So I got this 1-star review on Amazon yesterday, for A Cutthroat Business.
I’ve been waiting for it, both because – when a book goes free – a lot of people download it who wouldn’t ordinarily buy it, but more because I figured it was just a matter of time before someone picked up on the racial issue and took it the wrong way. It’s pretty much a miracle that it hasn’t happened before.
Except of course it has. Not in reviews, but back a few years, when A Cutthroat Business was about to be released by its first publisher, I went hunting for author endorsements. Since the book is Southern fiction and dealing to a very large degree with issues that are still alive and well in the South, I approached several well known Southern mystery authors. A few of them refused to endorse the book because of the racial slurs.
One, a brilliant Southern mystery writer whom I adore, both as an author and a person, went so far as to tell me she thought the book was accurate, but she couldn’t put her name on it because her – New York, Big Six – publisher would have a conniption. Not PC enough.
And I can respect that. We all have to do what we have to do. But I did figure, when the book went live, sooner or later someone would come along who’d miss the point of the racial references.
Now it’s happened.
Here’s the review:
So, I’m not sure why the author found it necessary to refer to African-Americans as “darkies” in this book. I am beyond shocked that she thought this was acceptable. I stopped reading after multiple negative or derogatory references to black people.
Disgusting. I wish I could negative stars.
And I’m responding to it here, not on Amazon, because you don’t engage the crazies. Ever. It would turn into a mud-slinging, and I don’t need that. I’m proud of A Cutthroat Business. I wouldn’t change a word of it. Especially not that one. And if you don’t know me personally, obviously you don’t know whether I’m a racist in real life or not. As it happens, I’m not, although that isn’t really the point. As far as I’m concerned, the book makes it clear, and I’m only sorry she got so caught up in the words that she wasn’t able to look past them to the meaning.
Here’s the thing:
A) Yes, the word “darkie” is in the book. It’s in dialogue. As in, someone said it. Doesn’t mean I’d say it myself; doesn’t mean I think it’s an OK thing to do. That’s not my call. But any halfway decent author lets his/her characters use the words they want, because that’s who they are. It’s not an endorsement, and it doesn’t mean the author would; it just means that here’s a person who’d use that kind of language. Our job as authors – one of them – is to faithfully record what the characters do and say, and not to censor them. If that makes some readers uncomfortable, so be it.
B) The guy who said it, Rafe Collier, is himself half black. Or half African-American, to use the PC term. Here in the real world – and in the South – people still say black. Sometimes they even say colored (another word that’s in the book) and darkie. And white trash. Yes, those are in there, too. And Rafe’s grown up hearing them. All of them. He has an attitude. Can you blame him?
C) He only says it to make Savannah, the heroine, feel embarrassed about her family’s past. In antebellum times, before the Civil War – the War Against Northern Aggression, in Savannah’s and Rafe’s parlance – the Martins had a plantation and were slaveowners. She grew up in the old Martin mansion. Some people have that past. A lot of the old antebellum mansions are museums these days, but there are some that are still privately owned and that serve as homes. Savannah’s is one of them.
D) Does she have racial prejudices? Sure. It’s more “us and them” than it is “superior and inferior,” but they’re there. She couldn’t have grown up the way she did and avoid racial prejudices, I think. That’s kind of the point of the book. Yes, it’s fun and happy, a sexy, sassy mystery, but in the subtext, it’s about a young woman who, for the first time in her life, is on her own – out of her parents’ house, away from her Southern gentleman ex-husband – and who is able to see the world without that filter for the first time, and to start to question the “truths” she’s always taken for granted. In its way, it’s actually a pretty deep book. Of course, if you only look at the surface, you might miss that.
E) Savannah is embarrassed by what Rafe says, not just because of her family’s past and Rafe’s throwing it in her face, but because the word he uses is ugly and she knows it. She’d never use it herself. He knows she wouldn’t. That’s why he does.
F) At the risk of giving away a major plot point: this guy is the love interest. Think about that for a minute.
G) The series is about whether Savannah can overcome her upbringing – her ingrained racial prejudices and her need for her family’s approval – to commit to the guy she’s falling for, who’s everything she knows she shouldn’t want, but whom she loves anyway. Because unlike her perfect Southern ex-husband, and her perfect Southern suitor, and her perfect Southern mama, he lets her be herself. She can’t say or do anything to shock him, because he’s already seen or heard worse.
It was very, very hard to sell A Cutthroat Business. It made the rounds in New York for a couple years, gathering rejections, before someone finally took a chance on it. And when it was released in 2010, sadly, it didn’t do very well at all. I’m sure the PC world and the subject matter had a lot to do with both of those, because – at the risk of sounding self-congratulatory – I don’t think it’s the writing that’s subpar. I’m far from the best writer in the world, but I don’t have any problem selling other books.
I wouldn’t change a word of it, though. I’m proud of A Cutthroat Business. Everything about it is exactly the way I want it to be.
Because you know what? I didn’t write about racism because I think racism is OK. I wrote about it because I don’t.
Racism is still alive and well, not just in the South, but everywhere. And it’s ugly. And books need to be written about it. When we become so PC that we can’t reflect the real world, and the ugliness in it, and shine a light on it and maybe make someone think, for fear that we’ll be called racists ourselves, then we’ve lost something precious.
I knew A Cutthroat Business would be uncomfortable reading for some people. I figured there’d be those out there who were put off by the subject matter. I wish they were put off by the racism itself, and not the words I chose to highlight it, but I guess it comes to the same thing in the end.
Thanks for reading.