Twitter is notorious for its toxicity, mostly in the context of politics. But as it turns out, the site has a similarly brutal reputation in the world of books, specifically in the world of YA publishing. The rabbit hole of book and author cancellations at the hand of YA Twitter is a deep one– and it’s a symptom of a larger cultural problem in the book community that we would be remiss to ignore.
I’ll start with the history of cancel culture in the book community before moving on to why I believe this is the most toxic trend on the bookternet right now.
The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions: The History of Book Community Cancel Culture
Let’s start by going through a sort of history of cancel culture in the book community, most notoriously on YA Twitter. I’ve only been on Book Twitter since 2021, and I started my blog in 2020, but I want to contextualize this cultural phenomenon within a larger timeframe.
In doing research for this post, the first year I really started to see articles about book cancellations and scandals popping up is 2016— but I think we should start by going back further than that. What was going on in the world of YA before this trend started, and how does it relate to the emergence of cancel culture?
2014-2015: The YA Publishing World Begins to Open Its Eyes to Diversity and Social Justice Issues
YA as a category has existed for decades, but it really rose to prominence in the 2000s and early 2010s with franchises like Twilight, The Hunger Games, and what I like to call the Age of John Green. With the newfound cultural prominence of YA, it began to draw criticism for its lack of diversity.
In the early days of YA, the vast majority of popular books featured white protagonists and had little in the way of representation for minority groups, leading to a push for YA literature that more accurately reflected the diverse reader base it was marketed to. There were also concerns about the disproportionately white demographics of publishing itself.
In 2014, the We Need Diverse Books nonprofit grew out of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag on Twitter with the goal to advocate for more diversity in children’s literature.
The #OwnVoices hashtag began in 2015, a way to denote books whose authors are writing from their own experiences to incorporate diverse representation. For example, a book with an autistic character written by an autistic author would be #OwnVoices, a book with a gay character written by a gay author would be #OwnVoices, etc. This was intended to help readers and publishers find books with accurate representation for marginalized groups.
2015 was also the year that Kirkus Reviews reportedly began noting the races of characters in the books they reviewed, and the year that The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas’s novel about the Black Lives Matter movement and the problem of police brutality against black Americans, was published, becoming one of the first major YA books to feature social justice activism.
This sort of consciousness shift in the publishing world seemed on the surface to be a win for diversity and giving every young person the opportunity to see themselves and their cultures represented in literature– and it was. The number of diverse YA books being published skyrocketed from 2013 to 2016, and in 2022, at the time of this article, the book community continues to champion diverse literature. Although there are still concerns about equity in publishing, we have clearly made progress since the early 2010s, and that is great. I do not at all intend to imply in this post that this movement was a negative thing. It has greatly improved the diversity in publishing and I believe greater consciousness about diversity is extremely necessary.
However, I believe that some of the applications of this movement for more diversity have had some unintended side effects, and the kind of hyper-focus on identity that was unwittingly created may have helped set the stage for the rise of cancel culture.
YA Twitter’s Notoriety Begins: A Timeline of Early Cancellations
With the newfound focus on diversity and positive representation, authors found themselves under greater scrutiny to accurately and inoffensively write about minority groups. It was around 2016 that cancel culture began to become more prevalent in the book community, and most of the incidents revolved around the purported mishandling of representation.
When We Was Fierce by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo is delayed publication for incorporating a pseudo-AAVE invented dialect for its cast of black characters, which readers deemed offensive
The Black Witch by Laurie Forest is met with a huge wave of backlash for “racism.” The fantasy novel features a protagonist who is raised in a sheltered environment and must overcome the bigotry she has been taught when she attends a university and is exposed to different people.
The publication of The Continent by Keira Drake, another fantasy novel, is delayed for accusations of racial insensitivity for alleged parallels between fantasy races described unfavorably and real life groups of people. One such complaint was that the name of the “savage” fantasy race, called the “Topi”, was too similar to that of the Hopi Native American tribe. It was also accused of having a “white savior narrative”
American Heart by Laura Moriarty is accused of Islamophobia. The novel is set in a dystopian future United States in which Muslim Americans are rounded up into internment camps. Its protagonist is a white teenager who must overcome her own Islamophobia to help a Muslim woman escape– and therein lies the problem according to the critics: another “white savior narrative.” The online backlash to American Heart was such that Kirkus Reviews, which had originally published a starred review written by a Muslim woman for the book, issued a public apology, revised the review to atone for the wrongthink, and removed the star.
Blood Heir by Amelie Wen Zhao is cancelled on Twitter, causing Zhao to delay its publication and issue an apology. The novel is yet another fantasy book, and yet again it was accused of racism. Zhao, a Chinese immigrant, intended to draw attention to the problem of human trafficking with a plot line involving slavery, but readers interpreted it as analogous to American chattel slavery and especially took issue with the line “oppression is blind to skin color.” (Don’t we love when Americans interpret everything through the lens of America only)
A Place for Wolves by Kosoko Jackson is cancelled for insensitive portrayal of the Kosovo war.
The State of Book Community Cancel Culture Now
If anything, things have gotten more volatile in the past few years. The scrutiny with regard to representation has continued, and the YA world’s increasing politicization has also intensified the climate.
For the sake of brevity, and because I wrote a separate post about the more recent attitude and author cancellations, I’ll just briefly describe the past two years in terms of major incidents.
In 2020, J.K. Rowling of course officially became Public Enemy No. 1 of the book community for her allegedly “anti-trans” sentiment. Impressively, she still hasn’t capitulated, and the outrage has reached rather extraordinary heights (Apparently now we’re equating Harry Potter tattoos to swastikas and praising authors for writing about Rowling dying in a fire– I’m not even kidding; someone has actually published a book in which J.K. Rowling is written into the story and dies in a fire)
The J.K. Rowling situation has migrated from the realm of book community drama into the realm of actual politics that normal people care about, so let’s quickly move back to the esoteric land of the YA/general sphere again.
The climate that began around 2016 in the book community seems to have continued through 2022. It’s become commonplace to witness people sharing lists of problematic authors and books that you simply must avoid and also make sure to dissuade others from reading. There are Instagram accounts and YouTube channels dedicated to “calling out” (their words) “problematic” people and recounting drama. When I was on bookstagram, it seemed that every day a new infographic would circulate about how problematic a certain author, book, influencer, or other figure in the community was.
(I’ve written more extensively about the rise in people calling things “problematic” in the book community in this post)
I’ve seen various threads and posts and whatnot about authors like Jay Kristoff, T.J. Klune, Casey McQuiston, Francina Simone, Sarah J. Maas, V.E. Schwaab, Lauren Hough, and plenty of others, for offenses of varying severity. Not all of the criticism of authors is due to the content of their books; some of these people were called out for rude behavior online. And it’s important to concede that in some instances criticism of an author is warranted, especially if there is proof of clear wrongdoing, harassment, or racism on their part.
However, the sins of the authors that have been called out vary dramatically, and oftentimes the reaction is disproportionate to the crime. I also believe in separating the art from the artist, and I don’t think that it is wrong to read books by an author even if they have been revealed as doing something wrong. The current obsession with purifying authors and only reading books from people you personally like has become a bit counterproductive. And it’s not great to shame other people for reading books by “problematic” authors.
One example of a major recent cancellation of a non-author on bookstagram: in August 2021, the book subscription box OwlCrate was met with a wave of backlash when they announced that they would start selling their Harry Potter mug collection again. The problem, of course, is because Harry Potter mugs –> Harry Potter –> J.K. Rowling –> How Dare You, Bigot. After being mobbed with angry comments about how harmful and violent and transphobic and disappointing this was, OwlCrate issued an apology and redacted the mug collection again.
I also witnessed a bookstagrammer get mobbed, called a racist and even receive death threats for posting that she was pro-life.
(These are some of the reasons I left bookstagram)
So cancel culture is alive and well on the bookish Internet. But why is that?
Why Is Cancel Culture So Prevalent in the Book Community
The Book Community’s Obsession With Identity Politics
It seems that there are several main factors contributing to this toxic climate on the bookish Internet. First is the community’s strong interest in social justice and the unfortunate side effect of hyper-fixation on identity and political correctness. I’m not one to say political correctness, or, as it’s now more colloquially termed, depending on who you’re talking to, “wokeness”, is necessarily negative, and obviously we don’t want books to be racist or offensive.
But the book community’s bigotry-detector, perhaps, has become slightly hypersensitive.
The Politically Progressive Homogeneity of the YA Book Community
A related factor is the relative political homogeneity of the YA book community (and of YA books themselves, for that matter) The majority of the people who write about books on the Internet, particularly YA books, seem to be women aged 15-35 who are politically progressive.
There is nothing wrong with this, but because everyone is surrounded in places like book Twitter and bookstagram by people with similar opinions, they begin to believe that theirs are the only acceptable ones. It also can lead to people being dog-piled for holding opinions outside of the progressive canon (e.g. pro-life, pro-Trump, and pro-Israel are each opinions I have seen used as evidence of an author or influencer’s impurity)
Again, important caveat: you don’t have to agree with people who have more “conservative” politics and it’s really important to stand up for what you believe. I think it’s important to say when you think someone is wrong, but there’s a difference between disagreeing with a person and calling for them to be cancelled and for no one to read their books or support them ever.
There’s An Element of Status-Seeking and Competition
Overall, I think the main driving factor behind cancel culture seems to be a sort of competition as to who is the most “woke”
Calling out a “problematic” author or book gives you social status online, it makes you virtuous, it shows how much you care about advancing social justice and holding people accountable. And whoever finds the most “problematic” things in a book is the most devoted to the cause.
The BBC actually has a podcast episode on this sort of pattern called “The Purity Spiral”, where they actually talk about YA Twitter:
“In its extremes, a purity spiral is how we tumble towards The Crucible, or Mao’s Red Guard, or Stalin’s show trials– yet, as you’re about to hear, they’re just as present in the world of online knitting, or in Young Adult fiction.“
In essence, a purity spiral is a phenomenon that occurs in isolated cultural groups, characterized by members of the group participating in a cycle of “moral outbidding”: attempting to prove their moral stature or devotion to an ideology, eventually turning inwards and purging their ranks of those presumed to be ideologically impure. It fits the Book Twitter situation perfectly, especially in cases of people like Kosoko Jackson, who participated in online pile-ons of other authors before they eventually turned on him.
What’s So Wrong With Cancel Culture in the Book Community?
Some would say that cancel culture isn’t really that big of a problem. Maybe it’s just holding people accountable and showing authors what behavior is socially unacceptable. However…
“Holding People Accountable” Is Moot When Standards Are Constantly Shifting
Supporters of cancel culture often refer to it as “call-out culture” and describe it as simply a means of “holding people accountable” for their “problematic views.”
But the question is: holding people accountable for what? The definition of what is or is not acceptable changes frequently when you’re going based off mob rule. People have been canceled in the book community for everything from harassing reviewers to being pro-life.
The victims of cancel culture range from people who have actually done harmful things (often unrelated to their books) to people who just happen to have an opinion unapproved by the majority of the chronically online reading obsessed public. It’s unreasonable to treat them the same way.
Also, the apologies of cancelled people never seem to be accepted, no matter how gratuitously they grovel about how they will “do the work” and are “deeply sorry for the harm they have caused.” I’ve never seen an apology lead to anything but gloating condescension– or even further criticism.
Cancel Culture is a Threat to Freedom of Speech
Another argument I see often is the “freedom of speech, not freedom from the consequences of that speech” or “freedom of speech only means that the government can’t censor or punish you for your speech, but other people can!” These people are correct: the Constitution has no power against cancel culture. But that doesn’t make cancel culture a good thing. Just because something is LEGAL doesn’t mean it’s POSITIVE. I hate when people conflate legality with absolute righteousness.
Saying something isn’t illegal is no argument as to whether or not it’s morally right or objectively beneficial. A lot of negative things aren’t illegal. And for that matter, no one is attempting to make cancel culture illegal, that would be totalitarian, ineffective, and stupid so this argument is pretty irrelevant.
(However, now that I think about it, some of the accusations lobbied at people on the bookternet could potentially constitute libel/slander, but that’s beside the point)
I also disagree with the “freedom of speech, not freedom from consequences” argument because it misses the point of free speech rights in general. Yes, the freedom of speech protected by the first amendment of the US Constitution is the prevents the government from prosecuting you for your speech, but consider the idea behind freedom of speech: it’s intended to preserve the right to speak against people in positions of power who would take the opportunity to censor your speech. Why do we have free speech as a principle? To protect unpopular opinions. When such opinions are being silenced by a mob of loud Twitter users, it’s the same end result as if the government was censoring it. Yeah, Twitter can’t put you in jail for your speech, but they can prevent you from speaking. Or writing.
And because we’re talking about books: Twitter has proven to have the capability to delay publication for books and to ruin authors’ reputations before their work has even been released.
The volatility and unpredictability of the online book world has rather disturbing potential for the censorship of authors. I know I would not want to be a YA writer right now. No matter how careful you are to tread lightly, there’s always some way your work could be construed as problematic.
On social media, there is a huge amount of power held by certain people who see it as their responsibility to punish others for what they consider unacceptable views or problematic writing. Cancel culture has caused people to lose their jobs, receive death threats and suffer social alienation as a result of their speech. In the book community, people have lost business opportunities, etc.
I think, when there is so much power in the hands of– for lack of a better word– “the mob”, it does become a free speech issue.
The reason freedom of speech is protected is to prevent a society in which one entity controls political/social discourse. With cancel culture, it’s not the government who’s trying to control said discourse: it’s other people. But that doesn’t make it any less of a threat to free society.
Cancel Culture is Glorified Bullying
Putting aside all the lofty free speech idealism: cancel culture is also just mean.
Do you remember middle school friendship drama? Because I sure do, and the whole cancel culture stuff makes me feel like I’m 13 again, pacing around my room in anticipation on FaceTime while my friend “spills the tea” about the latest stupid, petty he-said she-said nonsense.
The “tea”, reaction videos, screenshots and subtweets and name-calling is like being stuck on a loop in the most toxic, catty circles of tween girls, but they NEVER grow out of it.
It doesn’t at all feel like it’s about “social justice” or “holding people accountable” anymore.
Yes, I’m sure you may think going in someone’s DMs and telling them to kill themselves is an action of commendable heroism, but the rest of us realize you’re just a person capitalizing off the current political climate to go on a power trip and bully someone into obscurity in exchange for social capital.
In Conclusion: Book Community Cancel Culture is Toxic
I think cancel culture is one of the worst things about the”bookternet,” because of the ideological echo chamber and socially-enforced dogma of maligned social justice it perpetuates, and for its incompatibility with freedom of speech online. We should prioritize the rights of authors to write without fear of blown-up misinterpretation of their words or the enforcement of ideological purity. And while legitimate criticism is important, especially if an author is proven to have done something such as harassment, it’s important to distinguish those cases from situations in which allegations have been exaggerated via Twitter or are dubiously serious, such as a controversial joke in a novel.
And we shouldn’t forget the dangers of censorship.
To quote Oscar Wilde:
“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”
I think this post has gotten long enough now.
What do you think about cancel culture in the book community? Do you agree or disagree with my points?
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