Maybe you just want to write a book and get it into people’s hands, but there are more dangers out there than you might realize.
To set the stage, I’ll go back to a recent event: the Amélie Wen Zhao controversy. You could be forgiven for not having heard about it, given that it’s only a big deal if you closely follow the world of young adult novels, and in particular the young adult communities on Twitter and Tumblr. I’ll do my best to summarize what happened.
Zhao is a young woman, born in Beijing, raised in Paris, educated in New York City and currently living there. She scored a 6-figure book deal with Delacorte Press, the first book of which was to be Blood Heir. Some reviewers got advance review copies. Then, a couple of things happened: Twitter user @LegallyPaige posted a tweet (since deleted) accusing Zhao of taking screenshots of tweets made by people who disliked her or her book, and of stalking and possibly harassing critics; marketing descriptions of the book, as well as tweets by advance reviewers like Ellen Oh, suggested that the book was racially insensitive as it focuses on an indentured servitude system with parallels to American slavery. There were also accusations of anti-blackness based on the treatment of a character who was racially ambiguous, at best, as well as talk of plagiarism that, as far as anyone who has read the book can tell, are not really credible.
Again, if you don’t run in these circles this might all sound like a pretty minor controversy–a mild storm that Zhao could easily weather. But YA Twitter doesn’t work that way. It is a microcosm of Twitter as a whole, dominated by clout-chasing “influencers” and full of cliques who follow what their preferred influencers say. If a book is presumed to be problematic, or the author presumed to be bad, it is a small matter to organize mass review-bombing on Goodreads, Amazon, or anywhere else one can have a say. If you speak out on behalf of someone accused in this way, you are inviting legions of opposing followers to come after you. The old adage is true: the only way to win is not to play the game.
Zhao herself chose not to play the game, as well. She wrote a thoughtful apology letter in which she announced the cancellation (or at least postponement) of Blood Heir. I’m not here to take issue with that decision, as it is a highly personal one. My purpose is to critique these cycles more generally.
All cards on the table: I’m a white man. I consider myself anti-racist as well as a feminist. I recognize the vast structural oppression that exist essentially everywhere, as well as the specific history of anti-black racism in the US. I am always on the side of social justice, which is why I think it’s necessary to call out the excesses of such movements.
For perspective, of course, in this case nobody died, nobody lost their livelihood. Zhao’s publisher stands by her and she will likely publish other books, and possibly Blood Heir itself after some revisions. What happened to her isn’t censorship, nor even what I would consider abusive. It’s more unfortunate than anything else.
What is concerning to me is the tendency to manifest an online mob on an extremely thin basis, and that the people who have large enough followings to spark these controversies know the power they wield, and don’t seem to have much sense of responsibility about it. Consider that this particular incident was sparked by an essentially anonymous accusation of screenshotting–an activity which is petty, at worst–and spiraled into allegations of racism.
As a writer, I do think it is very important to be sensitive to the issues of the world around me. It is entirely possible, even likely, to fall into unintentional racism or sexism. The best of intentions do not necessarily lead to a piece of writing that is free from the biases and inequities of our world. It is important to write mindfully, and to be careful not to reproduce oppressive cultural messages. This can take many forms, though. Some people object to depictions of racism, violence against women, and other horrors in the first place. Even if the purpose of portraying them is to critique them and make clear how awful those things are, there are readers who would rather not encounter such material in the first place. It is an understandable position to not want to read something like that, as it can mean having to face bigotry in fiction that you get enough of in your daily life. People who don’t want to read books like that are absolutely welcome not to!
Where I take issue is the idea that because someone doesn’t like a particular book, no one should be allowed to read it–that it should be withdrawn altogether. The comparisons to historically ineffective book bans apply pretty well here. In addition, it just seems like a big waste of energy. In a country where Donald Trump is President and is actively enabling literal Nazis to march in the streets and kill people, spending a lot of energy attacking a book that may not have anything all that wrong with it seems totally absurd. Yes, people can care about more than one thing at a time–but time and energy are finite resources.
I used the phrase “manufactured outrage” in the title, and that was with good reason. I have been around long enough to know that most of the time, these controversies are not drummed up out of a genuine concern for people who have been harmed, but to raise one’s own profile, and to demonstrate power as an influencer. (Note that all you really need to be an “influencer” is a lot of social media followers!) The emergence of the “#MeToo” movement, which has achieved some real accomplishments in terms of dislodging sexual predators from positions of power, has also put wind in the sails of online controversy-seekers. Everyone wants to be first in line to “cancel” the next “problematic” public figure. A writer faced with such a backlash might be inclined to simply ride it out, and hope the furor dies down after a few days. It usually does, but there is another problem: media coverage.
Only 15% of Americans actually use Twitter, and an even smaller share of those use it regularly. It would not have much influence over public debate except for one thing: it is massively popular among journalists and freelance writers, almost all of whom have column space to fill. Going out and investigating is difficult and expensive; mining Twitter for the latest clickbait topic, by comparison, is easy and free. Thus, these relatively tiny kerfuffles (consisting of a few hundred or a few thousand people, at most) get elevated to the level of national or even international discourse. Dozens of articles get written about online scuffles involving handfuls of people, and you’d think there was a real crisis brewing. The reality is just that journalists and freelancers tend to be Extremely Online (to use the Twitter jargon) and know that drama pulls clicks. This is a big part of the “manufacturing” of the outrage. We’re generally not talking about mass movements, here. “#MeToo” is a mass movement. “#Cancel[WriterOfTheWeek]” isn’t.
Another part of the “manufacturing” is that these outrages often emerge from circles that are not just insincere, but actively malevolent. Imageboard site 4chan and *chan sites of similar formats have forums where the entire point is identifying targets and organizing social media outrage against them. They tap into social justice circles and plant whisper campaigns that a particular person is problematic in some severe way–maybe the target is a sexual predator, or plagiarized parts of their book. If this can get picked up by a prominent influencer, the mob does the rest. Likewise, infighting is fomented by inventing wedge issues, a couple recent examples being “Santa shouldn’t be a man” and “pedophiles belong in the LGBT+ umbrella.” Yes, those are real things stirred up by bad actors and I did not make them up.
The point of all this is that it can be easy and exciting to focus on drama, to be an active participant in fomenting it. It might even feel good to play a role in getting someone to pay penance for their perceived wrongdoing. But it’s hard to say that any of it makes the world a better place, or actually serves any of the causes social justice is meant to. In Zhao’s case, one would think that her identity as an immigrant, a woman, and a person of color would bless her with the benefit of the doubt–but those things are instead liabilities, as she is held to a much higher standard than, say, the middle-aged white men who churn out sexist drivel every year.
A common piece of writing advice is to simply ignore critics. Critics will always find something to hate–it is essentially their job. That’s still true, to a great extent. It is sometimes necessary to publicly respond to criticism, but the best way to handle that is to take the high road. Let people know that they are heard and you are taking their advice into consideration–and then, decide for yourself what that means, and how it should change your work, if at all.
If you write a book condemning injustice, and people attack you and say you aren’t condemning it correctly, odds are there’s not actually anything wrong with your book–just the people doing the attacking.
Post written by J. D. Huffman so direct all fanmail to him <3