The Committee meets at the usual time, five minutes past the hour, giving everyone a moment for machine-made coffee and a cigarette if they want it while the applicants wait in a large room with eight chairs (more than needed!) and some art outside our offices. They have the same coffee we have and sometimes biscuits.
Today’s first story under appeal was printed fifteen years ago but the writer was not hard to find. She is living forty miles away and comes in by herself with her documentation. She has a transgender and a time-travel and a stabbing with a “light stapler,” (??) so: $350. She looks sad in a useless kind of way and asks if we have a restroom. Mr. Allsop advises her, try the Sbarro.
The fees are in a frame under glass on the waiting room wall but having done this a lot we no longer need to refer to the list. The printed list on the wall says:
- $100 for writing about a Palce (sic) you have not lived
- $100 for writing about a Job you have not worked
- $150 for writing about a pain you have not Suffered
- $100 for writing from a different Gender or Orientation or from Handicapped if you are not
- $150 for writing from a Race or Tribe you are not in
We start late, at 10:15, because I have a phone-in conference I need to do with the lawyer for my elderly parent.
When we get started a Mr. Cobbett, who is white, states via Skype in reference to an earlier Summary Of Proof that we didn’t establish he was writing from the point of view of a POC. Several phrases from his story, e.g., “What’s a brutha to do?” are quoted to him. Mr. Cobbett states that his character is from the South like him, but was never intended as a person of color. Fine upheld.
A Ms. Wright states that our $600 fine is too much because all the money she has in the world is $750. Mrs. Teeman observes that a finding of the Committee is a statement that something you have appropriated belongs to another, so Mr. Wright actually only has $150 left in the world.
A Mr. Levesque (Skype) pleads a thing we hear so often that I joke we should have a code for it: he earned nothing from his story, which appeared on “a little-known literary website.” Mr. Allsop points out that a man fined for speeding in his car didn’t earn anything for speeding either. The fine isn’t for what you earned, he says, it’s for what you did that affects us all, and affects future generations who might find and read your story. Think of them!
As we wait for the next in-person applicant there is a brief discussion about what we’re going to do regarding the estates of some dead writers which have not paid up as required. Letters are drafted for the publishers and dead writers.
When we resume, a Ms. Lucknow states that her entire story, in which she was in Afghanistan as a child slave, was intended to be a dream, and she argues that she had this dream, and was affected by it, so this story did in fact “happen” to her. Mr. Allsop reads her the Dream-Hallucination-Drug Trip-Story-Within-A-Story clause. Fine upheld.
We have no great pressure to move through cases. I mostly enjoy listening to writers talk. There is so much to learn about the world and about the craft of writing from hearing them describe how they do it! Female writers often defend writing from the point of view of a male because they have sons, or had sons. Mr. Allsop is strict in saying that if they love their sons their work along these lines should not have been written, freeing up the writing market for writers like their sons to write about their own experiences. Everything written from the view of a young boy, he says, costs a real young boy who is loved by someone the chance to tell his story. The same goes for men writing girls. When the writers say they feel they can tell it better, with more “art” or “craft,” Mr. Allsop says, who are you to decide what is art before anyone else has had a chance to try? Who are you denying a chance by telling their story for them? He asks, should Nazis be allowed to write the Holocaust? Where is the line drawn?!
The second-last applicant today escaped as a child, she says, from Burma, formerly Myanmar, formerly before that Burma again, but has no papers to prove, regarding Place, that she was there. She wrote for the Contemporary Asia Review from the view of a member of the Rohingya, she says, because of a Rohingya friend whose family was wiped out. In light of this, Mr. Allsop says, she should not have to pay anything at all, and he apologizes for calling her in. It’s nice that we have that discretion.
Lastly today a Mr. Nicholls is seen, appealing his fine for writing a story eleven years ago about being called in to see a Committee like ours, which didn’t then exist. He says the events he imagined, in which he was sanctioned by a “Tribunal” for going through a circumstance he imagined that didn’t exist at the time, have come to pass, with our Committee hearing and with his $250 fine — the same amount, as it turned out, he was assessed for writing his story — therefore he should not have to pay that fine, he says, because he did (today) get called to the Committee, which was his Suffering.
He appeals the Gender fine because, he says, nowhere in his story was the gender or orientation of the narrator referred to or implied.
Mr. Allsop speed-reads the story and generously agrees with the last point. But, he says with a wink, lowering our fine to $100 means the writer has described a pain he has not Suffered, namely, the larger fine. So this justifies adding a second $150 fine, for a total of $300.
He quips that if Mr. Nicholls writes a story about this, that one will be okay. We break for the day.
Andrew Nicholls was born in England, grew up there and in Canada, and has lived in Los Angeles since 1983. His recent short fiction has appeared in Black Clock, Santa Monica Review, New World Writing, Cosmonauts Avenue, Literature For Life, Los Angeles Review Of Books Quarterly, The Boiler, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Miracle Monocle, Kugelmass & others. He has been a television writer (incl. as Johnny Carson’s head writer) since 1976.