On January 21, 100 years and two days after the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union, Simon & Schuster’s Avid Reader Press imprint will publish Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases, edited by married authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. The book owes its existence to Chabon and Waldman’s desire to do “something, anything” to protest Donald Trump’s election, Waldman said. “It’s hard as a writer to know how to resist. There’s only so many op-eds you can write.”
The book also owes its existence to the ACLU. Shortly after the election, Waldman, a former federal public defender, called her friend James Essex, director of the LGBT Project of the ACLU, to offer her services in case the organization ever needed a literary writer. In fact, it did, and Essex asked if Chabon and Waldman would be interested in putting together an anthology similar to the one they published in 2017 for Harper Perennial, Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, which collects essays by major writers interrogating the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, Waldman’s country of birth.
Drawing on her legal background, Waldman, who knows how important case files are to lawyers like those at the ACLU, suggested putting together a centennial roundup of writers covering the ACLU’s most prominent cases. And that is exactly what they did for Fight.
That a book of essays about court cases could prompt a major publisher to spend six figures—as Avid Reader editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler did when he bought the book from Chabon and Waldman’s agent, Dan Kirschen of ICM, in 2019—and print 34,000 copies is a marvel. Certainly, part of that faith in the book is thanks to its editors—and thanks especially to the efforts of one editor in particular.
“We sat down together and had a long and involved discussion, and the outcome was that Ayelet did almost all of it,” Chabon said, laughing. “Ayelet managed the project; she ran everything with all the writers; she coordinated with the editor. My primary contribution, in addition to the piece that I wrote, was helping to recruit writers.”
Those writers are another big part of the reason Avid Reader printed 34,000 copies. “Virtually every single writer whom we asked, with one or two exceptions, was eager, desperate even, to participate,” Waldman said. “We thought we’d have 20. Instead, we have over 40 of some of the best writers in the country.” They include Michael Cunningham, Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, Louise Erdrich, Neil Gaiman, Marlon James, Victor LaValle, Yiyun Li, Morgan Parker, Salman Rushdie, George Saunders, Jesmyn Ward, and Jacqueline Woodson.
That diversity is reflected not only in the writers themselves but in their views on American history and the ACLU’s role in it. And that, by Ferrari-Adler’s estimation, is the book’s “superpower”: the fact that “the writers make these things personal.” By way of example, he pointed to a piece by author and lawyer Scott Turow, unique in that it comes down decidedly against the ACLU’s findings in Buckley v. Valeo. “He filets them, and they love it,” Ferrari-Adler said. “He takes them apart. The head lawyer of the ACLU even calls it out in his foreword. That’s what they’re all about, though: principled dissent. A book about the ACLU would not be a book about the ACLU without critique of the ACLU.”
The book was put together with coordination between a number of parties. First, the ACLU provided Chabon and Waldman with a list of its most influential cases. Writers got to pick whichever cases they wanted—first come, first served. They were allowed to write whatever they wanted, Avid Reader assured them, as long as it wasn’t in verse.
Editorial duties were shared by Waldman and Ferrari-Adler, and, in addition to Avid Reader’s copyediting, the ACLU had an attorney relevant to the topic of each essay fact-check it, which resulted, Waldman said, in “many changes.” She also had teams of law students from Berkeley and Harvard universities “write the little squibs at the top of each case, all of which had to be fact-checked.” But aside from that, she added, “it would have been all on me without the ACLU, and that would have been so onerous. I don’t know how I would have been able to do it. I was really grateful that the ACLU would take that piece of it on.”
Ferrari-Adler, who has worked on anthologies before, said the book was in remarkable shape right from the jump. “It’s been this great collaboration,” he noted. “Editing is different for all different books, and with a lot of books, it comes down to project management more than what you were doing on the page. This was that. Michael, Ayelet, and the ACLU are all complete pros. When the book was submitted, it already had a pretty cooked table of contents. And the ACLU was deeply involved the whole way. We had a conference call with the ACLU people even before the contract was signed. And they have been amazing all the way through. They helped pick the people and the cases. They were even involved in the layout and cover.”
Prior to its release, the book already had a good deal of support from booksellers. That’s across the board, too. Independents, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million are all on board, and Avid Reader has “tremendous support from Costco, of all places, which is super encouraging,” Ferrari-Adler said. “Getting an anthology into Costco doesn’t happen every decade!”
All of this becomes even more exceptional when taking into consideration that Chabon, Waldman, and all the contributors gave their advances to the ACLU. Even ICM declined to take commission on the book.
Why? “I think people want to resist,” Waldman said. “We share a lot about ‘the bubble,’ but we in the bubble are the vast majority of both the electorate and the country—far more significantly if you include people who can’t vote. There is a tremendous desire to understand what the United States means. It was born in inequality and slavery, but regardless, this is a country with a document at its core that is profoundly egalitarian. It hasn’t historically been interpreted that way, but it has the capacity to change and grow and become the document we want it to be. So we must support the ACLU, and the NACCP, and the GLCRP, because that’s what this country is really about.”
With Fight of the Century, perhaps Chabon and Waldman have given writers who wish to resist a new road map for how to do just that.