A social media lynch mob killed a book last month. The vampire vigilantes slew a dream, too, in a lustful feeding frenzy that must have given a whole set of keyboard bloodsuckers an almighty powerful dopamine dump. Won‘t last, of course; they’ll soon need to feed again.
Last January, Amélie Wen Zhao posted an ecstatic message on her website: Her debut young adult fantasy novel, “Blood Heir,” had sold to a major children’s publishing house in a three‐book deal after a heated auction, and was scheduled to be released in summer 2019.
“I AM GOING TO BE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR!!!!!!” she wrote.
But a year later, her nascent career has stalled, after some critics, who read early review copies of the novel, denounced the book as blatantly racist….
When Ms. Zhao’s agent, Pete Knapp, submitted the manuscript to publishers, editors swooned. Offers poured in from the five biggest publishing houses, and Ms. Zhao sold the book as part of a three‐book package to Delacorte Press for more than $500,000, according to the industry website Publishers Marketplace. Delacorte described it in marketing copy as “the hottest fantasy debut of the summer,” calling it an “epic new series about a princess hiding a dark secret and the conman she must trust to clear her name for her father’s murder.”
After Delacorte sent out advance reader copies, many of the early reviews were positive — the book has a four and a half star rating on Goodreads. But a backlash began brewing this January, when some readers posted blistering critiques on social media. Some readers criticized what they viewed as racial stereotypes and careless borrowing from other cultural traditions: the novel features a diverse cast — including “a tawny‐skinned minority of a Russian‐esque princess; a disowned and dishonored Asian‐esque assassin; an islander/Caribbean‐esque child warrior; a Middle‐Eastern‐esque soldier,” according to Ms. Zhao’s description of the novel on her website.
Others objected to the way in which Ms. Zhao used slavery as a plot device.
“How is nobody mentioning the anti‐blackness and blatant bigotry in this book?” one reader wrote on Goodreads. “This book is about slavery, a false oppression narrative that equates having legitimately dangerous magical powers that kill people with being an oppressed minority, like a person of color. This whole story is absolutely repulsive.”
With what seemed like lightning speed in the publishing world, where publicity and marketing plans are crafted months in advance, Ms. Zhao apologized and said she would withdraw the book, which was due out in early June.
In a note to readers, she said she intended to write the novel from her “immediate cultural perspective” and to address the “epidemic of indentured and human trafficking prevalent in many industries across Asia, including in my own home country. The narrative and history of slavery in the United States is not something I can, would or intended to write, but I recognize that I am not writing in merely my own cultural context. I am so sorry for the pain this has caused.”
This is grotesque on many levels, not least Zhao’s self‐abasing acquiescence to the feasting of the mob, which, of course will not spare her.
There is no appeasing these vicious and vile creatures. They do not hunger for more and greater art (much less do they create their own); they lust only for an inevitably temporary satiety of the gnawing, screaming hunger for validation. And, of course, their easiest and safest prey are the vulnerable, like Ms. Zhao. Create a diverse cast of characters? You have committed cultural appropriation. Adequately check off all of the boxes of inclusion, equity and diversity? You didn’t portray your character(s) “right.”
The vampires drain one body and move on. Soon, creators will fear to step out their door at night and will sit in front of their screen, paralyzed in terror of typing a word that will destroy their career or strangle it in its crib.
This, dog brothers, is the death of art.
Writers work hard to get it right. Accuracy is obviously a paramount goal for a work of non‐fiction, and it is that wonderful “reckless verisimilitude” that makes great fiction sing. There’s a vast difference between getting it right in terms of accuracy and making a fictional world “real,” and getting it right in conformity to an artificial and constantly shifting standard driven by the cultural‐political agendas and personal pathologies of self‐appointed arbiters of social justice. One hones craft; the other destroys art.
Activism doesn’t come naturally to most of us here at Running Iron Report. We want to spend our time actually writing, playing music, running or riding the woods and deserts, pulling triggers and breaking mead benches — not rolling around in the Big Muddy of politics and toxic culture. But we can’t cede the field to the angry activists, because sooner or later, they will be trying to sink their fangs into us. I spent hours last month writing legislators to push back an egregious assault on the Second Amendment and my personal way of life here in Oregon. And I’ll do battle in defense of art, even when the artist, like Ms. Zhao, won’t.
I will use every platform available to me to denounce this plague of vampires, including writing to publishers and industry publications. Above all, I will inoculate myself against the fear these creatures seek to instill in creators, and render my own blood toxic to them, so that when they sink their fangs into my flesh they recoil as it burns their desiccated veins.