Teen Fiction Twitter Is Eating Its Young
"Cancel culture" is out of control online.
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 located 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. (The call-outs, draggings, and pile-ons almost always involve claims that a book is insensitive in its treatment of some marginalized group.) Y.A. Twitter features frequent over-the-top claims of various people in the community "abusing" one another, with the term often used in a deeply watered-down sense. The specific charges, as Rosenfield showed convincingly, often don't seem to warrant the blowups they spark—when they make any sense at all. The blowup surrounding a book called The Black Witch, for example—or "the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read," according to the blogger who appears to have launched the campaign against it—largely centered around the book's racist characters saying racist things as part of a story in which the protagonist learns to overcome her racism. Other times, authors are simply presumed to be incapable of authentically and sensitively portraying characters of other races, causing online critics to read just about anything in their books through an uncharitable lens.
Y.A. Twitter does not appear to be a representative sample of Y.A. readers. Those readers are split about 50–50 between minors and adults, according to what data we have, but on Twitter the community is almost entirely adults. And many of the "scandals" have gone unnoticed by readers who are not social media addicts.
The Black Witch did get hit with a bit of online shrapnel: Drive-by critics tanked its rating on the popular book-reviewing site Goodreads, for instance. But as Rosenfield noted, it appeared to do fine on Amazon, in terms of both sales and ratings. "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," she 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.
At some point 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. (As far as I could tell, no one provided any evidence she had actually done this; it was just a rumor that made the rounds on social media.)
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 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 world as one in which "oppression is blind to skin color." "….someone explain this to me. EXPLAIN IT RIGHT THE FUQ NOW," she tweeted, 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.)
But 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. She pointed out that she had intended the book to be a critique of indentured servitude in Asia. Contrary to online rumors, it wasn't supposed to have anything to do with slavery in the United States, in other words—meaning a bunch of American critics viewing a book by a foreign writer through an Americacentric lens had successfully "canceled" it on the grounds that it…didn't handle the subject of American-style slavery with enough sensitivity.
Or something. Honestly, even when you follow these Twitter outrages closely, it can be hard to figure out what everyone is mad about.
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. "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe meets Code Name Verity in this heartbreaking and poignant story of survival," the publicity materials read. 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 February 25. When I screencapped it a day later, the tweet had 164 retweets—a sizable number for Y.A. Twitter, which consists mainly of accounts with relatively few followers.
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 fucking honest here, everybody," this particular post starts. "I've never been so disgusted in my life."
The reviewer proceeds to argue that because of the horrific bloodshed that occurred during the Kosovo War—large numbers of Albanians were displaced and murdered by Serbian forces—it's insensitive to center a story set during that 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 coldblooded terrorist who's [sic] only purpose seems to be to murder and torture and commit harm, even killing his own men," she writes. "Why, exactly, did the author choose to make the main villain in this story an Albanian Muslim, when it was ALBANIAN MUSLIMS WHO WERE ETHNICALLY CLEANSED?"
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. And the book doesn't take the approach to the Kosovo War that I would have. 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.
Once established, however, Y.A. Twitter outrage narratives tend to take on a momentum of their own, and that's what happened with A Place for Wolves. A Twitter search for Jackson's name shows that certain ideas about his book's prima facie insensitivity quickly set in, with many on Y.A. Twitter accusing him of having erred horribly.
Not long after the fury began, Jackson shut down his author website, replacing it with a brief note:
While dealing with the hurt my debut has caused and coming up with a plan of action of how to fix the pain I've caused with my words, my site is currently under maintenance. I'll have an update soon.
Thanks for your patience and for those who I hurt with my words, especially the Muslim readers, teens, and community members, I'm sorry.
Part of what makes this story so interesting is that Jackson himself has been on the other side of these online attacks on authors. He was outspoken during the Blood Heir controversy, for example, and fit neatly into 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."
This policing includes keeping a close eye on who is liking or retweeting whom. During the Zhao brouhaha, for example, Jackson accused an account named KidLitCon of having retweeted an "attack on"—read: a pointed but civil and informed disagreement with—L.L. McKinney, the aforementioned big-name Y.A. author with a social-justice bent.
Thanks to pressure from Jackson and others, the "keys" to the KidLitCon account were taken away from one of its co-owners, a woman of color who had authored the tweet questioning McKinney, and full control was given to a white woman with the "correct" stance on Zhao.
Jackson has also been an outspoken proponent of 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.
First, they make it harder to evaluate which sorts of writing really might have certain shortcomings, biases, or myopic character renderings. Because so many people reacted so strongly (and on the basis of such little information) to A Place for Wolves, a huge amount of smoke was created. Maybe there's some actual fire here, but determining that would require a close read of the sort that social-media dogpilings rarely afford.
Zooming out, 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 worthy 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.
In fact, 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. (Like many of my correspondents, he was worried about being outed and asked me to leave out identifying details.) "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."
A female writer of color hoping to get her first book deal also emphasized the idea of feeling like not-quite-a-person around white editors. "It was hard enough getting an agent (who is so awesome and rare) by sticking to the genre I wanted and being 'trendy' by writing through my marginalization, even though I never imagined my writing career to be centered around my marginalization," she said. "Some of it is too painful to dig up and then fictionalize, but we have to write about it to be desirable to publishing."
People often blame this sort of lefty culture-war brawling on "identity politics" or "political correctness." I think that's a misdiagnosis. A more precise description of the worldview roiling Y.A. fiction is left-wing identitarianism.
In its vanilla form, identitarianism is simply the idea that individual identity characteristics—race, religion, sexuality, whatever—have important explanatory power and are a good way of dividing people up. There's plenty of right-wing identitarianism in the world: The idea that people of color can't be "real" Americans or "real" Germans, for example, is just that. It's a worldview that takes a rigid, restrictive view of who is allowed to do or be what. Right-wing strains often posit that whiteness—a fundamentally superficial characteristic, in the grand scheme of things—qualifies people for certain privileges, such as citizenship.
Naturally, left-wing identitarianism takes a different approach. In this worldview, identity causes certain beliefs and behaviors—but good beliefs and behaviors are always attributed to traditionally marginalized groups, while bad ones are attributed to traditionally "power-up" groups. Left-wing identitarianism has trouble with the idea of minorities not viewing themselves as oppressed or not viewing themselves as black first, say, rather than a father or husband or firefighter or engineer first.
The most ardent left-wing identitarians are really, really obsessed with identity. That can't be emphasized enough. On Y.A. Twitter, they're even obsessed with the identities of fictional characters, and they have trouble with the ambiguity of not knowing exactly how a character in a fictional universe's race would map onto real-life (usually American) racial categories. They have even more difficulty accepting characters from oppressed groups being "bad," because for them, again, the more marginalized you are, the better you are as a person.
In the real world, there's not much appetite for left-wing identitarianism. People are sympathetic to the existence of certain truths about identity—members of different groups do, on average, face different amounts of oppression and are more likely to have access to different sorts of experiences and insights. But when you face left-wing identitarianism up close, it's ugly. People don't like having everything litigated on the basis of race or religion or sexuality, even when it's done in a way meant to right historical wrongs. It just robs people of their individual dignity a bit.
The problem is that social media warp and distort everything. Those who have the most vociferous views on a given issue—in this case, left-wing identitarians 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 funhouse-mirror effect, or there are going to be a lot more canceled books.