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Apr. 24, 2017

Don't you let that deal go down. . .

          I signed a publishing deal for my new mystery, "The Death Sisters," with a well known and established publisher in New York. A signed contract, accepted and formalized.
          I also canceled the deal and decided to self-publish.
          Follow me, if you will, down this particular rabbit hole. . .
          There is a reactionary term going around,“cultural appropriation.” This is an invention hatched largely in the “safe spaces” of academia that holds that non-minorities may not write about minorities. Really. I kid not. The purveyors of this concept (if that is not too lofty a word for it) have exaggerated ethnocentrism and politically correct rearrangement to the point where they suggest, no, command, that one must be of a particular culture. . .in order to write about that culture.
          (Paging Steinbeck, Hemingway, Pearl S. Buck, Lafcadio Hearn. . .)
          Translation: if you are of European descent and your skin is generally a shade of beige, you are not allowed to write about characters of any other ethnic background or epidermic tint. This idea is taken seriously, and is widely advocated by people claiming intelligence and liberalism. It is a certifiable controversy in publishing.
          Which brings us to the fact that some characters in my book are of Japanese descent, and/or Japanese-American culture. Some of the themes of the story are, as well. I am not. After I was offered a publishing deal (by e-mail), I was invited to phone the (Caucasian) publisher for the how-do-you-do. The very first question he asked was:
          “Are you Japanese?”
          I was taken aback. What did this matter? (Never mind that the accurate question would have been, "Are you Japanese-American?") I just managed to respond with a simple “no.” The publisher then asked:
         “Well, can you look Japanese for the back cover photo?”
          Again, I kid you not. This really, actually, truly, genuinely, mind-bogglingly is what he said.
         I was repulsed, confused, disgusted. What did he want, thick glasses and Hirohito teeth? I mean, huh? I was disgusted, as I said, but as I also wanted to be published, I elected to treat it as a (vile) joke, and responded, “Oh, yeah, sure.” He then suggested that I “wear a funny hat or something.” I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, how serious he was, how much crack he had smoked. 


        Of course, I should have taken all this as a bad sign, and backed out immediately. Instead, I proceeded, lured by the prospect of being “officially” published. Who knows, I thought, maybe he had incipient senility (he was a bit older than me.) After I signed the contract,  it became clear in dribs and drabs from the publisher and the co-publisher that they intended to make radical changes in the manuscript that amounted to de-emphasizing the Japanese and Japanese-American aspects of the book. This would be like, oh, de-emphasizing the Chinese aspect of “The Joy Luck Club.”
          Again: huh?
          I was just shocked. I politely attempted to persuade that there was no need to make such changes, and that they would, in fact, undermine the effect of the book. (Duh.)  The publisher said he was very surprised at my response, adding that most authors “welcome editing.” (Oh, God, that old ruse---make the writer the "bad guy.") I explained that I was happy to be edited, happy to have my work improved, but that de-emphasizing the main themes and defining aspects of the book did not amount to “editing,” but rather enormous, unnecessary revision.
          Still seeking a way to (politely) resolve the matter, I took it upon myself to rewrite a particular chapter which the publishers deemed too long, and too heavy on Japanese cultural references. I made it shorter and gave it a harder edge, but given that it takes place at a Japanese-American Buddhist festival, no, I did not de-emphasize the Japanese aspect. The publisher’s response? I had “only” shortened it by a few pages. It was clear that neither publisher nor co-publisher had even bothered to read it. And then came the coup de grace, if one was needed:
         Co-publisher, the one who would do the bulk of the editing, informed that I had to tone down the fact that the main character, a half-Japanese American, half-Caucasian detective named Ed Funderburke, is a casual Buddhist. And that the same applied to the chapter that takes place at the Japanese-American Buddhist festival. Why? "People might get the wrong idea," she said, or words close to that. It took me about an hour to realize that she meant that readers would think that I was trying to. . .convert them to Buddhism! (I don't like exclamation points much, but am making a warranted exception here.)
          I mean, hell, better rewrite all of Faye Kellerman's books (about a detective who incorporates Jewish themes in his work) to tone down that pesky Judaism. Gadzooks.

The other possibility is that they thought they might come under fire for, yes, “cultural appropriation”---theft of culture by an evil white person---which could hurt sales.

          This all transpired over several unpleasant weeks. In the end, I realized that there was no hope, and that the publishers had no intention whatsoever of remotely considering my point of view. (You can imagine the stress of having signed your work away to people who were legally entitled to ruin it.) In the end, the guy who had asked me to "look Japanese" pulled the ultimate power play, offering me a chance to cancel the deal. I’m sure he was shocked that I would take him up on that offer, but take him up, I promptly and gladly did. I returned my advance, and we nullified the contract.
         I haven't been so relieved since my bowels began moving two days after kidney stone surgery. 
          My wild guess is that there were two possible motives on the publishers' part. First, perhaps they thought that the target audience was mostly beige-colored European-Americans, more commonly known as “white folk,” and feared that a book with some Japanese themes and Japanese-American characters (set in L.A., with lots of white folks, brown folks, black folks) would not sell with such an audience. Of course, such thinking is racist, reductive, and yet another example of decisions crippled by demographic thinking---epidemic in this society. What, Caucasians didn’t read “Memoirs of a Geisha?” (written by one Arthur Golden, not incidentally.)
          The other possibility is that they thought they might come under fire for, yes, “cultural appropriation”---theft of culture by an evil white person---which could hurt sales. Need I say that I find either scenario odious? Whatever happened to deciding to publish a book because it’s. . .good? Isn’t that what they had done initially, before finding out that I am not of Japanese descent? Hmm. . .
          After this debacle, I sent sample chapters to the few other publishers who were even deigning to accept manuscripts. One was so imperious and downright nasty that I refused to send the full book to her when requested to do so. Others took the "it's not right for us" way out. Again, I suspect the “ethnic” factor made them hesitant. (Agents didn't even bother to write back.) Were they afraid of a “niche market?” I thought all publishing has become “niche marketing.” And I practically browbeat a very kind woman publisher in L.A. (who was appalled by the New York jokers) into reading the manuscript, and while she allowed that it was a great, suspenseful read with captivating characters---and captures contemporary L.A.---"debut fiction is just too hard."

I mean, hell, better rewrite all of Faye Kellerman's books (about a detective who incorporates Jewish themes in his work) to tone down that Judaism.

         "Debut fiction." Hadn't heard that one before. A novel novel rejection! I guess my two previous novels and two previous short story collections don't count because they are self-published. I guess the fact that I've been writing professionally since age 20, have written for just about every newspaper in the country (and a lot of magazines---you remember magazines), and have won four L.A. Press Club Awards for on-line writing, and that my name is somewhat recognizable. . .doesn't count. You can't be published because you haven't been published. And here I thought people had grasped Joseph Heller. Still, I'm sure the L.A. publisher was right. If you're not a proven commodity in an insanely competitive market, why take on the additional burden of promoting an "unknown?"
          Here is a little denouement. The New York publisher, ever seeking to put a (fake) civil face on things, had invited me to resubmit the manuscript if I was unable to find another publisher. I did not do this, but I did contact him again a couple months later. I sent a copy of one of the very good Naomi Hirahara “Mas Arai” detective novels to him. Why? They had objected to the many Japanese terms in my book (as well as the Chicano slang, "vato"), and the small glossary at the end. I wished to show them that there were published books just loaded with Japanese terms (not to mention books with French terms, Latin terms, German terms, etc.) Publisher wrote back that this made no difference because he didn't like it, end story. He added that it was my “my way or the highway” attitude that “caused me to say ‘Sayonara’ to you.” Yes, direct quote. He really said this. The guy just couldn't shake his impulse toward racist cracks, not to mention having turned the events around 180 degrees. (It was "his way or the highway," not mine.)
          Snide? Check. Lame? Check. A lie? Check. Racist? In my opinion, check.
          And you wonder why people self-publish.
          Oh, by the why, I expect you have been wondering why this book somewhat concerns Japanese and Japanese-American themes. (It's actually a hodgepodge of L.A. people and places.) Well, why did Mark Twain write about African-Americans, and Steinbeck about Mexicans? Why did Kazou Ishiguro write "Remains of the Day," the heartbreaking story of British servants? Why did Ruth Prawer Jhabvala adapt it?
          In my case, I have known a great many people of Japanese and Japanese-American background, and I grew up around this and many other cultures, including African-American, Jewish, Chinese and Chinese-American, Mexican and Mexican-American, etc. How can you grow up and live in Los Angeles without being exposed to all these cultures, and more? As far as I’ve always been concerned, my lifelong culture has been the ethnic mish-mosh that is Los Angeles. In other words, these cultures are part of my culture. On top of this, I have great affection for Japanese-American culture, and took it as a challenge to write convincingly with this as a partial backdrop.
          In closing, I would like to take this opportunity to figuratively thumb my nose (with accompanying raspberry) at my would-be publisher, and all those who believe in “cultural appropriation." If that isn't too white of me.

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