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 [explitive deleted by PG] 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.
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The criticism snowballed from there, with other readers chiming in: “How could you take a beautiful LGBTQ love story and [explitive deleted by PG] on genocide victims like that?” one asked on Twitter. Heidi Heilig, an author who has participated in many online skirmishes and provided a positive blurb for Jackson’s book, hastily revised her Goodreads review of A Place for Wolves. She suggested the book’s content may have changed since she read an early draft, apologized “to those I’ve hurt by my blurb,” and promised to “work harder.”
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In January, another first-time author, Amélie Wen Zhao, asked her publisher to pull her to-be-released fantasy novel, Blood Heir, because of early reader critiques about racial insensitivity. The novel featured a storyline about slavery and a character whom some readers interpreted as black, who dies so a white character can live; Zhao explained in her statement that as a Chinese immigrant to the United States, she was inspired by trafficking and labor issues in Asia, but apologized nonetheless for causing pain.
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Both Jackson and Zhang are people of color who now see their careers hobbled in an industry that claims to be laser-focused on diversity. Jackson has already been dropped from the lineup in at least one literary festival, though it’s not clear if he withdrew or was ousted.
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[W]e’ve gotten an increasingly toxic online culture around YA literature, with evermore-baroque standards for who can write about whom under what circumstances. From the outside, this is starting to look like a conversation focused less on literature than obedience.
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None of this has to do with whether Jackson’s book is any good, or even in good taste. (I haven’t read it.) But it was written by an author exquisitely attuned to identity issues, and presumably vetted by his agent, the staff of a publishing house, and other early readers, including some who have now turned against it.
Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Shelly for the tip.