The Chronicle Review

My Nemesis, Jill Lepore

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle Review

November 26, 2014

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle Review

After two and a half years of work, and only six months from publication, I opened an email with the ominous title, "We have been scooped." It was sent by my editor at Rutgers University Press, and it contained the kind of news that makes strong academics weep and seasoned authors wail and futilely gnash their clenching bowels.

Jill Lepore had written my book.

I’ll admit, at first I didn’t realize just how much weeping, wailing, gnashing, and clenching was to be mine. Somehow, some way, I had spent my life to that point in a cozy, Lepore-proof bubble. But the email ended all that, and I learned (as the rest of the world already knew) that Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard (ominous music commences), a staff writer at The New Yorker (ominous music swells), and the writer of approximately a quintillion best-selling books, on topics from King Philip’s War to Jane Franklin. (Crescendo, darkness, bleak despair.)

And now, she had written my book.

Specifically, as the Brobdingnagian publicity barrage has no doubt informed you, she has written a book titled The Secret History of Wonder Woman (no, I am not going to link), about William Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, and his family. Marston was a psychologist, (self- declared) inventor of the lie-detector test, and more than a bit of a carny. He was also a polyamorist; he and his wife, Elizabeth Marston, lived with a woman named Olive Byrne; Marston had children by both. Moreover, Byrne was a niece of Margaret Sanger—and it’s this connection between feminist foremother and feminist superhero that is the center of Lepore’s study.

Fans and scholars have known about Marston’s polyamory, and the connection to Sanger, for at least a decade and a half, so Lepore’s revelations aren’t exactly new. But they weren’t well known to a mainstream audience before—a fact that I figured would help me get some press. Unfortunately, Lepore’s book came out at the end of October. By the time my book is released, in January, every mainstream venue on the planet will have already written that article about Marston’s unusual family relationship.

And when I say "every mainstream venue on the planet," I mean every mainstream venue on the planet, as well as several in low earth orbit. I work as a freelance writer, not an academic, so I’m familiar with the workings of the pop-culture hivemind and the logic of everyone-is-covering-it-we-must-cover-it-too-twice.

But it’s one thing to see that with some emotional distance, and another to feel the marketing gears grinding blindly over the shattered remnants of your soul.

I got a preview copy of The Secret History of Wonder Woman a couple of months in advance, and figured that, since I’d written a book on the same subject, I could review it and perhaps get some pitiful dregs of publicity diverted from Lepore’s rushing river of press. So I contacted venues like Slate and The New York Times—only to learn that they had already assigned it. I did eventually place a review at The Atlantic online; the editors, bless their kind souls, ran it even though Katha Pollitt had written about it for the print magazine.

Meanwhile, Lepore was everywhere. She wrote a piece about her book for The New Yorker, and all my concerned friends and acquaintances kindly rushed to their email to ask me if I had seen said essay, and would I prefer to curse the gods or claw my eyes out in grief and rage?

Twitter and Facebook were filled with comics fans and superhero fans and people who cared not a whit for comics or superheroes talking excitedly about the new Jill Lepore book and its revelations. It was on the comics-scholars list I subscribe to, it was at The Comics Journal. It was ubiquitous, inescapable, indomitable.

A scholarly book about the original Wonder Woman comics was a genuine cultural phenomenon. Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, and Alison Bechdel had turned in ecstatic blurbs. All my dreams had come true—but in a hideously twisted way.

So nothing to do except cry upon a lonely shoal of Jill Le­pore hardbacks and shattered dreams? Well, maybe it’s not quite as bad as that. I said Jill Lepore wrote my book, but (as all authors know) the truth is that every book is its own special snowflake. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is focused on biography and history; Lepore has little theoretical or aesthetic interest in the comics themselves. My book, on the other hand—Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, is a close reading of the comics themselves in the context of feminist and queer theory.

Reading Le­pore’s book, you’d hardly know that Marston intended Wonder Woman to convince young boys and girls of the messianic joys of lesbianism, nor that the Amazons travel on giant multi-lunged space kangaroos. The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism are distinct enough, it seems, that discriminating Wonder Woman fans and scholars will want to have both. (Right? Don’t you want to have both? Stem my tears! Buy my book!)

The truth is, as I attempted to tell my editor while talking her off the ledge, whatever my dreams of glory and Alison Bechdel blurbs, my book was never going to be a New York Times best seller and cultural phenomenon.

In the first place, narrative history is always going to sell way better than theory. And in the second place, Jill Lepore is Jill Lepore, and I’m not. Even if Jill Lepore hadn’t written my book, my book was not going to do what Jill Lepore’s book has done. Maybe I can convince myself that she forestalled a mainstream review or two I might have had.

But then, without Lepore, I wouldn’t be writing here, this very moment, shamelessly promoting my work. And for that matter, pre-orders of my book are pretty good. Not Jill-Lepore-thousands-and-thousands-of copies good, but respectable for a first book from an academic press by an author who is (for all his fine qualities) nobody in particular.

So I guess the moral is, if you suddenly discover that Jill Lepore has written your book, don’t panic—or, you know, panic in the knowledge that it may well not be as bad as your editor initially thinks it is. Universal acclaim would be nice—and watching Lepore’s ascendence has made it clear to me precisely how nice. But barring wealth and undying fame, I’ll settle for some non-zero number of readers and a positive review in Publishers Weekly (even if it does call my study "academically dense").

Jill Lepore is undoubtedly an 8,000-pound space kangaroo, but the Paradise Island of publishing is big enough for little sand-rat-sized kangaroos as well.

Noah Berlatsky is the editor of the comics and culture blog The Hooded Utilitarian and the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press.