The Bottom Line

It’s called “imagination” and most authors (and readers) are OK with that.

Some fifty-plus years ago I was laboring away in London at a publishing house in The City transcribing American comic strips into the “Queen’s English.” An editor friend popped in one morning and asked, “Do you want to meet Hank Janson?”

“Who’s Hank Janson?” I asked in return. My friend was astonished.

“Why he’s the most famous British pulp fiction writer ever; the equivalent of Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett all rolled into one.”

So, I left my cowboys and gunslingers to walk down the hall and meet this famous man. I imagined he would be tall, granite-chinned, and have steely blue eyes that bored deep into your soul.

There he was. A small, older gentleman in a dark blue suit. So short that his feet dangled above the floor as he sat on the swivel chair by a desk. Balding ungracefully. Hands folded in his lap like a gentle parson. We all chatted for a few minutes until a more senior editor took over Mr. Janson and the space.

It was revealing. To this day I have no idea if he was writer Stephen Frances, who adopted the Janson name to write dozens of first person blood and thunder private eye novels about—wait for it—Hank Janson. Or one of the several other writers who also later went AKA with the name.

Anyway, my point is that writers don’t have to be a “blood and thunder” type to write blood and thunder novels. Obviously.

Jump ahead to the modern day of “cultural appropriation” and perpetual outrage.

Jeanine Cummins wrote a novel, American Dirt. The author was roundly shamed by some (see: perpetually outraged above) asking how could anyone who was not Mexican could possibly accurately describe the angst and terror of escaping to the US from Mexico? Fortunately for Cummins, the book has been a runaway success and she has been berating herself all the way to the bank.

At the time I asked several people: “If I write a book about a mass murderer, does that mean I have to be a mass murderer myself to properly understand?” Hmmm.

More recently, we have a curious publishing trifecta of “cultural appropriation,” “self-cancel culture,” and abject “media surrender.”

Author Alexandra Duncan wrote a novel, Ember Days, part of which is set in the Gullah areas of the Low Country South Carolina and Georgia. HarperCollins was all set to publish when Ms. Duncan, who is white, was shamed (see: perpetually outraged above) rolled over, and withdrew the book.

The voice of the industry, Publisher’s Weekly, wrote an online article naming the person doing the shaming (See: perpetually outraged above) and then the PW editors caved, deleting the article while self-flagellating and intoning “We regret the damage the publication of this story has caused…” Wow!

Even The Wall Street Journal found the whole thing curious enough to warrant an editorial commenting, “Author cancels her own book, trade mag reports self-cancellation, trade mag cancels article about self-cancellation because article subjected source to cancellation. It’s all very confusing…”

The Bottom Line: Please use your imagination. That’s what authors do. Don’t be swayed by the perpetually outraged. Is J.K. Rowling a witch? Is she qualified to write about young wizards? “No’ and “Yes” in that order. As someone may (or may not) have famously said: “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.”

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