Self-Cancel Culture

This content has been archived. It may no longer be relevant

PG doesn’t usually include two items from the same source on the same day, but he’ll make an exception for this one.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Every day brings news of another “cancellation”—a celebrity’s tweet incites an online mob, an article written in 1987 gets a corporate executive fired. The latest trend is self-cancellation, in which the offending party, rather than enduring the coming onslaught, self-flagellates and hopes for absolution.

Consider the case of Alexandra Duncan and her would-be novel “Ember Days.” The book was all set to be published by Greenwillow, an imprint of HarperCollins, when the author withdrew it. The problem? Parts of the book were written from the point of view of a black American, a person of Gullah heritage, from the Georgia and South Carolina Low Country—and Ms. Duncan is white. 

The book’s prepublication description led some of the novelist’s online acquaintances to question the propriety of a white woman writing from the perspective of a black American, and so she decided to cancel the book.

“My own limited worldview as a white person,” Ms. Duncan wrote in a statement, “led me to think I could responsibly depict a character from this [Gullah] culture. Clearly, the fact that I did not see the signs of the problem with my book’s premise . . . is evidence that I was not the right person to try to tell this story. I am deeply ashamed to have made a mistake of this magnitude.” 

. . . .

Evidently being criticized, in the world of literary wokeness, is the same as being canceled, so PW felt obliged to kill the article. “We regret the damage the publication of this story has caused this individual,” PW proclaimed, “as well as any other instances of violence enacted upon Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

PG has never been consulted by the management of HarperCollins (although he does recall conversations with an attorney or two working there), but he wonders if anyone thought of a pen name.

Additionally, Ms. Duncan would not appear to be on the wrong end of the political spectrum for a New York publisher. She appears to be a contributor to Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America.

Perhaps the takeaway from this episode is that, in mid-2020, only authors of Gullah descent can write fiction that includes Gullah characters. Authors with a tendency to display paler shades of skin in public must only write about characters who are white.

As PG’s mind wandered about this issue, he asked himself whether authors of indubitable whitishness are permitted to write novels deriving from the Star Trek universe which include Worf, Tuvak, Guinan, Uhura or Geordi.

Must we begin the process of segregating black and white characters and authors to avoid giving offense to anyone?

For safety’s sake, perhaps we should have black publishers and white publishers as well. After all, the New York publishing world is between 97% and 98% white. What right do all those white publishers have exploiting black authors with advances and royalty rates equivalent to slave wages?

Back to pen names, people of all sorts have been using them for centuries to conceal their true identities.

From Powell’s:

Ever heard of Charles Dodgson? Or Samuel Clemens? Maybe Eric Blair? What about some more contemporary names like Madeline Wickham, Jim Grant, or David Cornwell? Award yourself a cookie for every one of those you recognized. They are, of course, the alter egos of world-famous novelists. They are the Clark Kents and Diana Princes of the literary world. In case you didn’t get them all, they are: Lewis CarrollMark TwainGeorge OrwellSophie Kinsella, and John Le Carré.

Authors have been using pen names since there were, well, authors. They’ve done it for many and various reasons, but it’s most often a pragmatic decision. Let’s talk about a few approaches to this.

Probably the least likely reason to use a pen name is the Reginald Dwight tactic. Or the Maurice Mickelwhite. Or the Chaim Witz. Elton John, Michael Caine, and Gene Simmons just sound a bit sexier, don’t they? Unlike other art forms such as music and thespianism — proper showbiz, in other words — there’s less disadvantage to a slightly nerdy name for an author. Lee Child is a little more striking than Jim Grant, but I doubt that was Lee’s reasoning. In fact, if you’re using a pen name to sound more rock ’n’ roll, then you’re probably in the wrong business.

. . . .

Gender swapping does, however, cut both ways. The rise of domestic noir — or, God help us, grip-lit — has seen women like Paula HawkinsGillian Flynn, and Ruth Ware come to dominate this particular field. Given that something like 70 percent of crime fiction is read by women, it’s hardly surprising that there is a thriving market for thrillers by women for women. But, like women had to do for the last couple of centuries, men are sneaking in with crafty pseudonyms: the gender-neutral S. J. Watson, for example, or my good friend Martyn Waites, who writes commercial thrillers as Tania Carver. Literary cross-dressing has been with us for hundreds of years and doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.

. . . .

A much more common reason, and possibly one of the oldest, is good old sexism. The history of literature is well populated with women who either used men’s names or fudged it with some androgynous initials. Even some female authors that are household names today were first published under masculine pseudonyms: the Brontë sisters, CharlotteEmily, and Anne, were first published as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Others continue to be recognized by their pen names, like Middlemarch author George Eliot, known to her friends as Mary Ann Evans. These women chose male pseudonyms because it was felt they could not otherwise be taken seriously by readers. 

Speaking of Stephen King, the grandmaster of horror is part of a venerable tradition of big-league authors adopting pen names just because they wrote too damn much. King published a string of novels as Richard Bachman because his publisher felt readers couldn’t handle more than one a year.

. . . .

When I first had the idea for Here and Gone back in 2014, I knew this was something different. While I didn’t set out to create something more overtly commercial than my previous work, there was no denying that it sat closer to the likes of Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay on the crime spectrum.

. . . .

Given the shift in subgenre and setting, a pen name became an increasingly obvious route to take. After much discussion, my agent and publishers agreed. In my mind, Haylen Beck is an entirely distinct entity from Stuart Neville.

Link to the rest at A Brief History of Pen Names, Powells

19 thoughts on “Self-Cancel Culture”

  1. Re: Alexandra Duncan

    I don’t judge her or any author’s conviction on whether they’re qualified to write from the POV of another person. I can think of several POVs from which I wouldn’t attempt to write.
    I did, however, write a novel called The Fisher Boy, in the first person, from the perspective of a Ghanaian man who was once a fishing slave. Every character in the book is Ghanaian. Some are male and some are female. Some are good and some are bad. Some are rich and some are poor. To accomplish this, I made multiple trips to Ghana, conducted dozens of interviews, used a Ghanaian publisher, and used all Ghanaian editors, beta readers, and proofreaders. The highest compliment I received was from a young Ghanaian reader that said, “No one would know a Ghanaian didn’t write this.”

    Consider the implications of this POV issue. Should an author never write from the perspective of a postal worker if they’ve not held that job? Should a woman never write the POV of a male character? How could anyone today write historical fiction regarding events that occurred before they were born?

    • How could anybody write about aliens, the future, alternate universes…?

      As far as I’m concerned, all fiction takes place in alternate worlds. Accuracy is desirable but not mandatory and in some cases contra-indicated.

      Just because some writers don’t have the conviction to defend their ideas doesn’t mean nobody is allowed to exercise their imagination. Let them cancel themselves whike everybody else rolls merrily along.

    • I don’t judge her or any author’s conviction on whether they’re qualified to write from the POV of another person.

      I don’t judge their judgement on their own abilities. But It’s none of their business what other authors then decide about their own abilities.

      Seems it wasn’t too long ago that we were hearing about the lack of pigmented characters in books. Diversity in casting of fictional characters was encouraged.

      We have now reached the point where diversity of literary pigmentation is forbidden for the Woke..

      • I’m on a lot of voiceover and audiobook narration social media sites and there’s now conversation that white narrators should not narrate black characters. It seems that the true fragility of cancel culture will be in their fervor to out-woke one another.

  2. How long will it take to get this cancel culture, right?

    I demand we cancel “John Carter of Mars”, “The Foundation Trilogy”, the entire Star Wars universe, “The Matrix”, (along with all the permutations of “Alien”), and, holy crap, “The Lord of the Rings”, plus every piece of fiction I’ve ever written since 1964.

    Or not.


    • When people started whining about STAR WARS humans (back when tbere was only episode 4) Lucas replied it was set “long ago in a Galaxy far away”. And then he added the original plan was to film in Japan with a local cast.

      All things considered, he should’ve.

  3. Going straight to SFF for examples begs the question.

    The question is: should a white person write about diverse characters in contemporary fiction, in historical fiction, in YA or mysteries or other fiction with contemporary characters?

    And if so, should they conceal their authorship.

    The answer HAS to come down to how well can a particular white woman write a man, etc. – how much imagination does that author have? How much experience? How much research behind her? Is it real? Do men like it – or complain that the portrayal has all the liveliness of day old fish?

    You can write anything you want.

    Many of the complaints are not really about cultural appropriation, but about doing it very badly, very clumsily, very woodenly.

    That’s assuming you want to write realistic fiction.

    All bets are off otherwise – but you may get more complaints because you’re doing it so obviously.

    Readers will decide if the failures are creative or the result of a tin ear for understanding – and a deplorable lack of ability for conveying – the necessary differences.

    • I would suggest that it only applies to contemporary and then only some, primarily with literary aspirations. It all boils down to setting and tone but the critical ones are absolutists pretending their agenda applies to everything and anybody. Which SF&F inmediately invalidates, showing the muddy thinking behind their pronouncements. Mobs don’t think thinfs through.

      SF&F are both by nature beyond their pearl clutching. No amount of pretense is changing that.

      Historical, it’s about research. You either do good research or you aren’t. If the research is good it shouldn’t matter what tribe you come from.

      YA is a made up marketting tag; most complaints are about stories that are really Fantasy or recent history. Special rules do not apply because of the age or tribe of the protagonist. Contemporary? Again do research or avoid that minefield.

      Mystery? Is there even a market for tribalized cozies and procedurals? Both are as specialized as SF&F and procedurals require research. I don’t see where tribal affiliation much matters to a proper procedural like, say, James Andru’s THE PERFECT WOMAN,
      or Patterson’s ALEX CROSS books. What are pundits going to say, that something like HBO’s classic THE WIRE is politically incorrect for being too accurate?

      Romance? Depending on setting there might be some valid concern there but it is “beneath” the mob’s concerns to start with, it’s a genre where pen names are dominant, and the main concern is protagonists tend to be overwhelmingly melanin-deprived. Besides, the genre is escapist in nature with strong requirements (HEA or at least HFN) and there isn’t going to be much market for *realistic* portrayals of romantic relationships that end with single-parent households. That rather limits the need for accuracy.

      So what remains?

      There’s tough guy action thrillers, suspense, and techno-thrillers, which are really subsets or crossovers of the major genres. Oh, and westerns. Which are a subset of historical.

      What remains is pretty much non-commercial and literary fiction. Those folks are welcome to do unto each other as they please as long as they don’t try to mess with other people’s livelihoods.

      Seems to me the whole mess is about a clique of politically motivated agitators trying to tell other people how to run tbeir *businesses* applying rules that are irrelevant or contraindicated for commercial fiction.

      So yes, proper research is vital.
      But that includes market familiarity and understanding who you are writing for and what your chosen genre’s rules and expectations are. And often meeting the accuracy and plausibility needs of the story and its markets precludes adhering to the needs of the politically correct pundits.

      (One eye rolling example: I’ve seen critics demonize a writer because his tough guy anti-hero, with confesssed rapist fantasies, refers to islamist terrorists as “ragheads”. Seriously. That is their trigger.)

      My suggestion is do your research and ignore the mob.
      Or write monochrome.
      Life is too short.

    • If the book gets out there readers can decide. What the OP was about, and it isn’t the first example within the last twelve months, the book is withdrawn because a vocal crowd heard that the author is the wrong color/culture/background or handled an element in a way the crowd didn’t like. There’s been no chance for readers to judge.

      Other example although I can’t come up with titles: that immigrant to the US from China who wrote a Chinese set thing with slavery – that wasn’t handled as the US Deep South slavery, so big fuss. mm… American Dirt; I guess the push to cancel JKR doesn’t fit… but there have been more. The problem is the authors are pulling their books, or the publishers are pulling them and readers aren’t getting a chnce to judge.

      I also wonder about the contractual implications of these pullbacks, but that’s me.

      • The one I have any standing to comment on was a book about a mother and son escaping Mexico on a train, from a drug cartel, I believe.

        The complaints were that there was so much factually wrong that the whole story was suspect – for lack of adequate research and knowledge – in a sensitive subject.

        I never read Los hijos de Sanchez or Distant Neighbors, but was aware of their existence – I don’t believe either suffered from the same kind of complaints, and no one was up in arms that their authors were gringos, and white males to boot (IIRC). That was a different time. I guess I didn’t want my Mexico affected by reading their versions.

        • That was AMERICAN DIRT.
          By a lady with partial Puertorican heritage. But not culture.
          (If you dig deep enough, you’ll find plenty of people with PR genes who don’t identify as such unless it becomes necessary. With PR being part of the US for 5 generations there’s actually twice as many Puertoricans on the continent than tbe island.)

          The big irritant with Dirt was threefold:
          – dated research
          – uncredited, second hand sources
          – a B-I-G tradpub advance.

          The latter was the main driver of the lynch mob. Nonetheless the book has sold just fine.

          Readers are the ultimate judges.

        • Maybe worth noting that she changed her mind and Blood Heir was published last November and seems to have got quite good reviews and done reasonably well. As for Kosoko Jackson, well the reviews of his book are worse (and some are perpendicularly scathing, though in part, I suspect, politically motivated by Kosovans and/or their supporters).

          • I hate auto-correct: though how “particularly” ended up as “perpendicularly” without me noticing …

            • Autocorruption systems are occasionally on the mark.
              “Perpendicularly scathing” sounds like a fitting fate. 😉

              As for BLOOD HEIR all the summaries made it sound interesting.
              Of course, we don’t know if tbe change was contractually driven or by a stiffenning of the spine.

      • Elaine – Based upon review of a great many different traditional publishing contracts originating with New York publishing, I suspect the contract doesn’t include much that might help with a pullback unless someone sues for copyright infringement, plagiarism, etc.

  4. Show of hands. Who here thinks their opinion should matter to any author regarding what he should write?

    • Well I certainly don’t think my views should matter, but those of the author should. It sounds to me as if she has a conflict between the product of her creative voice and her ethical views, and that ethics have triumphed.

      This is pretty much as it should be, though I have no sympathy for what I take to be her ethical viewpoint (which I am assuming – possible erroneously – to be that of the progressive identity movement, which often comes very close to regarding self righteous racism as a virtue).

  5. Because I just ran across it while looking for something else, I quote here Dave Freer’s comments on a book he wrote that was rather out of his normal Sf/F genre: ” I wrote a book, first person, from the point of view of a rather timid, urban female priest. Not my ‘lane’: I am none of the above. Yesterday I spent an hour chatting to… a visiting rather timid, urban female priest, and her also female church-warden friend who wanted to talk, because they’re busy reading the book. Which, by the way, they keep nicking from each other, as they only had one copy and are both reading avidly. … snip description of rescuing them from the brush .. “And why did they want to talk? Because they really wanted to know who I used as a model for my character. Basically the priest – and her friend, wanted to know how the Hades I had known how she thought, reacted and coped -because both of them thought I got it so very right. How had I written so incisively about someone I had never met? Was someone else that similar to the lady?

    Well, there are a lot of similar humans, of course. I had indeed struggled with writing this – it is very different in style, type and POV from anything I had ever done.

    Their ‘problem’ with the story – having met me, was not that it was ‘wrong’, but that they couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that someone from so very far outside their ‘lane’ could get it right.

    Let’s just state that again in summary. The problem was not that someone from outside their ‘lane’ did a bad job. To the contrary. The problem was THEIR expectation that someone who was not in their ‘lane’ would not get it right.

    And that is why I want people not to pull their books, but let the readers decide.
    I’ve started reading the book in question, it’s called Joy Cometh with the Mourning and so far, beginning chapter 3, it’s delightful.

Comments are closed.