A few weeks ago I was eating dinner with a large group of friends and acquaintances, and the woman next to me asked what I was currently reading. When I said My Dark Vanessa, another woman who overheard turned around and excitedly started talking about how much she loved the book. The woman I was talking to, who works at a lifestyle magazine, remarked that she’d just had a copy placed on her desk, recommended from an editor. This was two weeks before the book’s U.S. release date, and I was not surprised.
The giant publicity budget for this debut novel became apparent last year when The Book Slut mentioned that she kept seeing ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) in the hands of fellow London tube commuters. I saw ARCs all over Instagram as well, globally. There were several Goodreads giveaways months ahead of release date. And writers for this site reached out to me about covering the book, having already read it—again, months ahead of its release date. I’ve worked in fashion for 13 years and I’m a relative novice when it comes to the machinations of the publishing industry, but it was easy even for me to realize the gargantuan support behind My Dark Vanessa. A quick internet search confirmed my suspicions, as the debut novel—about a fifteen year old girl who has an affair with her English teacher and then reckons with it in the light of the #metoo movement—was bought by William Morrow in late 2018 for a cool seven figures.
I do believe book publicity and marketing is changing due to the burgeoning landscapes of Bookstagram, Goodreads, and Book Twitter. There’s something intrinsic about bookish people finding a community online, and I’ve been on Goodreads since 2008 and started looking into Bookstagram in 2018. The performative value of reading had a social media glow up within that decade. Book news happened differently. When I think about some other debut novels with seven-figure advances, like Emma Cline’s The Girls, I wasn’t inundated in the same way I was with photos of My Dark Vanessa ARCs. That’s because it was 2014, and I remember hearing about it from a friend, astounded at the price tag of the debut (and our mutual interest in Manson/cult narratives, it must be said). In doing research for other debut books that have gotten giant advances, I was surprised to see Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing was one—I hadn’t heard of the book deal that took place in 2015, but I do remember reading the back flap of the book (in an LA movie theater bookstore of all places) and wanting to buy it. All that said: the publicity machine has become more visible now that social media has wrangled book people into influencers. Instagram is the fastest growing social platform, and even with my small amount of followers, presses reached out to send me books to feature on my account. Goodreads now has over 90 million members (it has grown exponentially in the last five years). My Dark Vanessa, a week before U.S. publication, had over 800 reviews and close to 2,000 ratings on the site. The #MyDarkVanessa hashtag on Instagram had over 500 posts before any release dates, and the first photo of an advanced copy was posted in March 2019.
And then in January, amidst a certain controversy about the dearth of Latinx voices in publishing, author Wendy C. Ortiz tweeted about an upcoming novel that sounded eerily like her memoir, Excavation, which details her experience of a relationship she had with a teacher, and examines in retrospect as an adult. She was referring to My Dark Vanessa, and a new controversy was born.
I decided to order Excavation and then I read My Dark Vanessa immediately afterwards. There is nothing that I would term plagiarism of Excavation within Russell’s novel—and Ortiz has never said that she was plagiarized—but Russell does cite the memoir in her reading list of “influences and interests over the years of writing My Dark Vanessa.” Ortiz wrote that Russell reached out to her after people started comparing the books, an email she decided to ignore. Russell, then fighting against ugly (and frankly unfair) criticism that she couldn’t write about this type of abuse having not lived it personally (pardon, but: what the fuck), released a statement that she had, in fact, based a lot of the book on her own experiences. The finished copy of the book I have has a preface that reinforces that the novel is fiction and “entirely imaginary.”
All this aside—Ortiz lays her argument not against Russell, but at the feet of the publishing industry and its inability to truly listen and promote marginalized voices and stories—I do believe the industry is biased toward holding up the stories told by white people because it has always been and continues to be a white industry that caters to the white gaze. As Ortiz wrote in her essay for Gay Magazine, “From the agents to the publishers’ offices to the editors to the CEOS, the publishing industry remains 84% white, and they will often make decisions as such.”
In a New York Magazine profile on Russell, several anonymous agents who read My Dark Vanessa stated that the fact that Vanessa is fiction helped to sell it versus Excavation because:
“There are some who will immediately take the book out of the running because they personally are not wishing to deal with that subject. There’s an extra layer of safety. It’s very hard to engage with someone else’s anguish.”
Ortiz mentions similar rejection notes when she was trying to sell her memoir, editors not believing there was a market for audiences wanting to deal with the real trauma of a girl. I agree with Ortiz; the gatekeepers of this industry need to do better to include people of color on their payrolls, listen to and lift up the voices of the marginalized, and grow diverse literary talent.
Reading both books in succession, Excavation’s profound history perfectly crystallizes what it’s like to be a teenage girl, as well as navigating a path to adulthood while being preyed on by an adult you’re supposed to trust. Ortiz captures the intimate thoughts and self-negotiations of her former self with complete openness; she explores her relationship with truth, power, and sex. Her writing is meditative and a captivating examination.
Once I finished Excavation, I was prepared to think ill of My Dark Vanessa. While I personally prefer the substance and style of Excavation, I understand why My Dark Vanessa will resonate with readers as a novel that employs a lot of suspense, contemporary context, and a propulsive narrative.
To be sure, the girls in Excavation and My Dark Vanessa are different. Wendy is growing up in 1980s Los Angeles in a household where her alcoholic parents are nearing divorce. Fictional Vanessa lives and studies in a Maine boarding school in 2001, a loner after having a falling out with her best friend the previous school year. What’s similar about Wendy and Vanessa lies in the patterns of abuse they face, and they seem reminiscent of each other because these are not the usual perspectives we see when it comes to this sort of relationship.
These are the similarities I found, and probably why Excavation’s fans reached out to Ortiz with concerns. Both the fictional Vanessa and the real Wendy beg their parents to go to a specific school—the school that eventually leads them to meet their abusers. Both are bookish and introverted students, and groomed by their English teachers. Where Wendy meets her abuser at 13 years old in 7th grade, Vanessa does at 15 years old as a high school sophomore.They spend a lot of time reading and writing. Each teacher reads a notebook of their writing. For Wendy, Mr. Ivers (Jeff) reads a novel she’s handwritten and shares only with one of her friends. For Vanessa, Mr. Strane reads a poem she’d been working on within her writing notebook. The teachers compliment their writing, admiring their work, finding their entryway into their personal lives. They’re told not to write anything about their relationship down (the teachers thereby acknowledging their wrongdoing, but making it sound like something to be ashamed of to the naive students—Strane going as far as telling Vanessa she’d end up in foster care if anyone found out). The men talk of ‘love’ and ‘soulmates,’ leading the girls to feel like decision-makers in their own destiny, as if they are adults. They field clandestine phone calls from these teachers, hoping their parents won’t hear them from the enclaves of their bedrooms filled with posters and knick-knacks and other teenage girl ephemera.
Both of the girls are navigating class and classmates, and as Ortiz puts it in Excavation they are “submerged in a different ocean of innuendo.” They are often uncomfortable in class, disturbed and paranoid at the idea of being caught, while also understanding that it’s exciting. Wendy has been fielding calls from Mr. Ivers nearly every night, and during one point in class she asks him for the definition of a word from Lolita, and she observes, “I listened to the outskirts of our conversation. Other kids in the class were talking, reading, doing homework. Nothing was askew. We were safe.” Vanessa is asked by Mr. Strane to discuss one of her poems at his desk during class and after she sits next to him: “If anyone wonders what he and I are doing, they don’t show it. Around the seminar table, everyone’s head is ducked in concentration. It’s as though they’re in one world, and Mr. Strane and I are in another.” While these observations mete out the clandestine nature of their relationship, it also makes their isolation from their peers apparent and palpable.
Ortiz and Russell are writing about a teenage girl everyone knows, but is rarely given a voice in literature. The teenagers both read Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita in the beginning stages of their interactions with their teachers. Within it, they encounter notions similar to their relationships, a glimmer of recognition—but through the eyes of Humbert Humbert, not the titular teenage girl, Dolores, nicknamed Lolita by her abuser. Russell goes so far as to dedicate My Dark Vanessa “to the real life Dolores Hazes and Vanessa Wyes whose stories have not yet been heard, believed, or understood.” Russell succeeds in giving voice to her Dolores-like protagonist, but in no way writes that voice as treacly or intended for pity via victimhood. In fact, neither Russell nor Ortiz writes in cliches or seem to strive for likability; this in itself seems like a rebellious act in the face of a society that wishes women would smile more. Instead, they represent realistic portraits of girls who are trying to navigate life. In each book, both teachers make comments about Lolita to the student; Ivers jokes about it in front of Wendy’s peers, and Strane vacillates between encouraging Vanessa to read his underlined copy filled with marginalia and insisting that he is not like Humbert.
Lolita itself is such an oft-cited book for its forbidden content, incisive writing, and perplexing perspective. You can read the book in many different ways; various interpretations are partly the reason I love reading book reviews of all the books I’ve read. Though it’s my opinion that if you believe Lolita to be a romantic love story—as teenage Vanessa does, believing herself to be in love with her 42-year-old teacher—you’re reading it wrong. Humbert’s lyrical storytelling about his ‘love’ may confuse young readers, especially because Dolores’ voice or perspective doesn’t factor into the narrative he’s built. Lolita is the prime example of what Rebecca Solnit describes in her essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me,”
“there is a canonical body of literature in which women’s stories are taken away from them, in which all we get are men’s stories.”
We don’t get to know Dolores Haze, only Lolita through the prism of Humbert’s obsessive eyes. Both Russell and Ortiz succeed in giving voice to the women—girls—at the center of their stories. Because historically, teenage girls are rarely a trusted voice in classic literature, rarely featured and not of much importance. And even more rare is a teenage girl of color, from a race or ethnicity not white or European. Ortiz is particularly excellent writing from a teenage girl’s perspective, as she grapples with not only a teacher that seduces her, but also her parents’ divorce, the way her friendships are evolving as time passes, a changing physicality, the need for a driver’s license, among other teenage concerns. She writes:
“As my parents became more volatile, I became more oblivious to the dramas of my fellow students. I now had dramas of my own, all of which required secrecy and a fair share of acting. Everything at home was normal. Everything was fine. With Mr. Ivers in my life now, I felt strangely outside of things, but the new places I found inside myself were suddenly starting to feel unpredictable, explosive, and alive.”
The usual markers of teenage girldom—whether in 1986 or 2001—preside: fraught relationships with parents, the power of their friendships with other girls, and the music that soundtracks much of their lives. Like Wendy and Vanessa, I recall writing down lyrics to songs, and to treating lyrics like poetry to be analyzed.
While reading these books, I thought of my own teenage self at their ages. I remembered when I was a sophomore in high school, and for my English class we were asked to choose a book to read and then write a book report. Typical, except that the assignment also came with twenty or so options to create more than an essay: one could create a diorama of a scene, paint something inspired by the book, or even, curate a mixtape. I chose to read Lolita, and I decided to create a mixtape. I remember reading the book, teenage-thrilled by its general forbiddenness, and creating a mixtape for my teacher of obsessive love songs like “Lovefool” by The Cardigans (Mama tells me I shouldn’t bother / that I ought to stick to another man / a man that surely deserves me / but I think you do”) and I’m pretty sure that Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” made an appearance as well. I’ve since lost this report and tape, it happening twenty years ago, but it’s funny what memories are drudged up by reading and what books indelibly mark our adolescence. I understood the way Wendy and Vanessa devoured Lolita and looked to literature and music to help explain the increasingly unexplainable world around them: because I did, too.
Music is so entrenched in teenage life, no matter the era. Wendy regularly mentions bands and music and spends much of one chapter thinking about her situation while splicing it with the lyrics of a song by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Vanessa thinks deeply about Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” video and the singer’s own history with rape, and how Apple chooses to tell her story. There’s a scene in which Vanessa is driving with her dad as he sings along to “My Sharona” by The Kinks, lyrics that Vanessa hones in on: “Such a dirty mind / I always get it up for touch of a younger kind,” and her dad doesn’t flinch. Wendy in 1986 writes about how she asked her mom for the book Lolita for Christmas and how her mother “didn’t ask why I wanted this book, didn’t know that I heard the name ‘Nabokov’ in a song by The Police, about a situation that sounded strangely similar to the one I was in.” The song is “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” which starts with “Young teacher / subject of schoolgirl fantasy.” The girls are keenly aware of the pervasive influence of this trope in music, the kind of love story that is told over and over again in song.
Upon finishing both books, my exhaustion was reserved for society’s failure of these girls. These are two books that get at the nature of this kind of abuse and they are both excellent portrayals about the gray areas. But they are not singular stories; these criminal behaviors are frightfully commonplace. As Ortiz writes in her book,
“It is as simple as typing ‘teacher guilty’ into a news outlet’s search field. A stream of articles featuring teachers suspected or convicted of preying on their students appears. Often, they rise to the top, becoming interesting news, even as these stories become more common.
It is any given day.”
According to the SESAME (Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation) organization, in a 2011 survey, 3.5 million students between 8th and 11th grade reported “having had physical sexual contact from an adult (most often a teacher or coach). The type of physical contact ranged from unwanted touching of their body, all the way up to sexual intercourse.” That’s 7% of students nationwide. In 2015, about 500 educators were arrested within the year for sexual abuse of students. I was unable to find any updated statistics, but I would gather that the #metoo movement has had some influence on increase in reporting and more aggressive sexual harassment training and monitoring (one hopes). These books both encapsulate something not entirely rare, but prevalent; they are important voices in getting across nuances about what abuse can and does often look like. Statistics often stun, but I’m personally more apt to understand a situation when I can connect it to a person. Enter Wendy. Enter Vanessa.
And then there’s the character that reminded me...of me. When I was reading My Dark Vanessa, at one point I was suddenly called back to a reading experience last year. In the non-fiction book Three Women, teenage Maggie has an inappropriate, abusive relationship with her teacher. In telling her story and reflecting, she is similarly opaque about the nature of the relationship just as 2017 Vanessa is. I remembered being a bit angry that this predatory relationship was focused on in a book marketed as ‘female desire.’ But, I had to check myself. I felt uncomfortable reading it in Three Women, and I felt uncomfortable, much the same way I did reading My Dark Vanessa and hearing Vanessa’s back and forth about her perceptions of what this relationship was. I recognized myself in the feminist journalist character, pushing Vanessa to tell her story, to bring this teacher down, the know-it-all telling her what to do and in some ways, how to feel. That was me while reading Three Women. It dawns on me that it took a fictitious character to look at myself critically, and that’s part of the power of My Dark Vanessa.
The character of Vanessa is remarkable in how she herself cannot pin down her own feelings about her abuse. She’s not likable or reliable: she cannot rely on herself, even. But she’s sympathetic. As Ortiz writes,
“the history I write is just one prism of a history, a place where a part of me feels trapped in time. In my ancient history, a man arrived as my junior high teacher and metamorphosed into someone I would timidly think of as my lover.”
This is true of both of these books.
The relied-upon excuse for most article sources about My Dark Vanessa’s price tag was the timing of the #metoo movement, which plays a catalyst to the events in adult Vanessa’s life. I will always feel a little unease between the marketing of a fiction book based on the actual activism of people against sexual harassment and abuse, but I can only be grateful that people may come to understand more about its layers. And grateful that more people are reading Excavation now due to the links between the books in the press. Both are powerful and complex representations of a story that so often gets romanticized in a titillating way. These are the stories that are necessary to opening up the conversation of what men get away with and how it affects girls and women, not just as victims but also society in general.
When Oprah’s Book Club announced that their pick of My Dark Vanessa would be dropped from their schedule in March, it seemed to align My Dark Vanessa’s criticisms with that of their January pick, American Dirt, which did not get dropped. American Dirt is a compendium of Mexican stereotypes about immigration to the United States packaged for pity, and for the white gaze. My Dark Vanessa does not have the same issues nor does it plagiarize from a Latinx writer. In dropping it, I can only hope that Oprah and her book crew look more closely at the books they choose, and perhaps will be motivated to think critically about the narratives and the authors they invite so much attention upon. They have a lot of experience.
In the end, I am glad that both these books exist. I’m glad Ortiz called out the industry, and I’m hopeful that she will get to share more of her writing. There are shifts happening, and I want them to continue. I don’t think that the 2011 novel about a charismatic teacher preying on his student, written by a teacher who preyed on his student, would garner the book same book deal today that it did ten years ago. Fun fact: that author continues to publish books after that debut! He won a Guggenheim fellowship in 2017! He presents awards at literary galas! He has continued on, a predator professionally unencumbered. Russell includes a nod to this not at all unusual phenomenon of white men ‘failing up,’ or indeed never failing at all, when Vanessa interns at a poetry press and her manager pulls her off airport pick-up duty of a prominent visiting poet, instead sending the male intern, because,
“There was an incident at the last event we held for him, though ‘incident’ is too strong a word. It was nothing, really. But it might be best for you to steer clear. Just to be safe. Do you understand what’s I’m getting at?”
As always, the onus is on women to steer clear of predatory men. Predators don’t need book deals; let them self-publish if they want their story in the world. Publishers need to take responsibility for who they are and are not publishing, and who makes up their staff of gatekeepers and decision-makers.
Diverse representation of race and ethnicity within the walls of publishing houses is critical, as well as the authors and stories that receive support in terms of advances and publicity. I took it as a good sign, and perhaps a reaction to American Dirt, that a Black debut author received a 7 figure advance in late February. I do believe that such a large sum of money could be used to provide more diverse infrastructure from the ground up of the publishing houses, but one cannot deny that it is good news to know that there will be a mountain of support behind this woman’s novel, which is about the publishing industry. I’m clearly already interested.
Early in the book, during Vanessa’s first class with Mr Strane, he says: “the world is made of endlessly intersecting stories, each one valid and true.” This may have been Vanessa’s impetus for never feeling like she could land on the facts about her story, she often feels like she’s constantly reliving those days under Strane’s gaze, unable to move past them. She can’t reconcile the truth in the intersecting stories of her own history. In Excavation, near the end of the book in a small chapter titled “Exorcism,” Ortiz writes: “Each person deserves a fresh look at their fossil history, a cataloguing of their state of being and their relationship with the flora and the fauna—what made them survive, what did not.” Both My Dark Vanessa and Excavation are critical right now for they are voices that are little heard or understood. There have always been men singing about schoolgirl fantasies, men explaining Lolita to women, men preying on their students, men telling our stories. These books give me hope that women can tell their own varied stories, and share all the nuances of our existence in a world and history riddled by the words of men.