On Losing Your Starred Rating

A Review of Laura Moriarty’s American Heart

/ by Larry Baker

Fiction writing only has one rule: There are no rules. As long as you keep a reader reading, keep that reader wanting to continue, you are a good writer. How you do it is irrelevant.

Fiction writing also has a pernicious cliché sometimes mis-applied as a rule that students hear early. But, if they are good writers, they quickly forget it.

Write what you know.

If we only wrote what we knew, all of us would be stuck with writing memoirs, and, trust me, too many people already write their memoirs, and many of those are fiction anyway.

No rules versus being limited to what we know is a harmless debate. But in the past few years the issue has been re-framed and given an impressive title.

“Cultural Appropriation.”

Unlike the first debate, this one has serious ramifications and consequences. You do not have the right to appropriate my story. That’s the new rule. But what is Cultural Appropriation?

Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, (as cited in the New York Times) defines it as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This can include the “unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

A bit academic, for sure, but perhaps boiled down to “If you’re not part of the culture, you can’t represent the culture.” And that opens up the door for what happened to Laura Moriarty and her new novel, American Heart (Harper Collins, January-2018)

Moriarty looked at the 2016 Election and was “horrified by the political speeches that shamelessly encouraged fear of immigration and Muslims....I also worried about the soul of my country...if we become a nation ruled by ignorance and fear.”

From that impulse came American Heart. Moriarty is not subtle about her debt to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Her teen protagonist, Sarah-Mary, like Twain’s rafting Huck, is from Hannibal, Missouri. Instead of ante-bellum slavery, her world is marked by the roundup and incarceration of Muslims. Like Huck, Sarah-Mary is a product of her culture. She is naïve and fundamentally a decent person, but that decency has never been tested. She discovers Sadaf, a young Muslim hiding from the authorities, and the two of them set off on a trek across America. Twain’s Mississippi River has evolved into the interstate highway system. Instead of riding the river South, Sarah-Mary and Sadaf are headed north to Canada.

Moriarty has no pretensions of being another Twain. American Heart lacks the vernacular power of the Twain’s prose. She is his descendant, not his heir. But she has written a compelling story about how America’s Original Sin...Slavery...grounded in racism...is always just beneath the surface of American culture.

Unfortunately, her publisher is marketing the book as Young Adult Literature. That pigeonhole is understandable only because Moriarty’s prose is so accessible to a younger reader. It does not reflect the quality of its insights or the power of its message. Just as JK Rowlings’ Harry Potter books were enjoyed by young and old alike, Moriarty’s HEART is multi-leveled, but much deeper in thought than Potter’s works.

Harper Collins describes American Heart as a “powerful book and thought-provoking book,” Indeed, it is.

Kirkus Reviews, a major force in publishing, gave American Heart a coveted “Starred Review” in October. (Truth in advertising: I have published six novels and none of them ever got a starred review from Kirkus. Not that I am jealous, or anything like that.)

“By turns terrifying, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and touching, this book is so rich that the coincidences in the plot are easily forgiven. A moving portrait of an American girl discovering her society in crisis, desperate to show a disillusioned immigrant the true spirit of America.”

That assessment was written by a female Muslim reviewer.

And then the social backlash began. How dare Moriarty tell this story from the point of view of a privileged white teenage girl? The stigma of “white savior narrative” was lavishly applied.

Said one apoplectic reviewer in the reader-review site, Goodreads: “Fuck your white savior narratives.....fuck using marginalized characters as a plot device to teach the white mc how to be a decent person......fuck you for perpetuating the idea that marginalized people need to suffer in order to be worthy of ‘humanity’......fuck this book and everyone who thought it would be a good fucking idea.”

Kirkus rescinded the star designation.

Nathan Heller reported that, “In interviews with Kat Rosenfield, of Vulture, and with NPR, (Claiborne) Smith acknowledged that Kirkus removed the star after noticing the book’s white point of view.”

The reviewer submitted a new review, still laudatory, but with a caveat:

“Sarah Mary's ignorance is an effective world-building device, but it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist's filter.”

Somehow, a star review exists, and then it does not. Does anybody remember how the old Soviet propaganda machine could simply “erase” someone out of a photograph?

At this point, Kenan Malik comes to the logical conclusion: “What is really being appropriated, in other words, is not culture but the right to police cultures and experiences, a right appropriated by those who license themselves to be arbiters of the correct forms cultural borrowing.”

In America, this debate occurs in a context of social roiling that has been stoked by the ascension of Donald Trump. Once accepted as a laudable goal...cultural diversity... is now not as self-evidently a given as we thought it was. (Europe has its own germinating cultural clash, but I won’t appropriate that for my discussion)

Carried to its explicit and logical extreme, we will balkanize fiction. (Note: as a novelist myself, my focus is the fiction world. Non-fiction writing is a different debate)

Moriarty’s AMERICAN HEART received a Starred Review and then lost it. Kirkus changed the rules; Moriarty’s work did not change. She has earned our respect; Kirkus has not.

Larry Baker

is the author of six novels. His first, THE FLAMINGO RISING, was a Hallmark movie in 2001. His latest, FROM A DISTANCE, is selling in the high three digits. He is a former pornographer, professor, and politician.