Thursday, March 13, 2014
One Thing Leads to Another
The saga continues. After visiting another bookstore and still not finding a copy of It, I decided to go to the source, and checked both Amazon and the Penguin site (the book’s current publisher). Copies are available. How recent are they? Well, a 25th anniversary edition came out in 2012, but I’m not paying $400 just to see if a politically-incorrect term is still included in the text. I couldn’t determine if the paperbacks for sale on the sites were old copies or recent reissues. Since I found the word in question in a brand-new copy of a different Stevie book, I’m going to go ahead and assume any future versions of It will include all the words Stevie originally wrote, including the offensive ones. Freedom of speech and all that.
However, this question led me into another one. Suppose Stevie was just starting out, and submitted his lengthy, bad-word-laden manuscript to today’s publishers in today’s PC climate. Would they still publish the book as is, or would they demand that one racially-charged word be removed?
(I’m sure the other dirty words, like fuck and cunt and shit, would be okay. See, I just used them myself and nothing bad happened. So far.)
I can’t answer this question. The only person who could with any authority would be an acquisitions editor, and I doubt if they’re spending their rare free time reading my blog. Unless and until somebody comes forward with this inside information, all I can offer are guesses and theories.
My theory is: it depends.
Publishers have their own set of do’s and don’ts, which vary from company to company. Almost all romance publishers won’t accept incest, rape and underage sex. Mainstream has no problem with any of that. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo contains things that have gotten other books taken down from Amazon. Ditto Game of Thrones, which is shelved under Fantasy. I know of at least one instance where a writer was told to make a gay character straight if she wanted the sale. She chose to self-publish. I’m sure she could have found a more accommodating publisher if she’d kept looking. Plenty of agents and editors have “more LGBT characters” on their wish lists. You just have to connect with the right one.
I myself hit an odd taboo back in the ‘80s, when I was trying to market a science fiction novel. It kept getting rejected. Why? Well, because it sucked. Looking back on it now, I get down on my knees and thank all the gods it didn’t sell, it was so embarrassingly bad. I don’t even know if I could rework it today to make it any better.
So what was the reason given for all the rejections? It could have been any number of things, from unworkable concept to unbelievable/underdeveloped characters to dirty language on down, but here’s what the editors said: they didn’t like the book because—brace yourself—one of the characters smoked. Yeah. That was my biggest mistake. This was the 1980s and the beginning of the anti-smoking campaign. The editors were trying to quit, and having a character light up hit them in a sore spot. Or so I was told. None of them said they’d buy the book if I had the guy drink instead. I suspect it was just a handy excuse to reject an unsalable manuscript, but who can say for sure?
I have a book on the market now. This book may also suck. Or the sticking point could be my biracial (Japanese/Latino) main character. I’ve only gotten form rejections so far. Until somebody tells me flat out that’s a no-no, I can only keep guessing. I’ll keep you posted.
Given what facts I’ve uncovered so far, I’ve come to this conclusion: if your story absolutely has to include possibly-offensive material, don’t write genre. Aim for mainstream. Seriously. Genre publishers tend to be smaller and can’t afford to lose any sales. The big publishers may put out genre lines, but their cash cow is general fiction, and they’re big enough to get away with things smaller or self-pubbers can’t.
This is why I’m assuming It still contains objectionable terms, even though times have changed. Next time you’re in a bookstore, look where Mr. King's books are shelved. He was never stuck in the F/SF section with the other horror books. He started out on the Fiction shelves, with the “real” novels. For a long time there was a separate Horror section, but only because Stevie and the copycats who followed him made it popular. Horror as a separate genre didn’t exist until Stevie started selling megacopies. Last week when I was in Barnes and Noble, I noticed there’s no longer a Horror section. Horror is back in F/SF, and to a lesser extent in Young Adult. Stevie’s back on the Fiction shelves, next to Dean Koontz and whoever else outsold the competition, and his books are just the way he wrote them back in simpler times. The power of the publisher.
Which leads into yet another question. Suppose you wrote a book and sent it off to a publisher. Suppose they offered you a ton of money for it—but only if you made certain changes, like making a gay character straight or a person of color white or removing a certain word. Suppose making these changes would damage the integrity of your novel. Would you still do it?
This question’s gotten easier to answer. Thanks to self-publishing, writers don’t have to bow to the will of the Big New York 5 anymore. We can write our books the way they need to be written and still get them into readers’ hands. We might get trashed on review sites, but that happens no matter who the publisher is. I take no responsibility for any lawsuits filed because of alleged hateful language.
And no, I wouldn’t make my biracial hero white in order to make a sale. He has to be the way he is, for reasons to be explained in a possible sequel. Somehow I get the feeling the evil Catholic priest will make it past editors unchallenged. Editorial fiat is often stranger than fiction.