For anyone who loves stories, one of true joys in life is the discovery of a great new writer whose stories grab you deep in the gut and refuse to let go. While there are tons of books published each year by beginning writers, only a few of these books scream that THIS is a writer who is destined for great things. As a result, when you discover a great writer at the beginning of their career, you have found one of the rarest joys in life.
Unfortunately, though, over the last week this joy has been shoved back down my throat. The reason: Brad Vice, one of the most talented new writers to appear in the last few years, has been given the shaft by his publisher for what appears to be an honest mistake.
First, the background.
Brad Vice’s first collection of short stories, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train, won the Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction from the University of Georgia Press a year ago and was recently published. The book is an excellent debut collection of fiction which appealed to me not only for Vice’s powerful writing but also for his unique look at the south. As someone who was born and raised in Alabama, I especially loved how Vice tied the central cultural figure from my youth—football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant—into the core of his stories.
I vividly remember the day the Bear died. Just as some people remember where they were when John F. Kennedy died, so do most Alabamians remember where they were when the University of Alabama’s legendary coach passed away. By tying his book into the mythology of Bear Bryant, Vice created stories that transcend the limited scope of so much of what passes for short fiction in today’s world. I know many other readers agreed with me because Vice’s book picked up positive reviews from around the country.
But just as every great story has a downfall, so too does the story of The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. Brad wrote one of the stories in the collection, “Tuscaloosa Knights,” in homage to Carl Carmer’s classic book, Stars Fell on Alabama. (Vice’s short story is reprinted on storySouth’s sister publication Thicket.) Specifically, Vice based his short story on a chapter in the book called “Tuscaloosa Nights" (and in particular a four-page section of that chapter called "The Flaming Cross," which describes a 1930s Ku Klux Klan rally in Tuscaloosa, Alabama). Vice’s story runs about twenty pages and closely follows some of Carmer’s dialogue and description (while using different characters and situations). Vice is quoted as saying that he used some of Carmer’s dialog because, “As a nonfiction resource, the dialogue had a truth value outside of Carmer’s text."
Unfortunately for Vice, he forgot to acknowledge that the story borrowed material from Carmer’s classic book. Soon a readers' adviser to the Tuscaloosa Public Library discovered this and raised concerns about the story. Vice’s publisher, fearing what might be unleashed, voided out his fiction prize and plans to destroy all of the books. In addition, Vice is now facing the possible loss of his teaching job at Mississippi State University.
In a day or two, my co-editor Jake Adam York will examine whether this copyright concern is truly valid. To me, though, the fact that Vice titled his story as an obvious play on Carmer’s original chapter title, and the fact that he acknowledged in interviews that the story was in homage to Carmer’s, shows that this was not an attempt to plagiarize the original story. Instead, Carmer was taking the time-honored route of updating and commenting upon a classic literary story. This is the same path recently taken by Pulitzer Prize winning author Suzan-Lori Parks when she wrote Getting Mother's Body, which is an updated version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
Carl Carmer’s book is an American, and Southern, literary classic, and the section that Vice based his story on is the most famous part in the book. What Vice did is similar to someone writing a story based on William Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy—i.e., the source material of the story should be well-known to his audience (such as readers of southern literature). If I wrote a short story based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet (as author Tom Stoppard did with his famous book Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead), no one would question the validity of my story.
The problem, of course, is that even though Carmer’s book came out more than six decades ago, it is still under copyright (yet again, my co-editor will examine whether Vice actually violated the original book’s copyright). However, copyright generally does not prevent an author from commenting upon and basing another story upon that work. In fact, Alice Randall did just this with her novel The Wind Done Gone, which was based on the classic, and copyrighted, text of Gone with the Wind (Go here to read Houghton Mifflin’s defense of their publication of The Wind Done Gone). Yes, Vice should have included a small acknowledgement in the front of the book about how the story was based on Carmer’s work, but he is a young author and thought 1) He was covered by fair use; and 2) That the source material would be evident to anyone familiar with southern literature.
This brings me to what really infuriates me about this case: How Brad Vice was let down by the University of Georgia Press. Vice is a young writer who forgot to acknowledge his story’s inspiration source. However, the University of Georgia Press has no excuse. (For a short version of the Press’s response, go here.) The Press could have found other ways to fix this situation instead of simply revoking Vice's prize and destroying his book and reputation.
I know this because I used to be a senior editor at Meadowbrook Press, a commercial publishing company distributed by Simon & Schuster. Once, while working on an anthology of quotations, I discovered that a previous editor had forgotten to request permission for several sections of another of our company’s anthologies. To make amends, I contacted the author whose copyright we had violated, explained the situation, and offered payment to use the material. We then placed an errata insert page into all remaining copies of this anthology and added the copyright mention into future editions of the anthology.
I'm sure that the University of Georgia Press could have done a similar thing, resulting in all parties going away happy. In addition, if the issue is so serious to the University of Georgia Press, why didn’t their editors notice it prior to publication? I would think that the editors of Brad Vice’s book should have been familiar enough with southern literature to know that his story was playing off of Carl Carmer’s famous book.
To repeat, Brad Vice should have placed an acknowledgement in his book. Yes, he made a mistake. However, fault also rests with the University of Georgia Press, who should have searched for other ways to fix this problem instead of reaching for the nuclear destruction of an author and his book.
As I said before, there is a long tradition in fiction of authors borrowing or adapting older literary works to make new points and raise new issues (with Getting Mother's Body, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and The Wind Done Gone being only a few of the recent examples of this). Brad Vice thought he was following in the path of these novels with this short story. He should not be strung up for believing this and forgetting to add that one acknowledgement.
Because of the actions of the University of Georgia Press, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train is no longer available in most bookstores. However, if you can find a copy, I strongly suggest you purchase it in support of Vice. I also urge people to write e-mails or letters of support to Mississippi State University, which has opened an investigation of Vice that could result in him losing his job. Since this is an academic process, formal snail-mail letters of support are encouraged. Address and send letters to: Richard Raymond, Professor and Department Head, English Department, 316 Lee Hall, Mississippi State, MS 39762. You can also e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.