Beware of Books!

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From Persuasion:

Literature used to be a place for transgressive ideas, a place to question taboos, and seek naked insights into humanity. It no longer is.

Critics, writers and publishers are today enforcing a new vision that treats books less as a vehicle for artistic expression than as a product to be inspected for safety and wholesomeness. In the past few years, this has only gained momentum, with much of what is written about literature, old and new, becoming a series of moral pronouncements.

The new literary moralism made early appearances in young-adult fiction, or YA. Back in 2017, the industry magazine Kirkus Reviews revoked a prestigious starred review of the YA novel American Heart after online denunciations. The chastened critic posted a revised review, now deeming it “problematic” that the author had written of a Muslim girl from the point of view of a white protagonist. Other young-adult authors have since withdrawn books from publication for the self-confessed sin of writing about marginalized characters without belonging to the same identity group. 

Perhaps it’s understandable that those in YA publishing would feel a duty of care: Children are vulnerable and unformed, and kids’ books have always been a place for didactic storytelling and safe themes. The problem is that many in the book world—often with a sincere wish to address inequality—have expanded both the notion of what is “offensive” and whose reading must be morally patrolled: It’s the adults too.

Take the reaction last year to Jeanine Cummins’ bestselling novel American Dirt, about a Mexican woman and her son who escape a cartel and find themselves among the migrants and refugees trying to reach the United States. Major publications were fulsome with praise, many suggesting that the novel’s value lay in its potential to humanize immigrants. The writer Sandra Cisneros said in a blurb, “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel!” Attention only increased when Oprah Winfrey announced that she would feature it in her book club.

But a scathing blog post emerged from the writer and activist Myriam Gurba: “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature.” Gurba reported that simply reading a publisher’s letter for American Dirt had made her so angry her “blood became carbonated.” She went on to argue that Cummins, a white American woman with some Puerto Rican background, had no business writing about a culture and identity group to which she didn’t belong.

The critical consensus soon flipped.

Already, the novelist Lauren Groff—writing in the New York Times Book Review in January 2020—seemed uneasy about her assignment. “I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book,” Groff wrote, noting that neither she nor the author were Mexican migrants. “In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant.”

Some 142 writers signed an open letter imploring Winfrey to rescind her book-club selection, citing “harm this book can and will do,” arguing that it engaged in “trauma fetishization.” Apparently, the book was no longer an urgent remedy to American xenophobia. Rather, Cummins was a cultural appropriator, and her book a collection of harmful stereotypes.

. . . .

This mindset isn’t confined to writers and critics. Increasingly, literary agents and editors are nervously evaluating the kinds of authors and stories they are comfortable with, and publishers seek to protect themselves by employing “sensitivity readers,” who scour unpublished fiction for offensive themes, characterizations or language. This moral, rather than artistic, gatekeeping means that some books never even get close enough to publication to be canceled.

The writer Bruce Wagner—a successful author of numerous novels and screenplays, such as Maps to the Starssays that his editor at Counterpoint Press objected to his latest novel due to “problematic language” regarding a protagonist who weighs over 500 pounds and refers to herself as “fat.”  Wagner chose instead to publish his book, The Marvel Universe: Origin Stories, for free online. (Counterpoint did not respond to my requests for comment.)

Link to the rest at Persuasion

Reason # (PG lost track of the number. It’s a big one) to stay away from traditional publishing and run your own show.

Real people don’t live in the same universe or speak the same language as the NYC Publicans.

There are millions of avid and intelligent readers who never pay attention to the name of the publisher before they purchase a book. (At least 90% of the time, PG doesn’t pay attention, either, even though he may have a smidge of interest due to his day job.)

Traditional publishing is a relic of a past generation. MFA professors talk about it because they still think it has a bit of glamor. People living in parts of Manhattan and within commuting distance to parts of Manhattan pay attention to it.

People who read the New York Times book reviews pay attention to traditional publishing.

(PG just checked and the New York Times has a circulation of 831,000 for its print edition. That is .025% of the current estimated US population of 330 million. That’s 25 people out of every 1,000 people in the country. And only a fraction of the subscribers to the Times read the book reviews or books sections. The digital circulation of the NYT is larger, but anyone who has been online for more than five minutes knows that the number of people who regularly read a digital publication beyond the headlines is a tiny percentage of the total number of subscribers.)

For the country at large, traditional publishing is irrelevant. What the New York Times says about anything, particularly books, is irrelevant.

Making the huge compromises necessary to get your manuscript published by a major or even bush-league traditional publisher is, in PG’s childlike, yet totally cynical opinion, a giant waste of time and effort.

Interested in discoverability? Write a good book, edit it well (get help if needed and pay for it – it doesn’t have to cost a fortune), pay for a good cover (lots of good indie designers are happy to assist), put together a good description, price it for the best royalty rate available and post it on Amazon, by far the biggest bookstore (at least selling books in English) in the world. Get a bunch of good reviews (don’t try paying for those) and a good sales rank on Amazon.

Is that easy? Not really. It takes some work and you may have to climb a learning curve on some of the items, but you, the author, are in control of the whole business. You don’t have to enter a beauty contest to snag an agent who may or may not know what she/he is doing. You don’t have to wait for the agent to (perhaps) sell your manuscript to an editor (who may or may not have a job in a year) working for a publisher (which may or may not be in business in a year), then wait and wait and wait to hear anything.

You’ll wait a lot if you go the tradpub route, then wait some more. Once your manuscript falls into the belly of the beast, you, the author, are not particularly important or interesting most of the time.

Yes, when it’s finally published (not a certain thing), you’ll have the marketing experience of the publisher behind your book (maybe) (unless an Oprah or an Obama title is in the works, in which case, your book will be #3,872 on everybody’s to-do list).

And the quality of the publisher’s marketing muscle? Think cutting-edge 1973 stuff.

People with a fragment of an ounce of marketing and sales talent can make a bazillion percent more money working almost anywhere outside of publishing. And not have to deal with idiots.

But, as usual, PG could be wrong.

Perhaps Big Publishing is about to enter a new golden age during which billions of people will be happy to pay $25 for the latest hard cover book just like they pay for a print subscription to the New York Times.

33 thoughts on “Beware of Books!”

  1. “there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because” – that is a scary sentence right there. Those words will give a weapon to ignorant fear mongers. Of course, the standard the ignorant will set only goes one direction.

  2. It used to be that SFF was not a bad place to explore cultural/racial stories without the worries of too much real-world cultural specificity– the adventures, the clashes, the tragedies, the adaptations. No one could accuse you of misrepresentation (if you cared), being that you were creating it out of whole (or disguised) cloth.

    And then came the controversy about the orcs… Now, what can one say — if you look in a mirror and see an orc and are offended, how is this the writer’s fault? And why should the writer care? And if you don’t think you’re an orc and are simply offended on their behalf, why should anyone take you seriously?

    Are we supposed to wait for an orc to arise and claim all the rights to stories about orcs? What about other orcs with different opinions? What about vampires, werewolves, and dragons, not to mention the polymorphic BEMs?

    Are stories about 3-year-olds only writable by toddlers? Lad, a Dog only writable by an unlikely canine? Do we have to invent an actual Frankenstein’s monster in order for it to tell its own tale?

    Why do people acquiesce to these sort of megalomaniacal attempts at censorship? Ignore drooling idiots and move on with your life. (And if you are an idiot yourself and are offended by that advice… tough.)

    • I’d vaguely heard about an Orc controversy but couldn’t be bothered to investigate something so foolish sounding and kind of assumed anything on the subject must be a parody of wokeness. So are you saying it’s real, that there are people out there who are, in effect, painting “I’m an idiot” on their foreheads?

        • So, someone saw the depiction of this fantasy race, a new invention of JRRT, and decided it must be racist because of what … ?

          Did this odd individual decide that the orcs of fantasy should be identified with some human group and that the representation of orcs defamed this group? If so, I might agree that the person making the complaint is racist as they think the supposedly defamed group can be linked to the character of the Urak-Hei as revealed in the early chapters of The Two Towers. Making such a link would indicate some serious and rather nasty deformation in their mental processes.

          You probably should not answer this as I really don’t need to know any more about human stupidity and, if I did, I could google it for myself.

  3. Bravo, Karen! I have the same opinion. Maybe that’s why I write exclusively sci-fi. I don’t know about orcs, but nobody ever said that I misrepresented my monkey shape-shifter, even though I’m definitely not one.

  4. The Hudson River marks the limits of civilization.

    The barbarians are those on the eastern shore — the ones who think “cosmopolitan” means “if it’s not already in this city (and supported by Old Money), it’s not worth thinking about.”

    • Europeans of course find it easy to reject the pretensions of Manhattanites, as civilisation never crossed the Atlantic. Just where it resides in Europe remains a matter of dispute. A whole generation of exiled American writers opined that it was Paris – they may even have been right at the time, but Paris has changed, and not for the better.

      • Even in Paris and Vienna, it’s been “superior to but there are good things elsewhere” since the early 1920s, which is quite a bit more tolerant than Manhattan. (Example: Don’t even think about declaring that the electric guitar is a musical instrument worthy of real study to a Manhattanite, because none of the great guitarists — jazz, rock, whatever — were from or studied there.)

        Just ponder that for a moment.

        • Which, apropos of nothing in particular, leads me to present for your admiration my favorite blues song (B. B. King — played, of course, on Lucille, his electric guitar):

          “Nobody loves me but my mother,” mmm, mmm, mmm,
          “Nobody loves me but my mother,” oh, yeah, yeah,
          “Nobody loves me but my mother,” mmm, mmm, mmm,
          “And she could be jivin’, too.”

          And if that ain’t worldly wisdom and high civilization, I don’t know what is…

        • Which leaves me to wonder whether the electric guitar gets serious study in London given that it is easy to put together a list of great rock guitarists who were born or started their bands there? Whether they actually studied (formally) in London is another matter. The older ones mostly learned by listening to American blues records that somehow ended up on this side of the Atlantic.

  5. I encourage the moral exhibitionism of the book people. It’s an upward pressure on independent sales..

  6. I’m not sure which Marvel character was the subject of the publisher’s objection, but comics have a history of cringey characters and stories far beyond the concerns of the woke. Equal opportunity offenders and not always on purpose. Most date back to the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.
    Not all.

    Given the artistic styles popular since the 90’s body types and poses are problematic all over. And some characters, as created, are truly, objectively, offensive. On the DC side, there is Chester P. Runk (Chunk), who was adapted to the FLASH TV show minus the morbid obesity but Marvel’s Big Bertha is a mutant whose power is literally to grow morbidly obese and reverts to supermodel form by vomiting. Seriously. And the character is modern, not a 40’s legacy.

    Depending on the story and characters the publisher might have been right to be queasy. Or not. Not easy to tell. Life is complicated and staking out positions at the extremes serves no one.

    Creators shouldn’t bend to whiners but a bit of attention to the outside world won’t hurt.
    If you’re going to offend, do it on purpose.

    Say, like John Ringo’s PALADIN OF SHADOWS.

  7. Only writing your group means that every character in a white man’s book is a white man – he can’t do women either because he’s not one.
    A Mexican writer can ONLY have Mexicans in their book.
    A person of African descent ditto and on and on. Literature will become a boring wasteland of single character books.
    We’re writers, we make stuff up. So who can write elves? Dragons? Blue-skinned aliens from Andromeda?
    I think the thing that needs to be looked at for sensitivity to the ‘other’ is that it is handled well, researched well, and comes across as respectful and authentic – not that the writer can only write it if they have lived it.
    Yeah, if you’re a white woman who never met a Latina in your life, knows nothing about their culture except what you saw in a sitcom – don’t write it. But if you did your homework well you should be able to go for it.
    In the far future of my sci-fi universe everyone is mixed race because over time it’s just gonna happen (at least in my universe) Does that mean as a white writer I can’t write my universe where my heroine has darkish skin and features reminiscent of several groups?

  8. “Literature used to be a place for transgressive ideas, a place to question taboos, and seek naked insights into humanity. It no longer is.”

    I’ll take “pasts that never were” for $400, Alex. There have always been people who have sought to make literature subservient to some cause or other, and have suppressed those who refuse to go along–Caesar Augustus’s exile of Ovid being only one of the more famous examples. The only real difference is that now the suppression is being done in the name of the supposedly weak, rather than nakedly in the interest of the strong. And yet…these people still think they’re the good guys.

  9. Along these lines… I worried about this when I started writing my first-of-its-kind novel about the birth of NYC/Manhattan from its earliest beginnings (early 17th century). The main characters are both European and Native American. I’m European. So I reached out to various Lenape-descendant Indian (their preferred appellation) groups and individuals to get their inputs and potentially offer suggestions or at least some feedback. I even went to Indian events to make a connection. And you know what? NONE were interested. Not a one. So I tried, I really did.

    Which won’t stop the inevitable flak coming at me if a movie or TV series is ever made of the story. But I’ve stopped worrying about it. I’ve moved onto writing about Neanderthals. I’m pretty sure they will never criticize me.

    • Wanna bet? 😉
      I can think of at least three hooks for their grievances regardless of how anthopologically accurate your stories might be. 😀
      Haters gotta hate, whiners gotta whine. It’s how they justify their existence.

        • Predictable I am, huh?
          Here’s a few to start with:

          For starters, what percentage neanderthal DNA do you bear? How dare you Sapiens aspire to speak of their lifestyle, hopes, and dreams!
          Next, are your neanderthals hunters or scavengers? Not vegan? Bad.
          Do they wear furs? Watch out for the PETA ink-slingers.
          Do they practice division of labor by sex? Tsk.
          Do young ones contribute to the (tribal/clan/family) economy? OMG! Child labor glorified!
          Do they track heritage by paternal or maternal descent? Can’t win either way on this one.
          In fact, any hint of sexual practices will trigger somebody, somewhere.

          Like with the orcs, nothing is safe from the sensitivities of those heck-bent to be offended. Do your thing but don’t expect anything to be safe.

          Instead, cue up Rick Nelson’s GARDEN PARTY.

          • I think everyone outside of sub Saharan Africa has Neanderthal genes. But the Africans don’t. The folks who left Africa to settle the rest of the world ran into the Neanderthals, but the people who stayed in Africa didn’t.

              • Good one.

                One thing that caught my eye in that piece is that they refer to “apparent neanderthal” DNA. Yes!

                There is a tendency to wave off the possibility that those shared genes might predate any neanderthal-sapiens encounters. Or might come from other lineages now lost/subsumed in the sea of sapiens. So far they’ve identified five post-erectus lineages; there may be more that didn’t make it past the bottleneck at 200,000.

                • Yes, but DNA dating (using molecular clocks) is getting better and better at pinpointing who’s doing what when. As this article says: “Analyzing DNA from present-day and ancient genomes provides a complementary approach for dating evolutionary events. Because certain genetic changes occur at a steady rate per generation, they provide an estimate of the time elapsed. These changes accrue like the ticks on a stopwatch, providing a ‘molecular clock.’ By comparing DNA sequences, geneticists can not only reconstruct relationships between different populations or species but also infer evolutionary history over deep timescales.”

                  And they’re saying the Neanderthal-Modern Human split was somewhere between 765kya–550kya. Check it out:

              • I feel it necessary to point out that this whole discussion is offensive to Melanesians and Papuans, on whose behalf I am appropriately offended, as you have erased their Denisovan ancestors from history. Shame on you!

                • It’s because there have been no TV commercials (Geico) or movies (Quest for Fire) starring them. Start pitching!

              • The most interesting item in the article is the reference to an earlier human species that may have influenced both Neanderthal and Africans.

          • I knew there was a reason it feels so natural for me to use toothpicks as part of my daily teeth maintenance routine. All those accusations hurled at me by my wife for being ‘a Neanderthal’ are making more sense! 😉

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