Under attack: CS Lewis, JK Rowling, and Enid Blyton

The YA boo gang

Young Adult fiction has become cancel culture’s savage front line

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Talk to anyone who works in books — whether they’re a writer, an editor, an agent or a critic — and there are two letters that will reliably bring a cloud of unhappiness across their face. Whisper them and watch the misery descend: YA. On the face of it, there’s no good reason for this. The initials stand for “young adult”, and refer to fiction aimed at readers between the ages of about 14 and 18; but somehow, these books have become one of the most savage fronts in cancel culture. 

Originally, though, YA was a solid success story. It’s approximately ten years since the genre entered popular consciousness, driven by the massive success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books and Susan Collins’s Hunger Games. The label was new, but the market had pedigree: authors such as Philip Pullman (the Northern Lights trilogy), Malorie Blackman (Noughts and Crosses) and, most of all, J. K. Rowling had already demonstrated the value of writing for an audience at the cusp of maturity. 

The YA boom was an assurance that not only did readers still exist (despite the temptations of the internet), but they were young enough to sustain decades of retail. Some writers began to turn to YA out of frustration with adult fiction. The British author Alex Wheatle has said that he felt he was “not being taken seriously” by a literary establishment that couldn’t deal with a black, working-class man. YA, in contrast, explicitly sought diversity: he was welcomed there, suddenly receiving the festival invitations and awards that had eluded him before.

The question is whether YA foreshadows what the rest of publishing will grow into

Other writers are immediately drawn to the genre and talk about it as a calling. Although the biggest names can become very wealthy, writing YA (just like writing any fiction) is an unlikely path to riches. Instead, the reward consists in reaching a readership who are more passionate in their attachments and more hungry for ways to understand themselves than at any other age. The books we read when young become a part of us — or a home for us — in a way that later encounters can’t match.

But about five years ago, the tone of writing about YA started to change. The word “problematic” began to creep in: was YA really doing enough to represent the world as it existed for its young readers, and to offer them characters in whom they could see themselves? These concerns turned into call-outs, which turned into internet pile-ons, which turned into profound isolation and distress for the people at the bottom of them.

“People say it’s just strangers on the internet,” says one author. “But it’s people with names, people you know, people in your industry turning against you and thinking the worst of you. The only time I’ve really understood suicidal thinking was during a pile-on.” (Because of the ferocity of the YA world, everyone I spoke to for this piece has requested to remain anonymous.)

The American author Kosoko Jackson should, in theory, have been uncancellable. He’s black, he’s gay, and before publishing his own novels, he worked as a so-called “sensitivity reader” — checking other people’s manuscripts for potential pitfalls when writing characters who match his demographic. As his debut YA novel A Place for Wolves approached its publication date in early 2019, it looked bound for success: there were positive advance reviews and lots of support from booksellers.

Kosoko Jackson

Then, in March that year, Jackson pulled his own book from publication and issued a statement apologising for the “hurt” he had caused. How did he reach this extraordinary decision? A Place for Wolves is a love story between two American boys. So far, so acceptable according to the YA mores: Jackson was, and remains, a proponent of the #ourvoices movement, which holds that stories should be written by the same kind of people they are about. 

In 2018, he had joined in the mass scolding of Helene Dunbar’s Blood Makes Noise (later retitled We Are Lost and Found) — a YA with a young gay male protagonist, set during the AIDS crisis. You might assume that books about “marginalised” characters are to be welcomed, and just a few years ago you would have been right. This pressure for representation goes back to the mid-twentieth century, and origins of writing for teenagers, which arose in parallel with the invention of teenagers as a demographic.

Novels like Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan and The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton weren’t just accounts of the teen experience: they were written by authors who hadn’t breached adulthood. “Teenagers today want to read about teenagers today,” wrote Hinton in a 1967 essay for The New York Times Book Review. “The world is changing, yet the authors of books for teen-agers are still 15 years behind the times … Nowhere is the drive-in social jungle mentioned. In short, where is the reality?”

Flash forward fifty years, and YA was asking itself essentially the same question, with a slightly different emphasis: where is the diversity? Many authors in the mid-2010s responded to that challenge by writing characters who were not like them, only to find that by the time publication came round, the debate had moved along and — like Dunbar with her AIDS novel — they were at the centre of a firestorm for straying from their lane.

Black and Asian authors suddenly found themselves in demand regardless of whether it was actually a good fit

Dunbar, tweeted one infuriated fellow YA author, was a “cis white woman … profiting from the ‘trend’ of gay boy books.” Regardless of how well executed her novel might be (and none of the critics had read it at this point), Dunbar was at fault simply for writing it. One disquieting truth is that female authors tend to receive the worst of the brutality, while male writers often slip the net. YA author Melvin Burgess’s new novel Three Bullets features a trans, mixed-race heroine: he has not so far been widely condemned for being a cis, white man. 

This aside, many YA authors agree that #ourvoices was a necessary corrective to crass ram-raids of the imagination on other people’s lives. It also had an appreciable effect: between 2017 and 2019, the proportion of YA books by black and Asian authors published in the UK more than doubled to reach 19.6 per cent. But while that crudely approximates the UK population as a whole, a lot of the change was being driven by titles from the US rather than British authors, which is arguably not very #ourvoices in practice. 

There was also an element of opportunism — even tokenism — in the way the publishing industry responded, with black and Asian authors suddenly finding themselves in demand for YA regardless of whether it was actually a good fit for their writing. One agent I spoke to maintains a policy of keeping authors well away from editors who say that they want to “diversify their list”, but offer no idea of why they want to work with a particular writer besides race.

Shortly after the Dunbar furore, Jackson got involved in another #othervoices battle, this time with a more definitive outcome. Amélie Wen Zhao’s novel Blood Heir would have been the first volume in a fantasy trilogy, but before it was even published, it attracted accusations of “anti-blackness”. This was at best a tendentious interpretation of the novel (the character supposedly treated negatively was not even portrayed as black), but it nonetheless reached a sufficient pitch to convince Zhao to withdraw her book. 

Much YA drama begins on the website Goodreads — a kind of social network for the bookish, which is crucial in building word-of-mouth. Publishers send out advance copies, hoping to generate positive write-ups which will then drive pre-orders and convince booksellers to support the book. That’s if it goes to plan. But if Goodreads takes a hostile stance to a novel, an author can be looking at failure before the pallets have left the warehouse. And Goodreads is where things went wrong for Jackson. 

His supposed error was to set his story against the backdrop of the Kosovo war, and the review that turned his fortunes starts like this, in the typically measured tone of the YA world: “I have to be absolutely fucking honest here, everybody. I’ve never been so disgusted in my life.” Jackson is damned for using a genocide as the backdrop to his “cute gay love story”; people who liked the book are damned for “fetishization” of gay men (a charge that is strikingly close to Jackson’s earlier attack on “books written for the female gaze in M/M literature”). 

By the end, there’s no doubt that this novel is a moral atrocity. These criticisms spread through the internet, until Jackson felt he had no choice other than to pull his own book. The demise of A Place for Wolves didn’t end Jackson’s career (he’s since published one YA novel and has another coming up), and Zhao eventually released Blood Heir with rewrites, after additional input from sensitivity readers. But the fact that they were not utterly destroyed is hardly evidence that cancel culture doesn’t exist.

An image from The Parent’s Assistant

Perhaps it’s right that YA is held to a higher moral standard than most fiction. After all, it’s a literature intended for readers who are still in some ways forming their ideas of the world, and that’s always been a group to be treated with especial care. When books for children first began to be published in the eighteenth century, they were explicitly didactic. In the introduction to her 1796 story collection The Parent’s Assistant, novelist and educationalist Maria Edgeworth stressed the “difficulties and dangers” of addressing a child audience. It was not enough to entertain them, she wrote: one must also instil “precepts of morality”.

That attitude endures, though the kinds of instruction expected has changed. Edgeworth thought children should learn to become industrious citizens of a “commercial nation”. Today, there’s more anxiety that our youth should imbibe correct social attitudes. It’s why, in 2010, new editions of Enid Blyton’s books were commissioned with “sensitive text revisions” to expunge the racism and gender stereotyping in the originals. (The updates were not a success, and were withdrawn in 2016.)

Some authors say the viciousness of YA subculture deters them from writing for it at all

When C. S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, he was (on one level) translating the profundities of Christian faith into terms accessible to young readers. When Philip Pullman wrote Northern Lights, he was being similarly instructional — but rather than seeking to cultivate religiosity in younger readers, he aimed to train them in disdain for it. One way to read Pullman’s work is as a trilogy-length cancellation of Lewis, and he in turn was more literally cancelled by evangelicals who considered Northern Lights an open insult to God.

Whatever positions a YA author espouses, they are working within this ethical tradition. In 2017, Kosoko Jackson was unwittingly echoing Edgeworth when he wrote: “young adult books inherently have the burden of being responsible for shaping the minds of youth and the books publishers choose to publish are significant in the formative [sic] of children’s psyche when younger.” In other words, the stakes are higher when writing for a younger audience, and this implicitly justifies extreme reactions when someone breaches one of YA’s moral laws.

But it’s not true that all YA readers fit the “vulnerable youth” stereotype: over half of them are not “young adults”, but actual adults, solidly past the age of majority. Jackson was in his late twenties as he fomented and then faltered under his various controversies. One theory is that those who are drawn to YA are, by definition, attached to a state of immaturity; another is that, because the majority of YA readers are women, acting in the supposed interests of children permits a level of aggression that’s otherwise forbidden.

Regardless of the explanation, the viciousness of the YA subculture is such that some authors say it deters them from writing for that market at all. Others put their manuscripts through extensive pre-publication vetting in order to head off the kinds of issues that sank Zhao and Jackson, and some avoid certain topics altogether. The end result is that, in practice, a lot of potential YA — which might be very much needed by its actual audience — never gets written. Recently, writers have even gone so far as to remove lines from already published work in response to social media criticism. Ebook versions can be silently amended, so readers may never know their copy has been bowdlerised.

In a statement to the House of Lords, David Shelley (CEO of publisher Hachette) and literary agent Clare Alexander described an environment of self-censorship among authors. That self-censorship extends beyond the page: some positions are simply incompatible with a career in YA. And this state of affairs is compounded by a publishing industry which does not inherently value freedom of expression.

After J. K. Rowling published an essay in 2020 which asked that trans rights be balanced with the rights of women, she was condemned as a “terf”. A number of employees at her publisher then refused to work on her book The Ickabog, a picture book for young children. In this case, the publisher backed their author — after all, she is J. K. Rowling. The prospects for writers without her heft are far less secure.

YA is torn between its role as a teacher and the demand that it reflect the world, trapped in a social media environment that rewards censoriousness with attention and encourages the most aggressive attitude possible to authors (when Jackson attacked his peers he was also, perhaps inadvertently, neutralising competition in a brutal market). The question is not really whether YA can grow up. It’s whether YA foreshadows what the rest of publishing will grow into.

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