Views on Cancel Culture
Volume XXI, Issue Three | September 2021
The buzz at the Western Writers of America conference in June was about cancel culture. I’m not exactly sure what that means. My dictionary is too old to include the phrase, so I looked it up on Wikipedia: It defines cancel culture as “a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles—whether it be online, on social media, in the real world, or in person. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to be ‘canceled.’”
For writers, it’s what’s known as the sensitivity issue. For us, it means you can’t write from a point of view not your own. In other words, if you’re white, you can’t write from a black perspective. A man can’t write from a woman’s (or visa versa) or a straight from a gay’s. Just how far you can take this, nobody knows. Will I be precluded from writing from a teacher’s point of view because I’ve never taught?
I began thinking about this a year or two ago when I read American Dirt. It’s the story of a Central American woman who, along with her son, makes her way to the U.S. border, because she fears she will be the victim of thugs who murdered her family. Both my daughter Povy and I loved the book. So did reviewers—at first. Then the author was denounced because she wasn’t Hispanic. Therefore, this wasn’t her story to tell. I didn’t care, but many readers did.
In fact, there are good reasons behind this idea of sensitivity. If you’re not an African-American, how can you truly understand a black person’s point of view? And is it fair to a black writer that you’re usurping her chance to tell her story? Can a man really understand what it’s like to be a woman. (As an aside, how many men know that no woman leaves a building or gets into a car without checking to see who might be nearby?) Can a white understand what it is like to be raised in an Indian culture or an Hispanic one? I was once on a panel with my friend Manuel Ramos, who writes the wonderful Hispanic Mile-Hi noir books. I said I could probably come up with a Ramos plot, but I would never, ever be able to write his books because I did not have his Hispanic mindset. Minorites deserve to have their stories told in their own words, and publishers are scrambling to find minority writers.
Still, there’s a downside. You know that adage, write what you know. Well, you can learn about just about anything, and some of our most important and beloved literature wouldn’t pass the sensitivity police today. Would we have had Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was written by a white woman, or The Help? Margaret Coel’s series about an Indian lawyer on the Wind River reservation might be taboo, along with Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries. What about Life of a Geisha, written by a man, or the Harry Potter books?
I’m hoping that all this will run its course, and in time literature will be judged on its merits, not on the color or sex or ethnicity of the author.
Colorado Authors’ Hall of Fame
I am honored to be named to the Colorado Authors’ Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony which is open to the public, will be Sept. 18 at the Renaissance Denver Central Park Hotel. (Tickets $150.) I’m among 10 living inductees, who represent a variety of fiction and nonfiction styles and genres. In addition, John Williams, James Michener, Robert Heinlein, and Hannah Marie Wormington have been selected as legacy (deceased) authors. I am grateful to Margaret Coel for nominating me.
I'm especially grateful to be listed among living authors.
Books in the Works
Much as I hated being homebound by the COVID scare, I found it a productive time. I have three books underway. Little Souls, about the 1918 flu epidemic will be published by St. Martin’s Press next spring. I’ll tell you more about it in the next issue of Piecework. Where Coyotes Howl, a second adult novel, this one set in Wyoming, should see publication the following year. In addition, I’m signing a contract with Sleeping Bear Press for my fifth mid-grade (children’s) book. It’s about a girl who wants to be a doctor, and it probably will come out late next year.
By Peter Heller. Alfred A. Knopf.
I loved Peter Heller’s Edgar Award finalist, The River. The Guide takes the same character, Jack, traumatized by the murder of his friend, to a fishing ranch near Crested Butte. Jack is a guide at this exclusive club, with only one wealthy client. Something is off about the resort. The gates are locked from the inside. Guests are told to stay within the ranch’s boundaries or risk getting shot. Then there are the guests themselves, happy one day, haunted the next. When he hears a woman’s scream in the night, Jack sets out to find what’s going on. The book is a love poem to fishing. Heller is poetic when he describes fishing the Colorado mountain streams and what fishing mean to Jack.