A Chill in the Air

In January, 2019, Amalie Wen Zhao author of Blood Heir, her debut YA novel, asked her publisher, Delecorte Press, not publish her novel. This was after the internet exploded when a beta reader posted a review accusing Zhao of racism and insensitivity towards black people.

She apologized for putting out a book that was “unintentionally racist” in the fact that she included the death of a black man in one scene in a book dealing with slavery in China (her place of birth).
Much has been said about this controversy and how we should respond. Some of those responses include:
a) authors should be encouraged to be sensitive, but there are no gatekeepers
b) let the market decide
c) let her fight back with the facts. She should publish and damn whatever people say.

Now this book will undoubtedly sell well when it is finally published with all the controversy it has generated. But it does pose a good question: what responsibility do we have as writers and artists to write something that is “sensitive”? Do we need sensitivity readers? Should a sensitivity reader who doesn’t like language or a specific scene be allowed to derail a book that, according to the publisher, is ready to be released? At that point in the publishing cycle, when ARCs are distributed to various reviewers, there should only be minor typos and revisions to be made.

Also, art is supposed to challenge us, to make us feel uncomfortable at times. So maybe you should be encouraged to write that book that has controversial topics in it.

As for letting the market decide, well, the market ultimately decides whether your book stays on shelves. But I don’t like the idea of the market telling me what to write. That is a form of censorship. Write what you want. And self-publish if you have to.

Be brave. If you have a book that has been well-researched, well-written and is crafted in a sensitive manner, stand your ground. But not everyone is up for fighting twitter battles every day, or monitoring trollish comments on their website.

So there is a chill in the air that this will happen again (and it has) with implications far beyond the world of YA publishing. It hits every sector of the publishing world. As long as the cancel culture exists as a hammer in the shadows waiting to clobber anyone they deem unworthy, authors will self-eliminate themselves from ever sending in a manuscript to a perspective agent or publisher. And that makes me sad.

So what can we do? What is our takeaway here?

Find sensitivity readers early. Get them to point anything that might be culturally insensitive. You don’t have to agree with them. But at least you know where your book may have problems that you need to deal with before or after publication.

Be a friendly voice on the internet. Don’t feed the trolls and speak up in defence of authors whose voices are being squashed unfairly. Many of Zhao’s earliest critics hadn’t even cracked page one of her book.

Encourage and support your favourite author, published or not. We need voices, as many as you can find. Write.

As of April 29, 2019, in an article in the New York Post, Amilie Wen Zhao has changed her mind and will publish Blood Heir later this year. I applaud this decision and her bravery and I am sure it will be successful. I think I might have to buy one on launch day.