11/06/2006

ripped off by the Globe and Mail

This is why freelancing sucks, and why I rarely do it.

On November 1st, I pitched this article to the features editor of the Globe and Mail:

Dear XXXX,

I am writing to suggest a feature/Q&A on Canadian author Nancy Huston, who yesterday won a prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Femina, for her latest novel, Lignes de Faille.

Born in Calgary, Alberta, Huston has lived in Paris for over twenty years, and maintains an "aller-retour" writing technique since 1993, which consists of writing two versions of each of her books—one in French and one in English.

The twist is, although the book is an enormous success in France, where it has also been nominated for the Prix Goncourt, it will not be published in North America anytime soon. Huston's Canadian publisher, MacArthur, deemed the subject matter of the first chapter too risqué, too potentially anti-American, to publish without serious changes—i.e. deleting most of the first quarter—and Huston refused. It has been turned down by several American publishers as well, and to my knowledge the book does not have a publisher in English at all. I haven't seen any articles on this in the press (Anglophone or French) so this could be quite a scoop.

Lignes de faille chronicles the story of an average American family over four generations, in reverse chronological order, each chapter narrated by a child of six: Sol, Sol's father Randall, Randall's mother Sadie, and Sadie's mother Kristina. Each of the four chapters is set against a larger political context—the Iraq war, the Sabra and Chatila massacre, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Second World War—and the tension between what a child hears and what a child understands is a key source of resonance in the text. It is the first chaper, and Sol's obsession with the Iraq War, George W. Bush, and the Abu Ghraib photographs, that MacArthur considers so scandalous.

[edited out: the place where I pitch myself as the journalist]

Thank you for your consideration; I look forward to hearing from you.

XXXX

On November 2nd, they ran this story:


English edition of Prix Femina winner delayed

JAMES ADAMS

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

A French-language novel by Calgary-born Nancy Huston that was awarded France's prestigious Prix Femina this week was expected to be published in English first -- but the novelist's Canadian publisher and New York agent held off doing that this year because they wanted Huston to change portions of her text to avoid offending U.S. readers.

Talks are reportedly under way to have McArthur & Co. issue Lignes de faille in English next spring.

But Huston, who has called Paris home for more than 30 years, was close-mouthed about the matter when contacted this week by e-mail. "I'd rather not make any public comments on these sensitive issues just now, until some sort of decision has been reached," she said.

At issue, it seems, is the extent of the changes her North American representatives want. Kim McArthur, who published Huston's previous two novels in English, said yesterday that the author "has promised us some slight revisions; it's very tiny . . . maybe four sentences" to permit Lignes de faille to be published in 2007 in Canada and, possibly, the United States with a new English title, Birth Marks. However, no contract has been signed as yet, and "it's all just sort of very dicey," McArthur acknowledged at the same time as she praised Lignes as "fantastic . . . It's just riveting . . . She's just so famous in France."

In an interview in September in Paris with Montreal's La Presse, Huston, 53, said that "they want me to remove [enlève] half the pages concerning Sol, all of the material that revolves around Jesus, the war in Iraq, George Bush, the pornography, etc." The French version of the novel has been a bestseller in Quebec.

In that same interview, Huston said she believes that "contemporary America is reproducing the worst traits of Nazi Germany. I believe we are in a pretotalitarian state."

Lignes de faille -- nominated this year to the long list for France's most famous literary award, the Prix Goncourt -- is a four-part, 500-page novel, each part of which moves backward in time, from 2004 to 1982 to 1962 and, finally, to 1944-45. In each instance, Huston uses the viewpoint of a six-year-old child to tell the history of a Jewish family, starting in present-day California and working "toward" Holocaust-era Europe.

It's the first part, named after the young narrator, Sol, that prompted McArthur's concern and that of her North American agent, Rosalie Siegel. Sol, as described in La Presse, is a precocious, haughtily nasty American boy who, over the course of 128 pages, "gets turned on [carbure] by Internet pornography and images of the tortures at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison."

At one point, Sol declares: "I love to click on [images of] the dead bodies of Iraqi soldiers in the sand; it's a total slide-show." In another passage he says: "God gave this body and this spirit . . . I know that He has great plans for me, which is why he saw to it that I was born in the richest state in the richest country in the world . . . Happily, God and President Bush are good friends. I think of Heaven as being like a big state of Texas in the sky, with God wandering around his ranch in a Stetson and cowboy boots . . ."

"There's a bit of a schism between the war in Iraq [as seen in France] . . . versus the point of view from America," McArthur says. "You may remember 'freedom fries.' " Given that Huston has lived more than half her life in France, her "view is completely credible there," but "we [McArthur and Siegel] were taking the long view."

Fluently bilingual, Huston has published at least eight novels in the past 25 years and has become famous -- and controversial -- for self-translating them, usually from French into English. This was the case for her 1999 novel The Mark of the Angel, which was nominated for the Giller Prize for excellence in English-language fiction after being published a year earlier in French as L'Empreinte de l'ange. In the early nineties, she reversed the practice -- self-translating her fourth novel, Plainsong, from English to French (Cantiques des plaines), for which she won the Governor-General's Award for French fiction.

I got the story directly from Huston herself at a reading. Given that Huston didn't even want to talk to the journalist, I find it hard to believe that she would have alerted the press. And since no other news source has picked this up, with the exception of the Montreal paper, the only source I can imagine they would have for it is my pitch. And the information about her writing and her translating is just too similar for my comfort.

For crying out loud. I emailed my agent to find out if there's anything that I can do; I don't suppose there is, though. Good lord, how I hate freelancing.

14 comments:

Alice said...

Wow, Lauren, I'm impressed by your great idea to write the article, and I'm frustrated and disgusted that they didn't respond to you and pursued the article (dishonestly!) on their end, without even giving you credit... You really seem to have your finger on the pulse of the French literary world, and I admire your talent and ideas. I'm sorry that this has happened to you; I know this probably doesn't help at all or isn't any consolation, but I'm sure you must not be alone in this kind of experience. Maybe your agent can give you some advice for any future ventures? I have no idea how this kind of thing works, but you have so much going for you and such talent, the pieces are all going to fall in their place, I'm sure!

And with regard to Huston, I've been meaning to read some of her books for quite some time now, and I've got such a long list of books I want to read these days... Her work sounds really intriguing, and yet somehow intimidating in style, too. (Maybe that's why I'm somehow a bit nervous about approaching them?...) Is there one in particular that you would recommend as a first-read? Which of her books have you loved the most? I remember seeing a literary program about her when a Romain Gary biography came out about 2 years ago and she was outraged about the author's approach to his life. She seemed to have a fiery personality! (and I mean that in a good way)

In any case, I wish you all the best of luck. I share your disgust on this matter! What dishonest idiots...

Vinca Pervanche said...

I know how it feels not to get credit for one's hard work. However, I also firmly believe in karma and the person who stole this idea from you will not emerge from this unscathed. I'm not a particularly litigous person, but perhaps you should consult an intellectual property lawyer? Ownership is in ideas, not in the words used to express those ideas, and this idea was clearly yours. Best of Luck!

Anonymous said...

Ouch. I had seen that she had won the Femina prize while brainlessly scouring the "métro" paper the other morning.

I'd meant to write something about it on my blog as there are a few Calgarians that read it (my mom anyway, for interest's sake if nothing else since I haven't had time yet to read any of NH's books.

magikthrill said...

Thanks for spreading the word. I guess I'll have to pick up a copy from Montreal next time I'm there. Sounds like an amazing read.

Samantha said...

oh god, how frustrating. did they ever even bother replying back to you? and did you contact them to let them know that you know they stole your idea?

Wanderlusting said...

Fuck the Globe and Mail.

That is exactly why I hate freelancing too and why I don't do it. Also, I am lazy and writing a million articles and a million queries and getting the occasional "hmmm, let us get back to you" just plain sucks.

Also sucks that there is nothing you can do to prove/disprove that they stole your idea.

I say, pitch it to someone else and because you got the real deal, your story will be so much better.

fashionista said...

Oh, that burns. I'm with you (and wanderlusting) on hating freelancing. Something similar happened to me a couple years ago and I was absolutely livid.

Your story idea was a damn good one, and I'm upset right along with you for what the Globe and Mail did.

(As an aside, I was watching (or rather re-watching) Before Sunset today and came to the conclusion that you and Julie Delpy share some resemblance.)

--Sara

Gillian Young said...

A similar thing happened to me when I pitched a story to the Toronto Star newspaper. A guy called me and actually tried to get quotes from me to make my story his own. I was lucky enough to have a teacher who worked there, and yelled at the editor for me. In the end he got his story, but I got 200$ and my name mentioned at the bottom for contributing.

Call them on it, burn the house down, and try and get some money or credit out of them in return.

Anonymous said...

Ugh, that's awful! I agree with Gillian, commence with the harrassment!

Anthony said...

As a Canadian, I can honestly say that we too are ashamed by the Globe and Mail. It really is a poor excuse for a national paper, but it is better than the alternative, The National Post. Ah well, we still have our beloved CBC, for now.

I have commenced the harrassment by writing a letter of complaint to the editor of the Globe and Mail.

Keep up the great blogging.

Steve S (Old hack) said...

If you pitch something to a newspaper, do it over the phone, get a name and get them to agree a fee while you're on. In this instance I would send them a bill anyway. Once a newspaper has the information it will use the information. Given what you have said I suspect a letter to the editor might produce some results in this case...

eurobrat said...

Oh I HATE that. Your proposal looked great. F***ing Globe and Mail.

Anonymous said...

I got $700 out of CTV when they pulled this on me. I got out my paper trail and went right to the top. You got nothing to lose. Get your agent involved.

Anonymous said...

You need to educate yourself on how lead times work if you are going to pretend to be a professional freelancer. By the time your pitch arrived at the Globe, James Adams' story had already been written and typeset.