Book Cancelled, and So Is Publishers Weekly’s Coverage

Alexandra Duncan, noted on her website as a writer of “science fiction, fantasy, feminism,” decided to kill her forthcoming novel Ember Days because a Twitter critic convinced her it was “insensitive toward the Gullah culture.”  She explained the decision in a tweet.

Publishers Weekly now has also yanked its June 26 article reporting the book’s cancellation, evidently because the internet critic – named in the original version of the post – has become the subject of criticism and harassment. See “‘REMOVED: ‘Upcoming YA Novel “Ember Days” Cancelled By Author’” on the Publishers Weekly site.

After review, Publishers Weekly has determined that this story about a book cancellation failed to meet our editorial standards. We have removed the story for two reasons: the failure to meet our standards of reporting, and our unintentional promotion of online abuse directed toward an individual named in the story as a result of our not more thoroughly investigating the events leading to the cancellation of the book. We regret the damage the publication of this story has caused this individual, as well as any other instances of violence enacted upon Black, Indigenous, and other people of color as a result of PW‘s past reporting on similar matters.

The Internet Archive capture of PW’s original article is here.

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11 thoughts on “Book Cancelled, and So Is Publishers Weekly’s Coverage

  1. Well, it’s her decision, of course, but….maybe it would have been wise to ask for a second or third opinion? I don’t think I’d trust just one person in a case like this.

    Edit: The article does say “colleagues,” as in, more than one. Okay.

  2. Who writes a book with a hook like this without finding human consultants, or even collaborator(s)?

  3. My understanding is that the Gullah culture was very isolated from other cultures for a long time (with its own Creole language and own customs). Even most Black people would not be familiar with it, or at least not familiar enough to write a novel set in that culture.

    Also, the heroine in this book was supposed to be light skinned, so that she could “pass” as a white person. That came off badly as well. The idea of “passing” is a controversial issue in itself. Not something a white writer should approach without a lot of careful research. Also, from what I gleaned from online discussions, the Gullah people are apparently fairly unlikely to marry outside their culture, and thus unlikely to have lighter-skinned members.

    FWIW I think the main thrust of the plot involved the heroine leaving the area where she grew up and trying to infiltrate a group of magic users in the city or something. So why even make her Gullah? That story could work with any number of heroines. In recent years, they have had to protect their culture (and their lands) against wealthy developers and fight against being pushed off lands their families have owned since they were freed. That sounded more interesting to me…

    The PW story itself came under fire because with their initial coverage, they made it sound as if a Black author had “caused” the book to be cancelled – and that she did so because she was a “rival author.” They didn’t seem to respond to the complaints. Then certain folk picked up on the poorly written headline and started attacking the Black author. Instead of, you know, looking up information on the Gullah people, wondering why somebody thought this book would be a good idea, etc.

  4. I’m curious to know if the problem was that she got something seriously wrong or if the problem was that she was a white person describing a black culture.

    If the problem is the former, then a better approach is to use “accuracy readers” so that an author will know where in their fiction they are bending something important or breaking it in a way that truly undermines a culture. Bending something important for fictional purposes should be largely acceptable.

    If the problem is the latter, then the problem resides with the critic and not the author.

    I don’t think I’ve met anyone with a stronger work ethic than Ray Charles. – Clint Eastwood

  5. Gullah people are apparently fairly unlikely to marry outside their culture, and thus unlikely to have lighter-skinned members.

    This may not be so. Although I don’t see a lot of research specifically on Gullah culture, Dael Orlandersmith wrote her Pulitzer-nominated play “Yellowman” about her childhood recollections of colorism and light-skinned elitism in Gullah culture.

  6. The only reason I even know about the Gullah Geechee is because of seeing them turn up in historical fantasy short stories. As a result, when Eric and I visited Charleston and Savannah a year or two ago, I was quite interested in visiting exhibits that told their story.

    Is this really what modern Gullah Geechee people wanted? I’ve always felt that imperfect representation is better than no representation, unless it’s actually malicious. For example, I never complain about the utterly-unrealistic-but-totally-adorable gay men that straight women like to write about. I don’t know any gay men who’re unhappy with that. Did anyone ask whether any Gullah Geechee people were offended by this novel?

  7. Greg Hullender: Did anyone ask whether any Gullah Geechee people were offended by this novel?

    The author withdrew the book from publication after receiving criticism from a PoC author based on the publicity blurb describing the book. Nobody but the author (and publisher, of course) knows what’s in it. This is an action the author took based on her own convictions.

    The blurb suggests that the ingredients of Gullah Geechee culture are subsumed in a plot about a character passing for white “while going undercover in an all-white magical society,” which doesn’t sound like something those who are part of the culture would find appealing, in contrast to gay characters in your analogy.

  8. I’m puzzled by “mitigate the harm I have done.” “Would have done” I could understand, but what harm was done by an announcement of a book whose content has not yet been revealed to the public, or even reviewers?

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