Late last month, the author Kosoko Jackson withdrew the publication of his début young-adult novel, “A Place for Wolves,” which had been slated for a March 26th release. The book, which follows two American boys as they fall in love against the backdrop of the Kosovo War, had garnered advance praise(“a tension-filled war setting, beautiful young love, family strength and all heart,” one blurb enthused). It also had the imprimatur of the #ownvoices hashtag, in which the main characters of a book share a marginalized identity with the writer—Jackson is black and queer. But a disparaging Goodreads review, which took issue with Jackson’s treatment of the war and his portrayal of Muslims, had a snowball effect, particularly on Twitter. Eventually, Jackson tweeted a letter of apology to “the Book Community,” stating, “I failed to fully understand the people and the conflict that I set around my characters. I have done a disservice to the history and to the people who suffered.”
The Jackson fracas came just weeks after another début Y.A. author, Amélie Wen Zhao, pulled her novel before it was published, also due to excoriating criticisms of it on Twitter and Goodreads. The book, a fantasy tale called “Blood Heir,” depicts an empire that enslaves magical minorities, known as Affinites, and where “oppression is blind to skin color,” as the promotional material phrased it. Critics felt that Zhao’s slavery narrative had erased a specifically African-American experience, and they objected to a scene in which an apparently black slave girl dies in an apparently white character’s arms, in an act of self-sacrifice. Zhao, who emigrated from China when she was eighteen, said that her book drew on “the epidemic of indentured labor and human trafficking prevalent in many industries across Asia, including in my own home country.”
Like Jackson, Zhao tweeted an apology to “the Book Community,” writing, “It was never my intention to bring harm to any reader of this valued community, particularly those for whom I seek to write and empower. As such, I have decided to ask my publisher not to publish ‘Blood Heir’ at this time.”
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Even casual observers of Y.A. controversies might have seen the Jackson and Zhao incidents, coming so close together, as an acceleration of an already established trend. In 2017, Keira Drake pushed back the release date of her début, “The Continent,” when a groundswell of Twitter critics accused the book of racism. That same year, Laurie Forest’s Y.A. fantasy début, “The Black Witch,” likewise became the object of intense scrutiny, weeks ahead of its publication, after detractors slammed it as a white-savior tale. The writer Kat Rosenfield’s New York magazine piece “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” which centered on the “Black Witch” outcry, revealed that many of Forest’s fiercest critics had not read her novel, and others conflated the perspectives of racist characters with that of the author herself. (The review that set off the cancel campaign against “The Black Witch,” by the blogger and bookseller Shauna Sinyard, “consisted largely of pull quotes featuring the book’s racist characters saying or doing racist things,” Rosenfield wrote.)
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The Y.A. world is often credibly depicted as a censorious, woker-than-thou hothouse, and never more vividly than in Rosenfield’s piece; the article has become a Rosetta stone for anyone seeking purchase on Y.A.’s callout-and-cancel culture. The community gadfly and bête noire Jesse Singal’s recap of the Zhao controversy in Tablet carried the headline “How a Twitter Mob Derailed an Immigrant Female Author’s Budding Career.” “From the outside, this is starting to look like a conversation focused less on literature than obedience,” Graham wrote in Slate. The Times commissioned two first-person essays, one by Drake, on the “shameful stain” of these eruptions and the “tyrannical coddling of overly sensitive readers.”
“What happened to Jackson is frightening,” the author Jennifer Senior wrote, also in the Times. “Purity tests are the tools of fanatics, and the quest for purity ultimately becomes indistinguishable from the quest for power.” “A Place for Wolves,” Senior continued, “should have failed or succeeded in the marketplace of ideas. But it was never given the chance. The mob got to it first.”
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A major contributor to blowups like those around Zhao and Jackson, according to many observers I spoke with, is the homogeneity of the publishing world, which remains, on the editorial side, eighty-two per cent white and less than two per cent black, according to a 2015 survey by Lee & Low Books. People of color face economic and racial barriers to breaking into the industry: entry-level positions in editing or literary agenting, which are mostly situated in New York City, offer barely sustainable wages that favor those with existing support systems and family wealth. The result is that the people who are most qualified to weigh in on a text’s treatment of marginalized identities are often the least likely to do so.
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The marketing manager is concerned, she said, that a skittish industry will turn its back on literature by or about minorities, deeming such projects too dangerous to sign. “I could see a world where the people in power start to become afraid that acquiring diversely means they are more at risk,” she wrote. The editor sounded a similar note. “I worry that my colleagues are just shying away completely from publishing anything that might attract controversy or negative attention,” she said. “We don’t want to censor authors, to only publish from a place of fear and reaction.”
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[T]he loudest kid-lit agitators . . . view their critiques as constructive, not destructive. When Zhao apologized and withdrew her book, Y.A. stakeholders largely greeted her words with support and encouragement, seeing them as the result of being “called in”—reminded of one’s values as a community member—rather than “called out.” “This is a beautiful apology,” the author Ellen Oh, who had used Twitter to challenge “Blood Heir” ’s “colorblindedness” and “lack of awareness,” tweeted. Oh and another author, L. L. McKinney, are often cited as the ringleaders of the online pushback against “Blood Heir,” but, as the reviewer Gin Jenny pointed out, neither of them “were calling for the book to be pulled. . . . They both flagged problems; that’s all they did.” In a post, the blogger recapped the Zhao drama: “From my perspective, this was a successful interaction!” she wrote. “Some people identified problems in a book that had not yet been published. Not wanting to publish the book with those heretofore unnoticed problems, the author has opted to delay publication. But the coverage of the incident has been very ‘gasp! Censorship!’ ” (After the controversy went viral, Oh, facing a flood of harassment, deleted her Twitter account—her perceived excesses, and those of McKinney, met a swift and brutal backlash, which itself reveals something about the underlying power dynamics of these tempests.)
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At a recent pen America panel on “callouts, correctness, and culture wars,” the former New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma seemed to suggest that marginalized people’s desire for authentic representation had a propagandistic edge. Sensitivity readers, he said, forced authors to create ennobled images—to describe an idealized world, not a real one. But the task of a sensitivity reader, properly understood, is to evaluate whether a given portrayal rings true or false, the Y.A. editor said. Depicting a character accurately and resonantly is literary work, a matter of craft. Too often, she continued, publishers insist on a false dichotomy between social justice and aesthetics, construing “sensitivity readers as troubleshooting, as something additional, rather than something that is intrinsic to characterization.”
During the spring of 1933, Nazi student organizations, professors, and librarians made up long lists of books they thought should not be read by Germans. Then, on the night of May 10, 1933, Nazis raided libraries and bookstores across Germany. They marched by torchlight in nighttime parades, sang chants, and threw books into huge bonfires. On that night more than 25,000 books were burned. Some were works of Jewish writers, including Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Most of the books were by non-Jewish writers, including such famous Americans as Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis, whose ideas the Nazis viewed as different from their own and therefore not to be read.
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May 10, 1933
Joseph Goebbels speaks at book burning in Berlin
Forty thousand people gather to hear German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels speak in Berlin’s Opera Square. Goebbels condemns works written by Jews, liberals, leftists, pacifists, foreigners, and others as “un-German.” Nazi students begin burning books. Libraries across Germany are purged of “censored” books. Goebbels proclaims the “cleansing of the German spirit.”
Readers may be familiar with the photograph of the Nazi-orchestrated book burning in front of a German university in May, 1933. What is not widely known is that Hitler’s government established a rigid system of book censorship and an index of undesirable books that existed until the end of the war. Inherent in Nazi ideology was the claim to total domination of the world of ideas.
In his new book, Harmful and Undesirable: Book Censorship in Nazi Germany, Guenter Lewy informs us that 5,485 book titles were banned by the end of the war. The entire censorship process was implemented by a number of competing bureaucracies, but mainly the Reich Chamber of Literature (RSK). The banned books included those of alleged moral corruption, works of Marxism and pacifism, books and articles perceived as damaging the martial spirit and morale of the German people and those propagating Catholic or other confessional ideas, and works that fell into the catch designation of “failure to live up to what was to be expected in the new Germany.”
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Until 1938, the struggle against Jewish books was focused on those written by assimilated German Jews. The list of banned Jewish authors included such writers as Vicky Baum, Emil Ludwig, Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Kafka, Arthur Schnitzler, Kurt Tucholsky, Franz Werfel, and Arnold and Stefan Zweig. In addition, the Ministry of Propaganda warned the book trade that no mention was to be made anywhere of the works of Heinrich Heine. One Nazi journal pronounced that “Heine is not a poet, he is a Jew.” Once World War II started in 1939, the works of Jewish authors worldwide were either banned or placed on an index of undesirable books.