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November 08, 2017

#WokeFactor9: Author and Screenwriter Reveals That His Crime Fiction Novels Featuring Korean-American (But Mostly American) Characters Were Rejected by Editors as Not Being Korean Enough for Their (Presumably Whitebread Progressive) Tastes

Leonard Chang has written eight novels, and wrote teleplays for Justified (with AoSHQ Podcast guest Nick Searcy) as well as currently writing for a show called Snowfall (though I don't know what that is).

So he's not just breaking into the business.

Here's how Wikipedia describes him:

Chang's work is unusual in the canon of Asian American literature because of the level of assimilation many of his Korean American characters have achieved, and their interconnections with characters of other races and ethnicities. His protagonists tend to be second generation Americans, often with weaker ties to their ethnic origins. His later works deal less with race relations than with character-driven issues, such as with Allen Choice, whose name ("Choice" changed from the Korean "Choi" by his father) denotes the shift in ethnic identity and themes. Chang's experiments in crime fiction are related to this shift, since the stories revolve around criminals, and despite the fact that the protagonists are often Korean American, the debt here is more to crime and noir writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald. What also seems to differentiate Chang's work from others of his generation is his singular focus on detailing the Korean American experience as distinctly American.

Chang's novels have been translated into Japanese, French and Korean, and are regularly studied in literature, theology and sociology courses throughout the United States, Asia and Europe.

So... basically, he's Korean-American, but he's second-generation (or maybe third, I don't know) and feels more like an American than a specifically Korean-American.

As I'm sure quite a few Korean Americans feel.

Also, his inspirations seem to be classic American noir writers (and Elmore Leonard, I'd guess) and not, say, Ethnic Coming of Age Young Adult writers.

So he wants to write about crime, not Ethnic #Woke Moments of Realization.

He wrote a blog post in May, which is just being noticed, about rejection in the publishing industry. In a post that's really just about ignoring rejection and pushing on through, he reports these fairly amazing reasons for rejection:

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 i>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.

Antiquated, and yet "progressive", because it's a key dogma of the religious cult of progressive identity politics that a Korean must attempt to compete with other Koreans in terms of his Korean-ness. He is not permitted to just be a person or individual -- he must be the Ta-Nahesi Coates of Koreans.

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.

The editor is actually complaining that we learn too many details about these characters' lives as individuals and not enough about what makes them similar to a Korean stereotype and what makes them "different" from other, presumably "normal," characters.

Oh, and the editor really wants the writer to push the "slanty" angle, too.

Woke, huh? #WokeFactor9, I'd say.

Chang writes:

The Lockpicker is my eighth novel. Through the years, I've learned you cannot educate a hegemonic editor in power; you ignore him and move on. You find another editor, and you keep writing. There is no practical advice other than moving on. All my books have outlasted those naysayers. Quite literally: Those two editors above have since passed on, may they rest in peace. Meanwhile, I continue writing, no matter what the rejections may say.

So, this was his eighth novel that was now being rejected for not being "gookie" enough.

My point in emphasizing that this was his eighth novel is this: I know that editors want you to write in a specific genre marketed to a specif audience, especially if you're a first-time writer who has nothing else marketable about him except the specific genre you're writing in.

Apparently the editors here took one look at his guy and pegged him as "Our Korean Guy" whose book they could put in their Korean Menu section.

But this guy is not a first-time writer. This was his eighth book, so he had a name. He had previous readers.

Yet the editors insisted that he write a book specifically for Koreans, emphasizing the "exotic" parts of the Korean ethnic identity.

They had an Ethnic Ghetto in mind for him, and demanded he remain there.

The fact that this guy had a different genre in mind -- standard (popular AF) American detective/crime fiction that just happened to follow a largely Korean-American cast did not faze them. They wanted their Ethnic Coming of Age YA book, by hook or by crook.

Detective and crime books are popular. It's routinely the best selling or second or third best selling genre, year by year.

Why insist that it has to be about Koreans Acting All Korean? Was the Italian mobster in Get Shorty particularly Italian?

Did the whitebread liberal editors have actual Korean readers in mind -- which I doubt, because many would be, like Chang, 2nd or 3rd gen who really weren't defined strongly by their Korean heritage -- or did he have progressive white readers in mind, like themselves, who could be sold the book with the promise that it would give them a secret glimpse into the strange and kimchee-eating culture of these exotic and "different" Koreans?

BTW: for those of you out there who like crime fic, as I do -- would you rather read a book called The Lockpicker which is chiefly about crime and criminals and, well, lockpicking, or a book called The Lockpicker which de-emphasizes all that boring crime nonsense to focus on the exotic culture of a young Korean man just coming to grips with his Koreanness and also homosexuality?

Oh, I tossed in that last one because, hell, if you're writing an identity politics book anyway, might as well throw "gay" in there to nab a few more white progressive readers.

Personally I read more of Lawrence Block's Burglar series than I should have just to learn about lockpicking (when, it turns out, actually just getting a nonfiction about lockpicking told me all I really wanted to know in a much more information-dense package).

The writer wanted to write Phillip Marlowe, P.I.; his editors insisted he write Progressive Purse Puppy, Korean Detective.

Get back on The Plantation, Asian-Boy. Write like a proper Asian or go back to the egg roll factory.


digg this
posted by Ace at 05:17 PM

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