Books

Why Everyone’s Angry About My Dark Vanessa Now

On the heels of the American Dirt controversy comes a new literary dustup.

Left: the cover of My Dark Vanessa. Right: Kate Elizabeth Russell.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by HarperCollins and Elena Seibert.

Another day, another literary scandal involving a seven-figure book deal. Even as details are still emerging in the maelstrom around Jeanine Cummins’ migrant novel American Dirt, there’s already a new Literary Twitter drama brewing, this one concerning Kate Elizabeth Russell’s much-anticipated debut My Dark Vanessa.

My Dark Vanessa, which revolves around the relationship between a teenage girl and her teacher, has drawn praise from the likes of Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, and Kristen Roupenian, author of “Cat Person.” But the book is now embroiled in a controversy similar to the one around American Dirt. Wendy C. Ortiz wrote an essay accusing Russell of borrowing from the real-life experiences of a Latina author—in this case, those in Ortiz’s memoir Excavation—for her own work of fiction. The parallels between the two books are being used as evidence of the entrenched biases and double standards of the publishing industry. Others, though, say that Ortiz’s accusations of plagiarism are hasty and misguided. Here’s what’s going on.

The Book

My Dark Vanessa alternates between the past and present of titular character Vanessa Wye. Vanessa’s present is like ours: In the midst of the national reckoning around sexual assault and abuse brought on by the #MeToo movement, she is re-evaluating a relationship she had when she was 15 with her 42-year-old English teacher Jacob Strane. In 2017, Strane is accused of sexual abuse by another former student, who reaches out to Vanessa. As the publisher summarizes it: “Now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?”

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My Dark Vanessa was included on both the New York Times’ and the Guardian’s most anticipated books of 2020, with the latter likening it to “an inversion of Lolita for the #MeToo generation.” In interviews, Russell has said that she’s been working on the book since she was 16 and that the project began as a memoir, with the character of Vanessa based on Russell herself. She says the character of Strane, however, was always intended as a composite of older men that Russell was involved with as teenager. “I knew what was at stake for them, didn’t want to betray them—but now I see it as an empowering decision for me both as a woman and a writer,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “Fiction gave me the freedom to center my own emotional experience rather than focus on the details of what exactly an older, powerful man did or didn’t do to me.”

The Other Book

On Wednesday, Ortiz published an essay in Roxane Gay’s Medium publication Gay Magazine about the trials that she faced in securing a literary agent and selling Excavation, which primarily deals with “her relationship with a charming and deeply flawed private school teacher fifteen years her senior.” She begins the essay by explicitly comparing the situation to American Dirt, then writes that “a white woman has written a book that fictionalizes a story many people have survived and the book is receiving tremendous backing and promotion. The book this time, though, is titled My Dark Vanessa. The book I wrote, Excavation, is a memoir with eerie story similarities, and was published by a small press in 2014.”

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The bulk of Ortiz’s essay deals with her encounters with white literary gatekeepers who assure her that her writing is “powerful” and “striking,” that her memoir is “powerful and complex” and that “her story should absolutely be heard,” but then also tell her that there’s no room in the market for her memoir, which is at once too original and too similar to other memoirs to make it worth buying. Ortiz eventually published Excavation with a small press, went on a self-planned book tour, and, a year later, put her book up for auction to be reprinted with a big publisher, only to be met “with radio silence.” When she learned of My Dark Vanessa from an online summary, “it sounded so much like Excavation I thought I was going to pass out.”

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Ortiz admits that in her essay that she has not read Russell’s book, nor does she intend to, writing on Twitter that she is “uninterested in reading a book that sounds like a fictional take on a reality she lived.” Soon after Ortiz mentioned on Twitter that she was “‘looking forward’ to the book that sounds like [hers] coming out in March,” she says Russell reached out to her.

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Apparently it had come to her attention that people were comparing the books and were upset. She confirmed that she had read Excavation in 2015, and offered a number of other influences in the writing of her novel. I dealt with this email the way I deal with things I don’t need in my life: I put it in a folder and decided I didn’t need to look at it further. Before I did that, I forwarded it to two other trusted people, to make sure my rage was proportionate. The consensus was that there were suddenly an awful lot of justifications, a little too late. The questions I have about it go unanswered.

The Controversy

Ortiz’s account of her experiences with the publishing industry, which is 76 percent white and difficult for writers of color to break into, has struck a chord, especially on the heels of American Dirt.

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Still, some are alarmed by the backlash against Russell, saying that Ortiz’s fans are, in an over-zealous attempt to critique the insular forces of the publishing industry, demanding that Russell out herself as a survivor of sexual abuse to prove that she didn’t plagiarize an experience that is unfortunately very common. Russell did list Ortiz’s memoir as a component of her research—along with more than 50 other works of fiction, film, and poetry, including 14 other memoirs. While there’s no telling at this point how the situation might resolve, what is abundantly clear from both the discourse around American Dirt and My Dark Vanessa is that the publishing industry is long overdue for a reckoning of its own.

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Update, Feb. 1, 2020: Russell has posted a statement on her website following the controversy:

I would like to share with my readers that My Dark Vanessa, which I’ve been working on for nearly 20 years, was inspired by my own experiences as a teenager. I have previously discussed the relationships I’ve had with older men and how those relationships informed the writing of My Dark Vanessa. But I do not believe that we should compel victims to share the details of their personal trauma with the public. The decision whether or not to come forward should always be a personal choice. I have been afraid that opening up further about my past would invite inquiry that could be retraumatizing, and my publisher tried to protect my boundaries by including a reminder to readers that the novel is fiction.

Sexual abuse is a complicated subject that has a history of being silenced, misunderstood, a­­­nd oversimplified. I believe novels can help create space for readers to unpack and talk about sensitive or difficult topics. My greatest wish is that My Dark Vanessa will spark conversation about the complexity of coercion, trauma, and victimhood, because while these stories can feel all too familiar, victims are not a monolith and there is no universal experience of sexual violence.

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