Publishers Weekly, Literary Twitter, And The Problem With Online Rampartism (Unlocked)

A strange and winding tale of a dysfunctional online norm

From time to time I am going to unlock older posts that were originally just for paying subscribers. When I do, I’ll create a free clone of them with comments disabled, so as to protect the privacy of paying subscribers who commented on the original. This is one such clone — it was created 1/31/2021. If you’re a paying subscriber and want to see or comment on the original, it lives here.

The only reason this post exists is because of my paying subscribers, so if you enjoy this or find it useful please consider becoming a paying subscriber:

In late June, Publishers Weekly retracted one of its articles. Here’s how the present version of the page where the article used to live now reads in its entirety:

After review, Publishers Weekly has determined that this story about a book cancellation failed to meet our editorial standards. We have removed the story for two reasons: the failure to meet our standards of reporting, and our unintentional promotion of online abuse directed toward an individual named in the story as a result of our not more thoroughly investigating the events leading to the cancellation of the book. We regret the damage the publication of this story has caused this individual, as well as any other instances of violence enacted upon Black, Indigenous, and other people of color as a result of PW's past reporting on similar matters.

We would like to assert that the decision to cancel the book in question is not the responsibility of the named individual. That the article’s poor framing and under-reporting resulted in the perpetuation of abuse on the individual named in this article makes clear to PW's editors that its method of reporting on stories such as this one is flawed. Any stories whose reporting lead to abuse against BIPOC and the perpetuation of systemic racism are stories that have failed their audience—a failure for which PW takes full responsibility.

As a result of this failure, PW will establish new standards for coverage of book cancellations. Those standards will be announced later this summer after they have been determined and thoroughly vetted. We apologize for our error in judgment in publishing this piece, and commit to ensuring that our articles will not cause harm in the future.

This probably reads as fairly vague and strange unless you happen to be an online obsessive — which, Hi! 

In light of full context, this is actually an important retraction, and it means something very specific: PW, a legitimately important outlet, is codifying a view I call online rampartism that has some fairly serious negative ramifications for journalism and public discourse.

I’ll define that phrase shortly. But first we need to jump back to the halcyon days of 2014 — Obama was president, Twitter wasn’t terrible yet, my personal grooming habits hadn’t yet devolved to the point where I look like a strung-out Jewish Abraham Lincoln, etcetera etcetera. That was when a strange debate first went mainstream. Basically, the debate boiled down to the question of whether online public utterances are really public, in the sense of being fair game for anyone to amplify, respond to, and so on.

I say “went mainstream” because the literal Most Important Website Ever In Human History chimed in on it.

“Twitter Is Public,” advised Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan:

In light of certain argumentscurrentlytakingplaceon theinternet, we would like to issue a gentle reminder of a fact: Twitter is public. [note that one or more of those ancient links may be dead]

The things you write on Twitter are public. They are published on the world wide web. They can be read almost instantly by anyone with an internet connection on the planet Earth. This is not a bug in Twitter; it is a feature. Twitter is a thing that allows you to publish things, quickly, to the public.

Most things that you write on Twitter will be seen only by your followers. Most things that you write on Twitter will not be read by the public at large. But that is only because the public at large does not care about most things that you have to say. It is not because the public does not have “a right” to read your Twitter. Indeed, they do. They can do so simply by typing Twitter dot com slash [your name] into their web browser. There, they will find a complete list of everything that you have chosen to publish on Twitter, which is a public forum.

Why would Nolan even have to point this out? In part because of legitimate questions: Let’s say someone with 20 followers tweets about their sexual assault. Should a major news organization then embed that tweet, without the tweeter’s permission, to make some point about sexual assault? One could make a good-faith argument that no, they shouldn’t. Technically it’s public and no one is breaking any sort of law by broadcasting a tweet like that, but surely there might be reasons to enact a norm against such a decision.

Similarly, in 2015, I covered the story of a random person with almost no Twitter followers who made an inadvisable joke about a murdered law-enforcement officer that drew the attention of Breitbart, which treated it as a news event, shining a spotlight on her that led to a torrent of rape and death threats. Was her utterance technically public? Yes. Was it offensive? If you didn’t get the bone-dry satire, yes. Should a responsible news organization make an example of a random person in such a manner? No.

So those are conversations worth having. But at least as far back as 2014, bad-faith actors were going well beyond such questions to portray themselves as terribly wronged victims simply for having their public tweets linked to or retweeted or whatever.

Take Jacobinghazi, for example. And I’m warning you not to click that link. It leads straight to a giant drama-mountain composed of dumpster fires and puppy skeletons — one which is viewed in a morbidly legendary light among a subset of the left-of-center Too Online. Jacobinghazi was sparked when Journalist A freaked out after Journalist B argued, in Jacobin, that the diminutive-sounding term ‘bro’ shouldn’t be used to describe bad behavior such as death and rape threats, and linked to a tweet by A in which she did just that (as in, she said a ‘brocialist’ had sent her a rape threat). A, in turn, treated this as some sort of horrific breach of privacy or decorum, which of course it wasn’t, and a whole thing ensued as a result — it’s honestly an insane story that caused a lot of genuine damage, but a very difficult one to explain. (I might have certain details slightly off because so many old tweets have been deleted, but these are the basic contours, for sure.)

It’s not uncommon for some individuals — even high-profile journalists and others with big platforms — to treat drawing attention to their public tweets as some terrible act, usually in the sense that it is inciting harassment by bringing scrutiny to the tweet in question, which causes more people to become aware of it, which could lead to the author getting harassed. This is strange, for obvious reasons: How can it be okay to approvingly retweet a tweet, bringing it more attention, but immoral to criticize a tweet, bringing it more attention? The answer, of course, is that there are no real rules online and everything is determined by rhetorical Calvinball filtered through various forms of groupish ideological posturing.

This leads into what I call online rampartism: the view that, in certain circumstances, it’s okay for A to publicly criticize B, and for others to spread that criticism, but not for anyone to publicly criticize A for criticizing B, or to otherwise amplify A’s criticism in a negative light. If you do so, you are either harassing A, or inciting harassment against A. A, in other words, can sit comfortably protected up in the ramparts and rain down claims upon B, but no one’s allowed to drag A down to participate in the fight man-to-man (as it were).

In some of mycoverage of the Young Adult Twitter wars, in which books are torn apart on the basis of generally bad-faith accusations of racism and other -isms, usually by people who haven’t read them (Kat Rosenfield’s piece in Vulture remains the best one-stop-shopping on this phenomenon), I’ve watched the evolution of a rather insane version of online rampartism that goes something like this: Let’s say A criticizes B’s book (it’s racist, it’s sexist — whatever). According to this strain of online rampartism, it’s perfectly okay for everyone to spread the criticism itself, as well as other negative rumors about B (which tend to pop up not long after the community decides his or her book has to be virtually burned). But as soon as someone criticizes A for launching the claim — as soon as they question whether it’s legitimate, argue it’s unfounded, or whatever else — they have wronged A by “inciting harassment” against A.

Let me get slightly more specific, albeit still hypothetical:

1. Tom, in a tweet: “Rob’s book is racist! One of the characters who is black does a bad thing.”

2. Everyone starts spreading the rumor that Rob’s book is racist, sometimes by directly retweeting (1), sometimes by partaking in a game of internet rumor-telephone in which certain details shift. Rob’s publisher and agent are tagged repeatedly on Twitter in a rather transparent attempt on the part of his critics to extract a professional toll.

3. Rachel, perhaps a friend of Rob’s, screenshots Tom’s tweet and herself tweets, “You know, I just don’t think this is a fair characterization of Rob’s book. Having a black character do a bad thing obviously doesn’t render a book racist.”

4. Rachel is going against the group consensus that the book (which no one has read) is racist, and therefore the group decides that Rachel is harassing Tom, or at the very least inciting harassment against him, by bringing attention to Tom’s (public) tweet. 

5. Optional part: If it is the case that Tom has any identity characteristics that render him more ‘oppressed’ (by lit-Twitter standards) than Rachel, this will be brought up: Claims like “Rachel, a white woman, harassed a Native author” will begin to circulate.

6. Five minutes later, it is a Known Fact that Rachel is a capital-H harasser (and maybe racist as well), causing the fog of career and reputational damage to extend outward from Rob — who, as everyone knows from the consensus established three minutes ago, wrote a deeply racist book — and engulf her as well. 

You can see the problems with this system. The rules are just completely bizarre and inconsistent. It’s fine to retweet Tom’s claim and to otherwise bring attention to it — a virtuous act since you are helping to spread awareness about a racist book and bring its author the justice he so richly deserves — unless you express disagreement, at which point you are harassing Tom, or inciting harassment against Tom, for bringing attention to his public tweet. 

In the case of a quote-retweet — that is, retweeting the tweet while commenting on it — this could be seen as an interesting Schrödinger’s quote-retweet situation: The quote-retweet exists in a superposition of being good and bad simultaneously until the sentiment of the quote-retweeter is revealed, at which point it immediately becomes good or bad depending on whether it supports the message of the tweet. If I quote-retweet Tom’s tweet with “Wow, Rob’s book has to go,” I’m doing a good thing. If I quote-retweet Tom’s tweet with “This is bullshit,” I’m committing an act of harassment against Tom.

I know this is kind of confusing — that’s the point. Double standards benefit bullies and abusive personalities, and these particular double standards shield the bad-faith critics, who (to reiterate) have almost never read the books they are denouncing, from criticism, because criticizing them is, in this bizarre and foul-smelling funhouse, is tantamount to harassing them.

So, back to Publishers Weekly: The oldest version of the story, archived here and from June 25, reveals that the piece had been about the YA author Alexandra Duncan and her novel Ember Days. At the time, Duncan had released the book’s cover, which had launched the following exchange on Twitter with another author, whose name I will keep out of this post out of an abundance of caution:

[That other author] questioned the representation within the novel, which was noted in the book’s description: “Naomi is the granddaughter of a powerful Gullah conjure woman, sent to Charleston to combat an evil force circling the city and hiding in plain sight as Deidre’s protégé.”

[That author] said, via Tweet, “I’m immediately concerned about an apparently white author not only writing a Gullah character, a very underrepresented and erased people group, but then writing about a Conjure woman... and how/what she is ‘hiding in plain sight’?” Duncan immediately acknowledged [the other author]’s concern, responding, “I definitely struggled with whether it was okay for me to write about a culture outside my own and especially about the difficult topic of passing, which Naomi does for part of the book while going undercover in an all-white magical society,” further explaining that her decision to write from the perspective of a character with Gullah Geechee heritage stemmed from an interest in writing about folk magic traditions from “her area of the South.”

As often happens during these blowups, the book was subsequently cancelled, because the author was (apparently) the wrong race to write it, as she quickly realized in what I believe was an attempt to save her career.

As the original article notes:

In a statement released yesterday by Duncan, she refers to exchanges with author colleagues following the cover reveal, which made her aware that in her “misguided attempt to write a book that was inclusive of all cultures of Charleston and the Lowcountry, where the book is set,” she participated in the “ongoing erasure of [the Gullah Geechee] culture.” Explaining that her “own limited worldview as a white person” led her to incorrectly assume she could responsibly depict this culture, Duncan said, “Clearly, the fact that I did not see the signs of the problem with my book’s premise in my research or conversations about the book is evidence that I was not the right person to try to tell this story. I am deeply ashamed to have made a mistake of this magnitude and hope my actions will not negatively affect the cause of bringing greater diversity to children’s literature.”

Duncan also addressed and rejected the misconception that the cancellation is censorship, noting, “It is wholly my decision to withdraw the book in order to mitigate the harm I have done. I have work to do to improve myself and my writing, and I will continue doing it.” She concluded the statement by suggesting that readers support Black authors and providing a list of suggested “published or upcoming YA, all of which contain elements of fantasy and folklore.”

You’ll notice no one has even claimed Duncan wrote anything offensive — rather, the mere fact that one of her characters was from a different, minority background was enough to get her to realize she shouldn’t have written the book at all. (Yes, this is disturbing. We don’t need to hide or obscure that fact.)

Duncan is allowed to self-cancel. The rest of us are allowed to criticize her for doing so. But, as readers of PW, we should have access to the fact that another, fairly well-established-seeming author criticized Duncan’s book despite having no familiarity with the plot beyond the summary provided with the publicity materials. This other author clearly forfeited her right to privacy by publicly criticizing the book of one of her peers. That’s how all this works: If you publicly criticize someone, that criticism is, by definition, public.

Until institutions decide it isn’t. I know from experience that this corner of the publishing world is really into online rampartism. One of the only negative real-life interactions I’ve had with someone about my journalism was at a fairly recent (but obviously pre-Pandemic) party, where I met an editor at a major sci-fi and fantasy publisher who said she knew who I was and said something to the effect of, Your work hurt my friends. That is, I had highlighted her friends’ tweets joining in on pileons against targeted books and argued that they weren’t informed and/or good-faith criticisms. That’s enough to be tagged a harasser, or a harassment-inciter.

Did this author get harassed as a result of her role in this? It’s definitely possible. But this system PW is suggesting, in which it’s not only out-of-bounds to name the critics of books but an act of violence (that’s really the word they used!) if they come to be harassed, is completely incompatible with the goal of reporting fairly and rigorously on these social-media blowups. This claim is particularly crazy: “Any stories whose reporting lead to abuse against BIPOC and the perpetuation of systemic racism are stories that have failed their audience—a failure for which PW takes full responsibility.” Of course no one is in favor of black and indigeneous people of color (or anyone else) getting harassed online, but it’s also plainly impossible to do journalism without running the risk of someone getting harassed, because people online are horrible and journalists have little control over how people respond to their stories. 

By laying out a standard in which an article is deemed to have failed if it leads to members of certain racial groups getting harassed — and by invoking the concept of literal violence — PW is making actual reporting on this subject impossible. It is backing itself into a corner. I don’t know for sure what led PW to commit this error, but I can guess: The author of this piece and/or her editor got a torrent of tweets and emails saying she “incited harassment” by, in the course of her duties as a journalist, quoting public utterances.  

Whether or not this is what happened — and please drop me a line if you have information on this — it’s deeply unjournalistic to say that reporters can’t, well, report on the public utterances of relevant figures during a controversy. It makes no sense. This is what happens when the most illogical norms embraced by the most broken parts of the internet migrate to the mainstream.

Questions? Comments? Threats to publicly quote from this newsletter, thereby harassing a Jewish writer? I’m at or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Image of the Insulting Frenchman from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but with the subtitle replaced with “YOUR MOTHER WAS A HAMSTER, AND YOUR FATHER INCITED HARASSMENT,” taken from here.