The Problem with Problems

Kenny Brechner -- March 14th, 2019

This post is strictly my personal opinion about something I care deeply about—children’s books—and view as having saved my life as a child. I have loved children’s books for 57 years, 28 of them as a bookseller. It is no accident that children’s books are filled with portals leading to other dimensions, wardrobes and tesseracts, Platforms 13 and 9 and ¾, Neitherlands and multi-verses maintained by nine lived enchanters. These passageways are metaphors for those real-world portals into other dimensions, books themselves.

We know from books of wonder that accesses to magical portals are periodically threatened by a variety of evils. These ills are sometimes the results of mistakes made by heroines and heroes, other times by ill will or the return of an ancient malice. We know too what must be done. Mistakes need to be set right, access to the portals preserved, whether through some manner of renewal, or by the beating back of a constricting malice. That is the heroine’s task.

In many ways our own multi-verse of books has been in a kind of golden age these last few decades. We have enjoyed an array of splendid new, entrancing, and increasingly diverse and inclusive worlds made available to readers alongside well trodden older doorways into realms whose pathways, castles, battlefields, museums, and gardens still beckon, beguile, and enrich.

We also know that evils often appear just when the sunlight is brightest. And so it is now, that a potent threat has manifested.

If we were to encounter, in the pages of a book, a maleficent communal voice which, with the heavy prongs of fear and public shaming, enforced an orthodoxy of perspective that constricted what people could write about, which consigned their identities to ethnic and racial attributes, that rewarded conformity and castigated dissent, we would know what the heroine’s task was. She would fight for what is truly important, creativity, social justice, imagination, liberty, a robust forum for dissenting opinions, for individuality and personal association and expression.

The force with which our heroine is confronted is currently being animated through Twitter. There has been a series of Young Adult books whose authors were pressured or, if you like, edified into submission, to remove their own books from pending publication. The pace of these removals is increasing. There have been two in the last several weeks, Blood Heir and A Place for Wolves. More are likely on their way as other people find problems in books and exert force on authors to remove their own work from imminent publication.

There is an enforced narrative at work here which demonizes dissent while rewarding compliance. Free speech advocates are lumped together into a composite persona, that of privileged people yelling censorship to maintain their privilege. Authors who pull their books are doing so because they are brave not because they are being held under water and desperately looking to get back to the surface.

When your personal identity is in the hands of other people you will do most anything to preserve your safety. It is no coincidence that the two most recent authors to pull their books from publication were themselves active YA Twitter members. Both of them have been involved in argumentation within the Twitter community, and both were more susceptible to being flamed and dragged in an environment their identities were already embedded in.

This toxic environment is reinforced by pressure for people to stay in their racial and ethnic lanes and to adopt the opinions of others which have been granted imprimatur by virtue of authenticity.

Advocating for the increased inclusion of Own Voices authors on publisher frontlists is a very positive development. Pressuring authors to stay in their racial and ethnic lanes is not. I’m Jewish but I should hate to be limited to being an expert on Jewishness. I don’t consider myself to be very “good” at being Jewish, actually, and I know that I hold opinions and perspectives widely in variance with other members of my ethnicity. Even considering Judaism as an ethnicity as opposed to a religion, or rather viewing its religious element as an ethnic form of community theater, is not a uniform perspective to say the least.

A brief glance back at history should make the notion of enforcing race and ethnicity as a rigid defining element of who we are terrifying to anyone. Why it can pass as a progressive idea now, even though it has been a source of nightmare events in the past, escapes me. These are aspects of identity that vary widely according to place, time and individual persona. The application of them to identity by force is a proven means of oppression.

Ultimately, boiled down to its essence, the YA Twitter narrative is rooted in notions of harm, specifically that recommending or reading books with problematic content causes harm. Protecting people and children in particular from harm is the age-old rationalization for suppressing books. It is also the most understandable of impulses. Most of us wish dearly to protect children. In other contexts, however, such as helicopter parenting, we can see clearly that the impulse to protect children from harm can be harmful in itself. Characters in YA novels plow through mountains of travail, misapprehension, bias, and heartbreak to a better understanding. Are we then to treat young adult readers as though they are hermetically sealed off from harm in a bubble, lest the slightest taint prove fatal?

Everyone experiences a sense of harm from books. It is how we engage with that sense of harm, whether through critical discussion or through suppression, that is the vital issue. The YA Twitter narrative is built around absolute harm with the only safety valve being absolute apology. Orthodoxy adherents are affirmed for apologizing correctly. For example, if one has recommended a book before it was flagged as problematic a correct apology must be issued emphasizing having f*cked up, that one will work harder to detect harm in the future, and is sorry for the harm caused by their recommendation.

This is not to say that issues of privilege and biases of all kinds are not real, nor that we should not do our best to critically discuss them. It is when we veer into absolutism and orthodoxy that the nature of addressing harm shifts from being productive to being oppressive.

Different individuals of the same ethnicity can differ profoundly in reading a book with charged content. Speaking as someone who is Jewish, my reaction to encountering anti-Semitism in a book is personal to me and differs greatly from other individuals who share my ethnic background. For example I love Henryk Seinkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword and The Deluge. I love them despite the fact that they are marred with anti-Semitic elements which are certainly offensive, but I also found to be unhappily instructive. Another Jewish reader might consider these elements to be a deal breaker. These are our separate personal choices. I am certainly happy that these masterpieces of historical fiction were not literally lit on fire, though.

We may ask ourselves how a crushing orthodoxy could possibly be the means of social justice and change as opposed to a healthy environment of robust critical discussion. Many criticisms being leveled on Twitter have validity. Why not engage in legitimate criticism as opposed to pretending that the toxic environment of fear and public shaming isn’t affecting the nature of the “conversation”? Why not stick to substantive debate as opposed to name calling, labeling and bullying?

The ultimate result of being governed by fear is constriction. We need open access to good books.  Many children live in dangerous worlds. For children in danger, whose personal worlds are often subject to violation, portals into books are life savers. Books provide an escape into living worlds where they can experience dangers and adventures in safety.  Books are vast interior spaces and no one can know what complex connection a young reader forms within them.

An enforced orthodoxy is toxic to creativity and personal expression. Furthermore, the chilling effect of flaming agents and editors for their role in books deemed problematic cannot be underestimated. The worst harm related to books is the imputing of harm to books. That too is a terrible irony and one we should resist. We should defend an open, dynamic environment for books, one that incorporates change and evolving senses of social justice enriched by critical discussion, respectful dissent, and individuation. Twitter’s propensity for facilitating avalanches of uncivil communication is obvious. Once conflict starts between two competing perspectives, a polarized environment of hate, fear, and self-righteousness flows freely. We’re all better for reading and being engaged with YA literature.

Let’s put that into practice. The next time you see someone being piled on or bullied on Twitter, ask yourself what a YA heroine would do.

 

14 thoughts on “The Problem with Problems

  1. Meghan

    Kenny, I applaud this article. I predicted this would happen long ago. Now that most authors have been bullied into submission and agree to stay in “their lane,” the bullies need a new target. So stay tuned for this sort of thing to happen: an Asian author being accused of being the WRONG Asian person for a book, an African American for having the wrong upbringing, etc. After all, each family is different. Each person is different. None of us are the same. My Irish family is nothing like other Irish families. AND if you ask my sisters for memories about growing up, they’ll say very different things from me. We’d probably bicker and fight over who has the more accurate memory. This is the way people are. This is life. Carbon copies would make life very boring indeed. I have already been attacked for believing in free speech. Isn’t this something all authors should believe in? What disgusts me the most is that agents are participating in these attacks. Publishers are pulling books. What may have started with good intentions is controlled by people who have no good intentions. They’re self serving. Full stop. I am willing to debate anyone in an open forum on this issue. We need to turn this around before it’s too late. Authors should be allowed to pour their heart out, not be so careful that their books become sanitized to death. Our actual target, children, will lose out and lose out big time.

  2. Bettina Restrepo

    Kenny,

    Thank you so much for an insightful, brave and articulate essay. As a Latina, I appreciate seeing well researched stories of all cultures. There is no one right way to tell a story. My Colombian roots qualify me to tell the stories of my heart, but they do not disqualify or supersede another’s right to their story regardless of ethnicity.

    However, not all cultures have access to New York publishing or training in the art of a written story. A heartfelt story rises above ethnicity, setting, religion and circumstance – especially in children’s literature. As Kenny states above, story transports. Content creators have the duty to seek out and nurture stories that are not being told.

    I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by so many kind and open individuals in children’s literature and publishing. I am grief stricken to see colleagues rejected into submission because they are telling (exceptionally researched and sensitivity vetted) stories ‘outside their lane.’

    I represent one aspect of a Latina POV in my writing. My authenticity has been called into question because my appearance isn’t stereotypical. My DNA and my experiences are valid. I shouldn’t be made to feel inadequate just because a person(s) can’t see beyond the color of my hair.

    The fear of ‘not being enough’ has negatively impeded my work. Creating art requires vast amounts of vulnerability. None of us want to put an inferior story, especially for children, into the world.

    Books and writing are my lifeline. I am committed to throwing that buoy back out into the water even at the risk of succumbing to the waves myself. I must remind myself, and others, that there is no one way to exist in the world

    Vitriolic self-appointed trolls using social media to bully those they have deemed as ‘unworthy’ are an abomination and should be ignored.

    The industry has swung too far in an effort to tell ‘the right’ story. I challenge myself to be brave. I challenge others to tell the story that is true regardless of what lane they drive in.

    Kenny, thank you again for speaking the truth.

  3. David Lubar

    Thank you for this. When I tried to address the blind admiration for one of the figures involved in all of this by listing, via a Facebook post, examples of their flawed reasoning and the fallacies and lax scholarship that permeated their work (my BA is in Philosophy, with an emphasis on logic), it did not go well. Nobody who objected to my post addressed any of this content. Nobody disputed any of the examples. When the discussion devolved into a shouting match (mostly among others), I deleted the post, which led to me being accused of silencing minority voices. The accuser, in a Facebook post, claimed those who supported my view were against anyone who stood up for minorities, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, etc. This was absurd and a total lie, of course. (Those who know me know the diverse nature of my family, but I refuse to unfurl their ethnicity or sexuality like a virtue banner.) Even worse, one of the figures followers tried repeatedly to discredit another member of the discussion, claiming he’d violated a student’s privacy in a Facebook post. (This wasn’t true. He’d posted a wonderful account of a young man’s accomplishments with the full permission of the student’s parents and teachers.) The absurdity went for several rounds, with the accuser making wilder and wilder attempts to discredit someone who I know to be one of the most ethical and honorable persons I’ve ever met. I’m surprised she didn’t accuse him of selling children in his basement. In the end, I was left fairly unscathed, compared to others. Though I know there are people who think I’ve done various bad things, or have been an ass . (I am an ass in various ways, but not anything related to this discussion.) I have to stress that my sole focus is the use of dishonest arguments in an effort to promote an agenda, and the blind devotion of people who never bother to actually look behind the curtain. I apologize for both the length and vagueness of this comment, but I’m not yet ready to engage in round two at the moment. I thank you for speaking honestly about your views on this issue. Brace yourself for the Twitter onslaught. Wait. One last note. I recently wrote a Passover story and an Easter tale for a collection for young readers. (Both are horror stories, but that’s another issue.) I felt it would be nice to add a story about an Islamic event. I did research and got struck by a wonderful idea about Ramadan. But, even though the celebrant would not be the main character, I decided that no matter how careful I was, and how many people read it for accuracy, it would cause problems. So I dropped the idea, even though I suspect it would have made some of my readers feel a nice sense of inclusion. That’s unfortunate. And that’s where we are.

    1. Nora Baskin

      The vagueness of your comment is a testimony to your character..not a fault. You stand up for others, you do not tear them down, regardless of how you feel about an issue. Thank you for being you.

  4. Carole Dagg

    Mr. Brechner, thank you for your defense of writing outside of your lane. I also feel that encouragement of diverse voices goes too far when it silences other voices. For instance, in today’s publishing climate, my husband (an enrolled Native American) and grown children would have standing to write historical fiction about a mixed Native American/Anglo child, but I, who carried the DNA from father to child would not. Why can’t research, immersion in the culture, imagination, and empathy be given equal weight with DNA? I’m glad Scott O’Dell wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins in 1960, when publishers would not tell him to stay in his own lane.

  5. Gae Polisner

    It is not surprising to me that so many Jewish writers understand the nuances and slippery slopes discussed here and speak out against the dangers of such oppression, many of us having grown up in the shadows of the Holocaust, yet continuing to stand (and advocate) for the right of Nazis to march in the streets of Skokie. . .

    I nod every single time I see a Jewish person speaking out on this issue even as we are simultaneously thrown out of groups, vilified, and publicly torn down.

    Thank you.

  6. Emily Schneider

    Thank you for this compassionate, principled,and articulate defense of intellectual freedom, and of the freedom to read. I can’t even add to what you have written, although I think that bravery is in short supply. More than trusting readers is necessary to change the situation. Change needs to come from publishers and critics, editors and authors at journals. While most NY Times readers probably responded favorably to recent articles about Twitter attacks on books, they need to make their voices heard to people who control or influence the market.
    I would like to add that I am Jewish, and I appreciate that you give your own identity as a nuanced example of how individual readers, even members of the same group, may respond to negative images in books.
    If anything, you have understated some of the outright abuse directed against books and authors, which masquerades as “criticism.”
    Here is great article in Slate:
    https://slate.com/culture/2019/03/ya-book-scandal-kosoko-jackson-a-place-for-wolves-explained.html
    In case anyone missed this one in the NYTimes:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/books/amelie-wen-zhao-blood-heir-keira-drake-continent-jonah-winter-secret-project.html
    My own takes at the ALA OIF blog:
    https://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=16964
    https://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=15022

  7. Frank Parker

    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. I am, however, unaware of the background story so would have liked some specific examples rather than the generalisations you have provided. I appreciate that there are many readers who will know exactly what you are talking about, but if you wish to widen the debate to include a wider community you need to let us outsiders into the loop.

  8. JOHN T SHEA

    Bravo for this!

    “A maleficent communal voice” indeed! I am reminded of Edmund Burke’s famous warning that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. There has been surprisingly little opposition to these YA Twitter witch-hunts.

    “It is no coincidence that the two most recent authors to pull their books from publication were themselves active YA Twitter members.” And one was a sensitivity reader. The monster is eating its own children.

    “This toxic environment is reinforced by pressure for people to stay in their racial and ethnic lanes and to adopt the opinions of others which have been granted imprimatur by virtue of authenticity.”
    Apparently, several agents are involved in this. Some gatekeepers have become lane-keepers. One hopes that publishers at least resist that temptation. Readers are the ultimate judges, let us defer to their decisions.

    Many thanks again for this timely piece!

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