Young Adult Round-up: The Power of Online YA Police

As an American who’s written a novel about an American girl caught up in political turmoil in Honduras that includes Honduran characters, I’m particularly concerned about controversies like the one blowing up on the Twittersphere over the YA book, A Place for Wolves, by Kosoko Jackson, and an earlier one involving Chinese immigrant Amélie Wen Zhao’s book, Blood Heir. Both authors suffered online attacks, accusing them of cultural insensitivity, and, as a result, both authors pulled their books from publication. Previously, another YA book, The Black Witch, survived similar attacks by the YA book community and went on to be published and do well, despite the effort to take it down.

A “sensitivity reader” himself, Kosoko Jackson identified problematic content for major publishers of YA fiction, berating writers for portraying characters from communities they’re not considered part of, such as People of Color (POC) and the LGBTQ+ community. Then the tables turned. Readers previewing his soon-to-be published novel A Place for Wolves, about two black, gay men who fall in love against the backdrop of the Kosovo war, attacked him for fetishizing genocide, portraying a Muslim character without being a Muslim, making the villain an ethnic Albanian, and more. Suddenly Kosoko was on the receiving end of the same kind of flak he’d been doling out to others. After much criticism, the author declined to publish his book. Read more about it here and here.

Amélie Wen Zhao’s about-to-be-published novel, Blood Heir, a loose retelling of Anastasia with magic and racially-diverse characters, also endured a flood of attacks, receiving negative reviews for racial insensitivity to People of Color. One Goodreads reviewer accused it of “anti-blackness.” Like Kosoko, Zhao asked her publisher to pull the book. It’s way too complicated to get into in this post, so read about it here

Before its publication, The Black Witch, a YA fantasy by Laurie Forest, was being called “an uncompromising condemnation of prejudice and injustice” – until Shauna Sinyard, a YA blogger, wrote “The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read … It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.” Thanks to Sinyard, the novel was the victim of a coordinated, vitriolic, online campaign to bury it, including a demand for Kirkus to retract its positive review. Despite the protests, the book has been well-read and well-received by many. You’ll find the whole story here.

According to the post in Tablet,

“These paroxysms tend to focus on issues of social justice and representation. And to be sure, many respected authors, publishers, and other YA figures argue that the genre has legitimate work to do with regard to diversity and representation. … But while some of the social justice concerns percolating within YA fiction are legitimate, the explosive manner in which they’re expressed within YA Twitter is another story. Posing as urgent interventions to prevent the circulation of harmful tropes, the pile-ons are often based on selective excerpts pulled out of context from the advance copies of books most in the community haven’t read yet. Often, they feature critics operating on the basis of idiosyncratic ideas about the very purpose and nature of fiction itself, elevating tendentious interpretations of the limited snippets available to pass judgment on books before they have been released.”

I certainly hope that this minority of angry voices on sites like Twitter and Goodreads behaving like YA police don’t have the final say on the enjoyment and success of books that have yet to be published, and readers can decide for themselves what they like and choose to read.

I wholeheartedly agree that writers need to be sensitive to people and cultures we’re representing in our books, and there needs to be WAY more diverse voices out there, but since fiction writers engage in “what if’s” and world-building, I would find it incredibly limiting to be restricted to writing about characters only like myself. I can only hope that when writers do write characters who aren’t like ourselves, we strive to avoid prejudices and stereotypes.

What do you think?

20 comments

  1. Thanks for this Bonnie. I’ve been very upset and concerned about this current YA controversy and you articulate the different sides of this issue really well. While there is no question we need more diversity in YA, some of the tactics for achieving it are troubling and infuriating, and I believe they could ultimately hinder the achievement of that goal.

  2. Yikes is all I have to say. I can’t begin to wrap my head around the implication of this disturbing “movement” for writers. Of course, we need to be sensitive and do our research. But how dull would it be if writers were limited to writing only about what and whom they knew. There’s a dystopian novel in the making. Or has it already been written? Hmmmm… Bonnie, don’t lose heart regarding your novel!

  3. Leslie Teel

    I agree with a lot of your points and being a YA writer myself I admit I’m askeered of “YA Twitter.” At the same time, I question whether using the book covers of those two books are sort of knee-jerking the knee-jerk — promoting books that were pulled by the authors.

    I don’t understand the quotes around sensitivity reader. I think sensitivity readers can perform a really important service to help make sure we aren’t stupidly publishing hurtful, negative stereotypes.

    Of course they have their blind spots, too, clearly!

  4. Leslie Teel

    I also want to point out the Jessie Singal (author of one of the linked articles) is not an ally for marginalized people. He uses a lot of Right Wing bat signals (“Social Justice Warrior”) in his decrying of call out culture. He *sounds* reasonable but I can’t say I trust his motivations.

    • Bonnie Waltch

      Thanks for your great comments, Leslie. They are proof of how disagreements can and should be raised online vs. the vigilante method. I really appreciate your flagging Singal. I hadn’t heard of him before and didn’t find his article objectionable, but I researched him further and found that he’s very problematic, especially in regard to trans issues. And since I now don’t feel comfortable promoting his views, I’ve linked to a Slate article instead – so thanks for that! And I didn’t mean anything disrespectful with the quotes for “sensitivity reader,” just to indicate that that’s his job title.

      • Leslie Teel

        I figured you didn’t mean it that way but I was thinking of how Singal might use it. I agree that his writing on this topic seems reasonable but I feel like he has an ax to grind.

        It is good for us YA writers to discuss these things!

        • John Jones

          Lots of people use the term SJW. It’s not particularly a right wing thing, although like every other satirical term it can be overused/used indiscriminately. Generally it’s used when people want to be critical of an overly censorious and self righteous person who promotes social justice primarily as a weapon rather than as a genuine means of reform. In other words, bullying with a halo.

  5. Kate Burcak

    It’s really sad the self-censoring happening with YA. I feel like people are so concerned with Own Voices that they are overlooking the intent – was the book approached from a place of respect and empathy? Blood Heir specifically bothered me as the outrage over her book was just ignorant to the history of slavery in Asia as well, that one is just disappointing. Also concerning is that there really aren’t opinions on this surfacing from actual teenagers… Wish adults would just leave it be and let teens decide for themselves. They aren’t children, they can suss out what is and isn’t offensive on their own merit.

  6. Rob Wilstein

    Thanks Bonnie for an important post. As a white male cis writer the waters are fraught with ways to go wrong. I agree that the intent of the author should be considered. Interesting too the comment about the tweeters understanding of the novel form in general.

  7. Leslie Teel

    Here is an interesting take from a sensitivity reader:
    https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/281546/confessions-of-a-sensitivity-reader

    Excerpt:

    “Often the loudest yellers about insensitivity are yellers who have not read the manuscript. This is evidence of assholery, but I’m not convinced it’s the end of the world. Publishing is experiencing growing pains as it tries to be more inclusive, and times of transition are challenging for everyone. Of the thousands of children’s books published every year, a small handful attract pre-publication outrage. Yet that handful gets way more ink than the fact that a character in a picture book is four times more likely to be a dinosaur than a Native American.”

    • John Jones

      It could be the end of the world for someone who has laboured over a story for years and sees both it and possibly their future career trashed by people who haven’t even read it. It’s fine to look at the bigger picture but it’s also good to remember the individuals who are victims of what this sensitivity reader admits is assholery.

  8. Charles Gray

    The worst thing about this is that it creates a perverse incentive for publishers to minimize their risk (and I can tell you that Zhao’s publisher is likely not happy, given the amount of time, money and effort spent on a book that she eventually pulled) by cutting back on books that might create this kind of controversy, and at the end of the day, that means conventional stories without much engagement by under-represented groups. Sure, people will get angry, but they’ll get angry at the general state of affairs, rather than directly targeting a new book, since the YA market is still overwhelmingly white in its composition.

    Also, the way the attacks were launched feels like the attackers were never interested in engaging with Ms. Zhao, merely drumming up hostility against her. Had they not been, there were abundant avenues to quietly engage with her, rather than creating such a firestorm of hostility.

    • Good point. I agree that this could make publishers wary of books that might create controversy and cause them to favor only more conventional novels by under-represented groups. Everyone loses if this happens, especially readers.

  9. Julia

    Teens in most places these days experience diversity in daily life. If writers are going to depict life as teens know it, they have to include all sorts of races and so on. So does every book need to be written by a collective, each member of which writes only about a character of their race or gender or medical condition? So, unless I am dying of cancer, my character can’t be?

  10. Janet

    Bonnie – Thanks for your courage wading into this debate. I know you’ve thought long and hard with respect to your own work. Seems to me that our writing and reading community needs to grope its way to a place in which we honor honest attempts to reach across our diversities. Right now, to even try to do so feels like jumping into a pool of sharks. While books should not be – and never will be – immune from criticism, they should be respected for what they are: honest, risk-filled attempts to create human understanding. What’s the alternative? Autobiography?

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