Modern constraints on writers

Here’s a thought-provoking post from Leonard Chang, author of various, hmm, looks like literary thrillers:

My latest novel, The Lockpicker, had a tortuous history, and made me question the sanity of agents, editors — and even myself. I will start by being so bold as to quote a rejection by an esteemed former editor….”The characters, especially the main character, just do not seem Asian enough. They act like everyone else. They don’t eat Korean food, they don’t speak Korean, and you have to think about ways to make these characters more ‘ethnic,’ more different. We get too much of the minutiae of [the characters’] lives and none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.”


Chang quotes not one but two different editors who evidently think that protagonists should think about their exotic social identity when they look in the mirror. One can certainly see why the author was peeved. He comments: “[I]t’s enough to say that exoticism for exoticism’s sake, especially from a Korean-American writer who sees himself as American and not exotic, is just, well, antiquated.”

Yes, no kidding.

This illustrates something that concerns me: apparent modern pressure for authors of color to write nothing but fiction involving contemporary issues faced by people of color. Not far future SF where race doesn’t matter, not secondary world fantasy where the only important distinction is between human people and, say, centaurs. Nope. Not crime novels or thrillers like The Lockpicker. Only fiction where their protagonists gaze in the mirror and think about their Asianness.

This seems regrettable. I’m glad Chang saw his novel published eventually, by, let’s see, looks like a small press called Black Heron Press. Good. It doesn’t actually sound much like my cup of tea — here’s what The Los Angeles Review of Books says about it:

Chang’s novel is, indeed, a labyrinth from which his characters can’t seem to escape. Everyone is trapped — either in a failing marriage, in debt, in a race against time, in the past, or in dreams for the future. But it is also a gripping, dramatic read. We cannot help but root for these rich, flawed characters as they struggle to free themselves from the traumas of childhood.

— but though this sounds too claustrophobic for me, I hope it does well for him.

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4 thoughts on “Modern constraints on writers”

  1. That’s definitely one of those letters where you have to wonder how the agent sending it could have possibly thought that was a reasonable/ok thing to say.

    Neil Gaiman’s response on twitter, a narration of him looking into a mirror and pondering his whiteness/Britishness, was really funny.

  2. This is so arggghhh and yet the responses on twitter were some of the funniest things I’ve read recently. Thanks for sharing!

  3. They were! And laughing at the initial editor’s rejection is maybe the best response? Mockery probably delegitimizes an attitude faster than any other possible response.

    Not worthwhile for Chang himself though. I can imagine how he must have whapped his head against his desk. A rejection? This rejection? REALLY?

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