No Monkeying Around

Little known fact: My husband’s great great grandfather was the judge in the Scopes Monkey Trial.

For those unfamiliar with this landmark case in American legal history, The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes was a test case. The test? To address the teaching of evolution in public schools.

On April 7, 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee, a young biology teacher named John Scopes taught a class using information from Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. This heinous act violated Tennessee’s Butler Act, which the state legislature had passed to prohibit teachers from sharing with students that “man” had come into being through a long, step-by-step biological process, rather than created in a snap by a deity.

The American Civil Liberties Union championed Scopes and hired renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow on his behalf. The state invited William Jennings Bryant, a devout Presbyterian, peace advocate and prohibitionist who’d run for President three times (as a Democrat), as a guest prosecutor.

The judge, my husband’s ancestor, was John T. Raulston. Judge Raulston was a local man, deeply religious, who carried a Bible into court and  opened every court session with a prayer. According to press reports, he reveled in the attention of the trial, and liked to have his picture taken. He did make some attempts to keep the trial from turning into a raucous, rowdy circus. He failed.

The trial of John Scopes was a great big hullaballoo in the small town of Dayton. After 11 days, Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution. Judge Raulston’s sentence was a fine of $100.

The guilty verdict, however, was overturned by a higher court. Eventually, in 1962, the US Supreme Court struck down state laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution. The Butler Act had been repealed a year earlier by the Tennessee legislature.

The Scopes trial has been immortalized in a number of media forms, most famously in Inherit the Wind, a play eventually filmed several times as movies. Monkey Trial, part of PBS’ American Experience series, is an excellent production.

I am writing about the Scopes trial today not because I’m particularly proud of my husband’s ancestor’s small place in American history, but because it’s Banned Books Week. Naturally, I am thinking of censorship, and its various forms. Removing books from public libraries or striking them from school reading lists is one form. Another is to prohibit or prevent publication.

A third, more murky form of censorship, is when a book can’t get published because the subject matter is considered too risky or controversial in “this current climate.” Such is the case of an award-winning children’s book, according to author Daniel Loxton.

The title of the book? Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be.

Loxton’s book will not be found on the Banned Books list. Why? It was never published in America. No publisher would take the risk on a children’s book about evolution.

Most authors I know would consider it a badge of honor to write a book that’s been banned. It’s certainly good for sales and publicity. When I volunteered at a local high school, the school’s librarian did a display of contested books during Banned Books Week. Those titles flew off the table. This is what people who contest books don’t seem to understand (and let’s not tell them).  For a young person, banning a book makes it all the more desirable.

The Scopes trial was in 1925. That’s 86 years ago. And evolution is still considered a “risky” topic.

Not publishing a well-written, well-researched science book because its subject matter is too controversial in “this current climate” says to me, we need a climate change. Because this one is just embarrassing.

A Feast of Bi…er, Riches

In keeping with last week’s theme of brouhahas, I’d like to resurrect one that is a few months old, between two opponents who seem unlikely to rumble.

I’m talking, of course, about Martha Stewart versus Rachael Ray.

In an interview with Nightline, Martha said Rachael’s cooking and cookbooks were “not good enough for me.” Martha said that she strived to create books that were important, that she was a teacher and Rachael was more of an entertainer.

She also called Rachael “bubbly.”

Rachael Ray may be bubbly, and entertaining, but with this incident, she proved she is no dummy. She acknowledged that Martha’s skills were far beyond hers and, given the choice, she’d rather eat at Martha’s house than at her own.

Martha reacted to the  high-roadedness of this by apologizing. Then Rachael was invited on  Martha’s show, and Martha reciprocated by appearing on Rachael’s show, and what could have been the beginning of a beautiful feud burst like a big balloon of politeness. Not sincerity, necessarily, but ultimately, Martha and Rachael baked a pie together and settled their differences like ladies.

Feuds can be interesting. In the literary world, there was Hemingway’s rivalry with Fitzgerald. Henry James was envious of the popular success of his friend, Edith Wharton, as was Evelyn Waugh of Nancy Mitford, as was Wilkie Collins of Charles Dickens. Truman Capote was the inspiration for a character in Harper Lee’s one brilliant novel—and he may be the reason she only wrote one novel. Edgar Allan Poe once accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow-!!!–of plagiarism.

The peak (or maybe the nadir) of literary infighting might be the row between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. which hit the low point when Vidal called Buckley a crypto-Nazi and Buckley called Vidal a queer and threatened to sock him in the face. Instead of baking a pie together, they sued each other for libel. They did not settle their differences like ladies.

Last week, I wrote that a war about words was important. As Vidal-Buckley proved, a war of words, maybe not so much. But one thing Rachael Ray said did stick with me: “That doesn’t mean what I do isn’t important, too.”

I was spurred to this post by Edward Docx’s article on genre versus literary fiction. And this rebuttal from Salon by Laura Miller.

If you read these, both make some good points. Not new points, but good points. What I don’t get is the point of making these points.

Am I the only one who thinks the literary versus genre brouhaha is tiresome? There are many reasons why writers bash one another, not the least of which are money and ego. Maybe a genuine concern for art has a place, too, but I’m not confident about that one.

What I wonder is this: Why do (some) writers think they have the right to tell readers what they should be reading?

When my twin sons were sixteen months old, I was trapped in a country house during one of the worst winters in recent Western Pennsylvania history. I decided to read War & Peace. I read it because I was sure my brain would die at any minute and I wanted to revive it. Years later, when those same sons were teenagers and I was sure my brain would explode at any minute, I read Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins books to remind myself that sometimes stupid boys are just stupid boys. Different times of my life, different literary needs.

It’s just like food. Sometimes you crave a thirty-minute meal and sometimes only four-course fine dining will satisfy you. Is either wrong?

I write literary short stories. I have heard, and been annoyed by, writers who use the phrase “hoity-toity” when describing literary fiction. I am also writing a genre mystery. I have heard, and been annoyed by, writers who use the phrase “mindless tripe” when describing genre fiction.

Writers are advised to write the kind of book they want to read. Readers deserve the same respect. If I don’t like a certain type of book, I don’t read it, but I’m not going to stop my neighbor from reading it. A public put down of readers’ choices is a form of censorship.

If at the times of my life I described above, someone would have tried to take away what I wanted to read, I’ve have hit them over the head with War & Peace and smashed them in the balls with Henry Huggins.

To go back to the food metaphor, we all have to eat. There’s plenty of room at the literary table for all sorts of dishes. Some may be healthier than others, but my personal physician advises me that a well-rounded diet will keep me fit and happy. Plus, eating the same thing over and over, just like going round and round pointlessly on a topic, just gets boring.


So what do you think?  Do authors complaining about the work of other authors make you change your reading choices?



I F’ing Own You

Last year, a nasty little brouhaha of words erupted between the National Football League and a city that had waited and waited (and waited) for a Miracle in New Orleans. The problem? The league wanted its Who Dat? back.

Briefly, “Who dat gonna beat them Saints?” had become a rallying cry for fans, who called themselves the Who Dat Nation. The NFL claimed they owned the phrase and the Fleur-de-lis symbol often depicted with it. The league sent out cease and desist letters to merchants selling Who Dat? paraphernalia. The Nation was not amused—or scared. Politicians and the state attorney general got involved. The big dog backed off, and while lawsuits remain pending between the NFL and some area merchants, the Nation has been left to Who Dat? in peace.

But now another city is embroiled in a trademark debate. A diner owner in Baltimore has purchased a trademark on the word…well, I won’t write it, since I don’t own it. (And because I don’t want to publicize it.) Some Baltimoreans are not happy about this.

I know little about copyright and trademark law, but this makes me wonder. It makes sense that a product name be trademarked, and I agree that a phrase used as an identifier or for advertising should be protected, too. But can someone claim ownership of a word that’s in common use? What’s next—someone’s going to lay claim to the alphabet? “I want to buy a vowel” should only apply to game shows, not real life, right?

I am watching this story carefully because I think conflict over words is important. But, I admit, I am piqued by some crassness, too. If a person can indeed trademark a word, as the news story says, there’s the potential for a cash cow.

If that’s so, then I think this lady chose the wrong word. If you’re going to trademark a word, and everyone must pay to use this word, do you go with a relatively innocuous one like ______(still not writing it)? All respect to Baltimoreans, but there’s not going to be a Word-I’m-Not-Going-To-Publicize Nation.

No, if I was going to buy a word, I’d choose one whose impact would be profound if people were no longer freely allowed to use it.

Hence, I’ve decide to trademark the F word. No, not Facebook–the other F word.

The F word used to be forbidden on TV, unacceptable in books, and never said by nice people in public. That’s all history. Nowadays, it’s spoken almost anywhere, anytime, in anybody’s presence. There are still limitations to its use on TV and the airwaves, but HBO could not write an original series without it. The Urban Dictionary has over 50 pages of usage beginning with it—and that’s just the traditional spelling.

That’s not to say that it’s universally accepted. In 2008, Central Lafourche High School, home of the Fighting Trojans and my alma mater, banned the book Black Hawk Down because the language did not meet standards of decency set by the local school district. Too much cursing under fire, apparently. I suppose decent soldiers stomp their feet and say something like, “Well, drat gosh darn!” while under deadly enemy attack.

This bout of censorship could have been avoided if I owned the F word. I’d have allowed Mark Bowden, the author, to drop all the F-bombs necessary to reflect that war-is-hell-thing, since “Drat gosh darn!” just doesn’t quite cut it in my mind. And I would not have charged him a dime. In a graphic book about warfare, getting graphic is the whole point, if you ask me, and anyone who is most upset by the cursing is really, really missing that whole point.

But if I owned the F word, my control would go beyond books. Musicians, politicians, butchers, bakers, t-shirt makers, everyone would go through me before they could FU, F’ing A, M-F, F a Duck, Give a Flying F, or Go F themselves.

Such would be my power over the trademarked F word. I’d own the F’ing Nation. Maybe, with this word, the whole F’ing World.

The funny thing is, the F word has become so ubiquitous, it is more aggravating than shocking. It’s use used to mean something: rebellion, outrage, insult, titillation. Now, not so much. It’s so commonplace, it’s effectiveness has entered the land of meh. White noise. Filler. When I watched The Sopranos, for instance, the characters said it so often, I quit hearing it after a while. At times, it was so overused, I had to hear around it to catch the meaningful words.

The more I think about it, maybe someone should trademark the F word, for its own protection. Its presence impedes the conveyance of meaningful language; its overuse kills the shock value. If it was mine, I could lock it in a vault and crack it open for special occasions, such as talking dirty or showing outrage, or allow it to be used effectively and appropriately, such as when writing about war.

Or I could just recognize that trying to own a word is the same as trying to control language and free speech, and I’d leave the F word, and Hun (sic), and well enough, alone.

What do you think? Can language be owned? Am I onto riches with this plan, or should I F off with such a dumb notion?

Tell me about it.


Speak up for SPEAK

Rape is a crime, an outrage, a sin, a horror. Writing about rape is NOT.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s brilliant YA novel, SPEAK, is under attack. Speak up for SPEAK.

Censorship is a crime, an outrage, a sin, a horror.