May 23, 2019

Cancel Culture Dominates the World of YA Fiction

“Until recently, Kosoko Jackson was considered an expert in the trapdoors of identity-related rhetoric. Jackson worked as a “sensitivity reader” for major publishers of YA fiction, a job that entails reading manuscripts and flagging them for problematic content. His own debut novel, A Place for Wolves, was promoted as an “#ownvoices” book, a hashtag attached approvingly to books in which the author shares a particular marginalized identity with his subject. (Jackson is black and queer.) He believed that, for example, women shouldn’t “profit” from writing gay men’s stories, as he tweeted last year. And he was part of a small and informal but intense online community that scolded writers who ran afoul of these values in their work or online. Now, Jackson has been demonized by the community he once helped police.

A Place for Wolves, Jackson’s first novel, was scheduled for publication later this month. The romantic thriller, set in the late 1990s during the Kosovo War, follows a relationship between two American teen boys. The book looked poised to succeed: It received several early starred reviews, which influence library purchases and bookstore placement, and had been named a “Kids’ Indie Next” pick, suggesting an early interest from independent booksellers. Last week, however, Jackson released a statement addressed to the “Book Community” that apologized for the “problematic representation and historical insensitivities” in his novel. He wrote that he had asked his publisher, Sourcebooks, to withdraw the book from publication. Sourcebooks quickly complied.

The backlash seems to have begun on Feb. 22, with a long review posted to the community-review site Goodreads, a favorite site of YA agonistes. “I have to be absolutely fucking honest here, everybody,” the review opened, in the hyperbolic voice of its genre. “I’ve never been so disgusted in my life.” She objected to the book’s use of a recent genocide as a backdrop to romance, the way some early fans fetishized it as a “cute gay love story,” that it was not written by a Muslim, that it “centers” privileged Americans, and that the villain is an ethnic Albanian, among other concerns. “Are you able to confidently justify supporting this book despite all of the above, despite the harm it can and will do to real people?” she asked in conclusion. (The reviewer nonetheless gave the book two stars out of five because “it was ownvoices and well done.”)”

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