YA Twitter's Victims And Critics Speak Out, Part 1

“They keep screenshots of conversations just in case they ever need to publicly destroy someone.”

(Update, 3/5/2019: Part 2, which focuses on the experiences of minority writers, is up.)

The world of young-adult-fiction Twitter, or YA Twitter, is a very intense place, prone to constant callouts and opinion-policing, particularly on matters of identity and social justice. And things seem to have only gotten worse since Kat Rosenfield wrote the definitive article about this subculture for Vulture, “The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter” in 2017.

In just the last month, YA Twitter outrage has caused not one but two authors to choose to unpublish books they had already completed — first Amélie Zhao’s Blood Heir, which was accused of antiblack racism because YA Twitter decided, on the basis of rather questionable evidence, that a racially ambiguous character was black, and didn’t like how she was treated in light of that assumption; and then Kosoko Jackson’s A Place for Wolves, which was accused of being offensive for focusing on American teenagers during the Kosovo war and its attendant human-rights atrocities, and for having a Muslim villain.

It’s unusual, not to mention expensive to publishers, for books to be simply cancelled this far along in their publication processes. I wanted to learn more about what’s going on in the more social-justice-oriented corners of YA publishing at the moment, so I put out a general call on Twitter:

I got a bunch of responses, many of them eye-popping in one way or another. Those writers who reached out from secure positions within YA or other genres were adamant that they not be named, that they sensed a real threat to their careers in the possibility of getting sucked into one of these outrage-vortexes — even by simply criticizing YA Twitter publicly.

As for less established writers, they’re feeling a different sort of heat: Some are simply scared they will somehow slip up in how they portray a non-white or non-straight character, or that the ever-fluid “rules” will shift from under them without warning, and that some Twitter-revolutionary will shine a harsh light on them as a result, kneecapping their publishing career before it ever gets off the ground. Some writers of color, meanwhile, are finding that their own ethnic identities, as interpreted by agents and publishers who have adopted increasingly rigid and conservative ideas about who should be writing what, are crimping their ability to do the sort of work that most excites them.

Please get in touch with me if you have something to say about any of this: jesse.r.singal@gmail.com. I’m breaking this up into two posts because I got so many good emails — Part 2 will run tomorrow or Wednesday — and to be honest I’m leaving out a lot of the stuff I’ve learned in the last few days in anticipation of writing another full-blown piece on this at some point that will go into more detail.

And with that, the emails:

“Honestly there’s still a bit of me that thinks my name ended up on Barry’s list”

Here’s one of the most striking emails I received, almost in its entirety:

I’ve been watching the YA community self-immolate for quite some time now, and got sideswiped by one of their hate trains back in 2016.

In 2013, when Lit Twitter was a kinder, gentler place, I landed an amazing agent who to this day I have absolutely nothing bad to say about. She got me in front of major houses with lightning speed and my debut novel made it to acquisitions @ Scholastic before ultimately being passed for reasons that bummed me out, but were perfectly understandable.

While working on a followup book after the first one fell through, I started to see the community turning toxic. I was part of a kidlit crit partner circle made of predominantly published authors. Mostly great folk!

One of my core desires was to help with the diverse books movement that was starting up at the time. My kids are half-Japanese, and we spend a significant amount of our time in Japan. In addition to living and working in Japan for a while, I speak the language quite well and have studied Japanese history and mythology extensively. (This will matter in a bit, I promise.)

While working on revisions for my second novel with my agent, the fracas about THE CONTINENT erupted. It was, based on everything I could see, a young debut author getting bullied by Justina Ireland, who’d written a very negative review and pinned a tweet to her timeline calling the book a garbage fire while urging people to give the author hell. [From Rosenfield’s article: “Harlequin Teen delayed YA fantasy The Continent after author Justina Ireland lambasted the book for employing white-savior tropes[.]”]

I mentioned to Justina that I understood she was upset, but that this sort of unbridled rage was probably not the best approach to get anyone on your side.

She flipped right out, accusing me of making racist comments because I dared to point out an objective truth — that she was inordinately angry. But because she was black, and possibly because she was already in a fighting mood, pointing out that she was, in fact, angry got her going and she turned her [Twitter] timeline firehose on me.

I had tons of people mentioning and DMing me telling me that they’d make sure my books never got published, or if they did, they looked forward to dragging me through the mud for daring to make such racist comments. An agent also pinged me, Barry Goldblatt, saying that the agents maintain a list of known enemies of POCs [people of color]. That scared the everliving shit out of me and I abandoned twitter for two years.

Fast forward to 2017. By this point I’d parted ways with my agent (she wasn’t into the kind of scifi I wanted to write, and that’s cool — it wasn't her strong suit. I still love her to death) and had written a well-researched historical fiction with a Japanese girl MC [main character]. And I marketed it in my queries as YA.

You can probably see where this went.

A good published-author friend of mine loved the book and passed it on to his agent. I hesitate to give her name because it would immediately out me. She would absolutely remember this experience. I got a phone call from her after he sent her my manuscript, and when I answered I was elated — until she immediately launched into a rant about how there was no way in hell I should be writing YA books featuring Asian POVs as a white man. And she wasn’t interested in anything else I had written.

After that, I gave up. I’m done with writing. At first I considered abandoning just kidlit, but now I think I’m out for good. I’m just too afraid of the insane system that’s been set up, and honestly there’s still a bit of me that thinks my name ended up on Barry’s list and that’s why I had trouble querying anything after parting with my former agent.

If you want to credit me, just call me Chris.

Thank you for the light you’re helping to shine on the problems with this community. [...] I’m sad at all the friends I lost along the way—people who were awesome to hang out with, and then when the community went south, they all turned into vipers.

The full sequence, Chris explained in followup emails, entailed another YA author (who is no longer on Twitter) bringing up the list of alleged enemies of people of color and suggesting he could be put on it, and Goldblatt quote-retweeting her tweet to acknowledge that yes, there is such a list.

Goldblatt’s tweet is still up:

I reached out to Goldblatt for comment but didn’t hear back. I recognized his name when I saw it in Chris’s email, because I’d encountered him before — he comes across as something of a YA Twitter enforcer. During the Blood Heir controversy, for example, a woman of Asian heritage, running the Twitter account @KidLitCon, which is connected to a convention taking place later this month, retweeted a fair-seeming question about the claim that Blood Heir was racist against black people:

Goldblatt quite transparently threatened that if @KidLitCon didn’t issue an apology for retweeting something he disagreed with, he would tell his clients not to attend the convention, and would spread the word to other agents as well, which could presumably have disastrous consequences for the event:

As a result of Goldblatt’s pressure, complete control of the KidLitCon account, which had apparently been shared, was handed over to a white woman who is on Goldblatt’s side on this issue, who promptly “aplogize[d] for the pain caused by the inappropriate use of the account to promote the incendiary opinions of [her] co-organizer”:

Because Goldblatt didn’t return my email, it’s impossible to tell whether members of the YA community are actively circulating and updating an actual list of alleged enemies of people of color, as well as whether that list, as one might infer from Goldblatt’s quote-retweet, is affecting the careers of a large number of writers with regard to their publishing deals (or lack thereof), speaking invitations (ditto), and whatever else. Either such a list exists, or Goldblatt was lying for the sake of bluster and intimidation.

But as Chris’s note indicates, from writers’ perspective, it doesn’t really matter whether the list is real or not — even just the rumor of such a list would likely cause a great deal of stress and affect people’s public behavior. Publishing, YA and otherwise, can be really, really fickle. People pour their hearts into proposals and manuscripts, send them out, and then watch those ideas die quiet, oftentimes drawn-out deaths due to a lack of publisher interest. It’s a grueling and soul-wrenching and generally not well-compensated process, especially in YA, so imagine also having to wonder whether your lack of success is due to having found yourself on a list because someone didn’t like your Twitter tone in a single interaction. It’s crazy to think about. (Suffice it to say that if you know anything about whether such a list exists in the world of YA, you should email me.)

So Chris’s line about how “a bit of me... thinks my name ended up on Barry’s list,” as well as Goldblatt’s tweet, both nicely capture how an idea like this one could be weaponized, particularly against authors without much clout, to prevent them from publicly taking the “wrong” side in YA Twitter’s endless, bloody culture wars.

“Literature should make us uncomfortable”

Here’s another, much shorter email from a bestselling author who has won awards for his or her fiction:

I’m not a YA author, thank the gods. I write adult fiction and don’t care who that offends. I stay out of their drama for fear of being blackballed, but I think this mob crap is ridiculous. And I spotted another about to unfold. Blood Heir was January’s sacrifice. A Place for Wolves was February. Now it seems A Monster Like Me may be March’s offering to the Twitter YA cabal if it catches on. :-/ Thanks for the work you do exposing this craziness. I keep a close eye on this stuff but like many others feel chilled to speak because a very public dragging is almost guaranteed.

He or she attached a screenshot of a tweet from someone complaining about A Monster Like Me’s treatment of issues pertaining to Native Americans. We’ll see if that turns into a full-blown campaign.

Then, in a followup email:

I appreciate you keeping my name out of it. This absolutely appears to be escalating. Sadly.

Literature should make us uncomfortable. It should make us challenge authority and each other. It should make us think and ask questions. But it should never be sanitized the way they demand while masking their self-aggrandizing pedantry as advocacy. As a writer, I unequivocally reject censorship. I might think what you wrote was shitty, but I’ll defend your right to write it.

Even though I don’t write YA, the publishing industry as a whole is ready, willing, and able to take down “problematic” people. If I spoke freely, I know I’d be “problematic.”

“They keep screenshots of conversations just in case they ever need to publicly destroy someone.”

This came in from a published YA fantasy author:

I’m sending you this because I believe the community needs to change. It’s destroying itself. What started out as, in my opinion, an important effort to diversify books for children has become embroiled in far too much public grandstanding and private backstabbing. Debut authors — the targets of a majority of the latest call outs — do not have the industry or social clout within the community to push back or, really, to even recover career-wise from cancelling their books. It's even more difficult when they are marginalized people themselves.

People in the YA community obsess over “receipts.” They keep screenshots of conversations just in case they ever need to publicly destroy someone. Carefully cultivated public personas are common. If secrets are a form of currency, then coming off as a friendly person is intended to get people to open up to you. It is an industry where a lot of people have “allies” instead of “friends” and they are perfectly willing to throw those people under the bus in order to maintain social clout within the community. The people who do value friendships are the quiet ones. We're not here to grandstand. We're here to write books.

But what you see on YA Twitter is, really, just what they're willing to put out in public. The private stuff is very personal and it cuts very deeply. In this industry, you have to be careful who you open up to, because you never know when the details of your life are going to become gossip fodder.

That's all I really have to say for now. I'd really appreciate if you kept my anonymity, and didn't share the specific details of [redacted mention of a story from an off-the-record part of his or her email]. But I do think it’s important that someone outside the community can bring these issues to light, since a lot of people are afraid of having their careers destroyed. It's disheartening that we can't be critical of our own industry.

I’m gonna leave it at that for now, but there are a lot more emails to get to, I promise. In the next Singal-Minded, a note from an author of color who feels pressured to write stories he doesn’t want to write, a Very Online person from an adjacent community has some cutting and depressing thoughts on what’s driving all this, and more.

One more time: If you have any sort of insight into the YA Twitter wars, or experience in the trenches, that you think I should know about, email me at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com. I will respect confidentiality. And please don’t think I’m only willing to publish emails supporting my thesis that things have flown off the rail — there are obviously some people who think that what’s been happening is justified, or is a necessary step on some longer journey, and I’d love to hear from some of you, too.

Questions? Comments? Fury at the insensitivity with which I portrayed the character Rabbi Jenkins in my debut YA novel, Singal File, One At A Time? I’m at singalminded@gmail.com, or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Lead image via.