What exactly is ‘cancel culture?’
A symptom of a larger societal problem, most analyses would suggest. The term refers to social media communities’ desire to hold organizations, individuals, and artistic works accountable for their questionable or unpopular opinions. In the Y. A. book community, it’s meant acts of what some perceive to be virtual dogpiling, assailing unpublished novels with one star reviews and bad publicity in order to deprive the target of profit or platform. (When you type ‘dogpiling’ into Google, the next suggested word is Twitter.) In the past two years, several prominent debuts have been the subject of social media attacks; as a result, some authors have chosen not to publish these books. They are, as the term suggests, canceled. For our purposes, let’s not attempt to determine which among the allegations of cultural insensitivity are true; instead, let’s document these incidents and consider them individually.
Because here’s what cancel culture isn’t: an accusatory classification into which all criticism might be stuffed.
A Place for Wolves by Kosoko Jackson
As of 2016, the publishing industry was less than 2% Black.
Kosoko Jackson was a sensitivity reader for the Big Five publishing houses. A queer, black author, Jackson was poised to make a successful debut with his novel A Place for Wolves, proudly labeled #ownvoices, a term used to describe novels whose protagonists share the same marginalized identities as their authors. The novel followed the LGBT+ love story of two American teenagers set during the Kosovo War, an Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe meets Code Name Verity. With favorable reviews from Publishers Weekly, Jackson seemed on the precipice of literary heights.
Then, A Place for Wolves was canceled—and the Internet was gleeful.
“I have to be absolutely fucking honest here,” opens the infamous Goodreads review, the first proverbial thrown stone. “I’ve never been so disgusted in my life.”
Criticism largely centered upon allegations of mishandling the Kosovo War: particularly, making the protagonists American and the gruesome human tragedy the backdrop for a love story. The novel’s most grievous sin, according to its detractors, was making the villain an Albanian Muslim—notably, the demographic most impacted by the ethnic cleansing. And this injustice was compounded by just how recently the violence ended: on the brink of our current century, in 1999, recently enough that some born in that same year are still teenagers.
Among the first responders was an incendiary article titled: “He Was Part of a Twitter Mob That Attacked Young Adult Novelists. Then It Turned on Him. Now His Book Is Canceled.” The title clearly alludes to a just-desserts mentality, a social-justice ouroboros circling back to devour its own head. Jackson is not the victim here, it assures. He is someone whose luck has run out.
Refinery29 echoes this sentiment, opening its coverage of the matter with Jackson’s haunting Tweet, a knock-knock joke with the who’s there? a clumsy I-told-you-so:
Stories about the civil rights movement should be written by black people.
Stories of suffrage should be written by women.
Ergo, stories about boys during horrific and life changing times, like the AIDS EPIDEMIC, should be written by gay men.
Why is this so hard to get? pic.twitter.com/3LUyceyZ0a
— Kosoko Jackson (@KosokoJackson) May 8, 2018
In fact, Kosoko Jackson himself was not ‘canceled;’ after a lengthy and public apology, his reputation seems largely untarnished. Not only was he not required to pay back his advance, but his new debut, Yesterday Is History, is scheduled for 2020 release. The novel will follow a contemporary gay teen who, through a time-travel mishap, finds himself in NYC on the eve of the Stonewall Riots.
There are many ways to interpret the Internet’s reaction to Jackson’s possible blunder, many of them equally valid. Some see detractors attempting to silence a black debut author, a voice of color in the midst of a white-majority industry. Some see criticism against Jackson’s work as a valid response born of nuanced understanding of the Kosovo War, perhaps from someone with more historical insight than Jackson himself. But most seem to suggest that all sensitivity concerns—regardless of the specific issues—possess all the nuance of a gleefully hurled tomato.
The Continent by Keira Drake
“If you want an idea of what this book is like,” one Goodreads reviewer explained, “it’s like Disney’s Pocahontas intermixed with even more blatant racism and obvious xenophobia.”
Keira Drake’s book wasn’t ‘canceled,’ but the seething monolith known as the Internet still feels she should have been. Could the Internet be right?
Image Via Salt Lake Tribune
Drake, a white debut author, was moved to tears when she heard an NPR report of a bombing in Iraq; according to Vulture, she felt compelled to write a book about what might happen if a person like her (“white, sheltered, and privileged”) suddenly wound up “in the middle of a war between two violent societies in a foreign land.”
In fact, Keira Drake is from a violent society: in the U.S., rates of lethal violence are much higher than in similarly wealthy countries. But these violent societies are different, as Drake explains herself. Remember? They’re foreign.
The article continues from Drake’s inspiration to what exactly her inspiration produced:
Drake set her fantasy in a place called the Continent, a brutal realm where privileged tourists, safe in their heli-planes, gaze down with detached curiosity at the native people slaughtering each other below. After a heli-plane crashes, Drake’s narrator is saved by one of the natives from an attempted rape at the hands of an enemy tribe, and she, in turn, saves his people from ruin.
Criticisms of racial insensitivity in The Continent were swift and damning: comparisons abounded between the fictional ‘Topi’ tribe (who adorn their faces with war paint and attack primarily with bows and arrows) and the Hopi tribe of Native Americans. A petition emerged to halt the book’s publication after one reader expressed concern over the stereotypes they felt were rampant in the novel, a nonstop action ride of “Magic Black people, Ninja Asians, and uneducated, ruthless Natives who get drunk and try to rape the precious white girl.”
Image Via Ya Interrobang
If that sounds like a straightforward condemnation, it isn’t. As in the case of Kosoko Jackson, many reviewers had not read the book—a fact which undeniably diminishes their credibility. And even the shapeless mass of YA social media gremlins (I jest, given that perception of this community is often unnecessarily negative) couldn’t agree on whether or not the changes were necessary—or even good.
“The original had more balls,” one Instagram user wrote. “It was grittier and the criticism of colonialism and racism more impactful.” Of course, one review from someone who may have genuinely read the books is not evidence that Drake’s original work was thoughtful and self-aware… but it does mean something.
When people cite ‘cancel culture,’ they envision relentless Twitter mobs echoing and exacerbating criticism they’ve heard, a botched game of Telephone that no one ever seems to win. In reality, the quality of reviews irrefutably varies from those who haven’t read the book yet have boarded the hype train to fellow YA authors of color or Native American readers with doctorates in Library Science pulling descriptions of “savages” with “almond-shaped eyes” directly from the novel they dissect. It’s ideologically risky to perceive online criticism as inherently less real, to assume that anything taking place over social media platforms is inherently less thoughtful. We’ve seen social media put to the task of propagating serious political movements, as is the case with the groundbreaking #MeToo movement. We’re well-aware of our place in the digital era; this is a part of what that means.
The Black Witch by Laurie Forest
Laurie Forest‘s The Black Witch was inspired by the intensity of the homophobia that met the fight for marriage equality. Before its publication, the novel was accused of the same homophobia—and racism—it professed to combat.
Image Via Lucy V. Hay
The novel follows Elloren, a girl growing up in a society in which fantasy races (wolfmen, fae, etc.) are deemed inferior. Of course, this is a low-hanging metaphor for real-world racism, but it’s certainly not unprecedented: Cassandra Clare‘s Shadowhunters universe relies heavily on the concept of ‘Downworlders’ (werewolves, fae, etc.) and their second-class status in the Nephilim-dominated Clave, whose laws generally fail to take the magical races into account. The Harry Potter franchise also comments upon inequality and racial issues through the concept of ‘purer’ wizarding bloodlines. While J.K. Rowling‘s efforts at including diversity in her texts may not easily lend themselves to the word ‘effort’ (think Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s ‘intense sexual relationship‘ that’s never shown in the prequel films), she lightly prods at real-world issues with the inclusion of plot points such as Hermione’s social activism on behalf of the house elves. Rowling’s work has had such an impact that young people looking to involve themselves in politics frequently allude to her work in protest signs and political arguments (think ‘no one deserves to live in a closet’).
Image vIA jOSH jOSH tWITTER
One Goodreads user parsed the “most dangerous, offensive book” they had ever read apart in a 9,000-word review, barbing readers with quotes along the lines of: “The Kelts are not a pure race like us. They’re more accepting of intermarriage, and because of this, they’re hopelessly mixed.” Given the novel’s premise, it seems likely that this quote came from one of the aforementioned fusty, traditional relatives whose views are the launchpad for Elloren’s character arc. In fact, the main premise of the review was, according to Vulture, “racist characters saying or doing racist things.” There seems to be confusion over whether or not including characters with bigoted views means endorsing those characters’ bigoted views—a dangerous conflation.
Forest herself has said that she wanted to avoid “[injecting] harmful tropes into fantasy,” for example, casting people with dark skin (including fantasy races) as villains. Intentionally, Forest said, “all [her] villains are white.”
Reviewers agree that Elloren’s bigotry is “jarring,” the novel rampant with homophobic, ableist, racist, and otherwise bigoted remarks. But many remain divided on whether or not the comments fulfil their intended purpose—a clearly-stated opposition to bigotry told through the perspective of a protagonist whose hateful outlook is implied to unravel by the end of the yet-unpublished third book.
Others (in particular, acclaimed author L.L. McKinney) say that the bigotry itself isn’t exactly the issue: Forest is a white author and therefore doesn’t have the range to dismantle racial oppression—it isn’t her story to tell. Regardless of whether or not you, reader, agree with this sentiment, McKinney is more than justified in expressing it.
Because here’s the issue with calling this ‘cancel culture:’ The Black Witch wasn’t canceled.
Image Via Jeff Bullas
There was, inarguably, an online crusade against it. The debut novel’s Goodreads rating dropped to an astonishing 1.7. Tumblr posts with as many as 6,000 notes circulated condemning the book, despite the fact that, before its publication, there was almost no chance that such a large group had actually read it. Yet the novel was published as planned in May 2017 despite the controversy, and its sequel was released in September 2018. The criticism drew attention, but, as in the case of Kosoko Jackson, it did not derail the author’s career.
It’s difficult to make a call on this one, particularly given that many of the Twitter and Tumblr threads (including the 9k word review) have since been deleted. It’s irresponsible for us, as critics and as readers, to side with the journalists who condemn “Toxic YA Twitter” without having read the book and the reviews, and the Twitter threads. It’s irresponsible for us to assert that all criticism of possible insensitivity is inaccurate because it is spread through social media—and it’s more irresponsible still to assume that all sensitivity criticisms carry the same weight.
But making a ‘call on this one’ is besides the point. My opinion on which of these books is more appropriate than the others couldn’t be more irrelevant These claims deserve consideration. They deserve it because some of them are true, regardless of whether this particular one is or isn’t. Citing all criticisms as a part of ‘cancel culture’ may be the same sort of blunt dismissal that ‘cancel culture’ itself entails.
Blood Heir By Amélie Wen zhao
And now, we arrive at our final destination.
Amélie Wen Zhao, a French-born and Beijing-raised debut author, faced accusations of racism shortly before the scheduled publication of her upcoming novel Blood Heir, the first instalment of a trilogy with a high three-figure advance. After a 2014 international trip, Zhao began to conceptualize a society in which magical individuals are trafficked as laborers, an incisive allusion to “human trafficking” and “indentured servitude in Asia.” Wen Zhao stated that she had not previously encountered a commentary on human trafficking in Y.A. literature. But not all readers understood Wen Zhao’s intentions.
Image Via Slate
Wen Zhao recently made headlines for announcing her plan to go forth with publishing after a thoughtful apology, months after her cancelation announcement. This is not unprecedented; although accusations of Drake’s cultural insensitivity were perhaps the most legitimate, she went forth with publication after official delays due to the controversy. After some deliberation and a lot of changes, Wen Zhao is resuming the publication. Delacorte, her publisher, had a group of multicultural academics evaluate the work—including an expert who “studies human trafficking in Asia.”
Image Via Amélie Wen Zhao Twitter
The angle of most news outlets is quite clear: headlines read “How A Twitter Mob Derailed An Immigrant Female Author’s Budding Career,” citing the same laundry list of marginalized identities that defamed ‘Twitter Mobs’ frequently allude to.
Of course, those in favor of the project’s cancelation were quick to point out that all races and ethnicities (read: not just non-poc) are capable of anti-blackness. In a now-deleted tweet, novelist Ellen Oh applauded Wen Zhao for the cancelation and drew attention to the issue. Poet L. L. McKinney also commented upon anti-blackness, and author Stephi Cham commented, “I don’t think she’s bowing to a mob. I think she’s listened to valid feedback and made a decision to do better based on that.” Regardless of the specific intent of Wen Zhao’s novel, the reality is that some people drew different conclusions. And yet, her career is not derailed. Her debut will be available in November and will have gone through an even more extensive vetting process, likely adding more nuance and commentary regarding the serious issue of human trafficking.
Image Via Slate
Image Via Next Shark
‘Cancel culture’ paranoia comes from fear of censorship. What does that fear mean if the author’s career doesn’t end? If the book isn’t canceled?
Each incident has been cited as an example of toxic Twitter culture blown out of hand, allegations of hypersensitivity and all the political firestorm a controversial hot topic. In reality, it’s impossible for any one journalist to deem which criticisms are ‘correct’ and which are irrational. And it’s more than just impossible for critics to automatically associate all of these incidents, to classify each as an act of small-minded censorship. If we categorize all critique under the broad label of ‘cancel culture,’ delegitimize it as hyperbolic outrage, we risk discouraging and outright disregarding serious criticism.
Featured Image Via Den of Geek.