05 February 2010

The Case of the Purloined Paper


Two years ago, my friend Kirk Woodward was asked to write an essay on Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner for a forthcoming book on Williams’s impact on contemporary playwrights. (That essay, “‘All Truth Is a Scandal’: How Tennessee Williams Shaped Tony Kushner's Plays,” is now published in The Influence of Tennessee Williams: Essays on Fifteen American Playwrights [Ed. Philip C. Kolin (McFarland & Co., 2008)].) Kirk and I are in frequent e-mail contact, and we chatted about the essay a bit as I asked him how it was coming along and what he was learning about the two writers. In mid-July 2007, Kirk asked me if he could quote from an essay I’d written five years earlier about plastic theater, a Williams concept Kirk thought would “fit wonderfully” into his discussion. My essay, “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theatre,” was published on line by the Tennessee Williams Annual Review (no. 5 [2002], http://www.tennesseewilliamsstudies.org/archives/2002/3kramer.htm), but I did a Google search to see if there was also a printed copy available for Kirk to use. TWAR had gone on line a few years earlier, but I wasn’t sure if they still put out a paper edition. The only paper version of my essay of which I knew was the much shorter rendition in my plastic theater article for The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia (Ed. Philip C. Kolin [Greenwood Press, 2004]). That’s when I made a startling discovery.

On 16 July, two days after Kirk asked me about “‘The Sculptural Drama,’” I learned that the essay had apparently been published in some form in Harold Bloom's 2007 edition of his critical book on The Glass Menagerie. Besides the fact that I thought an editor had to get permission to republish something like that, and no one asked me (not that I objected, of course), I tried to find the book in any division of the NYPL or at Barnes & Noble, and I couldn't determine if the book even really existed. The library seemed to have only older editions of the book, before my essay had even been published, but B&N listed a 2006 edition, except that its table of contents was odd (on line, at least) and didn't list the essays included. The Library of Congress listed the book, including a table of contents with my essay titled “Richard E. Kramer on Sculptural Drama and Plastic Theatre.” Some of the other info on the B&N site was different from what was included in the edition that supposedly had my essay in it. (It had the same ISBN code, but I didn't know if that was conclusive.) I had no idea if the essay version in the book was even the same as the one published in TWAR or if it was an edited version or something. I had no idea how someone could reedit my work without asking me but, then, I didn't know that someone could even republish my essay without telling me, much less getting my permission. The whole thing was odd.

The next day, I went in search of the book to see what was going on, but no one around here (which at that time included the huge Strand Book Store and no less than three B&N’s), had the right edition. I considered ordering the book from B&N, but it was a $45 hardback, so I put that off until I ran out of other options.

The whole thing became confusing. Aside from the obvious--how someone could publish an essay of mine without asking me--there were other oddities. First, there seemed to be two different series in which there was a volume called Tennessee Williams's Glass Menagerie by Harold Bloom--"Bloom's Guides" and "Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations," both apparently from Chelsea House/Facts on File. Second, one or both series reissued the title every several years with different critical essays in it. Third, there may (or may not) have been both a 2006 and 2007 edition of the "Bloom's Guides" book, the one that had my essay in it. The B&N website had the 2006 on it, but the table of contents didn't list all the essays, so I didn't know if it was the same as the 2007 that was in the Library of Congress and on OCLC (both of which listed my essay in the contents). Neither collection of the NYPL had the correct edition of the book; I hadn't yet searched other local libraries like NYU and I also hadn't looked in Books in Print to see what I could learn from that. I also hadn't tried BookFinder.com to see if I could buy a cheap copy of the book.

I wanted to figure this out one way or the other, but it could take a while!

The next day, my friend Kirk sent me the following message:

I just had an article in Living Pulpit magazine, and the agreement has a few things about republication:

"You grant TLP the right to publish the article in TLP as well as in any foreign language editions or anthology of selections from back issues that we might publish in the future.

"You grant us the right to include your article as part of any electronic and/or computer data base containing TLP articles in which we approve its electronic publication, including that of the American Theological Library Association, and to make the article available for distribution through such.

"It is the policy of TLP to permit reproduction of articles in church bulletins, newsletters, and other such non-commercial formats [underlining theirs]. We usually do not charge the user for such permissions and you are granting us the right to use your work in this manner without requiring us to make any further payment to you.

"Requests for republication by commercial publishers will be directed to you as the author and you are free to make whatever financial arrangements you wish with that publisher. We recognize that you have the right to grant other publishers permission to print your article, without any payment to us, including in collections of your own work. We request that if and when you do so, however, that you acknowledge TLP as the original publisher of this work."

The last paragraph seemed the applicable one to my situation. But I had never signed any such agreement with TWAR (though publication may have automatically subjected me to such terms). I noticed that the earlier provisions, which granted TLP rights to reprint Kirk’s essay, almost all pertain to church-controlled publications (except the very last provision, the underlined one, which is slightly ambiguous). Except that TWAR is published by a college, it had no similar affiliation or sister publications that might have had a claim on material published in the journal. (When Dr. Kolin, the co-editor of Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, had republished my interview with playwright Karen Malpede in Speaking on Stage, a collection of past interviews from SAD, he asked my permission and even offered me the opportunity to reedit/expand it. I got to update the intro and to reinsert material I had had to cut from the SAD version.)

Next, I gathered more info, which only confused the matter further: I couldn't tell if the 2006 edition and the 2007 edition of the book with my essay in it were actually the same book. (Some references listed the copyright date, some the release date--which aren't the same when the publication happens at the end of the year as this one did.) The ISBN code was the same, but I didn't really know what that indicated. I assumed that each edition of a book (not printing, but new edition) got a new number, which would mean that books with the same ISBN code all had the same content--but I didn't know if that was true.

I also confirmed that though the two different books had the same publisher, Chelsea House, they were parts of different series. The one with my essay was part of "Bloom's Guides" (a blue or blue-and-buff cover, depending on the title); the other series was "Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations" (a cover of various colors, depending on the subject, with a black-and-white photo). Since none of the sites, like B&N or Amazon.com, that had "Bloom's Guides" provided a complete table of contents or list of essays included, I couldn't compare the "2006" Bloom’s Guide with the "2007" publication in the Library of Congress catalogue. (I wasn’t sure, of course, but it looked as if the brief table of contents on the B&N site may have been for the wrong book.) The only local library I could find that had the "right" book was Columbia, which is located mighty inconveniently for me.

Curiouser and curiouser.

On 22 July, about a week after I learned of the unknown publication, I wrote to Philip Kolin, the co-editor of SAD who had edited the Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia (where the plastic theater essay had originated as the article I mentioned earlier) and who had much more experience in the area of publication than I did. He was also associated with TWAR as the review editor. (In 2004, I wrote a review of some Tennessee Williams one-acts in Washington for him.) I recounted the saga as it stood at that point, and asked his opinion. His only advice was to contact the editor of TWAR directly, which I did. A week later, I wrote to Robert Bray at TWAR:

I have a dilemma you might be able to help me with--you have much more experience in this area than I do. You recall, I imagine, my essay on TW's plastic theater that was published on line at TWAR. That was 5 years ago now. I have just learned that the essay has been republished in the last Bloom's Guide to TW's Glass Menagerie. Now, I haven't been able to find the book so far, but both OCLC and the Library of Congress list it and a table of contents that includes my name and a version of the essay's title. The book was published in 2006 (the end of the year, apparently, so sometimes it's listed as a 2006 publication and sometimes 2007), so it's been out there for half a year or more. But my problem is--no one ever asked me for permission to republish the essay or even told me it was being reprinted. Is that legal? It's certainly not ethical, is it? I wouldn't have objected of course, but I should have been informed at least, shouldn't I? (No bookstore around here has the right book and edition--there's a different series by Bloom with a 2007 volume with the same title but different essays--and the only library in NYC that has the book is Columbia and I haven't gotten up there since I learned about the book, so since I haven't seen the book, I don't even know if the essay's been tampered with.) Does any of this seem strange to you? It does to me, but I don't have that much stuff out there, so maybe it's common practice.

Since TWAR is the only venue in which my essay, “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theatre,” ever appeared, did anyone contact you about reusing it? Even if no one contacted me, someone should have contacted someone for the right to republish--at least I'd have thought so.

I have no idea what some editor might have done with the essay, but at least my name's on it. (Or, maybe I shouldn't presume that's a good thing. Maybe it's a bowdlerized version!)

I'd appreciate your take on this if you have one.


Dr. Bray sent this response the next day:

You raise a question that I must admit I've never thought of; that is, would a contributor to the TWAR object to having his/her essay reprinted. The Bloom people did contact me about your essay, as well as another (I think it was Gilbert Debusscher's). I gave my consent to the reprint.

As far as the legal side, once you contribute an essay to the journal (or any journal, for that matter), it becomes the copyright of the journal, so you basically relinquish rights to it.

As far as your other point, the "ethical" side, it now occurs to me that I should probably contact the original author to see if there is an objection to having it reprinted. I haven't done so before but will do so from now on. Perhaps this is an obvious oversight on my part, but I must admit I just hadn't given it any thought.

Hope this answers your question. On the bright side, the essay assures you that more people will be edified by and appreciative of your good work.


When I wrote Dr. Bray back, I explained the he seemed to have misunderstood me. I didn't object to the republication; in fact, I was quite flattered. My concern was only that no one informed me, much less asked me, about the reuse of the essay. I was glad to hear that the Bloom folks contacted Dr. Bray; at least they didn't just abscond with the essay!

I certainly would gladly have assented to the republication. I might have asked if it were possible to correct errors or update information (as I did when Dr. Kolin had rerun the Malpede interview), but I couldn't see any reason I would have objected. But it was a little like having illegitimate children I didn't know I had running around out there--it was a little disconcerting to find, almost a year later, that the essay had been republished. (In this case, it's especially peculiar since I still hadn't seen the reprint.) If nothing else, I'd like to include it in my résumé and list of published works--just in case I try to get a legitimate job somewhere sometime. (You never know!)

Well, the mystery was somewhat solved. Dr. Bray seemed a little miffed that I inquired--apparently no one ever questioned his giving authority to republish work from TWAR. According to Dr. Bray, once my essay has been published in TWAR, I had tacitly given up all rights to it. Even if that was legally correct, it still seemed to me that courtesy and ethics would have dictated that the journal editor at least inform the authors when he's permitting reuse of their work.

Finally, on 3 October, I stopped in at HSSL, the main NYPL facility on 42nd Street (the one with the lions out front). I had requested a copy of the “Bloom’s Guide” on Menagerie that had my essay in it and it had just arrived--assuming I got the right one. I was curious to see if the editors of the book had done anything to the essay without my permission. (Yes, I know: I had no rights once TWAR ran it.).

Well, I did get the right book, and what Bloom had done was excise the whole middle of the paper, the entire discussion of the derivation of the concept and term "plastic theater." The essay was cut from page 3 to page 11 of the typescript! That's eight pages of a 13-page paper. Bloom did no internal editing, it seemed, so painter Hans Hofmann’s term "push-pull" was left in, but the explanation and source of it was missing. It was part of Hofmann’s definition of "plasticity"--and the source reference was still in the biblio, which wasn't edited--but no one reading this version of the essay would ever have known that unless they had read Hofmann's writings on art--or my original complete essay. The reference to Williams’s novella Moise or the World of Reason, where the playwright invokes the name Hans Hofmann, was also cut, so the mention of the painter that led me to his writings was missing, too. Also missing was the reference to Williams's journal entry on "sculptural drama" which was part of my hypothesis on the evolution of the concept, but which also gave the essay its title. (Bloom didn't use the original title exactly, but he did include "sculptural drama" in his title; also, the original title was listed in the acknowledgments section of the book.) In my (admittedly biased) opinion, Bloom gutted the essay. (Mine wasn’t the only contribution that was edited--the edits were marked with an ellipses--but I have no idea how much had been omitted from any of the others.)

By the way, in the section listing the contributors, Bloom said they made an effort to contact the writers. I'm not that hard to find--certainly Dr. Bray knew how to reach me--but I never heard from anyone. They seem to have gotten permission from TWAR, listed as the copyright holder in the acknowledgments, and gone no further. That may be legal, but I don’t think it’s ethical--and it’s certainly discourteous.

I don't know whether to be miffed or to be pleased to have been selected. What's that joke about the ox who's called a bull? Something like, "I thank you for the honor, but I'd rather have restored to me what was mine"? I think that's how I feel!

I had thought about writing the Bloom people, but I doubted, even if a letter would have reached anyone with real responsibility (a dubious assumption to start with), they'd do anything, either about the existing book or about their practices for the future. It would have been a fruitless effort; I'd even have been surprised if anyone acknowledged it at all. So I decided not to write. I thought of the joke about how many Jewish mothers it takes to change a light bulb: None . . . I'll just sit here alone in the dark and suffer. Well, I was like that: I sat home and stewed on my own.


As it happens, while I was searching for the availability of my “‘The Sculptural Drama’” (for Kirk’s use as a citation), I also came across a reference to it somewhere else. I didn't know what it was exactly until I had a look the day I was at the library, but I'm quoted in a reference book that's a lot like The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia. The Critical Companion to Tennessee Williams (Ed. Greta Heintzelman and Alycia Smith-Howard [Facts On File, 2005]) has an entry on plastic theater, too, and the authors quote me and list my essay as "Further Reading." How 'bout that! I'm (not really) famous.

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