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Podcast Transcript: Hi, genuine writers! This is Innovative Editing’s Jeannette DiLouie officially welcoming you to episode #12 of The Genuine Writer Podcast. We keep things short, sweet and to the point here so that you can learn what you need to learn and get back to writing already.
Today’s episode is sponsored by Writing Your Novel, Book 2: Create Compelling Novel Characters: How to Make Your Heroes, Villains (and All the Rest) Stand Out. This e-booklet – which I’ll include the link for in the episode description section – delves further into the main topic we’re focusing on in The Genuine Writer blog for the next few weeks.
If you want to follow the whole series, you can sign up by going to www.InnovativeEditing.com and scroll down to The Genuine Writer sign-up box toward the bottom of the page. And if you want all that information right now in an easy and exceptionally affordable read (as in $2.99), you can scroll down on the podcast page to the orange-lettered How to Make Your Heroes, Villains (and the Rest) Stand Out reference.
Considering the topic of this episode, perhaps I should write another e-booklet called “How to stand your ground when people are pushy, self-righteous readers and writers.” Because they can be. In fact, it’s apparently becoming an intense problem these days, especially in the young adult literature crowd. I discovered just how bad it’s gotten after a friend of mine tagged me while posting an article from The New Yorker entitled “In Y.A., Where Is the Line Between Criticism and Cancel Culture?”
It’s a really long article, but I’m going to read part of it for you anyway. I think it’s important to know about for a number of reasons, which I’ll touch on at the end of this episode.
Late last month, the author Kosoko Jackson withdrew the publication of his début young-adult novel, “A Place for Wolves,” which had been slated for a March 26th release. The book, which follows two American boys as they fall in love against the backdrop of the Kosovo War, had garnered advance praise (“a tension-filled war setting, beautiful young love, family strength and all heart,” one blurb enthused). It also had the imprimatur of the #ownvoices hashtag, in which the main characters of a book share a marginalized identity with the writer – Jackson is black and queer. But a disparaging Goodreads review, which took issue with Jackson’s treatment of the war and his portrayal of Muslims, had a snowball effect, particularly on Twitter. Eventually, Jackson tweeted a letter of apology to “the Book Community,” stating, “I failed to fully understand the people and the conflict that I set around my characters. I have done a disservice to the history and to the people who suffered.”
The Jackson fracas came just weeks after another début Y.A. author, Amélie Wen Zhao, pulled her novel before it was published, also due to excoriating criticisms of it on Twitter and Goodreads. The book, a fantasy tale called “Blood Heir,” depicts an empire that enslaves magical minorities, known as Affinites, and where “oppression is blind to skin color,” as the promotional material phrased it. Critics felt that Zhao’s slavery narrative had erased a specifically African-American experience, and they objected to a scene in which an apparently black slave girl dies in an apparently white character’s arms, in an act of self-sacrifice. Zhao, who emigrated from China when she was eighteen, said that her book drew on “the epidemic of indentured labor and human trafficking prevalent in many industries across Asia, including in my own home country.”
Like Jackson, Zhao tweeted an apology to “the Book Community,” writing, “It was never my intention to bring harm to any reader of this valued community, particularly those for whom I seek to write and empower. As such, I have decided to ask my publisher not to publish ‘Blood Heir’ at this time.”
Jackson and Zhao are peers – both members of a Facebook group, the Novel Nineteens, for kid-lit and Y.A. creators publishing their débuts in 2019. Ironically, Jackson was one of the louder voices speaking out against Zhao; also ironically, he has worked as a sensitivity reader for Big Five publishers, vetting manuscripts featuring characters from marginalized communities. “Now, Jackson has been demonized by the community he once helped police,” the writer Ruth Graham noted in Slate.
Even casual observers of Y.A. controversies might have seen the Jackson and Zhao incidents, coming so close together, as an acceleration of an already established trend. In 2017, Keira Drake pushed back the release date of her début, “The Continent,” when a groundswell of Twitter critics accused the book of racism. That same year, Laurie Forest’s Y.A. fantasy début, “The Black Witch,” likewise became the object of intense scrutiny, weeks ahead of its publication, after detractors slammed it as a white-savior tale. The writer Kat Rosenfield’s New York magazine piece “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” which centered on the “Black Witch” outcry, revealed that many of Forest’s fiercest critics had not read her novel, and others conflated the perspectives of racist characters with that of the author herself. (The review that set off the cancel campaign against “The Black Witch,” by the blogger and bookseller Shauna Sinyard, “consisted largely of pull quotes featuring the book’s racist characters saying or doing racist things,” Rosenfield wrote.)
The Y.A. world is often credibly depicted as a censorious, woker-than-thou hothouse, and never more vividly than in Rosenfield’s piece; the article has become a Rosetta stone for anyone seeking purchase on Y.A.’s callout-and-cancel culture. The community gadfly and bête noire Jesse Singal’s recap of the Zhao controversy in Tablet carried the headline “How a Twitter Mob Derailed an Immigrant Female Author’s Budding Career.” “From the outside, this is starting to look like a conversation focused less on literature than obedience,” Graham wrote in Slate. The Times commissioned two first-person essays, one by Drake, on the “shameful stain” of these eruptions and the “tyrannical coddling of overly sensitive readers.”
“What happened to Jackson is frightening,” the author Jennifer Senior wrote, also in the Times. “Purity tests are the tools of fanatics, and the quest for purity ultimately becomes indistinguishable from the quest for power.” “A Place for Wolves,” Senior continued, “should have failed or succeeded in the marketplace of ideas. But it was never given the chance. The mob got to it first.”
Senior is right that the ongoing Y.A. wars are about power – about who has traditionally wielded power in publishing, and how that balance is shifting, for better or worse. A group of unpaid readers – one with an undeniable personal investment in the Y.A. community—seems to be doing much of the work of critique that is usually first the task of agents and editors, and then that of booksellers and critics. But, when these particular readers do that work, they are derided as pitchfork-wielding hysterics. When it comes to Y.A., what, precisely, is the difference between the marketplace of ideas and a Twitter mob?
Part of the job of the editor – part of the process of vetting and critique, from the submission stage through publication – is to anticipate the many possible reactions to a project, such as a romance that trivializes the Kosovo War. A kerfuffle like the one over “Wolves” “is a good immediate trigger point for me to look at the titles on my list and the products I’m considering and to take that beat of introspection,” an editor at a major publishing house, who works on Y.A. and children’s books, told me. “Even if you disagree with the way a critique is delivered, or with the results of the critique, there’s something there to be unpacked.”
“Everything that bubbles up online is the tip of the iceberg in terms of all of the conversations had in-house,” the editor continued. “I think every author should be allowed to make mistakes, and they should be given the opportunity to correct those mistakes before publication.”
Here is my honest opinion, starting with that last-ish line. I don’t believe that social media is always a real reflection of what people would be thinking and saying if they weren’t on social media. Social media is a “safe space” to latch onto other people’s ideas and borrow other people’s outrage.
It’s encouraged users to become addicted to the self-righteous thrill of putting others down – of combing through other people’s past, present and planned work in order to find something to demonize them for. Which is a tragic waste of so much.
It’s a waste of their time. It’s a waste of their intellect. And it’s a waste of the collective potential, as people everywhere begin to self-censor themselves in an effort to escape the potentially brutal ramifications of social media or every-day-life mob rule.
Should we be considerate of others? As much as possible! Yes! Be we should also be able to express, debate and otherwise share our ideas and the ideas of others. Otherwise, we get hard-core repression with consequences that are downright disturbing.
Thanks for tuning in to The Genuine Writer Podcast. Despite the heavy topic, it was awesome to have you here as always, and very happy writing!