Cowed by the culture cops
If you're looking for a case study in toxic internet culture, look no further than the online world of young adult fiction. That might seem surprising: After all, we're talking about boy wizards and sexy vampires and mawkish coming-of-age tales here, right?
Here's the short version: In recent years, young adult, or Y.A., fiction has come into its own as a genre, reliably producing a small number of megahits that have turned their authors into millionaires. During that same period, it has begun to grapple with some difficult questions about diversity and representation.
Y.A. fiction, like many other areas of publishing, has a bit of a diversity problem, despite being a liberal-minded industry centered in New York City. But while the motivation behind the movement for more diverse voices is commendable, the manifestation of this impulse on social media has been nothing short of cannibalistic. The Twitter community surrounding the genre — one in which authors, editors, agents, adult readers, and reviewers outnumber youthful readers — has become a cesspool of toxicity. "Y.A. Twitter," as it's called, is a mess.
"Young adult books are being targeted in intense social media callouts, draggings, and pile-ons — sometimes before anybody's even read them," Kat Rosenfield wrote in Vulture in 2017. Y.A. Twitter features frequent over-the-top claims that various people in the community are "abusing" one another, with the term often used in a deeply watered-down sense.
"The scandals that loom so large on Twitter don't necessarily interest consumers; instead, the tempest of these controversies remains confined to a handful of internet teapots where a few angry voices can seem thunderously loud," Rosenfeld wrote. "Still, some publishing professionals imagine that the outrage will eventually become powerful enough to rattle the industry."
The worriers were prescient. In 2019, books are not only getting excoriated by online critics who haven't read them. They're getting unpublished entirely.
Such an incident unfolded last winter with a book called Blood Heir. Amélie Wen Zhao, a woman of Chinese descent who was born in Paris and raised in Beijing, had won herself an enviable three-book deal for an Anastasia-tinged adventure: "In the Cyrilian Empire," went the publication materials, "Affinites are reviled and enslaved. Their varied abilities to control the world around them are unnatural — dangerous. And Anastacya Mikhailov, the crown princess, might be the most monstrous of them all. Her deadly Affinity to blood is her curse and the reason she has lived her life hidden behind palace walls." The adventure kicks off when Ana's father is murdered and she is framed, forcing her to flee.
The first book was due out in June. In January, though, there emerged a vague Twitter-centered whisper campaign against Zhao. A main allegation was that she had taken to capturing screenshots of other people's mean tweets about her, presumably in order to someday enact revenge — though no one provided any evidence she had actually done this.
It was open season from there: People picked over the limited information about the book to find something, anything, to justify being angry. L.L. McKinney, a Y.A. author who had recently published her own debut novel and who tends to be an active participant in these pile-ons, noted that some of the publicity material described Blood Heir's fictional world as one in which "oppression is blind to skin color." She tweeted: " ... someone explain this to me. EXPLAIN IT RIGHT THE FUQ NOW," accusing the author of "internalized racism and anti-blackness." The logic appears to be that because our world has racism, it's unacceptable to imagine a world that does not.
Perhaps most inflammatory was the claim that a character in the book assisted Ana and then conveniently died, in a manner redolent of the "Magical Negro" — an American cinematic trope, famously criticized by Spike Lee in 2001, in which a black character exists solely for the purpose of helping out, or granting folksy wisdom to, a white protagonist.
During these pre-release blowups, hardly anyone has read the book in question. At this point, a forthcoming novel has usually been seen only by those who have received advance copies from the publisher. So it was here: Early reviewers began spreading the rumor that Blood Heir treated a black character horribly. Yet the character in question — described by the author as having "tawny" and "bronze" skin and eyes that are a "startling aquamarine" — doesn't actually seem to have been meant to be coded as black.
The vagueness of the charges didn't matter. Zhao posted an apologetic tweet announcing that Blood Heir wouldn't be published.
The next cancellation occurred not long after. It centered on Kosoko Jackson, whose website until recently described him as "a vocal champion of diversity in Y.A. literature, the author of Y.A. novels featuring African-American queer protagonists, and a sensitivity reader for Big Five Publishers." Jackson is black and gay — this matters here, a lot — and was preparing for the release of his debut young adult novel, A Place for Wolves, an adventure-romance between two young men set against the backdrop of the Kosovo War. The book was slated for release on March 26.
Jackson had amassed some enthusiastic blurbs from established names in Y.A. fiction, and he seemed poised for a successful debut, in part because Wolves was going to be a so-called #ownvoices release — #ownvoices being a hashtag coined by the Y.A. author Corinne Duyvis to "highlight books that are written by an author that shares a marginalized identity with the protagonist," as the website Book Riot explains.
Jackson, an enforcer of social justice norms and a gay black man writing about gay black protagonists, should have been safe, right? Nope.
It all came crashing down quite quickly. As with any internet outrage, it's hard to know exactly what sparked it, but a major turning point came in the form of a Twitter post about the novel: "HEY HOW ABOUT WE DONT PROMOTE OR SUPPORT BOOKS ABOUT A ROMANCE BETWEEN AND THE VICTIMIZATION OF 2 AMERICANS, SET DURING A REAL LIFE HISTORICAL GENOCIDE WHERE THE VILLAIN IS PART OF THE DEMOGRAPHIC THAT WAS ETHNICALLY CLEANSED," tweeted @flightofstarz on Feb. 25.
The tweet pointed to a review on Goodreads. Many Y.A. readers and authors maintain accounts there, and it is the site of many an attempted Y.A. kneecapping. After authors get targeted, they're often flooded with one-star reviews. "I have to be absolutely f---ing honest here, everybody," this post starts. "I've never been so disgusted in my life."
The reviewer proceeds to argue that it's insensitive to center a story set during the Kosovo conflict around two Americans. One character particularly grated on the reviewer: "Don't even get me started on the well-educated Muslim man, Professor Beqiri, who turns out to be a cold-blooded terrorist who's [sic] only purpose seems to be to murder and torture and commit harm, even killing his own men," she wrote.
I managed to obtain a copy of Jackson's book. It's not good. The writing is clunky and the characters are poorly developed. Beqiri is a laughably bad villain — a two-dimensional cardboard cutout. But at the time, many of those leading the charge against it had none of the context required to have an informed discussion about whether and to what extent Jackson handled his narrative task responsibly, including in his portrayal of Beqiri. Why? Because the general public did not have access to the book.
As a result, the critics got a lot of basic stuff wrong. For one thing, the story doesn't feature "two Americans," as many people claimed — the protagonist's boyfriend is from Brazil, not the United States. For another, Beqiri's religion isn't mentioned at all, even though many online outrage-mongers made it sound as if he were portrayed as some sort of radical Muslim stereotype.
Part of what makes this story so interesting is that Jackson himself has been on the other side of these online attacks on authors. His outspoken tweets during the Blood Heir controversy, for example, fit neatly into Kat Rosenfield's general description of his community's online-surveillance tendencies: "Many members of Y.A. Book Twitter have become culture cops, monitoring their peers across multiple platforms for violations."
Jackson has also advocated for a very narrow conception of who is allowed to write which stories. "Stories about the civil rights movement should be written by black people," he tweeted during one outrage outbreak. "Stories of suffrage should be written by women. Ergo, stories about boys during horrific and life changing times, like the AIDS EPIDEMIC, should be written by gay men. Why is this so hard to get?"
Schadenfreude is an easy reaction here: The guy who helped contribute to a stifling climate of plot policing and paranoia received the same treatment he had doled out to others. But the right response isn't to point and laugh — Ha-ha! — like the bully Nelson Muntz on The Simpsons. It's to recognize that these online social dynamics constrain and distort young adult literature in unfortunate ways.
These episodes will inevitably affect Y.A. publishing — and perhaps other areas of publishing, if the fever spreads. This is now a pattern. It feels increasingly possible that at least some publishers, rather than adopt commonsense, liberal-minded approaches to the goals of increasing diversity and representation in Y.A. fiction, will instead adopt norms in line with Jackson's tweet about gay stories: Only Xs can write about X, and only Ys can write about Y. All because of an extremely small but incredibly loud group of Twitter users insatiable in their outrage. Imagine what a pointless, depressing loss that would be for the readers of the future.
When I solicited emails via Twitter from those in and around the Y.A. community, some of the most depressing notes I got were from writers of color who've had bad experiences with white editors and agents telling them what they can and can't write about. "I think the biggest thing I resent is that being told to stay in my lane for me apparently means writing about a country I wasn't born in, have only the vaguest connection to or knowledge about, and doesn't particularly interest me," one nonwhite writer told me. "I'd much rather write about the Roman Empire or the Diadochi states after the collapse of Alexander's empire, but it's clear they want a very specific kind of #ownvoices from me rather than letting me write about whatever I feel like."
A second writer, a Latina woman, mentioned that, upon having her manuscript rejected by an agent, she couldn't help but wonder whether it was because she didn't hew enough to stereotype. "I'm not completely certain race was why the agent rejected me," she wrote. "I don't want to blame my failures on something I had no part in, but, with the culture the way it is, it's difficult not to wonder and worry. It's very concerning, and making race relations worse. It's created a double-edged sword for minorities. I feel like a mascot if I talk about my race, and I feel that if I play up my race to gain points with these people, I feed their fantasy narrative of how they're heroes saving minorities from ... whatever it is they think they're saving us from."
The problem is that social media warps and distorts everything. Those most vociferous about their views on a given issue — in this case, Twitter mobs obsessing over the races of characters in Y.A. novels — can fool everyone else into thinking they represent a reasonable majority. The publishing industry and authors themselves are going to have to learn to discount this fun house–mirror effect, or there are going to be a lot more canceled books.
There's one encouraging data point: At the end of April, after the Kosoko Jackson controversy illuminated some of the excesses of Y.A. cancel culture, Amélie Wen Zhao announced that in fact she would publish Blood Heir. It's now scheduled for release in November. Most of the online responses I saw were positive — a useful reminder it doesn't pay to give in to online bullies.
Jesse Singal is working on a book for Farrar, Straus & Giroux about why half-baked behavioral science ideas go viral. You can get his newsletter here.
Adapted from an article in Reason.