The Right to Write

During my attendance at the ALA Midwinter Conference, I came across a promising-sounding title: Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao. I picked it and read the blurb. It looked interesting. I asked the vendor if they were giving away free galley copies (an overwhelmingly delightful aspect of ALA conferences). No, she said, but the book would be coming out later this year. Too bad, I thought, putting it down and moving on, but at least I’ll get to read it later.

But I will not. Under savage accusations of plagiarism and racism on Twitter, Zhao canceled the novel. Apparently, she portrayed an enslaved character who may or may not have been black and, on the basis of a few selected passages, an utterly vicious Twitter mob descended. Zhao was condemned as racist and anti-minority and writing about things she had no right to, such as American slavery (despite the fact that she wasn’t actually writing about American slavery).

All of this, before the book was even published and before a single member of the public could read any of it.

I was both very surprised and very disappointed. I researched further and found, to my amazement and alarm, that this was not an isolated phenomenon.

Just the next month, black author Kosoko Jackson canceled his own debut YA novel, A Place for Wolves, due to similar criticism by a Twitter mob. Apparently, his portrayal of a Muslim character was insensitive and he selfishly and insensitively used a genocide as a background to a historical fiction novel. He privileged American characters and demonized Albanians. He was insensitive and disgusting. Again, all of these judgments were made on the basis of a few blurbs leaked before the book was even published.

While my sympathy for Jackson is limited (anyone who Tweets that women shouldn’t “profit” from writing books about gay romances is due at least a little karmic payback), I was very disturbed to see such a trend: that of authors, especially authors of color, being bullied and shamed into silence by online mobs of critics. And apparently it happens a lot—not just to high-profile debut authors like Zhao and Jackson, but other debut YA authors no one ever gets to hear of because they’re slammed so hard that they never publish anything.

Why is this happening?

I think a large part of it is the low status assigned to YA books. YA literature simply doesn’t get the same respect that so-called “adult” literature does. YA books seem to be fair game for intense online savagery in a way that adult books are not. It’s not because they’re actually any more racist or poorly written than adult books (if you want appalling Islamophobia, for example, along with some truly horrible, degrading sex scenes, just try the Fool’s Gold trilogy by Jude Fisher, which is hailed as a fantasy epic masterpiece). It’s simply that YA books are perceived as inherently less worthy of respect, no matter how hard they work. Bullies can do whatever they want with them, and then crow about what tough disciplinarians they’re being. Because obviously authors deserve to be disciplined, for daring to write for young adults.

Bullies also pick on the vulnerable and the disenfranchised. Would Jackson and Zhao have faced this violence if they’d been white instead of black and Asian American? White authors include plenty of characters or scenes or themes that, taken out of context, could be considered racist—but they seem to get away with it. For example, in white author Leigh Bardugo’s novel Six of Crows, character of color Inej Ghafa was a former slave who was kidnapped and sold to a brothel run by a white woman, where she endured abuse, including physical and mental torture and repeated rapes by white men. She was then rescued by a white man who drafted her into a life of crime for his own purposes. And, over the course of the novel, she fell in love with said white man, despite his being a total psycho.

Taken out of context, this could be read as incredibly racist. But of course it’s not: within context—i.e., the entire book—Inej is a wonderful character: a strong, complex woman struggling with her difficult past but still retaining her dignity, a working moral compass and sense of purpose. Six of Crows is not a racist book, and it sounds like neither were Blood Heir or A Place for Wolves. But somehow, Six of Crows got a fair hearing, whereas the other two did not. Was Bardugo protected by unfair privilege? (No offense to Bardugo: her books are amazing, and well worth reading.) Or were Jackson and Zhao simply the victims of arbitrary bullying? (And, of course, bullying is always completely arbitrary.)

It’s amazing to me that the Twitter mobs—those critics who swoop in, shrieking and clawing, at anything they simply decide is racist, Islamophobic, etc.—don’t realize that, far from taking a stand for marginalized voices, they’re actually shoring up the white-dominated, Western-dominated status quo. A big part of white supremacy, after all, is shoving people into their assigned “place” with rigorous policing and savage punishments on anyone who gets out of line. Silencing any author before they even have a chance to speak is an appalling act of sabotage—and doubly so for marginalized populations who seldom get a chance at all. If the critics so worried about inclusivity, why not give these authors a chance to publish their full, completed message? Why not let them speak? Bullying authors into canceling their own books is hardly inclusive behavior.

Such behavior also sabotages the cause of inclusivity in fiction by discouraging authors, of all ethnic, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds, from including non-white characters. If authors are going to be savaged and bullied to the point of jettisoning their book, just for portraying a character of color in a less-than-completely-perfect light—or even just in a position of coercion or unhappiness—then they’re going to actively avoid portraying any non-white character. This will not advance the cause of diversity in literature.

So I say this to the gatekeepers, to the critics even now waiting in the wings, sharpening their claws: ease up. Instead of building walls, let’s tear them down. If you want more authors of color to publish, then let them publish. Let them speak. Let them publish their entire story—whatever skein of imagination they’ve spun—before you condemn them. To do otherwise—to use sensitivity and inclusivity as cudgels to beat down authors—is to silence diversity and maintain publishing as a whites-only preserve. So let the people speak. Let them publish, and tell the whole story, before we all of us—authors, critics and readers alike—decide what the story says to us.