Rumors are flying, stories are being told and maybe between the time I write this and the time you read this, everything will have changed.
But as of now, Sherman Alexie, who won a National Book Award for “The Mostly True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” has been accused of treating women — in particular, Indian women — very badly, and he has issued a strange, accusatory apology.
And Daniel Handler, who wrote “A Series of Unfortunate Events” under the name Lemony Snicket, has been booted as graduation speaker at his alma mater, Wesleyan University, because of his own boorish behavior.
These stories about revered male authors behaving badly in the world of children’s literature started coming out a few weeks ago — partly because of the #MeToo movement, but also because of Twin Cities writer Anne Ursu.
Last fall, Ursu read a piece by a librarian named Kelly Jensen about sexual harassment in the world of libraries, and it occurred to her that she had been hearing whispers for some time about the world of children’s literature. And so she set up an online survey and invited people in the industry to respond. And the floodgates opened.
Q: What response did you get to the survey?
A: I got about 90 responses. It was kind of amazing and disheartening to see how many came in so fast — that people had just been dying to tell their stories to someone who would listen to them.
Q: What did they say had happened to them?
A: From inappropriate jokes to come-ons to groping to serial predation. One of the most common stories was bestselling male authors behaving badly at faculty conferences or out on tour, harassing booksellers and librarians and younger writers.
They seem to feel entitled to make passes at these women, sometimes extremely aggressively, to the point where the women feel they have to either acquiesce or cut off communication entirely, but that has repercussions.
Q: Why is this allowed to continue?
A: In our society we tend to love and value powerful men. The people they’ve hurt — their stories aren’t told. I found in a couple of places where somebody reported to the publisher, and the publisher in one case had the guy write her an apology. And in another they did nothing. They just said they wouldn’t send him to that library or bookstore again. Which of course has consequences for the bookseller or the library.
In some of these cases, touring encourages sexual predation. These guys are banking on their celebrity and the fact that they’re beloved, and they’re using it for sex.
Q: What kind of changes would prevent this from happening?
A: What has been great is seeing conferences and festivals stepping up to change their harassment policies. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, for instance. They’ve looked very carefully at how people can report and who they should report to.
What I’m hoping is that there are conversations inside of publishing houses as to ways to prevent this; hopefully they’re developing zero tolerance for sexual harassment.
Everyone says the conversation is moving too quickly. Meanwhile, you know all of these stories and are hoping for the sake of the women who have suffered that the conversation lasts a little longer.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks