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Identity Politics Comes for a Best-Selling Novelist
Plus: Key reads for a Monday
(Photo by Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
This is an amazing—and deeply troubling—story from best-selling author (and erstwhile Bulwark contributor) Richard North Patterson.
Last January, my agents began submitting to publishers the manuscript of my first novel in nine years.
On the surface, I had reason for confidence. Of my 22 prior novels, 16 had been New York Times bestsellers, and in general reviewers had treated them kindly. My agents shared my assessment that this one, “Trial,” was equal to my strongest work. And like my most successful previous books, it’s a law-based narrative culminating in a murder trial.
But, as he describes in an email to the Bulwark, that novel “was repeatedly rejected by major publishers because as a white author I chose to write about some of our most vexing racial problems –voter suppression, unequal law-enforcement – through the prism of three major characters, two of them Black.”
We’ve heard similar stories before. There is a vocal segment of the left that insists that this kind of fiction is a form of “cultural appropriation.” (For some reason, the fight is especially vicious in the world of Young Adult fiction.)
But Patterson’s experience feels like an escalation, or at least an exclamation point. In his email to the Bulwark, the author writes:
This preemptive censorship reflects the new but militant insistence that authors of fiction should “stay in their lane”, and therefore that the identity of the author overrides all the other elements indispensable to good fiction. The ironic result is to repress the very voices the preemptive censors propose to amplify – in this case the numerous Black residents of Southwest Georgia I interviewed in the course of my research.
As I wrote in my essay [for the Wall Street Journal]:
“[T]he issue isn't really about me or my book… The core question applies to anyone who dares to write fiction: whether empathy and imagination should be allowed to cross the lines of racial identity. This goes to the heart of what kind of literature we want and what kind of society we aspire to be.
“People are free to dislike any book on whatever basis they choose. But to repress books based on authorial identity is illiberal, intolerant, ignorant of the ways of creativity, and inimical to the spirit of a pluralist democracy.”
While I didn't write this book because I was spoiling for a fight, my agents warned me that I would be running into serious trouble. Fortunately, I found an independent publisher – Adam Bellow and Post Hill Press - who was willing in buck the new creed of identity authorship.
Not only did they support my resolve to write about this subject, but they have joined me in releasing installments of the book twice a week over the next seven weeks on my free new Substack platform, so that readers and reviewers can judge for themselves.
The first installment will appear at richardnorthpatterson.substack.com.
To me, this issue far transcends fiction. As I remarked in concluding my essay:
“It is time for the literary community at large to reject a creative segregation that reflects the ills of a society too often riven by fear, anger and polarization. The way forward is by fostering understanding across the lines of identity, not by subordinating capaciousness of spirit to the defensive crouch of tribalism. Literature should expand our humanity, not shrink it.”
As I said, amazing.
Exit take from Yale’s Nicholas A. Christakis: “A modest proposal: fiction writers can write whatever they want and can inhabit minds of anyone they can imagine. If readers admire the work, then it has stood on its own. Should Flaubert not have written Madame Bovary? Tolstoy not Anna Karenina (with its myriad characters)?”
Our WWE Politics
On our weekend podcast, Tim Miller and I played a little “name that tune,” then turned to Lil’ Marco, the delusional folks at No Labels, DeSantis’s endless war on woke… and ended with a mea culpa.
1. My very strange and angry breakfast with the former governor
“How many different ways are you gonna ask the same fucking question, Mark?” Chris Christie asked me. We were seated in the dining room of the Hay-Adams hotel. It’s a nice hotel, five stars. Genteel.
Christie’s sudden ire was a bit jolting, as I had asked him only a few fairly innocuous questions so far, most of them relating to Donald Trump, the man he might run against in the presidential race. Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, was visiting Washington as part of his recent tour of public deliberations about whether to launch another campaign.
Color me dubious. It’s unclear what makes Christie think the Republican Party might magically revert to some pre-Trump incarnation. Or, for that matter, what makes him think a campaign would go any better than his did seven years ago, the last time Christie ran, when he won exactly zero delegates and dropped out of the Republican primary after finishing sixth in New Hampshire.
2. The Great Diploma Divide
“Culturally, a person’s educational attainment increasingly correlates with their views on a wide range of issues, including abortion, attitudes about LGBTQ+ rights, and the relationship between government and organized religion. It also extends to cultural consumption (movies, TV, books), social media choices, and voters’ sources of information that shape their understanding of facts.
“As a result of these economic and cultural trends, politics now has a class-based architecture where cultural affinity now surpasses voters’ narrow economic self-interests.
“This educational sorting has made the vast majority of states no longer politically competitive. It is the battleground states in the middle — where education levels are neither disproportionately high nor low — that will decide the 2024 presidential election.”
Politico’s Playbook highlighted some of Sosnik’s key points, including this one:
The 2024 presidential election will likely be fought in just eight states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and Sosnik has a nice analysis of what those states all have in common: a recent history of close elections, divided state governments, education levels “at or near the national average,” and influential blocs of independent and suburban voters.
3. Trump touts authoritarian vision for second term: ‘I am your justice’
Well, you can’t say we weren’t warned. Via the Wapo: “The former president is proposing deploying the military domestically, purging the federal workforce and building futuristic cities from scratch.”
Mandatory stop-and-frisk. Deploying the military to fight street crime, break up gangs and deport immigrants. Purging the federal workforce and charging leakers.
Former president Donald Trump has steadily begun outlining his vision for a second-term agenda, focusing on unfinished business from his time in the White House and an expansive vision for how he would wield federal power. In online videos and stump speeches, Trump is pledging to pick up where his first term left off and push even further
4. The Strange Minstrelsy of Dylan Mulvaney
“How a theater queen in search of fame jumped on the trans bandwagon and won.”
I think it’s safe to say that Andrew Sullivan is NOT a friend of the Bulwark. But… this piece is definitely worth your time, even if you find it triggering/challenging.
There are, it seems, many layers to Dylan. To countless straight people, left and right, Dylan is a transgender star — because she is biologically male, and yet has been saying she is a girl now for more than a year, wears women’s clothes and is pretty and charming and full of manic energy. (I’m mostly using her preferred pronouns here, the least clumsy option). The woke left therefore loves her, and the Matt Walsh right has had a collective aneurysm. But for many gay men, including yours truly, Dylan’s latest, year-long performance as a “girl” looks and sounds like something much more familiar.
Dylan, to us at least, is a pretty classic, child-actor, musical theater queen — an effeminate gay man who finds great joy and relief in Broadway camp and drama, and is liable to burst into song at any moment. (I used to wonder if this very specific manifestation would die out as gays integrated more. But no! It seems to be in our collective DNA. Every generation mints a new variety.) And she’s managed to bait both the woke left and the anti-woke right into making her very famous and a lot richer than a year ago.
It’s a triumph of performance and marketing. It can be frustrating for a young actor among so many. You can do your best, become a finalist in Campus Superstar in 2018, wear only briefs for a performance at Joe’s Pub, perform, however well, in the cast of “Book Of Mormon,” camp it up for Ellen, or do the exact same ditzy-girl act on “The Price Is Right” as a man (Dylan’s previous attempts at fame). But become a parody of a “girl” and provide breathless, daily updates on your transition — and nearly 11 million people on TikTok will follow. At the same time brand yourself as a pioneer for greater understanding, love, and civil rights … and you can get an extended interview on “The Today Show” and an audience at the White House.
The gimmick was simple: a TikTok clip for every day of “becoming a girl.”…