A Cutthroat Business – a few words on darkies, trailer trash, and other un-PC terms

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.

25 thoughts on “A Cutthroat Business – a few words on darkies, trailer trash, and other un-PC terms”

  1. Well said, and “brava.” Those who would reject A CUTTHROAT BUSINESS for racist language also want to rewrite TOM SAWYER to cut out the word “nigger.” So in a way, you’ve been lumped in with Mark Twain, so you’re in pretty good company. =)

  2. Jenna,

    The world is a little too PC. I don’t know what era A CUTTHROAT BUSINESS is written, but words that are derogatory in the PC world, are just common day in some Southern communities even, as you said, today. I remember my grandmother used “Nigger Boy” to refer to a friend of mine when I was a child, and I was appalled, but I understood in a time she grew up this was the norm. She wasn’t being mean or hateful. It was the norm.

    Readers need to filter based on context. I like to read and write stories that are early to mid-century 1900s, before Civil Rights, and as long as the terms are in context I have no issues. No one should. Social change cannot erase the past, erase the truth.

    As much as I was appalled by my grandmother’s word usage, I find it appalling that people are offended by the language of “Huckleberry Finn”. You can’t change the past.

    Personally, I don’t think African-American is a proper term. Are we European-American? I think we’re all Americans regardless of origin or creed.

  3. God, yes! The rewriting of Mark Twain is an atrocity! How dare they?!

    Isn’t it better to have the word in the book to make someone uncomfortable and make them think, and then maybe have discussion about it, than taking it out and making it a non-issue? It’s an issue, dammit! And pretending it isn’t there doesn’t make it not one!

  4. Ron,
    I’m actually not American. I grew up in Europe. In a very homogenous society where everyone was just like me. It isn’t so much anymore – the whole world is changing; we’re all moving around – but I grew up blessedly free of racial prejudice. I thought people who looked different were interesting and exciting. Imagine my shock when I arrived in Tennessee twenty years ago. 😀

  5. Wow! It would seem you’ve headed down the road of Kathryn Stockett. The Help was a hard sell for her too and yet…look what happened. Stay true to your characters and they will stay true to you.

  6. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of Jen! You kept your characters true to form and that’s what is important.

    I also have a bit of this type of issue with BLOOD ROLES. Reverse prejudice is also something editors and authors alike feared. It’s not something that is easy to understand but it exists – the same way the realities of A CUTTHROAT BUSINESS exist.

    The PC police work too much overtime. They need to accept that this is the world we live in and these types of things are never truly eradicated.

  7. It has come up in comments, but let me reiterate – you are in VERY good company, as Mark Twain got flack for racial slurs by those who missed the larger point of his work – he condemned racism, while being true to the realities of Southern life and the not-always-so-pretty language of the South.

    I applaud you for keeping it real. I grew up here (in the South), and I can vouch for the accuracy of the views/attitudes presented in your Southern-based series. I’ve heard ‘darkie’ and ‘colored’ and far worse from my neighbors, peers, and (sadly), my own family while growing up and even to this day.

    I’ve been called white trash, as have members of my family. It isn’t just a racial thing with old money Southern aristocracy – it is also very much an issue of class.

    Ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away. Presenting it in a honest way in your books, and showing your protagonist grow past her Southern prejudices to embrace the man she loves no matter who cares? That is powerful writing!

    I’m sorry you couldn’t get the endorsements or the publisher to embrace this series (which is really wonderful), but I commend you for having the courage to be true to your characters, setting, and writing.

    I’m proud of you and your work!

    Best wishes,


  8. You’ve got to be true to your characters. I also write Southern-placed fiction and if you don’t live down here, you don’t always know the vernacular.

    I love your books and hope you continue to have your characters speak according to their backgrounds (which I know you will).

    Keep up the good writing!

  9. There will always be folks who want to censor writers (and every other artist out there). Fortunately, in our country, for the most part they can’t. Or at least the have to jump through a bunch of hoops to do so. (Thinking here of public and school libraries that usually have guidelines if someone wants to protest a book.) As writers we educate, persuade, and entertain, and we do that in different styles.
    Even though the reaction from the one person seems excessive, my guess is you’ll pull in more readers because of that review. As people have said, be true to yourself. That’s all any of us can do, and still like who we see in the mirror.

  10. Sometimes to show how awful something is, you have to write about it. It’s a shame that sometimes people get so offended by truthful way you depict it that they can’t get past it to recognize your message. Very well said.

  11. Jenna;

    I feel your pain.

    In my latest book, I have a character who runs a dog-fighting ring. In my story I don’t show dogs fighting. This character talks about the dogs and shows another character the area where the fights take place. There are dogs in cages there. That’s it. No fighting at all.

    I’ve gotten a number of comments/reviews that people stopped reading the book and deleted it because of the dog fighting.

    The sad thing is that I wrote that subject into the book not only to develop that character, but to educate readers that this type of activity does go on.

    I know it’s a difficult subject, but I write authentic crime.

    Write on, Jenna.

  12. A lot of people don’t want to admit that’s how parts of America used to be AND for that matter, still is. The words/expressions your characters have used are appropriate and authentic. The book “The Help” touched on this subject and look at the reception it got…when it finally got passed the PC bunch.

    That’s one of the problems in the country today….to darned many people concerned with being PC. They’d rather “color” it up all nice and fancy….and tell you the lie.

    You keep telling it like it is, Jen. Thanks for the truth. GREAT job!!!

  13. Beautifully stated.

    I love this series and I didn’t read any racial anything in it. It was a love story of a woman striking on her own and living her life to do what she wanted and you entertained us with a beautifully written story.

    I guess this reader would not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn.

  14. I’m reading A CUTTHROAT BUSINESS and I can assure everyone it’s a good book. But you’re right, Jenna. That does happen when you go free. Some people (probably with lower levels of reading comprehension) just won’t get the book.

    I don’t have anything un-PC in my free humorous short story and some people love it, others don’t get the humor and hate it. The only way you can avoid that is to write more blandly, which of course is unacceptable.

  15. I’m a pretty PC type person and I wasn’t offended at all. You are bound to get some loonies. Just ignore ’em.

    I have to say I got the first book for free and within a week I’m on the 5th book. Can’t put them down! Is there 6th book in the works?

  16. Excuses, excuses, typical heard them all before, no accountability. – “A character in the book said it” Ultimately you still wrote the words and FYI…most people are ok being called Black instead of the “PC Term” African American. Clearly the people responding here are white (whatever the racial breakdown is there, italian, jew, scottish, you all seem to go by one desription of white)..you can write whatever you want, it is a free country and I can post on my facebook site of over 3000 people not to download the free copy of this mediocre novel. Have wonderful day.

    1. My, my! Feeling a little bitter, aren’t you? I don’t understand why someone so angry would have that many Facebook friends.
      And by the way, the book is far from mediocre.

  17. I have read the entire series, just having finished Kickout Clause. I find nothing upsetting about anything that happens or is said, because I grew up in Nashville with a proper Southern Momma and seemed to always find the “wrong” boy to hang out with. I recognize all the words and all the actions of the characters as being a true representation of Southern culture. I can’t imagine why publishers wouldn’t have jumped on A Cutthroat Business immediately. I also can’t imagine why a reader would object to words that are spoken for a direct literary purpose. Rafe would say “darkie.” In spite of his bravado, there is still a lot of hurt from hearing that word and several others, I imagine, as he grew up. His using it is a subtle way of revealing that he has a another side that that may not be so tough and may in fact be a little in need of reassurance that he is okay. Forgive me for defending him, but I have a real crush on Rafe, and in my eyes, he can say or do no wrong.

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