Brow Beat

Wolves

A YA sensitivity reader watched his own community kill his debut novel before it was ever released.

Photo illustration by Slate

Until recently, Kosoko Jackson was considered an expert in the trapdoors of identity-related rhetoric. Jackson worked as a “sensitivity reader” for major publishers of YA fiction, a job that entails reading manuscripts and flagging them for problematic content. His own debut novel, A Place for Wolves, was promoted as an “#ownvoices” book, a hashtag attached approvingly to books in which the author shares a particular marginalized identity with his subject. (Jackson is black and queer.) He believed that, for example, women shouldn’t “profit” from writing gay men’s stories, as he tweeted last year. And he was part of a small and informal but intense online community that scolded writers who ran afoul of these values in their work or online. Now, Jackson has been demonized by the community he once helped police.

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A Place for Wolves, Jackson’s first novel, was scheduled for publication later this month. The romantic thriller, set in the late 1990s during the Kosovo War, follows a relationship between two American teen boys. The book looked poised to succeed: It received several early starred reviews, which influence library purchases and bookstore placement, and had been named a “Kids’ Indie Next” pick, suggesting an early interest from independent booksellers. Last week, however, Jackson released a statement addressed to the “Book Community” that apologized for the “problematic representation and historical insensitivities” in his novel. He wrote that he had asked his publisher, Sourcebooks, to withdraw the book from publication. Sourcebooks quickly complied.

The backlash seems to have begun on Feb. 22, with a long review posted to the community-review site Goodreads, a favorite site of YA agonistes. “I have to be absolutely fucking honest here, everybody,” the review opened, in the hyperbolic voice of its genre. “I’ve never been so disgusted in my life.” She objected to the book’s use of a recent genocide as a backdrop to romance, the way some early fans fetishized it as a “cute gay love story,” that it was not written by a Muslim, that it “centers” privileged Americans, and that the villain is an ethnic Albanian, among other concerns. “Are you able to confidently justify supporting this book despite all of the above, despite the harm it can and will do to real people?” she asked in conclusion. (The reviewer nonetheless gave the book two stars out of five because “it was ownvoices and well done.”)

The criticism snowballed from there, with other readers chiming in: “How could you take a beautiful LGBTQ love story and shit on genocide victims like that?” one asked on Twitter. Heidi Heilig, an author who has participated in many online skirmishes and provided a positive blurb for Jackson’s book, hastily revised her Goodreads review of A Place for Wolves. She suggested the book’s content may have changed since she read an early draft, apologized “to those I’ve hurt by my blurb,” and promised to “work harder.”

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Seeing the momentum within his own community turn against him, Jackson apparently decided it was better to self-cancel than to be canceled. This is the second time this year that a YA writer has made the same calculation. In January, another first-time author, Amélie Wen Zhao, asked her publisher to pull her to-be-released fantasy novel, Blood Heir, because of early reader critiques about racial insensitivity. The novel featured a storyline about slavery and a character whom some readers interpreted as black, who dies so a white character can live; Zhao explained in her statement that as a Chinese immigrant to the United States, she was inspired by trafficking and labor issues in Asia, but apologized nonetheless for causing pain. (Aja Hoggatt broke down the controversy in detail for Slate.) Jackson had participated in that online pile-on.

Both Jackson and Zhang are people of color who now see their careers hobbled in an industry that claims to be laser-focused on diversity. Jackson has already been dropped from the lineup in at least one literary festival, though it’s not clear if he withdrew or was ousted. To risk stating the obvious, books can take years to write; unlike, say, a reporter who writes a clunker of a piece, an author can’t simply pop back onto the scene with a new piece of content in a few days or months. And the industry as a whole is still extremely, extremely white. A survey of book-publishing employees in 2016 found that 82 percent of editorial department employees are white; just 2 percent are black. A reckoning with these abysmal numbers and their impact is overdue within book publishing. Instead, we’ve gotten an increasingly toxic online culture around YA literature, with evermore-baroque standards for who can write about whom under what circumstances. From the outside, this is starting to look like a conversation focused less on literature than obedience.

In his statement, Jackson invoked his young readership by mentioning the “responsibility that comes with introducing readers to certain topics.” Young readers are frequently invoked as potential victims of bad YA fiction. But although teenagers are known to be Extremely Online, they do not tend to participate publicly in the skirmishes over whether they can handle stories with blurry moral lessons, questionable plot twists, or problematic protagonists. Meanwhile, a 2012 study found that 55 percent of YA readers are adults, a percentage I suspect has risen since then. (I lamented this trend back in 2014 in an essay that made me an enemy of YA Twitter along a different fault line.) This is a conversation among adults about books that are written by adults and largely read by adults, shredding each other’s reputations under the guise of protecting the children.

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None of this has to do with whether Jackson’s book is any good, or even in good taste. (I haven’t read it.) But it was written by an author exquisitely attuned to identity issues, and presumably vetted by his agent, the staff of a publishing house, and other early readers, including some who have now turned against it. Yes, plenty of books make it that far and then sell poorly or are savaged by critics after publication. But a landscape in which a handful of online critics can hound an author into retracting her own work is something much more foreboding—and hardly one in which new and genuinely interesting voices are likely to thrive. As the tagline for Jackson’s now-dead A Place for Wolves put it: “The only rule? Survive. How you do that? Up to you.”