This past weekend, when writer Leo Benedictus laid out a case against the “toxic” culture of the YA book community for the Guardian, I groaned, rolled my eyes, packaged up my thoughts, and took them straight to none other than that controversial beast itself: YA Twitter.
Kind of a bummer that outlets never seem to have space for YA and children’s coverage until a shitty man with no expertise or actual vested interest in the genre decides he has THOUGHTS.— chelsey (@chelspipp) June 15, 2019
I had thoughts about his thoughts. Some, like his conflation of the origin of YA and the commercialisation of YA, or his suggestion that cliques don’t exist in adult publishing spheres, I can’t even begin to get into. And I didn’t need to; plenty of other regulars on the YA Twitter circuit had already gone there for me. He’s not wrong, at least, that it’s an active and passionate online community.
Benedictus’ piece was not a wholly original—or even particularly hot—take; journalist Jesse Singal got there first last year, covering the “YA Wars” for Reason, Tablet, and The Week with all the same gleeful vitriol of which he accuses the “culture cops” of YA Twitter.
But while Singal’s articles focused on the controversy surrounding the perceived racial insensitivities and fraught cancellations of several American debuts, Benedictus brought a British eye to the phenomenon. His take on the removal of Gareth Roberts from an upcoming “Doctor Who” anthology and the controversy surrounding John Boyne’s My Brother’s Name is Jessica fell right into step with much of the UK’s media’s hostility regarding trans issues, and the piece misguidedly lambasted YA Twitter for the community’s commitment to authentic representation for marginalised people.
According to Benedictus, Roberts was removed from the anthology by the publisher following another contributor’s request. This was due to allegedly transphobic tweets he made in the past—a common enough practise from brands looking to promote their outlook and affirm the positions of their target demographic. Nothing to do with YA Twitter here, so a tepid opening, if you ask me.
It gets more complicated with Boyne. Benedictus reports that Boyne was insulted and made to feel unsafe on Twitter because he dared to write a book about the trans experience while not being trans himself. But I would argue that the situation is far more nuanced than that, considering that Boyne, as part of the publicity for a book he claimed he wrote to aid wider understanding of trans experiences, wrote an ill-advised opinion piece for the Irish Times which was perceived to dismiss trans viewpoints.
Boyne has alleged that he was bullied and threatened on Twitter, and I don’t doubt that there were some angry folks in his mentions. He asked readers to trust him to do right by their community in his book, then undercut that community while simultaneously patting himself on the back for helping in a national outlet the week the book came out. While threats and bullying are unacceptable and shouldn’t be tolerated, Boyne’s approach, too, was disrespectful, and intentionally provocative. Still, the majority of the criticism I saw directed at Boyne on Twitter, publicly, at least, was respectful.
Trans readers and allies tweeted concerns and threaded essays about the lack of nuance and the misconceptions and stereotypes they felt were present in My Brother’s Name is Jessica. Some users tweeted their anxieties at Boyne in good faith, since he’d called himself an ally, others more warily, given that his famous The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was not completely well-received by the community it professed to honour.
At the end of May, Boyne went on to call out YA Twitter and its #OwnVoices hashtag while on stage at Hay Festival, stating: “There is this awful thing, in my opinion an awful thing, #OwnVoices [which says] that people can only write about their own experience and stories, and my experience as a reader and as a writer is the opposite to that…. We are supposed to use our imaginations, to put ourselves into the minds and the bodies of others.”
#OwnVoices, of course, is not a campaign to keep writers from using their imagination. It’s a way to signpost stories about marginalised experiences by marginalised writers, and it’s a particularly important movement in the YA community that gives added value for young readers working through their own identity.
When I asked students in my library what it means to them to read stories about their experiences by people who have had those experiences themselves, students said it was “special” and made them feel “validated in [their] identity”. Ironically, hours before Boyne went on stage at Hay, I was in the audience at the YA Book Prize ceremony, where YA author Muhammad Khan spoke eloquently about what it meant to his students to see him, a Muslim man from South London, writing about the Muslim experience in South London. The other authors at that event represented an absolute rebuttal to Boyne’s misinformation: it was a room full of people who had successfully written about characters both inside and outside their own experience with sensitivity and openness to feedback.
Speaking on representation in fiction this past week, my students told me they liked that they could look to a story that represented their sexuality or socio-economic background and know that someone who had lived through that struggle could grow up to write, and to write stories that would make other young people in tough circumstances feel seen and understood. One was quick to add that they also thought it was “important for straight writers to write about gay characters too”. She noted that she seeks out work by authors writing from experience and from imagination equally, but there is an added authenticity that she particularly appreciates in #OwnVoices work, when it comes to certain topics close to her heart.
This rejection of #OwnVoices we’ve seen from Boyne and other called-out authors (see CJ Daugherty) is down to their insistence on speaking over the conversation instead of taking part. These attitudes contribute directly to the polarization which Signal and Benedictus credit to “toxic culture” in YA communities, as if their cherry-picking coverage doesn’t also contribute to that very polarisation.
The truth is we’re all polarised—Twitter and a 24-hour outrage news cycle will do that to you, Benedictus isn’t wrong about that. Parts of the YA online space are likely just as toxic as the toxic parts of all other online spaces. But it’s not a coincidence that the most compassionate and balanced viewpoint in this article came from a bunch of teenagers when I sat down to ask them what kind of stories they think matter and why. Maybe we should ask them that more often—we might end up with less online Hunger Games and even more fictional ones.
Chelsey Pippin is a freelance culture writer, panel chair, and librarian. She previously covered books for BuzzFeed UK, and her YA manuscript was shortlisted for the 2018 Blue Pencil First Novel Award.