For the past 10 years, Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, has assigned all of its first-year students the same book to read. The Common Read program, funded by local donors, then invites the author or a related speaker to discuss the book on campus. A recent short feature story in the Aberdeen News marking the program’s 10th anniversary quoted a 2017 graduate on why she decided to volunteer for the selection committee during her junior year: to prevent a book by YA author Sarah Dessen from being chosen for the program. “She’s fine for teen girls,” English graduate Brooke Nelson said. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”
The quote was punchy, even intemperate. But the backlash it inspired online was exponentially more so. The saga that ensued would be worthy of a dystopian YA novel if it weren’t for the fact that 100 percent of the characters are technically adults.
Dessen is an extremely popular YA author who has written more than a dozen novels. Her teen romance The Rest of the Story debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times’ YA bestseller list this summer, soon after Netflix announced that it had optioned three other novels for adaptation. The fracas this week began when Dessen herself somehow found the South Dakota story and mournfully tweeted a screenshot to her 268,000 followers. “Authors are real people,” she wrote. “I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.” [Update, Nov. 15, 2019, at 4:02 p.m.: Sarah Dessen posted an apology for her initial tweet on Friday afternoon. “I want to apologize to the person who was quoted,” she wrote, adding that hearing from people who don’t like her work is “part of the job.” “With a platform and a following, I have a responsibility to be aware of what I put out there,” she wrote. “I am truly sorry. Moving forward, I’ll do better.”]
Dessen scratched out Nelson’s name in her screenshot, but the story was easy to find, and Dessen’s many influential fans and followers quickly piled on their sympathy—and rage. Roxane Gay tweeted that Dessen now has a “nemesis” and suggested that Nelson had an “inflated idea” of her own “taste level.” (Gay has since apologized for these tweets.) In a since-deleted tweet, YA author Siobhan Vivian replied, “Fuck that fucking bitch.” (“I love you,” Dessen replied.) Fellow YA writer Dhonielle Clayton chimed in: “Can I add a few more choice words for Siobhan’s brilliance … fuck that RAGGEDY ASS fucking bitch.” Vivian replied with the clapping, cigarette, and nail-painting emoji. (Dessen, Vivian, and Clayton have since deleted their tweets. A request for comment sent through a website associated with Dessen did not receive a reply. Clayton did not reply to a request for comment, but Vivian expressed regret by email: “I tweeted something I should have DMed. I was hurt because my friend was hurt and now I’ve hurt someone else. I’m truly sorry for my part.”)
Author Jennifer Weiner, who has made a career of defending so-called chick lit from misogynist criticism, elaborated. “When we tell teenage girls that their stories matter less—or not at all—there are real-world consequences,” she tweeted. She added the hashtag #MeToo and linked to a Vox story about why it took so long for the teenage victims of gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar to be heard. Incredibly, the implication seemed to be that there was a connection between sexual assault and the literary taste of one committee member of a small college’s common reading program.
Nelson, for her part, emailed me on Thursday night: “In 2017, I was a college junior who joined a committee because I wanted to have a voice in what text was selected for a college reading program. I was only one vote on a large committee of college students, faculty, staff, and community members.” After spending the week deactivating her social media accounts in response to harassment, she had agonized over whether to make any statement at all. She was worried the episode could “torpedo” her career—she’s in graduate school—and she was too skittish to talk to a journalist by phone after her last experience doing so.
The fracas kept snowballing. Someone using the name Jennifer Weiner also left a comment on the Aberdeen News story that read:
It’s hard to know what’s sadder: that Brooke Nelson has internalized misogyny to the extent that she can see nothing of worth in books beloved by “teen girls” but is presumably impressed with the merits of a book centered around video game culture that is beloved by teenage boys; that Nelson joined the committee not to champion a book or a genre but to keep a specific author’s work out of contention; that she bragged about her actions, as if she’s done some great service to literature, or that Nelson graduated with an English degree, is pursuing graduate work in English, and will someday be foisting her sexism and elitism on the next generation of readers.
The comment about “a book centered around video game culture that is beloved by teenage boys” was an apparent reference to the 2014 selection of Ready Player One, which was chosen years before Nelson joined the committee. In the program’s decade of existence, it has chosen five books by men and five by women, including the popular YA novel The Hate U Give, which features a teen girl protagonist. The author of The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas, has also weighed in on the controversy, calling Nelson’s quote “appalling” in a now-deleted tweet and demanding that Northern State not choose any of her other books for the program. (Weiner did not respond to a request for comment, and it was not possible to independently verify the identity of the commenter making the argument under that name.)
Northern State University responded by swiftly issuing an apology—to Dessen. “We are very sorry to @SarahDessen for the comments made in a news article by one of our alums,” the school wrote. “They do not reflect the views of the university or Common Read Committee.” In other words, the university publicly apologized for one of its English students having an opinion on—and joining a committee to work for—its college-wide reading program.
For Dessen’s defenders, any criticism of her books amounted to “a swipe at a huge swathe of YA and, frankly, at teen girls,” as author Justine Larbalestier tweeted. Jodi Picoult, whose novels have sold 40 million copies, saw it as evidence of a “sinister” belief that “stories about young women matter less.” She framed her extended defense of Dessen (to her 172,000 Twitter followers) as an opportunity to “fight the patriarchy.” “The patriarchy” in this case is a recent college graduate from Volga, South Dakota, who had no idea what she was getting into when she spoke with a local news reporter about her literary taste.
Many of Nelson’s critics seem to be pretending not to understand that a novel about teenagers is not the same thing as a novel for teenagers. The former category includes Little Women, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, The Secret History, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and countless other great novels that are both popular and critically acclaimed. Naturally, the categories often overlap. But contra Picoult’s snobbish straw man, no serious person has made the argument that top-tier literature cannot be about teenagers.
Novels designated as being written for teenagers are a more critically contested category. (Dessen’s own bio says that her books are “for teens” and makes no general statements about their subject matter.) But to be clear, the adult readers of YA literature won the contest a long time ago. YA is reviewed in the New York Times, read by adults in public, and adapted into films and TV shows for all ages. A 2012 survey found that more than half of YA readers are adults, and that figure has surely not declined since then. But through their fandom of a cultural product definitionally designed for children, some of YA’s adult fans have come to see themselves as moral allies of the marginalized category of teen girls. This helps explain how a group of famous bestselling adult authors can come to see themselves as victims of a single reader. And it’s how an English major who has opinions about her community’s literary landscape can be blasted online as a bully by writers with significantly greater cultural influence.
The year Nelson joined the Common Read committee, the group ended up selecting the nonfiction book Just Mercy, by activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson. First-year students all read the book, and its subject, Anthony Ray Hinton, a man exonerated from death row by Stevenson’s work, came to speak on campus. Nelson said she advocated at the time for Just Mercy, along with Edwidge Danticat’s acclaimed 1994 novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and Paul Kalanithi’s posthumously published memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. All three, she believed, addressed “relevant social issues” more pointedly than Dessen’s work. “These three books are beautifully written and push readers to stand against the racial inequality that the judicial system perpetuates, to consider the heritability and influence of tradition and trauma, and to contemplate what brings meaning to one’s life,” Nelson wrote in her statement. “If anything comes out of this larger conversation, I hope it is that others will make it a point to read books like these that push them beyond their usual perspective and challenge their assumptions of society.”