A PEN divided

Writers group debates which author to defend -- Margaret Mitchell or her satirist.

Published May 2, 2001 7:59PM (EDT)

The recent court ruling against "The Wind Done Gone," a retelling of "Gone With the Wind" from the perspective of the slaves at Tara, has divided the membership of the august writers' group the PEN American Center.

PEN, an organization that seeks to protect the rights of writers everywhere, has long been involved with First Amendment and copyright issues. At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the group will convene a special meeting of the board to discuss the questions raised by the Houghton Mifflin book, written by Alice Randall, which closely tracks the plot of the Margaret Mitchell classic.

"I thought it was an easy case for PEN to get involved in, so we could be heard," says attorney Leon Friedman, PEN's general counsel and a member of its Freedom to Write committee, who has filed a brief in support of Randall's right to publish.

According to the bylaws of PEN, a friend-of-the-court brief can be filed without consulting the entire board -- in part to give the organization freedom to act quickly, particularly when an author might be in danger. Wednesday's meeting appears to be a way to take the temperature of the entire board and decide whether to pursue the issue further.

Complicating matters even more for the organization is the fact that the lawyer representing the Mitchell estate -- which succeeded in getting an injunction in U.S. District Court in Atlanta to stop Houghton Mifflin from publishing -- is Martin Garbus, the famed First Amendment expert, who is also a member of PEN.

Garbus declined to comment to Inside.

Michael Roberts, the executive director of PEN, explains that the organization did not attempt to tackle the legal questions raised in the case, such as whether "The Wind Done Gone" is a parody and therefore protected speech. Instead, the organization is taking issue with the injunction that has prevented the publication of the book. "We are a First Amendment organization," Roberts says. "It is our position that prior restraint is not appropriate."

Both sides have sought and found powerful allies for their positions, though the group on Houghton Mifflin's side includes many more well-known publishing figures than those supporting the Mitchell estate. Among those who've signed a petition in support of Randall's right to publish are novelists Pat Conroy, Toni Morrison and Harper Lee (all of whom have written books about the South and racism), Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Civil War historian Shelby Foote. The Mitchell estate's supporters include Hope Dellon, executive editor at St. Martin's Press, novelist Alan Lelchuck and CUNY English professor emeritus Gabriel Motola. An interesting side note: Dellon's support of the Mitchell estate is striking, but not surprising. Her house, St. Martin's, is scheduled to publish the next GWTW sequel, which is told from Rhett Butler's point of view, the idea of which has been approved by Mitchell's estate. (This was a book that Pat Conroy was once considering but in which he ultimately decided not to participate.) It could be argued that St. Martin's would like to keep the marketplace clear of other GWTW-related titles.

Issues of copyright infringement vs. parody have been raised many times in the book publishing world, most recently in 1998 with the publication of Pia Pera's "Lo's Diary," a retelling of Vladmir Nabokov's "Lolita" from the nymphet's perspective. (Interestingly, Garbus argued against the Nabokov estate in that lawsuit.) And while that case engendered controversy among publishing folk, it did not attract this much attention or inspire as much passion. The dispute was settled out of court, and the book was published.

"This case is more galvanizing," Roberts says, "because it joins in the national conversation on race." "Lolita" was, itself, a very controversial book when published in 1955, due to its sexual themes, and was in fact banned in many countries. "Gone With the Wind," on the other hand, was always a fixture of mainstream American literature; it is only in recent decades of raised political consciousness that its rosy descriptions of slavery have come to the fore.

The PEN board meeting Wednesday night -- which Friedman says will look at what the organization has done and "make sure we're going in the right direction" -- is closed to the public, as well as rank and file PEN members. Roberts says that the organization may well arrange a public forum to examine this issue at a later date.

By Sara Nelson

Sara Nelson writes a book column for Glamour.

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