YA Twitter's Victims And Critics Speak Out, Part 3: More Depressing Emails From Writers Of Color
"I'm already preparing my future apology letter in my mind when I haven't even had a book deal yet."
Consider this a bonus post. My plan was to do just one more YA-Twitter-related post, which would collect many of the great emails I got in one place, but then I received a couple more emails from writers of color I realized I really, really wanted to run as their own thing. (Yes, I’ve verified the identities of both authors.)
Part of the reason I’m devoting two of what will be (I think) four total YA Twitter posts to emails from minority writers is that a lot of the outrage and dogpiling dynamics going on in the community at the moment have to do with questions of diversity and representation. And there are understandable reasons for that. Publishing is, on the whole, overwhelmingly white, as these pie charts from a Publishers Weekly article show:
(Update: A couple people pointed out to me that the white/Caucasian percentage isn’t that far off from the percentage for the country at large — it’s a fair point I’ll address in my next newsletter.)
Solid diversity numbers on YA authorship in the United States are a bit harder to come by (though if I’ve overlooked some reasonably rigorous study or survey, email me and I’ll update this post and reference it next time), but my sense is that while there’s been improvement on that front, the situation still isn’t great. In the United Kingdom, for what it’s worth, things are headed in the wrong direction, at least according to a Guardian story from last summer: “Despite a raft of diversity initiatives, the percentage of young adult books written by black and minority ethnic (BME) authors has declined steadily since 2010, according to a new study warning that the UK’s ‘outdated’ publishing culture must take rapid action to address a systemic problem in its ranks.”
It isn’t a mystery why the above pie charts are so very green. (Edit: Blue! They’re blue. I blame F.lux.) Publishing is a quite competitive industry, and it stands to reason that, given how inequality in the U.S. works, the people who come from the sorts of backgrounds and who have the sorts of advantages likely to allow them to break in (whether as authors or editors or agents) are much more likely to be white. Things are quite similar in my own field, journalism — if I’d come from a poor household I would have had a much lesser chance of making any sort of name for myself, because gaining a bit of a footing early on required unpaid internships and low-paying jobs, which I could afford to take on not because of any particular merit on my part, but because I was lucky.
YA writers of color, then, are navigating a very white industry, whatever their level of success or experience. So it would be one thing if they felt like the present online climate, as pertaining to identity issues, made that easier, and that they were being treated with an increasing level of respect and were being seen as people rather than as tokens.
The emails I’ve been receiving suggest that, to some writers of color at least, something like the opposite is happening — YA fiction’s conversation about identity has curdled in a way that is making it harder, not easier, for these writers to do the writing they want to do, and to present themselves and their stories in a manner that feels authentic. Their interactions with the industry’s predominately white agents and editors are rife with unpleasant encounters in which they are told, sometimes rather explicitly, that to the extent the industry values them at all, it’s as exemplars of their race or ethnicity.
It’s worth pointing out that the emails I’ve gotten from writers of color certainly aren’t a random sample — because of the articles and posts I’ve written, people know that I’m sympathetic to the position that something is deeply wrong with YA Twitter at the moment. There are obviously plenty of individuals within that community, white and nonwhite alike, who don’t have any problem participating in the callouts and pileons that are roiling the industry — that’s why the callouts and pileons occur — and I’m probably less likely to hear from them.
But however representative these emails are of the experiences of other writers of color within young-adult fiction, I think they should be taken seriously. They reflect real people’s actual, frequently frustrating attempts to navigate an overwhelmingly white industry, and there’s a reason not a single one of these correspondents, from today’s post or yesterday’s, wanted to be named. If you care about diversity in YA publishing, you should at least read these stories with an open mind.
I’m going to present both without any addition commentary.
“Some of it is too painful to dig up and then fictionalize, but we have to write about it to be desirable to publishing”
This first one’s from a female writer of color hoping to get her first book deal soon:
I’m an agented author with a debut about to go on submission. Before I was agented, I wrote a couple of other books, some from my perspective and some from not. The ones that weren't from my perspective (White American) got the standard types of rejections - pacing, voice, etc - and I do think these books weren't quite “there” yet.
But the ones from my perspective? Hoooo lordy let me tell you. Some of the suggestions I got were to rewrite the genre into a rom-com or forbidden romance trope as other published writers from my community are doing. And some provided examples of books from authors of my background as examples of what I should write. And still others didn't understand the Extremely Ethnic Things I was writing about (things specific to my culture that now have been Americanized [I’m sorry I can’t give more details on this!]), and upon realizing it wasn't the Americanized version that they were comfortable with, told me it made them confused and they ended up rejecting it because it wasn't what they thought it was going to be.
I love my current agent and she has been an amazing champion of my work, but I'm still traumatized by the agent courting process. Agents want us to write diverse fiction from our own voices, but when we do they want us to write about our marginalization as they think it should be.
Sorry for the long rant. 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. Some of it is too painful to dig up and then fictionalize, but we have to write about it to be desirable to publishing. And it's “trendy.”
As it stands, not only are the books we want to write being dictated by agents, but now by the YA community.
As I go on submission, I am second guessing every character choice I made, even if they are from my own background. I am sure someone, anyone will find something wrong with it. There are some of us who feel we can’t write about anything anymore, even from our perspective. I’m not sure what to write next at this point that is agreeable to everyone. And I’m already preparing my future apology letter in my mind when I haven't even had a book deal yet.
“They have sapped the joy from book releases, instead leaving debut authors refreshing their twitter feeds, terrified their book is next”
This is from a successful YA author who has published multiple books and who asked I not reveal his or her gender:
The ever-changing rules dictated by a small group of (mostly) writers who impose their own particular brand of wokeness on young adult literature have created a deep culture of fear in the YA writing community.
Draggings and callouts often happen late into ARC [advance reading copy] releases, usually following scores of positive reviews from people of color and other bloggers in the community — demonstrating that the so-called “problematic content” is rarely immediately apparent. Even those who usually participate in such callouts, as Heidi Heilig did with A Place for Wolves, will positively review a book that is later dragged.
Writers are therefore terrified that, just as so many of these early reviewers were, they will be unaware of the supposed “problematic content” in their books and find it impossible to detect.
Hiring sensitivity readers is posed as the solution to this problem, yet, ignoring the obvious expense, books that have been sensitivity read multiple times are still dragged – see A Place for Wolves, a book WRITTEN by a sensitivity reader, who was part of this in-group himself. Not all sensitivity readers are aligned in their opinions, as I have found out in my own experiences with them. What one says is their favorite aspect of the book, another says is deeply troubling. Your book must now pass muster with all brands of wokeness, and these vary from person to person, group to group. And it is impossible to tell just what the “in-group” themselves will think until they read it, whether sensitivity read or not.
Only one member of this “in-group” needs to find it offensive. Once declared a target, there is little debate when a book is labelled racist, for fear of being labelled racist yourself in the defending of it. And only people of that particular marginalization are said to be “qualified” to debate it anyway.
Members will begin rallying their followers, and the usual spokespeople will tweet out performative, exaggerated threads, which will then be retweeted by virtue signalers, clueless allies and gleeful schadenfreude addicts alike. Publishers will be tagged. Conventions will be emailed. Blogs will be written. One-star ratings will be posted. And through it all, the in-group's platform grows.
It is no surprise that these draggings happen during the ARC phase, for it is when a book is most vulnerable, where the opportunity for rebuttal is removed due to the book’s lack of availability to the wider community, and those few with access to it are far less likely to speak out, for they are usually authors or fellow bloggers — those most scared of earning the ire of the “in-group”, lest they be scrutinized in the future.
Perhaps worst of all, new rules are imposed where they did not exist before. Whereas before it was acceptable to write within a culture or experience that is not your own, as long as you do it authentically, this is no longer the case — as Kosoko Jackson found out to his detriment. Amelie Zhao recently learned that whereas before it was not considered problematic for a character to sing to a dying person, this is now racist if they happen to be black (why is still unclear). And this despite the Hunger Games doing exactly that.
Amelie would also find out that now, slavery in YA fiction should only ever be race based, regardless of what culture the book is inspired by or even the author's own cultural heritage, not to mention the fact that the vast majority of slavery across human history was NOT race based. Even something as innocuous as having a black girl in a dress on your cover (Before She Ignites), when you yourself are white, may be called out for the supposed crime of the cover being the first of its kind (it wasn’t).
All of this has had a chilling effect on authors’ choices. It is now safer to write books that do not include any “risky topics,” removing nuance from children’s fiction. Diverse casts written authentically bear the risk of being labelled stereotypes or “outside of your lane,” while those written less so can be labelled as white-washed. It is now safer to write a majority white cast, with a few smaller parts for non-white characters, since less “screen time” means less risk of causing offense, but having them present protects you from having an all-white cast (a high crime in the current rule system).
We’ve come full circle. These call outs have not helped diversify YA fiction. Instead, they have limited free-thinking and willingness to tackle tough issues. They have made many authors (of all backgrounds) scared to include diverse characters. They have sapped the joy from book releases, instead leaving debut authors refreshing their twitter feeds, terrified their book is next. They have made people afraid to write.