In Y.A., Where Is the Line Between Criticism and Cancel Culture?
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.”
A major contributor to blowups like those around Zhao and Jackson, according to many observers I spoke with, is the homogeneity of the publishing world, which remains, on the editorial side, eighty-two per cent white and less than two per cent black, according to a 2015 survey by Lee & Low Books. People of color face economic and racial barriers to breaking into the industry: entry-level positions in editing or literary agenting, which are mostly situated in New York City, offer barely sustainable wages that favor those with existing support systems and family wealth. The result is that the people who are most qualified to weigh in on a text’s treatment of marginalized identities are often the least likely to do so.
A digital-marketing manager at a major publisher, who used to work in kid lit, wrote to me in a Facebook message, “The majority of those who make the editorial and marketing decisions about Y.A. books are not within the typical Y.A. reading range, don’t regularly consume the content beyond what their work would demand (this is in contrast to the people lower down who are genuine fans of the genre), and, most importantly, don’t trust the people lower down when they give them advice about both problematic content and content that audiences are hungry for.” This person says that she witnessed multiple instances of coördinators, managers, and assistants getting shot down after they’d approached their bosses with concerns about offensive material. When, several times, she e-mailed editors about what she saw as problematic passages in manuscripts she’d read, she did not receive a response. At a meeting about a story that portrayed “a marginalized perspective/religion,” she recalled, “I asked if there were any readers of color on the project, meaning readers of that specific marginalization.” The higher-ups “pointed to the one black woman in the room, an assistant, and said she read it.” The book in question was not written by a black author, and the characters in question weren’t black.
The marketing manager is concerned, she said, that a skittish industry will turn its back on literature by or about minorities, deeming such projects too dangerous to sign. “I could see a world where the people in power start to become afraid that acquiring diversely means they are more at risk,” she wrote. The editor sounded a similar note. “I worry that my colleagues are just shying away completely from publishing anything that might attract controversy or negative attention,” she said. “We don’t want to censor authors, to only publish from a place of fear and reaction.”
Arising from the dust cloud of these conflicts is the question of whether the readers scorching various Y.A. novels have legitimate reason to take offense, and, if so, what form the offense should take. After all, the vast majority of books that are published in any given year—in any genre, and of a vast range in quality—are effectively ignored by reviewers and the general public. Instead of airing their grievances, a title’s detractors might wish to deny its author any free publicity, much less the opportunity to become a free-speech martyr. “If a book is offensive, it seems best to discuss it rationally, learn from the experience, and give attention to books they want young people to read,” Karen Yingling, a middle-school librarian, said. She added that her students either don’t know or don’t care about “all the politics” of the Y.A. ecosystem: “They just want to read ‘The Maze Runner.’ ”
This framing, however, may misread the intentions of the loudest kid-lit agitators, who view their critiques as constructive, not destructive. When Zhao apologized and withdrew her book, Y.A. stakeholders largely greeted her words with support and encouragement, seeing them as the result of being “called in”—reminded of one’s values as a community member—rather than “called out.” “This is a beautiful apology,” the author Ellen Oh, who had used Twitter to challenge “Blood Heir” ’s “colorblindedness” and “lack of awareness,” tweeted. Oh and another author, L. L. McKinney, are often cited as the ringleaders of the online pushback against “Blood Heir,” but, as the reviewer Gin Jenny pointed out, neither of them “were calling for the book to be pulled. . . . They both flagged problems; that’s all they did.” In a post, the blogger recapped the Zhao drama: “From my perspective, this was a successful interaction!” she wrote. “Some people identified problems in a book that had not yet been published. Not wanting to publish the book with those heretofore unnoticed problems, the author has opted to delay publication. But the coverage of the incident has been very ‘gasp! Censorship!’ ” (After the controversy went viral, Oh, facing a flood of harassment, deleted her Twitter account—her perceived excesses, and those of McKinney, met a swift and brutal backlash, which itself reveals something about the underlying power dynamics of these tempests.)
Young-adult writers see themselves as educators, and they are hyperconscious that this generation of Y.A. readers is the most diverse ever. The author Heidi Heilig likens stereotyping in Y.A. books to outmoded technology: “It’s a huge disservice to the kids to teach them wrong, to give them all this old crap that they don’t want to use—why would you give your kid a shitty microwave, a crappy broken CD player?” she asked. Ellen Oh told me that Y.A. “is one of the few places that so many women of color and writers from marginalized communities have been able to be heard.” Many of the people I talked to pointed out that this makes the subculture vulnerable to sexism and racism masquerading as concern for free speech. A combination of protectiveness and idealism has produced a slash-and-burn ethos that, in holding artists to high standards, may reflect a desire to do what has not been done in the past: take young-adult fiction seriously.
A serious consideration of “Blood Heir,” for one, yields mixed results. The book lingers obsessively over skin color; in the first fifty or so pages, we are told of the main character Ana’s “dust-gold skin,” of her “fawn skin,” of the “dusty olive of her skin,” and that “she was a mix of the pale-skinned Northern Cyrilians and the tawny-skinned Southern Cyrilians who dwelled in the Dzyhvekha Mountains.” The slave girl, with her “bronze” coloring and “startling aquamarine” eyes, at first seems an unlikely vehicle for anti-blackness (although in a since-deleted tweet, Zhao posted a mood board for “Blood Heir” where the slave girl appeared to be represented by the black actor Amandla Stenberg, in character as Rue from “The Hunger Games”). The slave girl is definitely coded as darker than Ana, and she exists only as a vehicle for the protagonist to suffer and rage and decide whether to unleash her devastating power. What prevents her from being more troubling is the fact that almost all of the characters in “Blood Heir” exist only so that the protagonist can suffer and rage and decide whether to unleash her devastating power. Another youth, with similar skin to Ana, is hardly developed at all before he bleeds out in her arms moments after we’ve met him.
On Twitter, critics cited a slave auction that plays a central role in the book’s plot as evidence that “Blood Heir” borrows the tropes of chattel slavery without fully engaging with them. But the auction is a masked ball crossed with a gladiatorial show in a secret basement. Archers patrol the balconies. Nobles sip cocktails on the floor. In context, the scene does not feel evocative of United States history or suggest an analogy between the Affinites, with their dangerous powers, and black people. The book’s allegories seem mythic, not historical. They are about discovering one’s hidden potential, celebrating the liberation of the self. If anything, the damning readings of “Blood Heir” seem guilty of something that the Y.A. community mitigates against: the misapprehension of a cultural context unfamiliar to one’s own.
Reports of the demise of “Blood Heir” may be greatly exaggerated. Its publisher, Delacorte, a division of Random House, told the Times in January that it still plans to publish the three novels it bought from Zhao, if and when she decides to move forward with the series. And many Y.A. titles that passed through the social-media wringer have fared perfectly fine. “The Black Witch” arrived, on schedule, to positive reviews and a No. 1 ranking in Amazon’s department of “Teen & Young Adult Wizards & Witches Fantasy.” Forest has since written a popular sequel, “The Iron Flower,” and two prequels. “The Continent” came out in March, 2018, after Drake made revisions, and its sequel hits shelves in July. (Both Forest and Drake declined to comment for this article.)
But, with its gauzy romance unscrolling over a scrim of historical trauma, “A Place for Wolves” could prove too problematic to salvage. This possibility is causing some anguish in the Y.A. community, especially because, as a black and queer writer, Jackson is exactly the type of voice that many people want to lift up. Heilig, who offered “A Place For Wolves” a glowing early review—and then apologized for her praise on Twitter—told me that she agonized over her decision to withdraw support for the book. Jackson’s identity puts him “on a very short list,” she said. “I didn’t want to make him a lightning rod.”
At a recent pen America panel on “callouts, correctness, and culture wars,” the former New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma seemed to suggest that marginalized people’s desire for authentic representation had a propagandistic edge. Sensitivity readers, he said, forced authors to create ennobled images—to describe an idealized world, not a real one. But the task of a sensitivity reader, properly understood, is to evaluate whether a given portrayal rings true or false, the Y.A. editor said. Depicting a character accurately and resonantly is literary work, a matter of craft. Too often, she continued, publishers insist on a false dichotomy between social justice and aesthetics, construing “sensitivity readers as troubleshooting, as something additional, rather than something that is intrinsic to characterization.”
Criticism from outside of the Y.A. Twitterverse corroborates this more integrated vision. The Y.A. editor told me that “A Place for Wolves” was “a failure at the level of conception.” Ostensibly writing in support of Jackson, Senior called his book “painfully clumsy and poorly placed.” In this light, the outrage that advance readers of Jackson’s book came to negative conclusions about it seems rooted in who gets to speak, and when, and how much power their words can wield—and, as it happens, these are all stated priorities of the Y.A. community.