Problems in Publishing

Cultural appropriation and hard-to-access titles are industry-wide issues.

Problems in Publishing

Cultural appropriation has become a big no-no in publishing, and no less a bestselling author than Richard North Patterson has taken to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to complain how his new novel, Trial, his first in nearly a decade, faced stiff opposition to getting published. Patterson, a master of courtroom drama, published 22 previous books, and 16 of them were New York Times bestsellers.

He says he thoroughly researched the book, which tells the story of a Black teenager on trial for shooting a white sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop in Georgia. His agents warned him that the manuscript would have trouble with publishers — and they were right. The novel was rejected, Patterson recounts, by roughly 20 major imprints. It will appear next month from Post Hill Press, a small house specializing in “conservative politics,” according to the Guardian.

Patterson’s agents were thinking of what happened to American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, whose book reaped a seven-figure advance, had an initial print run of 500,000, and was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Even though Cummins said in an author’s note that she wished “someone slightly browner than me would write it,” her book about a migrant mother and her child fleeing Mexico and drug-cartel violence and seeking refuge in the United States was savaged as “trauma porn.”

Most damaging was probably the New York Times review by Parul Sehgal, who did not overtly trash American Dirt for cultural appropriation but said it was a badly written novel. Patterson argued in his op-ed that every writer of fiction seeks to understand other people and put themselves in their place. A cancel culture that doesn’t allow that is censorship, he says.

Who knows? Patterson is not Black, and no matter how much research he does, it would be hard for him to put himself in a Black teenager’s place. Cummins is not Mexican, and no matter how much she desires to bridge the gap, she cannot put herself in a migrant’s place. This means their novels will not be totally authentic, but does that mean they shouldn’t be published altogether?

The pendulum has no doubt swung too far in opposition to cultural appropriation, but perhaps that is necessary to correct the hubris and condescension implicit in white writers’ belief that they can portray people who are not only not like them but who also have a fundamentally different frame of reference.

Publishers are having a tough time with this issue, but it’s not the only one they’re dealing with. Certain legacy matters in the industry have made it difficult — and continue making it difficult — for readers to track down some of the books they want most.

A case in point: I’m on the mailing list for the Tripfiction newsletter, which each month features 10 books set in a particular locale. I didn’t realize the newsletter is British — they don’t broadcast that fact — until I found I couldn’t get one of their recommendations for several weeks because it had to be shipped on a slow boat from England.

The book in question was Chemical Cocktail by Fiona Erskine, the third in a series featuring engineer Jaq Silver, this time in an adventure that takes her to Portugal and Brazil. The book, published by a U.K. firm called Point Blank, is not readily available in the States. However, for some mysterious reason, the first book in the series, Chemical Detective, could be ordered from Amazon and delivered with their usual dispatch.

The thrillers delve into all sorts of arcane knowledge about chemistry since Erskine, like her hero, is a chemical engineer. Chemical Detective is fast-paced and a good read. Published in 2019, it has become quite timely since it takes place largely in Ukraine and involves dark machinations by Russians.

Be warned, however, that Erskine does not yet have an American publisher, and this could become a hurdle for other titles on the Tripfiction list. It seems an anomaly, in a world of instantaneous communication, to have to wait days (or weeks) for a desired book, but then printed books could themselves be seen as an anomaly these days.

Darrell Delamaide is author of the novels The Grand Mirage and Gold.

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