Leonard Chang and Disappointed Editors

This morning I came across this article written by Korean-American author Leonard Chang:

I will start by being so bold as to quote a rejection by an esteemed former editor, publisher, and literary agent who shall remain nameless, but who read The Lockpicker in manuscript form. He wrote a brief letter of praise, but ultimately rejected the novel. The line from his letter that shouted back at me was thus:

What fails for me is that it [that] virtually nothing is made of the fact that these guys are Koreans. I suppose in the alleged melting pot of America that might be a good thing, but for the book it doesn’t lend anything even lightly exotic to the narrative or the characters.

Before you get shocked or wince sympathetically, I must confess that this was not the first time I’d receive this kind of rejection. I won’t get into the identity and racial politics of why this critique is so pernicious, but it’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.

Another rejection for another novel, another, longer quote from a legendary 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.

Half the problem is that the agents and editors, who probably knew or guessed Chang was Korean-American, expected him to write only about issues related to that ethnicity (and then, probably dreary accounts about how difficult life is in racist America). I’ve mentioned this problem before in the context of Turkish author Elif Şafak:

When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.

Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria.

It must be pretty depressing to be an author from an ethnic minority and find editors and agents are only interested in your stories if they include characters of that minority and they are described and behave in the way Western progressives suppose they should. As a pale-faced Brit I am unlikely to encounter such prejudices – editors and agents will reject my work for very different reasons – but the answer is there anyway: self-publish.

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11 thoughts on “Leonard Chang and Disappointed Editors

  1. I can appreciate the author’s frustration. My other half is Chinese and although brought up in an ex-pat Chinese family barely speaks Cantonese. We rarely eat Chinese food except for Chinese New Year but boy can she make a mean Sunday Roast and cottage pie and other so-called English staples. My children don’t even make much of the fact of themselves being mixed-race or half-Chinese and are just like their other English peers in their respective friendship groups. One of my son’s friends didn’t believe that my son was half-Chinese until he met my wife.

    I, for one, would be most offended if anyone ever said to me that my kids aren’t Chinese enough.

    It appears that the editors don’t want characters who have assimilated into their adoptive cultures but rather want them to remain and still feel they are outsiders or misfits. I thought the whole point of going to live in a new country was to immerse yourself in the culture and the language and to feel like you do fit in. Multiculturism is the most insidious doctrine – if I didn’t know any better, anyone would think that it is just a sly way of saying “Come and live here, yeah but keep to yourselves because we really don’t want your sort here but if it pisses of the Tories that’s good enough for us. Here have some cash.” – no wonder those on the left embrace it.

  2. Many people have major cognitive difficulties when faced with a disconnect between the visible racial features of a person and their behaviour. To the extent that it is now a cliche that people remark on a black person who, when he opens his mouth, speaks in a Scottish accent.

    I just got off a Swiss aircraft in Hong Kong and the crew refused to speak to me in German (as Tim knows I really don’t look German!)

    You will all think this is snowflake complaints about microagressions, but after 40 years of this (during which it has at least become lower level) it really does grate. At least in Hong Kong I will be treated like a native (I got dragged into a.polling booth once).

    The worst offenders are other people who look like you do and cannot believe you are not just like stereorypical (insert race/nationality) followed by sjw types. Liberals (real ones) and conservatives are more likely to treat you as an individual rather than having to pigeonhole you into a group identity.

  3. I take the main point, but there is another aspect here which might excuse the attitude of the potential publisher. He says:
    “What fails for me is that it [that] virtually nothing is made of the fact that these guys are Koreans.”

    One might argue that if the author flags up the fact that they are Koreans then the reader might have expectations aroused which are then annoyingly ignored. We don’t know how much is made of the fact that they are Koreans. Of course, characters have got to have names, histories, etc. in order to anchor them in the narrative. But beyond naming them and their peers, why is the Korean angle raised at all if nothing is done with it? The same would apply, of course, to their health, views, sexuality, and so on.

  4. @Sam Vara.

    My thoughts exactly. If I’m reading a book with a classically trained musician as the protagonist, I’d feel reasonably confident that a book (not real life, a book) would make use of that it some way. Ditto if pages of verbiage was used to describe a location or a car. If that information is never used in any way shape or form, I’d start to feel that the book was either badly written, or poorly edited. Over at Worstall’s, the thread about Kamm (and it’s comments) recycle some of Orwell’s thoughts on this theme.

    So, whilst it’s superbly reasonable for someone to expect to live their actual life with their racial characteristics deemed irrelevant for 90% of the time, I’m not sure that it holds true for a novel. Or at least, a successful novel- which is what the editors and publishers are hoping for.

    Now the writer may disagree with their reasoning, but I’d trust them over him. They’ve got a bit more skin in the game than he has.
    (Some of the feedback was pretty awful, though)

  5. Publish as C Leonard and call his characters J Hiram Pipesucker and so on.
    For God’s sake, not Hiram J Pipesucker – that would be plagiarism.

  6. Henry, BiG,

    That’s a good point: it is one thing for an ethnic-minority author to be expected to write a certain way, it must be infinitely more annoying for an ethnic minority to be chastised for not behaving in the expected way!

  7. One might argue that if the author flags up the fact that they are Koreans then the reader might have expectations aroused which are then annoyingly ignored.

    True, and that’s a good point. There is a difference between complaining to Leonard Chang that his Koreans aren’t Korean enough, and complaining to Elif Şafak that there aren’t enough Turkish women in her story.

  8. But beyond naming them and their peers, why is the Korean angle raised at all if nothing is done with it?

    I would argue that portraying these Korean-American characters as assimilated and not hung up on their otherness is “doing something with it”. The publisher obviously wanted to see more ethnic angst, which is their right, I guess. But still kind of disappointing, considering the sheer amount of ethic angst fiction out there. It seems like there ought to be room out there for at least a few fictional characters who don’t feel oppressed by whitey.

  9. It seems like there ought to be room out there for at least a few fictional characters who don’t feel oppressed by whitey.

    Yes, it strikes me as though publishers – possibly reflecting their audiences’ wishes – want any “ordinary” character to be a white Anglo-Saxon, and if he or she is anything else then this ought to be a major feature of the story. I can imagine how tiresome this gets for ethnic minority writers.

  10. I know a woman who lives in Northumberland and her garden has red squirrels as visitors so is familiar with them and their habits, plus the danger posed by greys carrying squirrel pox.

    She wrote a children’s book about red squirrels and grey squirrels. Rejected by the publishers for being racist.

    Back to the drawing board, eh?

  11. She wrote a children’s book about red squirrels and grey squirrels. Rejected by the publishers for being racist.

    /Facepalm.

    I hope she self-publishes and does well.

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