A few days ago my mom had a lunch, an affair to show off her Christmas decorations before she started taking them down. There were seven of us munching on layered Jell-O salad, finger sandwiches, and clam chowder. Over coffee, one of the ladies said:
“Tell us again how you started writing.”
I won’t bore you with the story, but my start involved a dare, a lot of hours of butt in the chair, no expectation of ever getting published and absolute terror and self-doubt once my first book went to contract.
When I was finished with my tale, she said: “Wow, that took guts.”
I wanted to tell her that, no, writing my first book didn’t take guts, staying in the industry did. If you’re reading this, and you are writing, you qualify as gutsy.
Every day you make decisions that will change the course of your career: you dig into your own pocket for advertising and public relations, are faced with tough demands from publishers and hard creative choices. Currently, there is a decision many of you will face and that is whether or not to sign a traditional publishing contract that contains a morality clause. Such clauses are included by houses like Simon & Schuster and Penguin Putnam and, if enforced, will void a contract (often asking for advances back and always removing books by the offending authors) because of past, present or future behavior that they consider immoral. ‘They’ – the judge and jury – are the publishers or public outcry on social media or anything that, in the publisher’s opinion, makes your work less saleable.
Morality clauses were nothing new, but in years gone by there were strict codes of morality based on widely accepted public mores and religious guidelines. In this day and age a moral transgression can be determined by a fashionable whim, a person who frivolously points a finger, or a trending Tweet. Today Oscar Wilde would not be considered immoral, yet in his time he was arrested and jailed for homosexuality. Still, his work was published and it was the public that decided whether or not to read it.
There are many questions about clauses like this, not the least of which is this: does such a clause infringe on free speech? Even more concerning is tying morality to salability, a bottom line, money. This space is too small for such a big debate, but here’s my bottom line: a publishing contract is a rare thing and, when offered, it will take guts to reject it because of a morality clause. It will also take guts to accept it and live with the knowledge that you, personally, and not just your work, could be deemed immoral at any time for any reason.
There’s a lot to think about in 2019 and one of those things is to ask yourself if you have the guts to be a writer.
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