So by now, if you’ve got your focus enough on the book industry that you’ve got a decent feel for the pulse, you’ve probably heard a little about Amélie Wen Zhao. If not, well, here’s the basics of it.
Zhao was one of those individuals who wanted to be an author. So she worked hard, polished her craft, wrote a trilogy, and with a little (okay, a lot, it’s publishing) luck, got a publisher to bite for her first trilogy.
Note that I used the word “was” rather than “is” in that paragraph. That’s because Zhao no longer is. Why? Well, because the “eternally socially conscious” crowd descended upon her before her books had even been released, slamming her with one-star reviews and accusations of racism to the extent that she contacted her publisher and asked to please cancel the publication.
Why? What grave crime did this woman commit that could see her so hounded that she asked her publisher to cancel everything? Everything, mind, on the first of three books, which had already made it as an ARC to early reviewers where the feedback was averaging four out of five stars, no mean feat for a first release? What sort of horrible, socially unjust thing was she doing?
Actually it was two things. One was that she dared write a book where oppression was not based on skin color, but on something else. And, as one one-star Goodreads review put it, that ‘is just bad.’ Because clearly all oppression should be based on skin color, apparently. How dare Zhao write about people finding other ways to oppress people?
But second? She wrote about slavery, and she is not Black. Yes, you read that right. She was attacked for writing a book that had slavery in it because she’s Asian, and as such should not be allowed to write about slavery. Because clearly China never had slavery or anything like that.
So yeah. In the face of mass harassment from these “socially minded” individuals (and sadly, even other authors), Zhao pulled her book, issued an apology, and backed out.
Everything about this is wrong. For starters, Zhao owes no one an apology, except maybe now the eager would-be fans waiting for her books. And herself. She caved when she shouldn’t have. If she owes anyone an apology at all, it’s herself first for listening to these “socially minded” idiots, and then her fans for any delays.
But even worse is that this is the state we’ve reached. This is book burning. Worse, it’s book burning of a book that isn’t out yet entirely because the author is “not of the proper race to write about X topic.”
If you’re familiar with me at all, you can probably guess what my reaction to this is: SCREW THAT. It’s racism, pure and simple. Zhao can write about what she wants. Fantasy story where people oppress people for reasons other than skin color?
Okay, can we talk about that for a second? First, yeah, that’s fine. Spend five minutes in a grade school and you’ll see that all over the place that people are capable of oppressing others for the dumbest reasons, from what brand of pants they wear to how expensive their lunch is. There’s nothing wrong with writing about this, especially if the point of the book is that “hey, these systems are stupid and foolish, designed to create inequality.”
But worse is that these idiots tearing Zhao down actually believe that having any other sort other than based on skin color is wrong. Which what, makes judgement based on skin color right?
Oh wait, these are the same morons who also said Zhao shouldn’t be allowed to write about slavery because she wasn’t Black. So in their screwed-up little worldview, I guess yes. Because what they’re doing definitely counts as oppression, and they’ve flat out stated it’s because she’s Asian, so … I guess they’re not hypocrites in this instance. Which honestly only makes it worse, since they’re advocating for restrictions and penalties based on skin color.
There’s little else for me to say about this except that it’s just wrong on every level. It’s book burning before the book is even out. It’s racist and racially motivated. But worst of all?
These folks got away with it. Zhao pulled her books. She’s out.
Now, there have been additional efforts to “justify” the reaction retroactively. Some critics have since doubled-down that there were “other” troubling elements like cliched story-telling, near plagiarism (which is a flimsy excuse, it’s either plagiarism or it isn’t. Lucas didn’t sue Rowling because both their protagonists were orphans who rose to greatness after being trained by an old sage that died), poor use of Russian names …
And to that, I say so what? There are plenty of cheap, crappy books with knock-off plots, characters, and scenes out there that get things from names to basic fifth-grade science wrong (that “award-winning” short story I read where all the copper wires rusted away comes to mind). None of those books are crucified before they’re even out. They’re either fixed, never released by the editor’s call, or they run into what we call the “free market” and the legacy builds or destroys itself.
Seriously, with all the other books out there with crappy science, bad research, etc etc that are already out, but no one cries for them to be crushed, what made this one special?
Yeah, it smacks of post-event justification, of looking for a way to excuse some pretty unsavory attitudes and behaviors.
But as I said, they got away with it. Zhao pulled her books out. I wish it wasn’t so, but she caved. And that gives these folks and their racist attitudes ammunition. It worked once, who will it work on next? Who else can they descend on and destroy or force to conform to their “vision” of what the world looks like?
It’s messed up. But it’s done. There’s not much that can be changed now. But I will say this:
Authors, you have free speech. You can write whatever you want. Your story can be what you want it to be.
The market will decide whether or not you can make it or not. You can write about controversial topics. You can write about down-to-Earth, slice-of-life moments. You can write crappy Sci-Fi with no idea how basic metallurgy works. You can write “social justice” tracts about how oppression only comes through skin color, if you’re that type of person.
But no one else gets to decide for you. No one can tell you “Well, you’re not X, so you cannot write about Y.” You can write about whatever you want. You can choose whether or not you’re going to do research on it. You make those decisions.
The market will decide if what you’re writing is worth paying for based on what you deliver … not a bunch of “socially minded” individuals judging your work based on your skin color.
So write what you wanted to write. Let those who read your works make the call, for good or ill.
And those of you worried about the Twitter mobs of “socially minded” folk?
Ignore them. You don’t matter to them, just whatever outrage they can stir to bolster their own powerbase. Write your work, put it out there.