder what is her "particular taste in fiction," and whether such a thing could conceivably be characterized as taste. But snide insults aside, the word among students at the school presently is that the book absolutely has been banned whether it's been publicly stated or not. While this is obviously a rumor, one can imagine the reality of life at the school for the actual students - what do you think the sisters will do if they find a girl reading this book? I doubt such an instance will generate a warm reception.

Clearly the sexier story here is another catholic institution turning its traditional blind-eye to the scandalous events happening beneath its own vestments. But for us literary types, there's something more damaging at stake here: the freedom to write fiction that is informed by our experience.

The phrase that bothers me in the quotation above is the part about the novel not being about DSHA nor autobiographical. Put aside the fact that it's utterly impossible not to put something of yourself into your writing (everything you do is, in a way, autobiographical). What troubles me is that the attempt to protect the reputation of the school inherently seeks to negate the experience of the author, whether the events related in the book ever happened or not. The facts of their happening make no difference, but of vital importance is the feelings they inspire, which is the basis of our connection to a work of art. This act of protection wants to undercut the legitimacy of those feelings by proclaiming, "This never happened!"

This is very dangerous ground for artists and writers, not an inch of which should ever be surrendered to those who actively work to subvert the truth. I would encourage anyone who reads this to talk about it with people you know, and people you don't know. We can't let these ridiculous affronts to literature pass quietly.

And speaking of passingly quietly, I hope someone other than me noticed that little stab by Geeta Sharma Jensen in the article. In talking about the school wanting assurance from Colleen that the events in the book didn't happen, Geeta writes, "Why these assurances, this attention on a first-time author whose book is coming out only in paperback?"

ONLY IN PAPERBACK? How many books has Geeta published? Zero. So where does she derive the authority to judge the importance of a book based on its binding? Has it occurred to her that this book's publication in paperback is not a matter of legitimacy but one of fucking common sense? Can Geeta comprehend that the audience for this book might trend younger than most literary works of fiction, and that audience may not be willing to part with $26 for a hardcover, but perfectly happy to spend $12.95 for paperback? Does it take more than one minute of genuine thought or a reasonable understanding of 20th century literature to remember that books like
Bright Lights, Big City and American Psycho were first published in ONLY paperback? Both of which proved to be pretty insignificant works of fiction, no doubt!

Clearly, I am outraged by this subtle slap in the face, but for good reason. Original paperback publishing makes a lot of sense for many reasons, but has yet to be highly successful. Much of the blame for that can be placed in exactly these kinds of preconceived notions of what is "only" a paperback. In the weeks to come, you will hear my sentiments about this and what I think can be done about, but until then you'll have to wait.


Anonymous Geeta Sharma Jensen said...

I think you're sweet.

2:52 PM  
Blogger sepulculture said...

I should add to that list of paperback originals, The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri - the 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction.

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Pinkcheek said...

Amidst all of the high school hijinx hullaballoo here in Milwaukee, one can almost forget that two priests who taught at time Colleen went to school there are charged with sex abuse. One has been laicized and the other is battling an extradition case in the Vatican.

Thank heavens Divine Savior Holy Angels can have the opportunity to assure parents that students are not engaging in healthy adolescent experimentation, while not having to divulge anything about harboring these sexual terrorists for nearly a decade.

5:07 PM  
Anonymous Kirby Gann said...

I second the outrage against slurring paperback fiction; Geeta better get used to the idea, because it just costs too much to publish everything in cloth first -- I know, because I work for a publishing house.

And it's really no longer a stigma: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas recently came out in paper only, and it can hardly be said that Random House didn't get behind that book. The old worry that paperback-only fiction doesn't get reviewed is gone, also....

I haven't read or heard of "Whores..." before your post, but I'm going to order it now out of solidarity

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For some thoughts on "Whores on the Hill" and other forthcoming chick lit books see here.

12:31 PM  

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