IF YOU'RE LOOKING for a case study in toxic internet culture, look no further than the online world of young adult fiction. That might seem surprising: After all, we're talking about boy wizards and sexy vampires and mawkish coming-of-age tales here, right?
Here's the short version: In recent years, young adult, or Y. A., fiction has come into its own as a genre, reliably producing a small number of megahits that have turned their authors into millionaires. During that same period, it has begun to grapple with some difficult questions about diversity and representation.
Y.A. fiction, like many other areas of publishing, has a bit of a diversity problem, despite being a liberal-minded industry located in New York City. But while the motivation behind the movement for more diverse voices is commendable, the manifestation of this impulse on social media has been nothing short of cannibalistic. The Twitter community surrounding the genre--one in which authors, editors, agents, adult readers, and reviewers outnumber youthful readers--has become a cesspool of toxicity. "Y.A. Twitter," as it's called, is a mess.
"Young adult books are being targeted in intense social media callouts, draggings, and pile-ons--sometimes before anybody's even read them," Kat Rosenfield wrote in Vulture in 2017. (The call-outs, draggings, and pile-ons almost always involve claims that a book is insensitive in its treatment of some marginalized group.) Y.A. Twitter features frequent over-the-top claims of various people in the community "abusing" one another, with the term often used in a deeply watered-down sense. The specific charges, as Rosenfield showed convincingly, often don't seem to warrant the blowups they spark--when they make any sense at all. The blowup surrounding a book called The Black Witch, for example--or "the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read," according to the blogger who appears to have launched the campaign against it--largely centered around the book's racist characters saying racist things as part of a story in which the protagonist learns to overcome her racism. Other times, authors are simply presumed to be incapable of authentically and sensitively portraying characters of other races, causing online critics to read just about anything in their books through an uncharitable lens.
Y.A. Twitter does not appear to be a representative sample of Y.A. readers. Those readers are split about 50-50 between minors and adults, according to what data we have, but on Twitter the community is almost entirely adults. And many of the "scandals" have gone unnoticed by readers who are not social media addicts.
The Black Witch did get hit with a bit of online shrapnel: Drive-by critics tanked its rating on the popular book-reviewing site Goodreads, for instance. But as Rosenfield noted, it appeared to do fine on Amazon, in terms of both sales and ratings. "The scandals that loom so large on Twitter don't necessarily interest consumers; instead, the tempest of these controversies remains confined to a handful of internet teapots where a few angry voices can seem thunderously loud," she wrote. "Still, some publishing professionals imagine that the outrage will eventually become powerful enough to rattle the industry."
The worriers were prescient. In 2019, books are not only getting excoriated by online critics who haven't read them--they're getting unpublished entirely.
Such an incident unfolded last winter with a book called Blood Heir. Amelie Wen Zhao, a woman of Chinese descent who was born in Paris and raised in Beijing, had won herself an enviable three-book deal for an Anastasia-tinged adventure: "In the Cyrilian Empire," went the publication materials, "Amnites are reviled and enslaved. Their varied abilities to control the world around them are unnatural--dangerous. And Anastacya Mikhailov, the crown princess, might be the most monstrous of them all. Her deadly Affinity to blood is her curse and the reason she has lived her life hidden behind palace walls." The adventure kicks off when Ana's father is murdered and she is framed, forcing her to flee. The first book...