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A Very Worrying Development

Did anyone else see the article in yesterday's Times, "Defend your writers or be damned, publishers?"

Apparently, self-appointed woke staff of publishing houses are taking it upon themselves to refuse to work on books that offend them. 

Identity politics is the new minefield, with established authors being required to undergo "sensitivity readers" editing, while the idea that an author can portray someone of another race is apparently grounds for rejection.

It would seem that to be safe, we can now only write a novel where all the characters are of the same nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation and political alliegance. I understad that we should write about what we know about, but this is surely going too far. How do we get published if for example, we write a story that is historically sound and accurate, but does not conform to the current standards of woke-ness?

  • Thanks for all the feedback. To clarify a few points -

    The article to which I referred was not an opinion piece. It was a news item. Several authors were named -- Jilly Cooper (for using the word Fat!) for example.

    The walk-outs were not about the authors being "homophobic, transphobic or racist." It was that they were writing about characters who were. A world of difference. 

    As noted above, the "woke" were not pioneering opposition to excluded voices, but were leading the shut-down of others' voices.

    Vide the headmistress this week who was forced to apologise to her school for clarifying an historically correct point -- that Black History Month originated as N**** History Week. To deny the existence of currently unpalatable aspects of our past is a serious form of totalitarian censorship.

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    • All an excellent reason to ignore the 'establishment' and self-publish.

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      • Do you have a link to the article about the walk-out you are talking about? I would be interested in reading it as the only walk-out I've heard about so far have been related the issues I have mentioned above.

        Will some people be overly sensitive? Of course, it's nothing new. We had a discussion on Twitter just a few days ago about people who take issues in swearing in books (when the swearing is justified) and will leave bad reviews because your drug-dealer character used the F-word) and it has nothing to do with being woke.

        I'm like Jon, and I don't really like the term "woke", just because I have seen it used so many times on social media to shut down debates and discussions. But that's just me.

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        • The article was in yesterday's Times, "Defend your writers or be damned, publishers." I read it as an online subscriber. Getting a print copy shouldn't be too hard.

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        • As an African American writer whose characters are from all cultures, backgrounds...you name it, I do sometimes lose patience with the argument that only someone like me can write about someone like me. If that were truly the case, an awful lot of amazing novels and scripts and things would never have been published. If we can write about Martians and other space oddities convincingly, we can write about each other convincingly, too.

          Having said that--you saw this coming--it pays to be aware of "blind spots" you may have when writing about people of other colors, cultures, backgrounds...you get the idea. During the latest Black LIves Matter debate, many of my white friends were suddenly moved to outright ask me about things they feared might have offended or insulted me over the years and our talks were very enlightening for all of us. 

          It reminded me of my years on the Hopi Reservation--I married into the Tribe--when I was constantly stunned at how little we really know about Native people and how inappropriate many of the things we say and assume really are. The unintentional gaffes I made early on still make me roll my eyes...

          Having a "sensitivity checker" is a great idea, being afraid to write about different cultures, etc., is understandable just now, but I don't think you should give up on it altogether. My Millennial is very helpful, my Native fam is amazingly supportive...I put my work in front of everyone I can think of, for guidance. And then I do what I think is best.

          There'll be publishers who go too far, but there'll also still be publishers who are open-minded enough to work with you if there are passages that may need to be "re-imagined." It's good that we're thinking about all this, and actually taking action to correct them. But it shouldn't strait jacket us entirely...

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          •  "I just want to... express myself as true and freely as I can. We should all be allowed to do that." Agreed totally. Stopping that is the problem.

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            • Yeah, I get it goes deeper than that, and granted, from what I understand, her comments in the past haven't helped her, but I can't help thinking that some of those who strive for equality actually differentaite themselves with the victim mindset. 

              With that said, I probably don't kow enough on the subject so will definitely watch that documentary. Thanks for the recommendation.

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              • In full agreement with you here! Empathy and compassion, and accepting you don't know everything and might well have things to learn from others, seems like a wise starting place for us all, whatever we are trying to write and do in life.

                I thought I knew lots about how to raise a child until I became a parent. I thought I was quite knowledgeable about African history and colonialism until I married a black African. Now I only know how little I really know.

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              • ‘I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It’. a Voltairean principle.

                The current anti-offence enforcers (who have anyone with a public profile running for cover) have much in common with good old Mary Whitehouse.

                You see, Mary would campaign against paedophile organizations, but also against the likes of Doctor Who. If Mary could have focussed more of her impressive energies on those who were breaking the law (the paedophiles), by practising more tolerance for views that were not her own (but were legally held) what might she have achieved?

                It would seem some people shout about what will get them the most attention, not about what needs the most attention.

                If we start weighing an author’s ‘right to write’ credentials before we grant them a permit, where will it end? Suppose a writer wants to write about a character who has the belief that she is dead, does he have to have experienced this medical condition himself?

                And what if the condition itself limits your ‘voice’, is nobody else allowed to try to broaden the world’s perspective to include your issue?

                On the lighter side, if only the redheaded can write about redheads, that's one romance-novel cliché we'll see a lot less of.

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                • There isn't anything wrong or threatening about people who have been denied a voice getting the chance to tell their stories – it's really important and most will advocate for that. 

                  The "issue", at the lack of a better word, is that instead of uplifting and paving the way of minorities, some people are censoring non-minorities. There's a difference between those two actions, one that also has consequences for said minorities. For example, gatekeeping that only gay writers can write about gay characters may force gay writers to come out when it might not be safe for them. Another consequence is that the representation that LGBTQ+ community and supporters have fought so hard for would be limited again. 

                  On a more general note than just the publishing world, but on these debates that affects the market and thus also the publishing world:
                  There's also a "difference between hate speech (which isn't protected by freedom of expression) and speech one hate" (which is protected by freedom of expression). (Quote paraphrased from Ayishat Akanbi, an amazing Black voice on the topic of wokeness for anyone interested).

                  Mistaking one for the other often has ill-consequence for vulnerable groups of people such as enforcing stereotypes, silencing voices of different perspectives than the accepted narrative, or setting back progress made for rights of oppressed groups. 

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                  • PS: please ignore that I've seemed to like my own comment, I accidentally pressed the thumb and now it won't let me unlike it 🙈

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                    • Of course in every movement there are extreme. Taking your example there are people saying that only gay writers can write about gay characters may force gay writers to come out when it might not be safe for them, and that's not right. However, I believe those are in the minority and  represents the extreme of representation and diversity. That's not what the majority are saying. The problem I often see is people using that argument saying that's everybody is saying you can't write a gay character if you're not gay and that's not correct.

                      I've heard a lot of people talking about cancel culture but I'm yet to see one person actually cancelled (as far as I'm aware JK Rowling is still selling 1,000s of books and she still has a publishing deal). As I've said, JK Rowling is allowed to say what she wants however people have the right to call her out on what she says (and I'm not talking about responding with abuse and bullying because as much as I wholeheartedly disagree with her I don't believe in those responses.)

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                    • It is so sad that people get hung up on labels rather than just being people. I am a white middle aged heterosexual woman but I don’t have the same experiences as every other white middle aged heterosexual woman any more than I have the same experiences as anybody else. I do however try to empathise with everybody, whatever their backgrounds. There are plenty of things outside my own experience I would be quite happy to write about as I know people in those situations very well. Similarly, there are plenty of things I haven’t a clue about so I wouldn’t be so presumptive as to try. It isn’t what you write about that is important, it is how well you understand it and portray it.

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                      • I think it might be upselling. There is a lot of different stuff coming out lately, like Alice Robinson and Jessica Townsend, and being Australian authors that might have an impact, but also Television shows like The King and some gay flicks, have a very different approach than say the sexy and clean Harry Potter did, when that came out. A lot of publishers, are putting their hands up, and saying that they don't condone these sort of niche experiences, rather the sport behind it, or cultural and symbolic references. 

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