YA Twitter's Victims And Critics Speak Out, Part 4: The Final Part: More Emails: Almost Done Edition
"It almost seems like there’s a cycle of revenge, a tapestry of grudges and distrust."
|Jesse Singal||Mar 11, 2019|| 8|
This post isn't going to make much sense if you didn’t read Part 1 of this series to get the basics — there's also Part 2 and Part 3 if you want to dive deeper. This will be my last post about YA drama for the immediate future — I'll be going back to standard Singal-Minded content. Hold your applause.
This is going to mostly be devoted to emails. A lot of them. First, though: A couple people wrote in to take issues with my characterization of publishing as "overwhelmingly white" in Part 3, a characterization I based on this graph from a Publishers Weekly article:
As they pointed out, this isn't that far off from the demographics of the United States at large. Which a quick glance at the Census Bureau's statistics seems to support, more or less:
So I guess "overwhelmingly" wasn't as precise as it could have been. There are still some interesting things to unpack here, like how underrepresented black and Latino people are in publishing, relatively speaking. Plus, your mileage may vary when it comes to such a subjective term in reference to a predominantly liberal, urban endeavor like publishing, where wouldn’t one expect there to be a bit more diversity than elsewhere? But either way, I'll definitely try to be more careful in my language in the future. (And thank you to the concerned souls who wrote in worried I was going colorblind — I got the color of pie graphs wrong because I use f.lux at night, which tamps down certain colors on my monitor for insomnia-fighting purposes.)
On to the emails:
YA Twitter Definitely Isn't Alone in its Dysfunctionality
I got a few emails pointing out that there are other online communities at least as dysfunctional as YA. I hope nothing I've written about this has suggested otherwise! It's definitely true. YA just concerns a subculture — YA fiction — that is itself relatively mainstream, and is successfully getting books unpublished, which is a big deal. So it seemed worth shining a spotlight on.
Online fandom communities came up a couple times. I'm slightly familiar with those scenes — I know, for example, that there was a horrifying situation in which a Steven Universe fan artist was bullied mercilessly online for drawing characters in "problematic" ways (fat characters too thin, the "wrong" colors to represent different races, etc. — you know, normal stuff to mercilessly berate a fellow human over), to the point where she attempted suicide. As much of a masochist as I am online, I've honestly tried to stay away from these sorts of fandoms; from what I've heard some of them make YA Twitter look like a peaceful springtime picnic.
Anyway, one person I heard from drew the connection between dysfunctional fandoms and YA Twitter in a colorful and foreboding way. Oh, and I'm only lightly cleaning up emails from here on out — there are just too many of them. So apologies in advance for formatting or spelling issues I didn't catch.
Okay, look: I'm not in YA, I'm from "fandom" - weirdo girls writing porn online, blah blah, disregard if you want! I am NOT trying to clog your inbox or waste your time!
but I BET YOU five cows that's where this pattern of YA bullying is coming from. tumblr fandom has been INUNDATED with similar targeted attacks and bad faith "social justice/we care about representation and that's why we HAVE to tell people to kill themselves for writing a Bad Story" arguments for the past few years - it's where they're practicing their attacks and it's where they're refining their techniques.
(I could be wrong, of course, but please remember my canary-in-the-coalmine warning: if I'm RIGHT, adult YA authors are gonna start getting accused of wanting to bang teenagers because their books include romance between teenage protagonists in...eh. six months or so.)
The initial Goodreads review of the Place for Wolves book has a paragraph about how the reviewer would never, NEVER accuse a gay man of improperly representing a relationship between two boys but the female reviewers who enjoyed that romance are fetishizing gay men. That's the argument bullies have been using to justify harassing people on tumblr for the last couple of YEARS. It's a specific fuckin argument; I don't think it's likely that two different groups came up with it on their own.
[in a followup email, the correspondent clarified: She's saying that she's seen this style of argument, "I didn't have a problem with this piece of art, but I see other people reacting in an offensive manner, and therefore it's bad" — more or less — used to stoke fandom pileons]
I GET that it sounds silly and paranoid and I absolutely understand that I am not a professional in the industry! so again, sorry to clutter your inbox, but this "censorship to protect the Teens from consuming imperfect fiction" shit grinds my gears, and I recognize that most people aren't Weird Online in this particular way, so they're not gonna get how this kind of harassment works. So-and-so was rude online in his private writer's group?
again, I betcha five goats that's WHY they started gunning for him. he was successful and he was rude. There were rumors that Zhao was unkind/snarky towards other YA authors a couple weeks before she got bombed. that's probably why they singled her out. that's all it takes.
people start talking about how their work is sexist/racist/homophobic/fetishizing/ableist, and they see which line of criticism is most effective, and they double down on that "crit" until that author is finished.
throwaway email, blah blah, done venting now.
Another correspondent wrote in with a genuinely brain-melting story about the disintegration of a toxic online community I'd never heard of:
I'm reading your series on YA Twitter and I'm finding it fascinating for a few reasons: it's well written, I love YA lit (shamelessly), I don't Twitter and had no idea this was happening, and lastly, this exact thing happened in a different online community that I was part of.
I had my first child awhile back and became interested in baby wearing (putting your child into a baby carrier that attaches to your body or using wraps to attach the baby). I got caught up in all of it, particularly the wraps, which were hugely expensive pieces of fabric. There were tons of groups dedicated to wraps. Buying/selling swaps, wrap company fan groups, drama based groups, friend based groups, you name it. Part of what made all this possible is that the wraps were much like the Dutch tulips or beanie babies of yore. You "scored" from a company directly and then sold for more than you paid. What could go wrong?
Lots of the wrap companies that started popping up were just run by moms who loved them and wanted to stay home with their kids. Some darlings grew to be quite successful and were feted by the community.
Well, the focus turned, and all of a sudden, babywearers needed to be woke (not the term at the time). I loved it. I'm from an incredibly liberal state, but an incredibly white one. I could see how my lack of knowledge about diversity had the potential to harm, and I was eager to learn. It was fantastic to learn so much so quickly. But essentially the same thing that happened on YA Twitter happened there. The end result is the market tanked (in part because of a rallying cry that expensive wraps were racist, which as you may imagine only hurt those that had less money and had been flipping to sustain the hobby), beloved companies became vilified overnight (one time because being an American of Mexican descent wasn't Mexican enough to use Mexican imagery on fabric), and groups dedicated to educating and correcting racism fell apart as they went to battle over what was and wasn't racist.
The winners are the companies that had plenty of money to weather the storm and the purchasers who didn't rely on flipping, and those who can claim a moral superiority over everyone, as they sit alone, because most of us couldn't keep up with the moving target of what was right, and were eventually all vilified.
The losers are pretty much everyone else, including those of us who wanted to learn and make a difference, but became excommunicated for random slights or became immobilized by the fear of saying the wrong thing. One group had a participation rule, meaning you had to have a minimum number of posts in the group to remain in the group, but essentially all participation led to being told how racist you were unless your participation was telling someone else how racist they were.
I apologize for the novel, but one last story that speaks to how awful it got. When someone got a wrap directly from a company at a much cheaper rate than what they could flip it for it was called scoring. My sister and I were sitting in the same room and we were reading threads from the same Facebook group. Someone said they scored a wrap. Someone else said that's triggering for people with drug problems. My sister had gone through a decade-long drug problem (think opioid crisis, not too much pot), and she had been sober for about a year at this point (now five years!). We looked at each other and laughed and rolled our eyes. It was so ridiculous. We started joking about how triggered she must be and how she was about to relapse thanks to the phrase "scored a baby wrap." That's what the eventual criticism became, even though it started as a vague triggering, it was now going to cause relapsing. My sister and I both jumped in to try to defend. We were roasted. We didn't speak for the drug community, blah, blah blah. The original poster was kicked from the group. I never felt comfortable in there again, and left shortly after. This was a phrase that had been used for years.
Anyway, I felt compelled to write, because it's both fascinating and terrifying what's happening, and I'm sad to see that this is ruining livelihoods in multiple industries. Babywrapping is still alive and well for the most part, but the environment definitely changed, and made quite a few worse off.
And here's what a published nonfiction author had to say about his experience dipping a journalistic toe into the world of science fiction and fantasy fandom, which overlaps with YA:
Great work you're doing. Keep it up. Just wanted to write a short note after reading your latest. I don't have any specific expertise on the YA world, but the tone of it all reminded me of some research I did for a book proposal, later abandoned, on the world of science fiction and fantasy fandom. This was 15 years ago or so.
This is going to sound undiplomatic, but my sense of that subculture is that it had evolved as a place for people who ranged from, at best, socially awkward (ie standard issue nerds) to further down the autism spectrum. On the one hand, there was something amazing about it, because it was a community for people who likely had a hard time fitting in socially in a lot of other communities. There were a lot of internal community practices that seemed to have organically emerged as mechanisms for gently socializing people who needed help socializing. I was impressed.
On the other hand, it seemed deeply immature, as though it were led by people who'd never been cool who were suddenly the cool kids and were going to milk it for all it was worth. Just a ton of gossip and positioning and status consciousness.
I abandoned the project, in part, because it was incredibly hard to get people to talk to me. They were all worried that if they said the wrong thing, they'd be attacked by others within the community who didn't believe they should have arrogated to themselves the right to represent the community.
This may be relevant to your work on YA twitter for two reasons. One is that I'm quite sure there is a lot of overlap between the two communities. In fact, much of the work that is now being sold as YA used to be marked as straight up sci-fi and fantasy. So it may even be a lot of the same people. The other reason is just that I'd bet the YA community is naturally similar in a lot of ways. Frankly what kind of adults write and consume YA fiction to the point where it becomes a central plank of their identity? I'm sure there are plenty of mature people in that group, but there are also a lot of people who are pretty arrested.
All of which is to say that Twitter has a role to play here, as a turbo charger of existing dynamics and dysfunctions, but the roots of some of this, I'd bet, precede Twitter.
The Rest of the Emails
Just going to drop a lot of emails here, mostly in their entireties, and those who are interested can read them.
Out of the 60 or so people who wrote in, I believe the only one who has a foot in the YA community and who gave me permission to use his or her name was Brianna da Silva, so I feel like she deserves to go first. Note that the individual she mentions halfway through is not, in fact, named Rachel. I've looked a bit into the incident da Silva is talking about and, without knowing any of the obscured details, share her concerns about how thinly sourced the rumor surrounding this woman appears to be, so I think it's best to not reveal her full name and to shield a few identifying details da Silva provided in her email.
For what it’s worth, multiple people mentioned Rachel and concerns about the fairness of her situation — I just snipped out the references in those other emails. It’s too complicated a situation to introduce without a lot of context, and I’m worried if I use the woman’s real name it’ll just spread further a rumor I’m not in a position to meaningfully fact-check.
I know you've gotten a lot of emails already for the YA piece, but I figured I'd share my thoughts too, in case they're of any use. (Apologies for the very long email; obviously, just take what you want!) I'm an unpublished YA writer, planning to go indie with my manuscript in a year or two, so the risk is a bit smaller for me than it is for traditionally published authors; therefore, you can use my real name if you want.
I recognize the risk of that, but I've already started to speak out publicly on Twitter. I have a small platform partly due to my podcast (Females in Fantasy), and I have an episode coming up that speaks on this issue, too. So, it's too late for anonymity. [my link]
For my part, I refuse to keep to the shadows. I won't be intimidated into silence any longer. More people need to stand up against this beast if it's going to be defeated, or it will continue to roam and devour unchecked. Many can't afford to speak out, and I fully support anyone doing what they need to do to survive—no question there. But I think I can take the risk, so here I am.
YA Twitter has, to put it bluntly, freaked me the fuck out.
I first joined the community around 2014. Back then, the culture was very different. Most of us spent our time exchanging writing advice, encouragement, and jokes. I made friends around the world, learned a lot, and found a vast network of support. Twitter was a wonderful place for writers; I kept trying to get all my IRL writer friends to join up, because the online community had had such a positive impact on my own life and writing journey.
Fast forward to around 2016/2017. As was the case for practically every Internet community in existence, things started to get more political. I was definitely a part of that wave; my participation in the infamous counter-protest against Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville temporarily radicalized me (as trauma is wont to do). My own tweets were a flurry of far-left politicized messaging and activism. My world fell neatly into categories of black and white, good guys and racists, allies and enemies.
I cringe, now, at how obnoxious I was at the time, and I no longer blame my old conservative friends who unfollowed me. After months passed, and the trauma faded, I started looking at things in a more level-headed way.
However, many wonderful things came out of that politicization. Personally, I became far more conscious about issues of diversity and representation, as they relate to fiction, and it seemed like everyone around me was becoming more conscious of them, too. I even started a podcast on the topic. This subject remains a deep passion of mine.
On the surface, everything looked great—at first. More carefully constructed characters that avoid stereotypes? Yay! More diversity in the publishing industry? Yay!
But then things started to get... weird.
The first thing that unsettled me was when the #MeToo movement hit kidlit.
Full disclosure: I'm in the camp that thought #MeToo was overall a great thing, but had its moments of going too far. This was the first time I started to suspect #MeToo wasn't everything it was chalked up to be.
There was a prominent debut author on Twitter named Rachel. To an extent, I saw myself in her: she was a [various identifying details] who spoke frequently about diversity and representation, and made a show of being a good ally. She retweeted the kinds of things I retweeted. She had a YA book about queer kids coming out. We could have been twins.
Then, a single, anonymous accusation rose to the surface: Rachel was a sexual predator. Granted, she reacted to this accusation very badly, in a way that made her look aggressive, if not guilty. But there still was no real evidence. This didn't stop YA Twitter from canceling Rachel.
She claimed to get a DM from her accuser, admitting it was a lie meant to destroy her. Rachel also claimed she almost committed suicide over the whole thing. Who can know what was true, and what wasn't? YA Twitter didn't buy her story, but I was unsure.
All I know is she left Twitter.
And I was left with a hard knot in my stomach; what if she was telling the truth? What if an innocent author's career had just been destroyed?
What if that could be me?
The second controversy that shook me was a public argument between Justina Ireland and R.F. Kuang. This happened the day before I was going to have Justina Ireland on my podcast, so I was especially interested in the exchange.
I ended up agreeing with Justina, in this particular instance, and publicly stood by her. I was surprised at the responses. Strangers turned on me with bad-faith, difficult-to-follow arguments, clearly more interested in fighting than in having a conversation. There was one notable exception: A mutual who disagreed with me sent a private message, and it was very respectful and professional.
The weirdest part, for me, was how all the sudden, YA Twitter went through a collective memory change. To justify their dislike of Justina, they started pulling obscure instances from the past where Justina behaved in problematic ways. Each of their arguments against her I researched in full, and found them all to be either irrational or in bad faith. One, for example, said that she was "biphobic" for disagreeing with Tristina Wright on the definition of the word "bisexual." Justina, herself, identified as bisexual, which made that accusation especially odd. As a bisexual woman myself, I called bullshit.
Since then, I've noticed a disturbing pattern: a YA author attacks a peer; later, that YA author gets attacked. It almost seems like there's a cycle of revenge, a tapestry of grudges and distrust. Sometimes I wonder if that's really true, or if I'm being a conspiracy theorist... or maybe I'm just going crazy. Too much time in YA Twitter land makes me feel like I'm losing my sense of reality.
The rest, of course, is history. The Black Witch, The Continent, Carve the Mark, Blood Heir... I won't recount the obvious ways this culture has spiraled out of control into toxic, irrational, tribal, mob-like chaos.
What makes it so difficult is that it all starts with good intentions. The goal of promoting diversity and positive representation in fiction is a noble one. I believe its proponents—of which I am one—are right to defend such an objective.
But the ends do not justify the means. Rather than fostering an open, welcoming environment for diversity to flourish, this Internet subculture has birthed an environment of fear, hostility, and creative suppression.
These days, I vehemently discourage my writer friends from getting on Twitter, even as I struggle to peel myself away.
Because of all the toxicity I was exposed to on Twitter—all the rules for who can write what and how, and the terrifying stakes of messing up—there was a period of time (several months, at least) where I just... couldn't write. Progressive Twitter killed my creativity. I became clenched up with fear, like someone hemmed in by a web of lasers, sweat trickling down my back, dreading the slightest mistake that could kill me.
In order to get the words flowing again, I had to slowly untangle the holds the community had over me. I had to let go of the desperate need for their approval. It was strange, realizing that over the years, that's exactly what had developed in the makeup of my mind: a desperate need for their approval.
Letting go is not easy, because there's something insanely addictive about getting validated by this community. When they like you, you're on the top of the world. It's no wonder people get sucked in so deep, and will bend over backwards to get back in their favor. Authors who make an oopsie will grovel and apologize like an abuse victim trying to get back in the good graces of their abuser.
One of the things I've been trying to parse through is how to solve this mess. My understanding is that the process for book destruction often goes something like this:
Publisher sends out ARCs [advance reading copies] to as many people as possible, including prominent authors (which will inevitably include members of "the mob," to use a term they hate so virulently).
Very close to the book's release, someone writes a nasty review, and it goes viral.
Prominent authors or reviewers instigate a targeted shame attack on the author, often backing up their arguments of the book's problematic content with out-of-context quotes, or presenting opinions as irrefutable facts.
The author, in some cases, chooses to pull the book before the wider public gets to read it and form their own opinions.
One solution may be to just ignore these controversies and publish a book anyway. (And that's not to say that one should never listen to criticism, but obviously these attacks go way past the realm of "criticism.") But a storm of one-star reviews on Goodreads is damaging. Having your name dragged through the mud is damaging. Having agents whisper behind your back about your alleged moral failings is damaging. Maybe an author can recover from such an attack; maybe not. This isn't much of a victory.
A second possible solution could be a much more selective, cautious ARC process. Maybe ARCs should only be sent to people you know and trust. But how do you measure that? The YA Twitter community is infamous for how its members stab each other in the back. Plus, doesn't that defeat the purpose of getting a broad number of unbiased reviews? If only your friends read your book, and they all rate it positively, you'll look like a fake. A book needs a considerable number of positive, negative, and middling reviews to look legit.
Plus, pre-publication buzz and pre-orders are extremely important for a book's success. The distribution of ARCs is one of the ways publishers create that buzz. Reducing the number of ARC copies could hurt the book's release.
A third solution, one I've seen someone else suggest, is just to shorten the amount of time that ARCs are available. I've seen publishers distribute ARCs many months in advance. Maybe they should be sent out just a few weeks ahead of time, or two months at the earliest, so that most of the reviews will come out around the time it gets published. This way, any attacks based on erroneous information will have less steam, because the truth will be readily available to everyone. (I'm reminded of Carve the Mark, which fell into controversy but still became a bestseller.)
But this presents a similar problem: Will a book be less successful without those months of buzz and anticipation?
At the end of the day, the solution lies somewhere in the realm of "avoid getting viral ad hominem reviews" or "don't get destroyed by viral ad hominem reviews." The avoidance technique feels like a retreat; the mob retains its power, you've just evaded it for one more day. For a long-term solution, we need to find a way to reduce the mob's power, or at the very least, stop it from spreading, i.e. to adult literature (a place I know some freaked-out authors have switched over to just to avoid this mess).
I don't know yet what that looks like, exactly. But my hope is that exposure, awareness, and open conversation will at least start moving us in the right direction. For this reason, I'm deeply grateful for the work that you do in covering this issue. From an up-and-coming indie YA author, who has been disturbed and scared, thank you.
Brianna da Silva
This one is from a YA author who has published multiple books:
Like all the others, I'd like anonymity. I am also thankful to you for shining a spotlight on our awful little corner of the internet. YA Twitter used to be an amazing place, and now it's just a toxic hellhole.
Since the outrage bullshit took over the community, it's had an enormous impact on the way I see everyone else in this industry. Many people are fixated on the bullies, but I think some attention needs to be called to the enablers. If YA Twitter collectively blocked or ignored these people, they would disappear. Instead, they are elevated, and they're elevated by the same people who privately despise them.
There is an incredible hypocrisy among YA people when it comes to private views versus public. At conferences or events when you have some time to hang out beforehand, or grab a drink afterward, the outrage brigade often comes up in conversation. There is widespread, and I'd almost say, universal loathing for them among anyone on social media who isn't actually one of their number...
But here's the catch: these exact same people who privately despise them then go on social media and kiss their asses. Not all of them, but enough of them that it's ridiculous.
I understand being a coward. I am one myself, which is the reason for this anonymity. Cowardice does not mean you have to support what they are doing. If you disagree with their actions, do not lend your approval to them. Just be silent or ignore whatever frenzy they are trying to whip up. The power lies in refusing to be a tool for them, and it's power you willingly forfeit when you grovel before someone who terrifies you.
Enablers: people look at you cheering these assholes on, and they don't know your thoughts. They don't realize you don't mean it. They think you are with them, and because so many of you seem to be with them, Justina and co appear to have an illusory army behind them, and that illusion causes others to bend to their will. You, the enablers, are their power over this community, and the day you stop enabling them, they will lose their hold over it.
Another issue: if these eternally offended people ever question themselves or wonder, "Am I taking this too far?" Enablers are the reason they will double down. Elle or Justina only needs to look at the voices cheering them on, and they don't realize how many of those voices are unbelievers who disagree with them. They are reassured by those voices that they're doing the right thing.
Here's the last point: it makes no sense to appease the outraged. You literally gain nothing from it. Being an 'ally' is not going to buy you a spot at the end of the line in the slaughterhouse. It gets you a spot at the front. Look at Kosoko Jackson, Amelie Wen Zhao, and countless other woke YA people who have been cut down already. Their 'wokeness' just hastened their downfall. By cheering and supporting the outrage brigade, they invited the outrage onto themselves.
It's a simple cycle:
1) Cheer on the eternally outraged while they attack something
2) Gain some slight, temporary positive attention
3) Your books are now on their radar
4) They find a reason to be offended by your book or your tweet
5) The eternally outraged go after you
6) Some other asshole cheers on the eternally outraged while they're going after you and gets their book on the radar
Okay, that is all I have to say.
Here are some thoughts from a librarian and writer who believes that part of the problem is YA publishing focusing on a very narrow, particular audience:
So my commentary on the current state of YA (both online and in publication) comes from a bit different place than most.
In my day job, I am a Teen Librarian at a medium sized library in one of the busiest library systems in the United States, per capita.
As a writer, I publish YA science-fiction, fantasy, and my nearly complete work in progress is a YA romance.
I am a white male, a religious minority living in an area that is predominantly made up of that religious minority.
I have also lived abroad for two years, where I went weeks without seeing another white person, let alone speaking English.
Despite being my own publisher – and therefore much more resistant to pressures to censor or remove my work based on outside pressure – I do not engage with 'YA Twitter' at all. I willingly give up the potential good interactions, advice, and comradery, because the toxicity of it is so amazingly bad.
Now, part of my day job is ordering books for the library. Without going into the boring details, I used to order all new teen fiction for my branch, now I mostly order replacements, as my system transitions to having acquisition librarians order for everybody. (Meaning their entire job is ordering books, instead of just a part of it.)
Every two weeks we get a list from our book seller with all the newest books from traditional publishing, as well as some of the smaller presses and some vanity presses. Indie publishers are not represented at all, which is a very long conversation for a different time.
The YA lists every other week are usually about a hundred books, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less. This does also include books coming out in new formats, such as a paperback for a previously released hardcover.
Now, I firmly believe in the ethics and duties of a librarian: Politics, personal beliefs, personal tastes, none of that should enter into the buying process. The library should, to put it bluntly, have a book somewhere on the shelves that will offend every single patron that comes in, as well as books they will love. If we aren't keeping a good mix of books, viewpoints, authors, etc. we aren't doing our jobs.
If you step back and look at the lists, though, a pattern quickly becomes clear.
I'll use the last list of YA books bought for the system as a single example.
There were just over sixty they bought for one branch or another, so most of the list. I also know and respect the professionals who are making these decisions, so I can vouch for the fact that they are picking a broad range of books that should appeal to as many of our patrons as possible.
I also feel I must stress, I have no reason to doubt that all of these books are anything but fine pieces of fiction, with authors, editors, and everyone else involved having done a wonderful job in making them. This isn't about the individual books, but about the trends in what is being published.
I feel I must also point out, every patron is an individual. Some boys read romances, some girls love sports books, etc. etc. I am talking about generalities here.
Of the sixty, nearly half were romances of one kind or another. Of the other half, half again were more oriented in general to the female audience, with female protagonists and/or subject matter less likely to appeal to boys. That many boys are reluctant to read books with female protagonists is a well-established fact, regardless of how we as adults feel about it.
(As an aside – all of my books to date feature female protagonists, simply because I find it more interesting to write about. My books, aside from the upcoming romance, I know will appeal to teen boys and girls, but I understand that some boys will likely pass on my books because of the protagonist. That's okay. There are always more good books out there to read than any one reader can possible get through.)
In any case, this romance and female-oriented leaning to the offerings is not new, or particularly unusual in the YA offerings.
A little more than sixty titles, with sixty authors. (A few authors had multiple books bought.) Of said sixty only ten were male. Of those ten, three were Japanese men, (my system has started buying more translations of Japanese Light Novels) four were white Americans or Canadians, and three were black, also Americans and Canadians.
I have an author acquaintance who, as an amusing diversion, tracks the announcements of debut authors being picked up by the big publishers. Looking at a seven month period last year, drawn from data from Publisher's Marketplace, in January 61% of the debut contracts were for female writers, 75% in February, 70% in March, 68% in April, 95% in May, 78% in June, and 66% in July, which works out to 72% overall for those seven months.
That, of course, is data for only part of one year, and for all genres, not just YA, but going back to this most recent pull list.
There is still this perception that publishing is antagonistic towards women, which just flabbergasts me, given that the publishing industry itself outside of the authors is overwhelmingly made up of white women. Romance is the biggest genre around, and others of the best sellers, like YA, are dominated by women as well.
Where am I going with this?
The problems of YA right now, go beyond just toxicity in online interactions, and mobs of offended people getting books pulled before publication. What is being published is skewing, and it is hurting the readers we are supposed to be serving.
It is no secret that while reading rates are dropping across the board they are dropping fastest for boys. That publishing is putting out more and more books that won't even appeal to the remaining boys can only worsen this problem.
There is also the issue that YA is increasingly catering not to the teens, but to the very large (and much more wealthy) group of adult women that read primarily YA.
More romance, more explicit romance, too much of publishing is chasing the Twilight and Harry Potter adult fandoms and the actual teens are being neglected as a result.
Now, obviously, a lot of what I just said is my opinion, and I am just as fallible as anyone else. There is also an argument to be made (and I agree) that C. S. Lewis was absolutely right when he said "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest."
There are no easy answers, but a lot of the problems I see right now come from the fact that we can't even see/agree on the existing conditions in order to start finding those answer.
A published children's book author and illustrator wrote in to say she's worried the toxicity in YA is popping up in her genre, too:
I saw your article on YA and the twitter mob. Thank you for writing about this. Everyone I know is too afraid to say a peep.
I thought I'd let you know that picture books are also seeing the same kinds of things happen. Picture books are ending up on lists of books to avoid, they are being pulled from shelves, etc. I've gotten into discussions about this that I wish I hadn't. I've been wildly attacked for daring to say that I believe that authors should write what they wish. I believe very strongly in the freedom of expression but this is not allowed in the children's book industry anymore. If you told anyone this 10 or 20 years ago then they'd be shocked. We're creators, after all. Art and literature is supposed to allow for the freedom of expression, to challenge the reader or viewer, to make statements that might even make someone uncomfortable.
I used to love the children's literature industry because it was so supportive and nurturing. We authors were like one big family. Now it's about cutting authors down, bullying, and ruining careers. It's fun to be the bully. It gives one power. BUT we should not allow the minority to dictate what the majority can and can't do. Why are we giving any of these bullies an ounce of power? Now publishing companies are inserting clauses into their contracts that dictate an author's behavior. [yup] If an author says something that doesn't fit with the author's public persona then their book can be cancelled and they must pay back their advance. This is Orwellian. This should not be tolerated. These clauses also give the twitter mob MORE power. I'm calling on those who believe in free speech and the right to express oneself however he or she sees fit to say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. If we all say NO then this will stop. I fear that this will not happen and sadly, I see no end in sight to this madness.
Feel free to quote me but please don't list my name. I will be out of a career in an instant if my name gets mentioned! Ugh!
A reader named David wrote in with a link to some interesting-research that might connect a few dots here:
I'm a big fan, and just saw this study published today in The Atlantic that dovetails perfectly with your coverage of the dumpster fire that is YA Twitter. The key paragraph:
"In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. This finding aligns in some ways with previous research by the University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz, who has found that white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity. They don't routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents."
Given the demographics of YA twitter, the parallels are striking.
Another short one:
I don't even know if it matters or not if my name is out there, since I'm self-published. Let's just err on the side of caution and ask that my name be left out, should this be published.
I hadn't really done much skulking around on YA Twitter until I saw what happened recently with Kosoko Jackson. As I was reading his apology, I was like, "Man, I don't know if that's right or not," even when I heard about how he'd gone after other authors about various things. I don't know that two wrongs make a right, in a situation like this.
As I kept digging as an unpaid researcher - because I suddenly needed to know SO MUCH about YA Twitter - the more I uncovered these "dragging" tweets to so many others, the more I didn't want to be a part of it. They're a very vengeful group and very quick to make judgments, and then ... it's like they move on to the next thing they want to bury. You remember that old movie "Critters"? It reminds me of that. They'd roll past animals and leave bones.
The #WritingCommunity hashtag is also pretty toxic, as well. Very high school-y, so it doesn't leave any doubt as to why these people write this stuff. If I were to give any advice to a writer on these social media platforms, it'd be to <<really>> do your research when it comes to what you align with and who you follow. It's not always what it seems.
From another Anonymous:
I started blogging in the YA community when I was 15. It was a real refuge for me at the time as I was battling depression and didn't have anyone to talk to about books at school. I made some amazing friends and did a lot of work I'm proud of. I'm still friends with people from those days although none of us blog anymore. I stopped blogging when I was 17 because the community became toxic. It used to be open and kind and a place where a young depressed teenager felt safe, and it has become so terrible. It's not safe for teenagers which is really sad because the genre is meant for teenagers. Publishers need to boycott the bloggers who are causing this drama. Who reads their blogs anyways but other bloggers? I'm so sad to see YA what it is today.
A (presumably!) different Anonymous:
"YA Twitter" went after a friend once, who had to do the whole public penance (apology, delete Twitter account, etc.). But they didn't pull their own book. And guess what? Sales didn't suffer. At all.
That's because what happens on Twitter, stays on Twitter. These debut authors pulling their own books don't realize this (their loss!). Readers don't care about what happens on Twitter or Goodreads. Librarians and booksellers don't care. And, because sales aren't affected, publishers could give a fuck.
Unfortunately, what you call "YA Twitter" is just a small group of zealots (20 authors at most, a couple of agents whose egos are overfed). A bunch of bloggers, but everybody knows what a shit-show the blogosphere is. 98% of YA authors and agents on Twitter haven't said a word online about either this or the last blow-up. But you can bet we're talking about it with each other...and rolling our eyes.
-- Anonymous, because obvs
A longer one from an aspiring author:
I just saw your call for emails about YA Twitter, and I knew I had to respond. I used to be heavily involved in YA Twitter. I wrote YA, queried YA, and wanted so desperately to become friends with the Big Names just so my work would be taken seriously. I was a little blinded by the shininess of all of them. I didn't see what they were doing then.
It started with The Continent, The Black Witch, Carve the Mark—regardless of the "harm" these books caused to the teens (which are honestly being used as pawns in all of this—performative activism for likes is just gross)—the Big Names and their cronies descended upon these authors and tore them to shreds. I saw so many curse words lobbed at Keira Drake and Laurie Forest. I saw the Angry Bunch, as I like to call these habitual offenders, liken the two to Nazis, demeaning them in so many ways. There was this glee there. This unmitigated joy was abundant as they tore the work down and piled on. It wasn't about Saving The Children, in my opinion, but Saving The Children To Boost Their Popularity. Moral Righteousness to try to get books sold. Again, my opinion, but it just seems like the teens in so many of these blow ups are being used as props.
No one can voice criticisms to these people, either. You saw what happened with LL and KidLitCon [I told this story in Part 1]. Barry Goldblatt, a HUGE literary agent, a titan in the field, practically threatened to run KidLitCon's good name through the mud because a woman of color who ran the account RT'd a non-attack (no matter how much they'd like to make it one) critiquing LL's points about Zhao's work. Because she's so precious she can't handle a critique on social media?
Listen, I'm a gay liberal. I write queer fiction. I use the #Ownvoices hashtag and want diversity in the works I read. But what's happening on Twitter? What they're doing here? It makes me sick. I quit writing YA because of them. I've practically quit reading it. And they turn so easily on each other! They talk about uplifting one another, but Zhao was called out in such a callous and cold way. [...]
The Angry Bunch doesn't want apologies, I don't think. Keira Drake apologized… and many claimed it wasn't apologetic enough. This happens so many times! They seem to get what they want, another author who capitulates to their demands, and yet it's never good enough. I think you were the one who tweeted about Kosoko being ousted from the group run by Helig? And the retconning of his personality to fit the narrative that he's a bad guy? I don't know what they want, really. It doesn't seem like apologies work. Maybe it's all about power, popularity, and control. [For what it’s worth, yes, I heard from a reliable source Kosko Jackson was kicked out of a big private Facebook group Heidi Heilig runs and has discussed openly on Twitter.]
And yes, I'm sure some of them are truly kind with hearts of gold. I'm sure some really care about the teens. But when 30-50 year old women keep crying victim after people point out the flaws in their arguments, when they say they're powerless with their agents, book deals, and 10K+ followers, and when they've kicked up such a mess that an author feels like there is no other choice other than pulling their work from publication (and then they'll coo, coddle and say, "What a good choice. Thank you. How brave of you." Like they didn't drive the author to that edge, whether the book was trash or not) I don't believe they're creating the Safe Space for teens the claim to be fighting for.
All of this honestly scares me, especially the fact that they don't seem to understand that they belittle and harm people as much as the books belittle and harm them (or so they claim). The Angry Bunch is wrapped in a true hive-mind mentality. One person reads a book, posts a review, and a bomb goes off. This doesn't happen anywhere else! It's not normal! I'm sure they'd love to see constant controversy in every other book or media community, maybe they'd even call it necessary for change, but I just don't agree. I love so many YA novels and authors. My shelves are packed. But this just isn't a community for me any longer. It's angry, bitter, and petty. Even the agents and professionals are joining in. It's a sport at this point. Spot the next problematic book. I could say so much more, but then I fear I'd simply be ranting at you.
If you want to use any of this, feel free. You can keep me anonymous or quote me as JP, your choice. I'm trying to get a book published (non-YA), and I don't want to share my real name. I'm sorry. It just seems that disagreeing with these people = you're evil, bigoted, and stupid. I don't feel like I'm any of these things, but I also don't really know if they care about any feelings other than their own.
Yet another email from a writer thinking of adulterating her own writing a bit in the hopes of heading off online trouble:
Want to say I'm a fan of your newsletter!
Please keep me anonymous of course...
I'm a writer who's preparing to send a manuscript to YA agents later this year. The manuscript (SFF) features teenage protagonists so it's de facto YA. I'm still not entirely sure why YA became its own genre other than marketing reasons...so I'm not sure why people ID as YA writers as opposed to the genres that more closely align with their work: romance, mystery, SFF, etc.
To be honest, I look at my draft and worry about the fact that I wrote diverse characters—they're flawed (all the characters are): will that be blown out of proportion? The thought has crossed my mind to scrub the work of any mention of sexual orientation, ethnicity, politics, etc. And as someone who has an "intersectional" identity, it's tempting to ride the #ownvoices train, but I'll refrain from doing so because I don't want to be pigeonholed and because I want to keep a safe distance from the #ownvoices crowd.
I'm considering deleting or scrubbing my social media once I send the manuscript out—heck, sometimes I'm afraid of people seeing I follow you on Twitter. Which is ridiculous.
Part of me hopes that this is just a trend that will blow over, and another part of me —a deep, primal part—worries that, as a centrist, I'll have no audience.
And those are my thoughts! Feel free to disregard as I haven't sold/published anything yet and am therefore very tangential to "the scene."
And, finally, a soon-to-be debut author:
Thank you so much for writing your pieces on what's happening in the YA industry. I have been writing YA for many years. Suffice to say, I'm terrified by what I'm seeing. I've written novels featuring LGBT main characters. Though I myself am not LGBT, two of my three children are. They have both read this work and neither ever expressed any concern over how I did or didn't handle the sexuality themes. That said, in this toxic environment anything can be taken out of context and used as ammunition for the firing squad. I recently wrote a novel featuring a biracial relationship. It's nearly 2020. In no way did I think writing about a biracial relationship would be controversial today. But seeing what's happening online, I fear that I could be asked to rewrite it. In effect, whitewash it. The novel is set in a very diverse city. It makes little sense to me to only have white characters in it. I want to speak out about what's happening desperately because we need voices of reason, but I can't afford to have my career sidelined by some vengeful egomaniacs who fancy themselves social justice vigilantes. I agree with anyone speaking out about what they do or don't like in literature, but when I read the commentary you describe online, it is often full of vitriol. It is personal and angry and on a mission to destroy, rather than simply raising thoughtful or provocative questions and concerns. There is a difference between speaking out (which should actually involve reading the material you're speaking against) and trying to tank someone's career—not because they're spewing hate speech, but just because they're doing it wrong in regards to diversity and inclusion according to a handful of people, often only one or two who then activate mob mentality. That is not empowerment, but abuse of power. Can you imagine the works we'd be without if literature had always been so censored? I am disappointed in the authors who have pulled their books and apologized, though I do empathize with their fears. When I consider what to write next, I find myself second guessing everything. An environment full of fear does not foster creativity. I keep hoping this destructive trend will burn itself out, but the fact that it's blazed this far is concerning.
Questions? Comments? Desperate pleas for me to finally move on from writing about YA drama? I’m at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @jessesingal. The lead image — how wonderful is it?! — is the cover of the mewithoutYou album “Ten Stories,” created by Vasily Kafanov.