It was Lionel Shriver who saw the writing on the wall. Giving a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival three years ago in which she decried the scourge of modern identity politics, Shriver observed that the dogma of ‘cultural appropriation’ —which demands no less than complete racial segregation in the arts — had not yet wrapped its osseous fingers around the publishing industry. But, she warned: ‘This same sensibility is coming to a bookstore near you.’ Reader, it has come.
Next month a young, Asian-American author called Amélie Wen Zhao was due to celebrate the publication of her debut novel Blood Heir, the first in a three-part fantasy series for which Zhao was reportedly paid a six-figure sum by Delacorte Press, a children’s imprint of Penguin Random House. Set in the Russian-inspired ‘Cyrillian Empire’, Blood Heir tells the story of a magic-wielding princess who is forced to flee her kingdom following her father’s murder. ‘In a world where the princess is the monster, oppression is blind to skin colour, and good and evil exist in shades of grey… comes a dark Anastasia retelling,’ blurbed the publishers.
Before the manuscript had even reached the presses, however, a furore erupted when Zhao, a 26-year-old banker born in Paris and raised in Beijing, was accused of racism. Armed with merely the blurb and a handful of excerpts from the book, her critics — many of them fellow authors, editors and bloggers in the Young Adult genre (known as YA) — repeatedly tore into Zhao on sites such as Twitter and Goodreads, outraged by, among other things, the novel’s depiction of indentured labour. For despite Blood Heir’s Slavic setting, her detractors assumed the plot was inspired by American slavery and thus something Zhao had no business writing about because she is not black. In a tirade that might surprise students of Russian antiquity, one critic reportedly raged: ‘[R]acist ass writers, like Amélie Wen Zhao, […] literally take Black narratives and force it into Russia when that shit NEVER happened in history.’
One prominent writer even claimed the very premise of a fictional world in which ‘oppression is blind to skin colour’ was racist and joined others in pillorying Zhao for creating — and then killing — a ‘black’ character in the novel. No matter that the only discernible evidence for the character’s ethnicity was a vague description of dark curls and ‘bronze’ skin. Another YA author, Ellen Oh, who joined in the fray by piously tweeting ‘colourblindness is extremely tone deaf. Learn from this and do better’, was herself forced to issue an apology after being castigated for using the phrase ‘tone deaf’, a turn of events that would be comical were it not so preposterous.
For Zhao, the onslaught proved too much and in January she released a statement titled ‘To The Book Community: An Apology’ in which she confirmed she had withdrawn Blood Heir from publication. However, in a volte-face last month, Zhao revealed that, with help from multicultural scholars and ‘sensitivity readers’, she had re-written the novel and would now be publishing it in November.
Would that Zhao were an outlier. If anything, hers is now a typical experience in the vicious world of YA publishing. Last year another fantasy novel, about a young protagonist rebelling against a sectarian society, inspired an 8,000 word blog post calling it ‘the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read’ and set off a wave of recrimination against the author on social media. Around the same time Keira Drake, a marketing consultant turned YA writer, agreed to pulp hardback copies of her debut fantasy novel and re-write it with help from — you guessed it — sensitivity readers after critics claimed it contained ‘damaging’ depictions of Native Americans.
Because this persecution on the most spurious grounds is endemic — and because so many of its actors are themselves YA authors — plenty of those brandishing the proverbial pitchforks have, upon publication of their own novels, subsequently found themselves staring down the sharp side of a four-pronged rod. In February, Kosoko Jackson, a gay, black, erstwhile sensitivity reader who had previously joined in the skirmishes against other authors, pulled his own debut novel, A Place for Wolves, after his peers pronounced it ‘insensitive’ to Muslims on account of its Albanian Muslim antagonist.
Nor is the contagion confined to American authors. Last month John Boyne, best known for the Holocaust novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, received such a barrage of abuse prior to the publication of his latest book, My Brother’s Name Is Jessica, which features a transgender central character, that he was briefly forced off Twitter. Critics labelled the book ‘transphobic’, suggesting that because Boyne is not transgender the story ‘lacked authenticity’ and its title ‘misgendered’ the fictional protagonist.
At almost the same moment that Boyne was deleting his Twitter account, Lincolnshire-based Zoe Marriott, a prolific writer of YA fiction, was also being hounded on the site over her new fantasy novel, The Hand, the Eye and the Heart, because it’s set in ‘fairy-tale China’. One prominent YA blogger warned: ‘White authors need to stay the hell away from the stories of people of colour.’ Curiously, said blogger’s day job involves manning the tills at Foyles, one of London’s most revered bookshops — pity the poor sod who dares trouble her for a copy of Othello, or Tolkien for that matter. The father of fantasy fiction has come in for criticism for his portrayal of orcs in The Lord of the Rings. Some feel his work is ‘racialised’. And what’s a sensitive young bookseller to do if a young customer requests a C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia books were branded ‘blatantly racist’ and misogynistic by fellow fantasy author Philip Pullman? Pullman has since been labelled ‘transphobic’ himself after tweeting in October that he was ‘finding the trans argument impossible to follow’.
Once you start seeing goblins in fairyland, there’s no end to it. Even the most enlightened author can cause offence. It is only a matter of time before it begins to eat away at every genre until, as Shriver predicted, ‘All that’s left is memoir’.
Already poets might understandably feel anxious: last summer The Nation, one of America’s most venerable literary magazines, published a 14-line poem about homelessness, which was swiftly accused of co-opting a ‘black vernacular’ and criticised for its use of the word ‘crippled’. Instead of defending the verses it had previously deemed worthy of publication, the magazine immediately issued an apology so spineless one of its own columnists said it resembled ‘a letter from [a] re-education camp’.
But it’s not just writers who ought to be worried. The logical apogee of a prohibition on cultural intercourse is a future in which each person is allowed to document only his or her precise subjective experience. A future, in other words, where fiction is history. And that sounds like a very dreary prospect for us all.
Karen Yossman on writers under scrutiny.