Onto related subject two: cancel culture in the (twitter) literary world.
Let’s get one thing out there first: “cancel culture” is ridiculous. That said, acknowledging bad representation is not ridiculous. And twitter seems to have a veeeeeeery fine line between the two, so much so that it’s basically unrecognizable.
I’ve recently(ish) been made aware of three instances of “cancel culture”: We Are Totally Normal, Blood Heir, and A Place for Wolves. The first of these was essentially cut off at the knees pre-publishing by terrible reviews by both people that had read the book but also by people who hadn’t. (Kelly Kapoor voice: Inappropriate… )
Both the latter two ended up being pulled from publishing at the authors’ request amid controversy surrounding the books for two very different reasons. I won’t wax on too long about all three but there are three very different situations going on that, in my opinion, demonstrate “cancel culture” versus “cultural unawareness and bad representation” needing to be acknowledged. *
WATN was claimed to have “bad” LGBTQ rep because the MC struggles with whether he’s gay or not. Many people took what seemed intended as internalized homophobia and self-loathing as actual homophobia and gay-bashing. The MC from what I could tell, treated the love interest rather badly as he struggled with himself, and that paired with a quite negative personal narrative led to people believing the book was thinly veiled homophobia-encouragement aimed at young impressionable readers. Was this what the author had intended? I’m guessing not. But people took that idea and ran with it and soon people who hadn’t even read the book were giving it one and two stars and crashing the book before it could even go live, which seems like cancel culture in a nutshell.
While it’s important to have the conversation of homophobia and how it can be addressed to younger audiences without a ‘this is how you should be thinking’ feel, that conversation can’t happen unless you allow books to be published and thus create this conversation. Stonewalling a book before publishing isn’t going to help anyone and isn’t going to allow any conversations to happen.
BH seems to have been bashed for uninformed and inaccurate reasons. An ambiguously described character was widely touted (by readers, not the author) as black, and thus fell prey to a trope known as “sacrificial negro” where a black character (often the only black character of any substance) dies so a white character (often an mc or otherwise important character) can live, giving a negative connotation along the lines of “black people can only be helpful by dying in place of a white person so that white person can live and succeed”. It would seem that the author had not written that character with the intention of them being black, but the backlash was so strong she decided to request the book be pulled so she could revise. This is complete and utter craziness, in my opinion.
To blacklist a book based off ambiguous descriptors is beyond insane to me and honestly, I don’t even know what more I can say to that. Read the actual words in books. Use your brain. Don’t make wildly unbased assumptions and go crazy over your unbased assumptions.
Which brings us to APFW. Skipping over the irony of a cancel-culture enthusiast having his debut book kneecapped by his own clique, APFW was well received in the beginning but it would seem most of the high raters later claimed they had been too naive to the history behind the book to realize how badly done it was, and adjusted their reviews accordingly.
And therein lies the need for sensitivity readers: we as both writers and readers don’t know what we don’t know.
APFW was a m/m romance story that was apparently an incredibly well done LGBTQ romance… aside from the fact that it happened against a backdrop of an actual war and genocide that happened only about 20 years ago and barely acknowledged said war aside to occasionally (in between the romance) push a narrative that “all [victims] were not good” and “all [offenders] are not bad.” **. Yeah. I was shocked and a little disgusted too.
This is probably the only of the three that in my opinion genuinely deserved to be pulled from release and rewritten, as it managed to not only insult and misrepresent a culture, a nationality, and a religion, but also completely glossed over a real, devastating genocide in order to focus on the romantic fluff of two American characters that happened to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. When people started pointing out the gross negligence of the narrative and the shocking erasure of a war within a story about that war, the author fought back, doubling down and committing to his narrative of “as seen in the book, the [people being massacred] are the ‘villains’.” ** instead of listening to people of the nationality he was writing about until he eventually gave in and pulled the book from release.
The main difference between cancel culture and acknowledging bad representation comes from knowledge. Cancel culture has taken on a faux-social-awareness identity to hide the fact that it is actually based in opinions and misreading. WATN was “canceled” because people took a message from the book that hadn’t been intended. Should this have been acknowledged? Yes, in case the author hadn’t been aware it came off that way and actively didn’t want it to. Yes again in case that was the conversation the author was trying to start intentionally. But to go out and seek what is effectively “retribution” by encouraging low ratings for what you think is a badly done book is not the adult way to handle even a bad message.
BH was “canceled” for a misinterpreted racial identity of a character. Do I even need to go into how silly and childish that is? This isn’t high school English, you don’t need to write a hateful essay and start a mob based on “meaning” and “allusion” and your interpretation of things.
APFW was “canceled” because it had genuine issues. But because cancel culture is at its heart toxic and misleading, it’s hard for an author to take it seriously sometimes. The more books people “cancel” out of personal distaste or personal interpretation, the more difficult it’s going to be to make authors listen to serious allegations such as “you’re misrepresenting an entire culture/race/religion in a dangerous way”.
In a world where people are becoming increasingly more aware of the toxicity of tropes in media, the more writers have to be aware of them and how to avoid them, and I’ll touch on that in my next post.
*I was not granted an ARC of any of these books, my opinions and hypothesis’ are based off dozens of good and bad reviews for all three books.
** All three quotes were taken from the author’s note as described here