Volumes will be written about the madness of this very mad year, but if you’re reading this post, the good news is you’ve survived so far and will, hopefully, continue to be safe, healthy, and ready to welcome a never more anticipated turn of the page!
My own year has been admittedly slim on celebratory content, but we Wilkes, like so many others, remain grateful for what we can celebrate: our family’s good health (which I hope extends to each of your own), continuing creativity (albeit of the less performance kind), a more encompassing relationship with streaming TV, and a new, hope-inducing American administration (thanks to ALL who helped with that essential goal!).
Beyond wanting to take this timely opportunity to wish you all a holiday that’s as jolly as social distancing, masks, backyard dinners, Zoom gatherings, and limited household pods will allow, I also want to introduce you to four authors, with whom I’m friends and colleagues via our shared publisher She Writes Press, whose award-winning books will make brilliant choices for your holiday gift giving.
You might recall, way, way back before the scourge descended, that I wrote about how I’d be appearing with these authors at the famed Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, something we were all looking forward to. But, as COVID would have it, not only was the original April date scrapped, but the subsequent October date was as well, with future options currently undetermined.
We decided to take matters into our own hands.
Given our respect for each other’s works, and wanting to stick with the group effort (even if, sadly, without the cool booth and fun cookie and bookmark giveaways!), we decided to do a December “Gift a Book” Event, mutually presenting all five books as gift-giving suggestions, inspired by a quote of Garrison Keillor’s:“A book is a gift you can open again and again.”
To that end, let me share info & links about each author and book for your easy access:
Romalyn Tilghman’s, To the Stars Through Difficulties, tells the story of a group of contemporary women who join forces to revive a library and arts center in a small town destroyed by a tornado, inspired by found journals recounting the original building of the Carnegie Library.
Kimberly Robeson, a Greek-American professor of world lit & creative writing at Los Angeles Valley College, and co-advisor of the college’s LGBTQ+ Club, brings her native mythology to her debut novel, The Greek Persuasion, a fascinating story of a woman’s international search for love & sexual identity.
Judith Teitelman, development consultant, educator & facilitator, describes her debut novel, Guesthouse for Ganesha, as “magical realism,” a tale of love, loss & spirit reclaimed with a tagline that asks: Left at the altar, spurned—what does that do to a young woman’s heart? And why would a Hindu God care?
Dr. Marika Lindholm, a trained sociologist who founded ESME.com, a social movement of solo moms, is co-editor of We Got This, essays by 75 women sharing their resilience & setbacks, follies & triumphs, with the powerful message that no one—not even those mothering solo—is truly alone.
And, of course, my own book, my third novel, The Alchemy of Noise, a sociopolitical love story that tackles issues of racial injustice, police profiling, and subsequent challenges faced by an interracial couple whose relationship asks the question, “Can love bridge the distance between two Americas?”
We also got together with author/teacher, Bella Mahaya Carter, to talk a bit about each of our books; click below for that lively conversation!
I hope you’ll explore each of these wonderful, eclectic titles, and pick up copies for your own and other’s reading pleasure… I guarantee you’ll enjoy them all!
And that’s it for this, our mutually endured “Annus Horribilis 2020,” (in a nod to Queen Elizabeth!). Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays; Smashing New Year, every and all loving, inclusive, diverse salutations with my hopes, affirmations, prayers, and wishes that 2021 brings a fresh start, positive change, renewed hope, and a return to full body hugs, visible faces, indoor dining, and joyful, unencumbered gatherings in our many squares around the world. Until then… all my best!
It’s true. I have a confession to make: I hate self-promoting. I do. I really do.
In fact, I hate it more as I get older, and accrue more and more years of having done it for the sake of my books, plays, articles, photographs, screenplays, band gigs, etc., etc. As much as I understand the need, and can professionally frame it as “absolutely necessary to the success of (fill in the blank),” it never fails to make me feel like that needy little girl jumping up and down, waving arms to demand, “Pick ME!! Notice ME!!”
Maybe it’s being one of eleven kids. Despite my placement (third), and personality inclinations (funny and/or charming), I actually felt I had to jump up and down to be truly noticed. I mean, really noticed, in that one-on-one way children require.
Leave it to me, then, to pick a “look at me!” career and stick with it long enough to arrive at the point where artists can no longer be “just artists,” and the act of waving hands and jumping up and down is now requisite behavior!
That’s because we are now, in this not-so-new digital age, unequivocally tasked with promoting and marketing ourselves with the same verve and skill set of the “helper people” but without the protective shield of their professional connections, entree, business acumen, objective skills, and laser focus. Despite occasional successes and winning results, and since we’re in confession mode, let’s be honest: It’s exhausting, expensive, time-consuming, even sometimes painful. I miss my helper people.
Oh, I’ve had them throughout the life of my career, and, when I did, it was freeing, unburdening, and glorious. Then I got older, careers shifted, culture changed, the Internet democratized everything (good and less-good). Every medium of art and communication became saturated with every kind of art and artist, and those very helpful “helper people” got harder to find, engage, and sign on the dotted line. You either hired skilled publicists—wonderful when you could afford it; I could only briefly—or you become your own designated “helper-person.”
And I don’t wanna be—that’s my true confession. I too often feel like Irene Cara warbling, “Out Here On My Own,” and I don’t have the benefit of Fame! But I do the job to honor the work I’ve put tremendous effort and vigilance into making as good as it can possibly be. I’m proud of that work, and I really want you to find and enjoy it. Not because I need accolades or exclamations of “you’re such a good writer!”, but because these stories and their characters and themes mean a lot to me; they contain ideas, concepts, and existential musings I want you to read and ponder and share. The only way that happens is if you hear about it, find it, and obtain the work. The only way that happens is if I, despite my whining and recalcitrance, make you aware of it.
So I do. Reluctantly but earnestly do.
But finding the right balance is tough. Sometimes you get it wrong; you worry about people’s eyes rolling. Your small publisher can only offer so much, some in media don’t want to hear directly from the artist, and sometimes responses can be downright cantankerous. For example, this example:
Since all three of my novels are literary fiction that fall neatly into the “book club” genre, I started researching book clubs. I found several, sent out polite private messages and emails, and, when I found a viable one on Goodreads, went to their page, saw a drop-down menu with “suggest a book,” and wrote, again, a very polite introduction of my latest book with pertinent links, awards, and information. So far, so good.
I was then stunned when the book club leader tersely responded: “I removed your book suggestion from our site because we do not [emphasis hers] allow authors to self-promote their own books”… like I crashed their party & hogged the karaoke mic.
What struck me was the wrist-slapping tone of her note, with its presumption that I was a boorish amateur spamming their club, rather than a respected writer who truly thought her book might hit the sweet spot of their particular club’s book sense. Though I did not sent this particular response, I should have:
“Dear Book Club Leader: Please be aware that it’s hard out there for authors. Given the fluctuating status of our industry, many talented writers are on their own, trying to get good work into the marketplace as creatively & graciously as possible. Don’t assume they’re hacks. Don’t assume they’re spammers. Be open. Like any good gatekeeper, you don’t want to miss the gems because you’re too quick to slam the door. If an author suggests her book to your club, maybe check it out before you slap her wrist. It just might be your group’s perfect ‘next book.'”
Then, as I was figuratively trundling home to return my books to their shelves, I was introduced to NovelNetwork, an organization with the following mission statement: “NOVEL NETWORK is a global space dedicated to connecting authors with avid readers, an expanded professional network, and published peers. NOVEL NETWORK was created to help authors find more innovative ways to connect with readers and promote their books to wider audiences.”
Yes! That. Perfect. Huzzah!
Imagine how delighted I was when, after submitting my materials, I was invited to join with all three of my novels en tow. I suddenly had “helper people”@ And look, all three of my novels are tucked into their recent holiday promotion below and I had not a thing to do with it… Merry freakin’ Christmas!
Before I wrap this divulgence, let me add this: While I might cringe at the demand to persistently blow my own horn, please know how much I appreciate those in my circle who never seem to tire of my promotions; who’ve taken the time to leave reviews because they know how important those are to writers; who continually help spread the word and encourage others to give my books a read. I cannot tell you how very much this reluctant self-promoter appreciates every bit of that… THANK YOU.
And Happy Holidays, whichever ones you celebrate and however you do. Just remember: if it’s an occasion that involves gift-giving, keep this equation in mind:
Books+Love=Perfect Holiday Presents!
(Lookie there… I did it… shameless self promotion!)
NOTE: From NovelNetwork: “Good news for individuals who do not have a book club home – you can still join NovelNetwork – simply register as a book club member and list ‘NovelNetwork Book Chat Group’ as your book club affiliation. We’d love to welcome you! Visit NovelNetwork.com to activate your free membership!”
As time goes on & the hoopla around a book’s launch dies down, it’s sometimes challenging to know where and what your book is doing out there in the world. So, when an unexpected review pops up, one that so artfully and accurately expresses exactly the message and narrative you were hoping to convey in your story, there is something deeply gratifying about that.
Thank you, Janny Ess, for your articulate, moving review. I am touched… thrilled that you enjoyed the book, and appreciative of your taking the time to write so beautifully about it.
“The Alchemy of Noise” by Lorraine Devon-Wilke is a timely story I hope screen writers and movie makers will discover and develop. In the pages of this literary work the ride you embark on will make you stop and think more than once. The “Alchemy of Noise” is a heart wrenching yet inspirational read as the characters inner lives leave us questioning our own role in dividing or unifying human beings.
Almost poetic in some passages, Devon-Wilke weaves “The Alchemy of Noise” with an intelligent pen of compassion and soulfulness. Her characters are all relatable as you find yourself transported inside the torn social fabric of our contemporary world to first person perspectives of family matters, addiction, police brutality and racism.
I started this book over three years ago; walked down many and myriad roads in the quest for publication, often got confused and discouraged, but was always clear it was a book meant to find its place. That it found its place with She Writes Press was a boon.
I am so pleased and proud of the end product, a book that fully represents my creative sensibilities in every way: narratively, artistically, production and promotion-wise. I’m honored by the people I work with, grateful for Brooke Warner, president of She Writes Press, and Crystal Patriarche (Booksparks); my project manager, Samantha Strom, and certainly the fabulous Tabitha Bailey, my senior publicist who has walked this walk with me on an almost daily basis and done so with such empathy and enthusiasm. Thank you, Tabitha… thanks to you all!
To those who’ve bought the book, will buy the book; will read the book, think about it, hopefully be moved and entertained by it… thank you. It was, after all, meant for you.
Today I’m going to take it all in; close my eyes, take a deep breath, let myself feel it, and revel in the celebration… it’s a very good day.
Eight years ago, shortly after I launched this blog in 2010, I reached out to Ariana Huffington with samples of my work, hoping to interest her in my writing for The Huffington Post. In a rare and wonderful anomaly (how many big CEOs respond to those kinds of emails?), she wrote back—in a writing style echoing her very unique speaking voice—to say she would love to have me onboard, and so I leapt. I was there from February of 2011 until January 2018 (when they shut down the program), and it was a fascinating and pivotal turn in my writing career, one for which I’ll always be grateful.
Fast forward to almost a decade later. I’m approaching the pub date for my latest novel, and in enters Sara Connell, an author and writing coach out of Chicago, who invites me to participate in an interview with her for… Thrive Global, Ariana’s new endeavor. A karmic moment, indeed, so of course I did.
It was a provocative, far-reaching interview, covering everything from issues of racism, white privilege, my goals in writing this new book, The Alchemy of Noise, to my perspective on the writing process and the power of fiction to illuminate essential themes and inspire activism. It was meaningful to get that deep into topics that pull my attention on a regular basis, so I hope you enjoy the conversation we shared:
From Sara: “As part of my series about ‘How to write a book that sparks a movement’ I had the great pleasure of interviewing Lorraine Devon Wilke. An accomplished writer in several genres of the medium, Lorraine Devon Wilke, a Chicago native and one of eleven children, has built a library […]
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?
My particular backstory started in Chicago, where I was born the third child of a Greek-American father whose parents emigrated from Turkey, and an Irish/German/American mother who was raised by an extended family of rowdy Irish Catholics after her mother died and father absconded. This dramatic starting point infused my own upbringing with some rather stunning polarities on all fronts, from religion to politics to sex to how to raise children, and I became a very opinionated child as a result.
While still formulating my character, however, my parents fled the city, relocating to as disparate a place as one could imagine: Richmond, a tiny (population 350 at the time) farm town in northern Illinois, bike-riding distance from Wisconsin, as homogenized and white as Chicago was diverse. Too young to grasp the impact this would have my worldview, I reveled in the insular charms of small-town life until I grew old enough to realize I’d be fleeing in reversal of my mother and father…
It’s not every day you’re invited to converse with The Three Tomatoes, but I was, and I did, and it was quite the invigorating exchange with their always effervescent podcast hostess, Debbie Zipp.
To give you a bit of background on the group: the brainchild of founder/publisher, Cheryl Benton, and co-founding partner, Roni Jenkins, The Three Tomatoes describes itself as a “digital lifestyle magazine for women who aren’t kids,” with a mission to curate and provide an entertaining, informative, bicoastal lifestyle guide for “smart, savvy women who want to live their lives fully at every age and every stage.” Within that framework, they swing from fashion, travel, and cooking, to frank discussions of sex, aging, and contemporary culture. It’s a fun, eclectic, vibrant site with a big audience, so when they invited me to come talk about my new novel, The Alchemy of Noise, in the context of a discussion a about fiction and its particular power to the illuminate, I was more than happy to accept.
Below you’ll find the link to the podcast, and I hope you take a listen. Feel free to share it on social media, and certainly if you’re so inspired to express thoughts, comments, or questions, I hope you’ll visit the Facebook and Twitter pages of the The Three Tomatoes to join in the conversation yourself! Of course, you always know where to find me.
Episode #11: Stories, Imagination and the True Power of Fiction!
Guest: author, writer, Lorraine Devon Wilke
If you love reading and your first impulse is to pick up a book of fiction, then you are making a truly powerful choice. It isn’t always just entertainment! Award winning author and writer, Lorraine Devon Wilke, joins our LA Editor, Debbie Zipp, in a lively and illuminating conversation delving into the importance of fiction and why it has such a powerful impact in our lives. Lorraine’s award-winning novels, After the Sucker Punch and Hysterical Love, are available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Her latest, The Alchemy of Noise, a literary fiction that digs deep into issues of privilege, profiling, and prejudice in contemporary Chicago, will be released April 9, 2019. Learn more at her web site.
There is not one author who has everything. Except maybe J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. They might. I don’t know. Probably. Everyone else? Nah. But still, I thought the title had a nice ring. I’m easy.
But if you think about all the people in your life who mean something to you, people you occasionally gift with this or that, there probably are a few writers in the bunch. And when you gift those writers, you want those gifts to be items they really want, really like, really need, right? Even in those exceedingly rare cases where they appear to have everything (which, trust me… they don’t), you want to be purposeful in your generosity to your writer pals. At least that’s the way it is for me.
And, in this particular case, we are talking about me. But not me as the gifter, me as the giftee; a writer who definitely doesn’t have everything, and would like more of what I really need (which we’ll get into in a minute).
A mentor of mine once told me, “People think you don’t need anything.” This was meant as a nod to my particular brand of independence and self-confidence, while also asserting that I was terrible at articulating what I needed, and, therefore needed to learn how to ask for what I needed since no one, apparently, presumed I did. Need anything. Which is so odd. But, OK, lesson learned.
So, in that spirit, I offer pertinent suggestions related to my upcoming book launch, an “author’s gift registry,” of sorts, to assist you in knowing what I need and would be delighted by as you join me in celebrating that event. Much like bringing flowers to an actress on opening night, except, in this case, the “flowers” are simple actions you can take that will benefit the launch in all the best possible ways, and, handily, is a list that can also be applied to any writer you’d like to honor with similarly perfect gifts.
Author’s Gift Registry for The Alchemy of Noise Launch:
1. SOCIAL MEDIA: I would be delighted if you’d share any news, thoughts, opinions you have about the book via your social media… any of the medias will do (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.). Share widely and freely, make jokes, coin phrases; whatever amuses you, and, if so inclined, use the hashtag #TheAlchemyofNoise whenever posting. I think we all know by now how effective social media can be in stirring word-of-mouth, and this book and I will definitely appreciate any words coming from yours. Mouth, that is.
2. PRE-ORDER THE BOOK: It turns out this is a BIG deal for everyone involved in the marketing and distribution of a new book. Pre-orders, and sales during the first few days post-launch, are VERY important for a new book (like the opening weekend of a movie). So please do me the favor of clicking right HERE to pre-order your print or e-book copy, and, if you already have, THANK YOU!
3. REVIEWS: This is another big one. Reader reviews are crazy/important in this media focused world, and every single one—no matter how long or how many stars—helps. Now I must be honest: I get squeamish asking people to write reviews for me; it feels a little bit like, “Please applaud for me, will you?” But it’s really not that. It’s a far more professional exchange, and I realized that, oddly, when I got my car windows tinted. Let me explain:
After the job was done, the guy, who’d done a great job, asked, “Hey, would you do me a favor and leave a review at Yelp for us?” I noticed I had absolutely no back off on him asking; it felt like a normal 21st century transaction where we all know posting reviews can help a business, product, book; whatever we might be reviewing. I was happy to do it and I did. I wrote a swell review about my tinted windows, all the while thinking, “If Window-Tint Man is comfortable asking, why aren’t I?”
That answer would require some deeper conversation than we need to get into right here and now, but suffice it to say I am putting aside my squeamishness to flat-out ask:
After you’ve read The Alchemy of Noise, I’d be so grateful if you’d post a review/rating of the book on the Amazon page. Just go to the book’s page, right HERE, scroll down toward the bottom of the page, click the “Write a Customer Review” button, and convey your thoughts. They don’t have to be long; candor is appreciated, and you do not have to gush (though feel free if honestly so moved 🙂 ). Know that reviews really do help potential readers decide whether or not to buy a book… as they help marketers get a sense of how your book is being received.
There. I said it. I thank you in advance.
4. GOODREADS: If you are a member of this very popular book site, I’d love if you’d add The Alchemy of Noise to your “shelf.” Just go HERE to the book’s page, then click the green button under the book thumbnail to choose your shelf. After you’ve read it, you can cut & paste the review you wrote for Amazon and copy it right there on that same Goodreads page (look, I asked again!) And feel free to “follow” and “friend,” as we do on these sites.
OH, and until March 26th there’s a Goodreads Giveaway for the book; just scroll down the page and click to take a shot at winning 1 of 10 free books being given away.
5. BOOKBUB: Similar to Goodreads, BookBub is an enormous book site that engages with both readers and authors across a deep and eclectic platform. Many of you possibly subscribe to their “deal emails,” alerting you of the slate of books on sale any given day. It’s a big site, with lots of everything, and another one where “following” my page, and copying that Amazon review over would be incredibly beneficial. Just click HERE to find me there.
6. READING EVENTS: If you’re in one of the cities where bookstores will be hosting events for my launch (in April/May)… please COME! I’d love to see you and it should be great fun. And please be prepared to purchase the book at the store so the owners think I’m one of those cools authors whose fans are attuned to supporting independent bookstores. 🙂 Check the itinerary below and/or the Facebook Event Pages for each event.
And that’s it; that’s the “registry,” comprehensive, complete, and, at least to this writer, incredibly valuable. I thank you in advance for your generosity, and know that you’ll always have my enthusiasm in returning the favor in kind.
We live in a time when history is made by Tweets, when what happens there can instantly be known here. A time when anyone with a digital device can express views, publish opinions, or comment on news within moments of it unfolding, making the (somewhat dated) concept of “information superhighway” never more accurate…or glutted.
We want to be informed, we want to keep our awareness sharp, or maybe we just want some good old chatty entertainment, but given the sheer volume of what comes at us daily, it seems truth—and its ripple effects of impact, inspiration and illumination—often gets lost in the shuffle.
Yet truth is conveyed in many more ways than just news and social media, in just non-fiction tomes and memoirs of note. In fact, some of our most poignant cultural truths have been discovered and disseminated through stories, through imagination…through fiction.
For those who might not know, one of the more sensitive (and dreaded) tasks required during the process of readying one’s book for publication is the procurement of book blurbs. Considered a time-honored tool in promoting an upcoming book, the assignment requires that you reach out to authors you know and whose work you respect; authors you don’t know whose work you respect; those who might be notable in the arena your book encompasses, or, and most coveted, well-known authors whose status might lend yours a bump of credibility. You offer to send your book—or select chapters—in hopes of inspiring a few lines of endorsement that can then be affixed to your cover or review pages. It does feel like daunting duty, all that asking, and, frankly, I know a few authors who’d rather walk on Legos.
Because getting anyone, even someone you know much less a well-known author, to read your work and write a sentence or two of appreciation feels to be herculean. Everyone’s busy with their own projects, deadlines may make it problematic, and even those who initially agree can later back out for one reason or another. Since it requires a significant focus of someone’s time, the “ask” is approached, always, with some trepidation and a big dollop of sensitivity. You don’t want to appear presumptuous, you don’t want to come off as gushing or obsequious, and certainly you don’t want to risk the pang of brusque and/or unspoken dismissal (though if you’ve ever queried agents you already know what that feels like!). So you proceed with as much elegance and decorum as you can muster, and if you do reach out to a “famous writer,” you do so graciously and with the full expectation of never hearing back.
I heard back from Rebecca Wells.
As the author of one of my favorite books, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Ms. Wells captured my admiration years ago when I first read that book and her many subsequent and attendant titles. And while my upcoming novel, The Alchemy of Noise, is not necessarily a “comp title,” a bit darker and more urban than her own work, the connecting point—beyond my creative respect—is our shared category of “contemporary literary fiction.” It seemed worth a shot.
My letter opened with:
“I was sitting in a natural mineral pool in Desert Hot Springs, CA, when I read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I was with a group of women friends, none of whom had had my particular Catholic upbringing, some of whom shared the legacy of a loving, crazy, narcissistic mother, and as I emerged from the steaming water with teary eyes, the goose bumps on my arms were not from the cold: I had been transported. I looked at them and said, ‘I don’t know why I’d ever think of writing after reading this book…it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.’
“Despite that earnest disclaimer, I transmuted my awe into inspiration and did proceed to write my first novel…”
From there I told her a bit about my own journey as an author; I kept it brief, I asked if I could send my new book, or just a few chapters, with hopes of a short endorsement, and concluded (as prescribed above) graciously and with the full expectation of never hearing back.
And yet I did.
Not even two weeks later I received a sweet handwritten letter on a piece of lined notepaper: “It makes me smile to think of your meeting the Ya-Yas in a hot tub!”
She went on to explain that she was knee-deep in her own soon-to-be-published project, and though she would be unable to carve out time to read and endorse my book, she concluded with:
“Many congratulations on your writing! What guts it takes to sit on our butts and do this… I do send you all the best wishes as this new one goes forth into the world. Thank you for asking me… 84,000 Blessings, Rebecca Wells.”
In an industry (a world!) where far too many make too little effort to respond and relate to those who reach out to them, I’m always astonished when someone does, particularly someone whose high-profile comes with commensurate demands on their time and attention.
Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to contact famous authors you admire. Even if they don’t have time to read and endorse your book (most won’t), you will have made a connection with someone whose work touched you, and who knows where that may lead? And if you’re lucky, you may walk away with not only their best wishes, but their blessings… 84,000 of them, and that is something that—in this crazy world—is always, always, appreciated.
Next up: What I Learned When I Heard Back From Jodi Picoult
Storytellers are the chroniclers of our life and times. They memorialize history, dissect our complex and evolving world; they entertain and provoke and captivate. They are as diverse and eclectic as the characters they create and the stories they tell. It is their job to reflect who we are, what we experience, and what we can imagine. That’s a big canvas. It’s huge. And there’s no end to the variety of colors and hues that can be drawn upon it. Just as there is no end to the variety of artists weaving the tales drawn there.
Yet some believe there are rules to who gets to use which colors, who gets to draw outside the lines to tell stories that involve characters from different cultures. Some believe issues of race can only be voiced from within limited perspectives. Who gets to decide that? Who determines the answer to the title question?
In May of this year, the BBC took it on, running a piece about successful British spy author, Anthony Horowitz, who’d been dissuaded from including a black character in one of his novels:
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, 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”.
I ask this question not just because of the larger and, yes, “dangerous” implications of limiting literary voices and books, but from the very personal perspective of hitting the buzzsaw of “fear of cultural appropriation” within my own work, in trying to get my own book, a dramatic novel about police profiling within an interracial relationship, published.
While agents and publishers can find any number of reasons to reject a book (as they do regularly), particularly as the industry struggles under dramatically changing fortunes, I was surprised at the resounding lack of response I’d gotten to this new book, particularly after having published two previous novels that have done well, and with a resume that’s garnered a modicum of respect. Certainly I understand how subjective the process is — it’s been likened to the rarity and randomness of falling in love — but still, it was unusual how few even acknowledged my query. It wasn’t until I was able to get some specific responses from specific agents that the light finally went on.
It was a problem of “fear of cultural appropriation.”
I am a white author telling a story that involves black characters. This, as Anthony Horowitz was warned, is not considered “appropriate.” It’s seen as “patronizing.” Though, in following that paradigm, who, then, would be able to tell the story of an interracial relationship if neither race can write about the other? Personally, I find that to be madness, but I’ve now had agents from three different high-profile literary agencies specifically cite “appropriation” as their reasons for rejection:
1. The first felt my “whiteness is kind of a problem,” she wrote: “This is a well written and serious novel; an issue-oriented novel that could not be more current… but there may be an issue of whose voice gets to represent race.”
2. The second asserted she couldn’t take it on because of “all the concerns about ‘cultural appropriation’ these days.”
3. The third felt the black male protagonist “didn’t sound black enough.” I won’t even parse that implication.
But the message was clear, at least from the point of view of these particular gatekeepers: white authors writing black characters are unmarketable. Beyond “inappropriate,” “these are brutal times in fiction and we’re not comfortable representing a book, no matter how good or worthy, in which that issue is present.”
How do we feel about that? As readers, writers, and consumers of cultural content?
I find it dangerous. I find it censuring. I find it condescending and discriminatory. I find any limitation to writers of any race to be the antithesis of art. Or, as my friend and #BLM activist, Regina McRae, put it (and I echoed above): “An author is an artist, and words are their canvas. You can’t constrain art.” She’s right.
We live in a profoundly competitive world, a landscape made all the more so by the internet and its powers of equalization. Skill, craft, and expertise, once prerequisites of success, are now often trumped by what’s viral, what’s contemporary, what excels via social media marketing. A “nobody” making YouTube videos can hit the zeitgeist of youth fascination to outpace a label artist who’s put years and millions into production. A young Turk writing snarky clickbait can be valued over a brilliant journalist covering news with depth and perspective. A self-published soft-porn novelist can outsell a Pulitzer Prize-winning wordsmith by virtue of viral hype alone. And kids with iPhones can score magazines covers while journeymen photographers close shop.
Within that world, industries impacted, like the publishing industry, pendulate wildly as they attempt to transcend and reinvent, often without clarity about what’s next or what new turn culture might take while they’re trying to survive. So I get it. I get a literary agent telling me she “doesn’t have the courage” to take on a book that might stir controversy, that might garner commensurate cowardice from the publishers she’s trying to sell it to. It’s a business; she’s gotta make a living.
But I disdain the reasons why. If a white author writes a book with black characters and it’s poorly written, with little market value, or if — given art’s subjectivity — it’s simply something she doesn’t like or doesn’t believe has merit, fine. Those are understandable reasons to reject.
But if a book with black characters written by a white author is a “well written and serious novel; an issue-oriented novel that could not be more current,” and if that book — presented with fully-fleshed characters, with depth, sensitivity, and authentic reflections of all ethnicities involve — is rejected simply because it might trigger discomfort about “cultural appropriation,” what is the underlying message?
If we can only write within our cultures, our demographics, that means, if interpreted fairly, science fiction writers can’t write about aliens, men can’t write about women; women about men. Straight writers can’t include LGBT characters and vice versa. Catholics can’t write about non-Catholics, Democrats about Republicans; Jews and Muslims about people who are not of their faith. Young people can’t write about old people (though the reverse might be acceptable since old people used to be young people). And since white writers can’t include black characters, or any characters that aren’t white, we’d have to presume the commensurate would be expected of black writers, Asian writers, Hispanic writers, etc.
Silly, isn’t it? Maybe even terrifying.
Is that really what we want from our artistic gatekeepers? Fear of controversy? Cultural timidity? The negation of an entire demographic of voices who dare to include diversity outside their own? Have we really come to a time of such hair-trigger sensitivity that we require our storytellers to limit their imaginations to only the race, creed and color they are?
Tell that to Harper Lee.
Now, believe me, I’m not comparing myself to Harper Lee, but I am saying every book must be judged on the merit of the work; every author, on the quality of their skill and presentation. And if an author is telling a multicultural story, one that involves diverse characters, their only obligation is to tell that story well, with authenticity and truth.
Given my own focus and activism on issues of race in America, its conflicts and conversations (see “related articles” below), I believe I have done that; I’ve heeded that mandate. I also think I’ve written a pretty damn good story. But if I can’t find anyone in the traditional publishing world courageous enough to take it on, to transcend their fears of “cultural appropriation,” I’ll once again leap on my own and hopefully find an interested, openminded audience.
It is our job to tell our stories. It is our right to create the worlds and characters and tales we imagine. We are not limited by corporate timidity. And we are not afraid of who reads them.
I’m interested to hear what other writers, agents, publishers, readers at large think about or have encountered on this issue. It’s one that seems to be growing and needs, I believe, some serious thought and discussion. Feel free to share your thoughts in comments, on Facebook, or get in touch via my website. And if you’re curious about my book in question, click HERE.