In the world of young adult fiction (YA), the censor has now become the censored. Not so long ago, aspiring novelist Kosoko Jackson was a freelance “sensitivity reader” for major publishing houses, vetting teen book manuscripts for “insensitive” material on race, gender, or privilege. On Twitter, he explained what he considered “off limits” in literature: female authors “profiting” from gay male stories, nonblack people writing about the civil rights movement, men writing about the fight for women’s suffrage. But then, as Jennifer Senior explained in The New York Times, came “a karmic boomerang.” Jackson’s own debut YA novel, A Place for Wolves, violated his standards. A tale of two gay American teenagers in war-torn Kosovo, it was savaged on social media by other YA writers and reviewers for focusing on privileged Westerners and not persecuted Muslim Kosovars. Jackson—who is black and gay—apologized for the “hurt” he’d caused and last month asked his publisher to scrap the book, making him the second YA author in five weeks to pull a debut work over sensitivity issues.
Jackson’s downfall shows the impossibility of his purity test. He didn’t base his debut on his own experiences, but instead did what novelists have always done: stepped outside himself and dreamed up new realities. If authors were barred from doing that, as Jackson previously advocated, few great works of fiction would ever have been published. The able-bodied Victor Hugo couldn’t have written about the disabled hunchback in Notre-Dame de Paris, or Gertrude Stein—who was born to privilege—about working-class women in Three Lives. E.M. Forster, a gay Briton, would have been judged a sinner for daring to ponder the internal lives of Muslim doctors and English women in A Passage to India. Readers should be the ones with the power to decide whether a novel fails or succeeds, not cultural police who punish writers for using their imagination.