(Guest post by Greg Forster)
If you gathered a bunch of alt-Right, neo-Nazi knuckleheads and gave them perfect laboratory conditions for hatching a villainous master plan for preventing the representation of diverse voices in book publishing, they could hardly devise anything as foolproof as what is being done now by advocates of more diverse representation in book publishing. Nothing encapsulates that dreadful irony more clearly than the story of Kosoko Jackson, who gleefully fanned the flames of ignorant hatred, and promptly got burned.
Put on your hazmat suits, fellow JPGBers, for we are now descending into the most radioactive realm of the internet: young adult fiction. “YA Twitter” has been notorious for years as a cesspool of petty vendettas, unsubstantiated accusations and cancel culture. One of the most common tactics for destroying your enemies is to invent accusations of bigotry, insensitivity or online bullying/harassment. In a social world where the rules of what is permitted change every ten seconds – and, more importantly, where people will reliably believe almost any accusation without checking evidence if it aligns with their priors – witch hunts of this kind are not hard to drum up.
The publishing world was stunned earlier this year when one of the most anticipated new books in YA, Blood Heir by debut author Amélie Zhao, was pulled from publication even after the books had been physically printed. Zhao had received a three-book deal and a $500,000 advance, basically unheard-of for a first-time author. The book had been championed by diversity advocates because Zhao used the fantasy setting to turn a critical eye on the oppression of women and the practice of slavery in modern-day Asia. But then a YA Twitter mob whipped up bogus tales of supposedly offensive material in the book – before the book was publicly available – falsely accusing Zhao of having written things that were insensitive to the experience of African slavery in her book about Asian slavery. (Yes, for the record, it is hypothetically possible to write a book about Asian slavery that demonstrates insensitivity to African slavery, but there is zero evidence Zhao wrote such a book – you can read the ridiculous details for yourself if you really want to.)
Big names in the industry piled on, and Zhao’s allies abandoned her. Zhao decided to put her signature rather than her brains on the contract, and “requested” that the publisher pull her book. It did.
One player in this sordid spectacle was fellow YA debut novelist Kosoko Jackson. Like Zhao, Jackson had a disproportionate platform in this world as a new author representing a marginalized constituency. He chose to use his platform to help destroy Zhao, whipping up the mob with angry screeds – like this declaration that stories about the civil rights movement should only be written by black people, stories about the AIDS epidemic should only be written by gay people, etc.
He must have thought that he’d be safe, and these tactics could never be turned against him. After all, he’s a gay black man with a debut novel about a gay black man.
But what goes around comes around. The smoke from the burning of Zhao’s books had hardly cleared when an equally bogus YA Twitter mob came after Kosoko’s A Place for Wolves. The book is set in the former Yugoslavia during the ethnic warfare among the rump states there, and someone asserted (without substantiation – as with Zhao, the book itself was not publicly available) that the villain in Kosoko’s novel was Muslim. Luca Brasi came calling on Jackson, and he caved, too.
Headline: “He Was Part of a Twitter Mob that Attacked Young Adult Novelists. Then It Turned on Him. Now His Book Is Canceled.”
There is no evidence that the YA book-buying public cares about any of this. It’s totally self-generated by the creators and publishers themselves. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that! On the contrary, standards of professional ethics are often unrelated to customer demand, especially in professions that deal with words (literature, law, politics). And wanting to see more diverse voices represented in book publishing is an important aspiration.
The problem here is that people are being branded as bigots or bullies and “canceled” without having done anything wrong. In fact, the authors being destroyed are overwhelmingly people from marginalized communities whose stories we ought to be trying to hear. “YA Twitter’s Diversity War Is Hurting Writers of Color” reads one Huffington headline. The inexorable logic of this system is rigid conformity, not diversity – and the continuing dominance of already-established authors rather than the success of new voices.
As a matter of fact, when you think about it, the whole thing looks a lot like a protection racket run by the established authors. YA publishing is big, big business. Insiders are using their positions of power to destroy newcomers who want in. You can appease the gatekeepers by spending money on useless “sensitivity readers” and various other rackets – and even then, there are no guarantees. With Luca Brasi you were at least safe once you signed the contract.
Try this thought experiment. Suppose for a moment that sales success in YA publishing is not strongly related to authors’ writing talent. (For the record, that supposition casts aspersion on the readers, not the writers.) If that were the case, the pool of potentially successful authors would not be limited to the tiny population of people who have exceptional talent in writing; it would include almost anyone who enjoys writing and isn’t totally abysmal at doing it. Existing dominant providers in this industry (the established authors) would be very, very heavily incentivized to erect artificial barriers to entry, to shrink the pool of potential competitors.
You see where I’m going with this?
There’s a good case to be made that the established authors in this scenario are afflicted with BSDD, not PLDD. But The Higgy has a long tradition of (dis)honoring the PLDDers who want to gain power by serving as toadies and lickspittles and public legitimizers to BSDDers, then end up out in the cold when it turns out they have nothing to contribute and are no longer needed.
In the tradition of Higgy winners Jonathan Gruber and Chris Christie, I nominate Kosoko Jackson for The 2019 Higgy.