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Spy author Anthony Horowitz ‘warned off’ creating black character

22 May 2017

From BBC News:

Author Anthony Horowitz says he was “warned off” including a black character in his new book because it was “inappropriate” for a white writer.

The creator of the Alex Rider teenage spy novels says an editor told him it could be considered “patronising”.

Horowitz wanted a white and black protagonist in his new children’s books but says he is now reconsidering.

“I will have to think about whether this character can be black or white,” he told the Mail on Sunday.

“I have for a long, long time said that there aren’t enough books around for every ethnicity.”

Horowitz, who has written 10 novels featuring teenage spy Alex Rider, said there was a “chain of thought” in America that it was “inappropriate” for white writers to try to create black characters, something which he described as “dangerous territory”.

He said it was considered “artificial and possibly patronising” to do so because “it is actually not our experience”.

“Therefore I was warned off doing it. Which was, I thought, disturbing and upsetting.”

Link to the rest at BBC News and thanks to Kris for the tip.

PG remembers not long ago when there were not enough black characters in children’s books.

Characters, Children's Books

76 Comments to “Spy author Anthony Horowitz ‘warned off’ creating black character”

  1. Sounds like it’s time to find a new editor …

    (Waiting now for the calls that that editor/publisher doesn’t think black will sell or is politically correct. Maybe Anthony could make the protagonist ‘orange’ – that’s politically correct this year isn’t it? 😉 )

  2. This story is deeply depressing. Are authors (or rather, editors) so afraid of offence that stories are left blandly following the middle ground? With no one taking any risks? These are not the stories I want to read.

    • Authors are afraid, too. I’ve heard it a few times over the past couple years in my private groups, where I may bemoan over the dearth of minority characters in X fiction. The writers say they are afraid of getting reviewer and “appropriatio monitors” (my phrase) telling them they got it wrong, have no right, etc. It’s a real concern.

      If so, then do we tell women not to write lead male characters and blacks never to write white characters? Or Jews never to write Christian or Buddhist ones?

      This is nuts.

    • If you put an ‘offensive’ character in a book, a Special Snowflake may murder you.

      If you don’t, no-one’s going to murder you.

      Not a difficult choice.

      It is funny, though. It’s only about a year ago that writers were telling me that no-one would ever complain about white writers putting non-white characters in their book, when I said I avoid doing it because life’s too short to deal with SJWs.

    • TE, if you get on the radar of the peeps who do outrage as a hobby, the risk is way too high. You can get effectively shunned. Ruined. Power of the webs.

      I still say go for it, and that’s probably what will happen in the end in these situations, but we are in this weird inter-period in our cultural evolution where people are giving whiners and foot stampers too big of a platform. Too much cultural space.

      I am optimistic. We are still adapting to mass communication.

      • @ Jo

        “…you get on the radar of the peeps who do outrage as a hobby, the risk is way too high.”

        It’s “The squeaky wheel gets the greese.” versus “The nail that sticks up gets hit.” Or, “Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.”

        So, IMHO, might as well go for it and let the chips fall where they may.

  3. Is it possible anymore to traditionally-publish a story with a fascinating, sympathetic character, or an intriguing and scary villain, who just happens to be [ethnicity or culture]? Or must an author belong to [ethnicity or culture] and show a character who is [ethnicity or culture] first, and everything else second?

    I keep waiting for someone to fuss because one of the characters in the Alexi’s Tale series was born in India, but adopted by a Greek-American family in Chicago and raised Greek Orthodox. She’s married to a second-generation Ukrainian-American who’s Russian Orthodox. Thus far I have not gotten any complaints, but we’ll see.

    • The Special Snowflakes want two things:

      1. Publishers to publish more non-white characters.
      2. White writers not to write non-white characters.

      This ensures that publishers will have to buy more books from non-white writers.

      Simple, really. Just standard identity politics.

  4. If I didn’t include a variety of races/cultures in my writing, I wouldn’t be reflecting my own extended family let alone the world around me. The book I wrote set in Houston (the most diverse city in the US) has characters from an array of backgrounds. I would have to ignore reality to write anything set in Houston with characters of only my own ethnicity.

    Aren’t the writer’s interactions with people of other backgrounds authentic experiences? If writers live in places where their daily lives include seeing a variety of cultures, shouldn’t they be allowed to reflect that? Not to do so would be dishonest.

    • I would have to ignore reality to write anything set in Houston with characters of only my own ethnicity.

      No stories in Houston that revolve around a single ethnicity? Is that reality?

      • Not if you include day to day interactions at schools, in stores, walking down the street. Even if the main story revolved around a single ethnicity, side characters would have to be more varied.

  5. I’m white. My first novel Underworld is about two black brothers. They are not just superficially black, nor do they conform to stereotypes, but they do face challenges as a result of their heritage.

    For a literary Indie book, it sells pretty well, and none of my reviews complain or accuse me of any such thing. I target black people with ads, and it’s clear on Goodreads that the majority of my readers are black. We’re not talking about a bunch of clueless white people reviewing the book, but people who would know if I got it wrong.

    That said, I did devote extra time to making sure I nailed my characters, as I was afraid of this exact criticism myself. But I was not crippled by it, nor should anyone else be.

    It’s important that we have more minority representation on every level. From minority characters to minority authors. It helps both readers and writers grow, and it makes the world a better place. Just be smart and sensitive, and you’ll be fine.

  6. The problem with the idea that white writers can’t write non-white characters is that it assumes a single, monolithic identity (the “white” person, the “black” person) – and is in fact a very racist idea, that people not like us are too “other” to write convincingly about. Yes, I understand the whole appropriation issue and potential cries about backlash, but if you are writing an authentic person (which is the job of the writer) then I think there shouldn’t be fear and trepidation.

    One of the books in my YA series features a young woman of Samoan descent (Marny) as the protagonist. I was a little worried at first about backlash, or getting it “wrong” – but she is one of my readers’ favorite characters and everyone seems to be delighted with her story. Now, if I wasn’t writing future-set SFF and instead was trying to write a searing novel of how it feels to grow up today as a teenage Samoan in our culture, of course I’d be questioned as to the authenticity of that experience. But we live in a diverse world and I think all authors can and should represent that world to the best of their ability.

    • Well said.

    • There is no “appropriation” here. No culture in the US has appropriated any other culture; saying so, even believing it, ignores the historicity of shared culture in this country. The use of the appropriation card is a divisive maneuver, as are all other cards in the so-called “identity politics” hand the progressive left continually plays against the rest of us.

      What the Romans did to the Greeks? That was cultural appropriation. The cultural melting pot in the US bears no resemblance to actual appropriation.

  7. I’ve always considered myself to be an American, first and foremost. Ethnically, the largest part of my heritage traces back to Ireland. Nonetheless, I write a series of novels featuring a Native American protagonist. In my Author’s Notes at the start of each book in this series, I note that restricting authorship to one’s own ethnic background would create a regime of literary apartheid.

    Well, to hell with that.

    After I was three books into the series, I read that in the mid-19th century, during the time the Irish were being starved to death by their English overlords, a tribe of Native Americans heard of the suffering of the Irish and sent food to help them. My Irish ancestors didn’t arrive in the U.S. until the early years of the 20th century.

    For all I know, my ancestors’ lives might have been saved by the generosity of Native Americans, and that might be the reason I’m here today. In any case, we’re all related to each other somehow, and if that’s not a good enough reason to write about whomever you choose, there’s always good old literary license.

    • would love a link to that history of our people sending food to the irish, do you have one joe flynn?? How could we ever mistake you as other than auld sod with a great name like that

  8. Those who simultaneously demand non-White characters, but also that White writers not create them, have revealed their REAL goal – that of improving THEIR chances of being published.

    They need to do it the same way the rest of us do – write a better story.

    • Improving their chances of being published – and, I think, silencing the writers they don’t like. Those are their real goals.

      • Silencing is the main goal. The world is crawling with twisted little souls who have nothing to say themselves, but will fight like wildcats to shut down those who do want to speak. They used to do this by being Pecksniffian moralizing wowsers. Nowadays it’s fashionable to cloak their malice in the mantle of social justice.

        • Tom Simon–“Pecksniffian moralizing wowsers” is almost Shakespearean. What a fun insult!

        • cloaking their malice…

          I ever want to say to those who drape themselves such: You are wearing the skin of an ass, as in Narnia Chronicles with donkey-ape tries to take Aslan’s place

          I also wish to say but think better of it, you want social justice to deal? Go to any of the southern states were the poor have not enough to eat. Throw yourself into helping those who suffer so, right now. Not in fantasy in some book. But daily real suffering by little ones and elderly, mommies and daddies, right this minute

          I wonder sometimes re living in defense of the past… to note it, even fight for it not to be erased, is one thing..,to say only storytellers of one color or another are allowed.

          Weve been there with drinking fountains, schools, neighborhoods. Was nothing learned. Seems to me to be ‘identification with the oppressor

          • In the 50s and 60s, the ancestors of modern SJWs protested against segregation.

            In the 21st century, the SJWs protest for segregation.

          • Go to any of the southern states were the poor have not enough to eat.

            Which states? Where?

            • just got back from a mission to Bezoni [GA.] prob poor ed and few jobs, almost half living below pov line. Many mouths to try to feed. Falling way short way too often. If you want to help you could call your local church group and see if they have an outreach to other states such as any of the numerous towns in Miss, Ark, LA, Ala, Ga, and more. Or your own town.

    • It does make one wonder, doesn’t it?

      I have no problem with people writing their own books. And they shouldn’t have a problem with me writing mine. I write whatever characters come with the story. I don’t claim to be these characters, thus I am not appropriating anyone’s culture. I don’t intend to stop writing like this, either.

      I’m about as politically correct as you can be and not be an idiot about it. I want more diversity in stories published. I want people who normally would have never had a chance to tell stories to be out there, available for the world to see. But this thing of saying “you can’t write X because you’re not Y” is going too far.

      >>“That’s a real nice little career you have there, Mr. Horowitz. We’d hate to see anything happen to it.”

      Okay. I laughed so hard. That’s a great line, Kyra!

  9. “That’s a real nice little career you have there, Mr. Horowitz. We’d hate to see anything happen to it.”

    • “That’s a real nice little career you have there, Mr. Horowitz. We’d hate to see anything happen to it.”

      And Mr. Horowitz starts wondering if this book would make a good break-out book for him trying that self-publishing thing he keeps hearing about. (After all, the editor of the publisher has already gotten in their ‘first chance to review/reject’ it.)

  10. Patricia Sierra

    Three of my books have bi-racial characters; another has a black character. I’m white, mostly Irish, and don’t see the point in avoiding non-white characters if the story isn’t complete without them. No editor even commented.

  11. This is simply a consequence of voting a community organizer into the White House. Twice.

    Now we have millions of flunkies out there utilizing these same filthy tactics. I bet Saul Alinsky has been cleaning up in KDP if he has his own rights!

  12. Robert Parker always said the reason he didn’t do a solo Hawk book was because he couldn’t identify with the black experience.

    I thought it was a garbage line of reasoning then, and still do. When you’re writing about people and being true to the “human condition”, if you’ll allow the indulgence, it shouldn’t matter. In the end we all want the same things.

    That being said, I think I’ll write about a black spy dating a white woman just to piss people off.

  13. Somewhere, James Michener is scratching his head.

  14. It wasn’t until I was half-way through my third Alex Cross book that I discovered he was black.

    When a character is named Abdullah AlGamdhi, it’s easy to let the reader know he’s an Arab. Same with Alexis Khushnov, or Chen Lee.

    But, when his name is Alex Cross or Robert Lawson, it’s much more difficult.

  15. After some of the dogpiles I’ve seen online of authors who write a minority character and someone takes offense, I can understand why some might hesitate. I have black, LGBT, brown, biracial characters in a variety of my stories and it’s scary to think of someone finding it and deciding I wrote it wrong and come screaming after me.

  16. Ummm…yah.

    I’ve been writing my characters as both black and white almost from day one. And while yes, I am white, that does not prevent me from writing black characters (or with my latest, latino). I don’t misappropriate, as I base my characters on what I observe/read/listen to from my circle of friends and co-workers, the majority of which are non-white.

    And I’m pretty sure that no-one has objected to what I write for characters, only content.

  17. The PC Brigade are going to have a hard time with my Beacons sci-fi series of 3 novels and two novellas. It’s set in my own invented kingdom in the South Pacific and explores issues of sovereignty and occupation by a foreign group who, while benign, now hold most of the power. I await with interest questions of my right to use characters of varying ethnicity, royalty and for that matter, aliens whose history I have no chance of sharing.

  18. Some writers are comfortable in writing outside their ethnicity, social class, etc. and are delusional. Others think they can’t and can. Some think they can write romance and can’t. Others think they can’t and can.

    What’s new?

    Personally, I write well as a toad, but blank on insects. Kafka, I will never be.

  19. Even on A purely practical level, The story doesn’t make sense.
    Surely the PC brigade in America can’t Think all black people everywhere are the same or have had the same experiences?
    Most British black people are Caribbean. For a start.

  20. This is CULTURAL APPROPRIATION and is 99% BS. Read Lionel Shriver’s takedown of this elitist cultural wank in the Guardian. It is the definitive word on the matter IMO.

    • +1

      Also, sometimes it helps to step back and examine these issues from a different angle. I recently read Thomas Nagel’s “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” and came up with a fresh understanding of these annoying identity politics. For all the flack Philosophy majors receive, I believe now is good time for many to revisit the discipline.

  21. There are none so racist as those who champion the cause of race.

  22. I actually recently asked myself this question. I worked on a book where the heroine and her family were Hispanic. I’m not Hispanic. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in that culture. I’ve been relying on doing research and speaking to our very close family friends because I’d like to try and get things “right.” I don’t want to stereotype or put in anything offensive that would stem solely from my not having experienced it. I think it comes in part because I belong to a religion that is usually grossly mischaracterized both in books and in TV/movies. It’s annoying to watch a show and have a mental list I’m creating of everything that’s being portrayed that is so totally inaccurate. I’ve even sent tweets to showrunners asking them if they’ve ever even spoken to a single person of my faith. I wouldn’t want to be guilty of the same crime.

    And I want to hear stories told by different races and ethnicities about those races and ethnicities. I think there is something so important to gain from living inside the mind of someone who experienced exactly what they’re talking about. Richard Wright changed my life in high school (and I grew up in an extremely diverse area!). I love Amy Tan. And Terry McMillan. Khaled Hosseini. Gabriel García Márquez. (etc., etc.)

    That being said, I do believe that there are so many things that are just universally human, loneliness, desire for love, insecurity, etc. that I can write from a perspective of a character that I have no personal experience with.

    • The thing is, I don’t really think there is a universal Hispanic culture, The Hispanic person living in America we have different experiences to someone living in Mexico, Hispanic men will have different experiences Than Hispanic women.
      Beyond that, I think people underestimate the role that an individual’s personality has probably because we like to put people into boxes. I would like to think I’m more than my race and ethnicity, I am a mixture of different experiences and different cultural forces have moulded me into the person I am.
      And there is also something that is uniquely me.

      • Felix J. Torres

        No, there is no universal “hispanic” culture.
        Because there really is no such thing as *a* hispanic.
        That is just a made up term to pigeonhole 22 nationalities, each with a distinct 500 year of history, customs, and culture.
        It isn’t even a “racial” or ethnic thing because the genetics and genealogy of each nationality is distinct.

        There is a lot of talk of the proliferation of tribes in pre-columbian north america but little about the equal abundance of distinct tribes in the rest of the hemisphere. And that is for starters. When Spain’s empire fell apart it gave rise to 20 countries because by then they really were distinct nations. And they have continued to develop in separate ways, each a full-spectrum society with its own class structure and internal divisions.

        500 years of history times 20. And more. Because there are regional variations even in the smallest of latin-american countries.

        For anybody looking to write “hispanics” with any kind of accuracy, they first need to identify their origin, their social class, and their personal history.

        Pretty much like any of the many tribes lumped under that other catchall pigeonhole: “whites”. 🙂

        • echoing Felix. Hispanic is a made up name by the USA federal government for the purposes of census. It is a fake designation.

          Oddly though many of us from Mexico are mestizo, [a mix of native american, african, conquistadore and some carry converso as well, depending on which part of Mexico their near and far back ancestors lived in… some having a ribbon of Irish or German along with Native American because of farmer immigrations/migrations and building of railroad along Rio Grande and down through to Guatemala, and there are also over the last hundred years also Chinese and of course French speaking Mexicans descended from when Maximiliano and his Hapsburg odd invasion of Mexico took over for a while] if one ticks ‘hispanic’ on the usa census, the govt counts us as ‘caucasian’. We’re so far from caucasion it’s laughable.

          I dont mind if people call us hispanic. But that’s not what we usually call ourselves unless a person is ultra assimulted and no longer remembers their tribal groups or antepasados.

          • Absolutely Usaf, Hispanic is a made up term. Even in Spain you have a hard time finding someone who describes themself as Hispanic since there are seven official languages in Spain.
            I think author Alyssa Valdes explains it pretty well here
            https://youtu.be/RtwmRaqBDbU

          • Exactly Usaf, Hispanic is a made up term.
            Even in Spain you’d have a hard time finding someone who consider themselves Hispanic because Spain has seven official languages.
            I think author alissa valdes explains it well

            https://youtu.be/RtwmRaqBDbU

  23. I was going to post some silly comment, but then I looked up in the coffee shop I’m sitting in and saw a young woman whose experience of the world is almost certainly quite different from my own due to race. This is an issue that has no easy answer, maybe no right answer at all.

  24. I’m not going to play. If I did, I would, by logical extension, have to avoid writing a submariner’s story because I’ve never even been on a submarine, or a bus driver’s scene because I’ve never driven a bus and can’t be certain I “get it right.”

    Some of the best courtroom scenes I’ve read are written by Michael Connelly, a non-lawyer. As a lawyer and writer of legal thrillers my inclination and practice has been to applaud him, not question his right to write.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Silly you.
      How else are you going to make publishers come to you?

      Don’t you know it’s all a zero sum game and to win the favor of the publishing gods in the glass towers you have to tear down your peers and devalue their works. For you to win they *have* to lose.

      Sheesh!

      Next thing you’re going to say you think there is room for great books from both of you!

      Tsk! What world do you live in? 21st century earth? 😉

  25. Is there some reason to expect individual fictional characters to reflect some racial, ethnic, or occupational standard?

    If so, what is it? Which races, ethnicities, and occupations have such standards?

  26. Anthony Horowitz is not allowed to include a black character in his book because he doesn’t have enough eumelanin in the basal cell layer of his epidermis. Interesting.

  27. Felix J. Torres
  28. “Horowitz’s UK publisher says it did not warn author off creating black character.”
    http://www.thebookseller.com/news/cultural-appropriation-anthony-horowitz-warned-penning-black-character-556471

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