Elin Hilderbrand writes novels about people who summer in Nantucket and have lots of family secrets and complicated love lives. The books—whose covers feature beach scenes with women in sun hats and sherbet-colored towels fluttering in the sea breeze—reliably make the bestseller lists every July, snapped up by fans in search of vacation reading. Hilderbrand’s seems a dreamy life, raking in the cash by offering fans a few hours of harmless, sunny escapism. But don’t get too comfortable in that deck chair: Social media has arrived to harsh Hilderbrand’s mellow.
As described in an article in Publishers Weekly, readers on Instagram criticized Hilderbrand’s summer 2021 book, The Golden Girl, for a passage in which two teens, Vivi and Savannah, discuss plans for Vivi to hide out in the attic of Savannah’s house without Savannah’s parents’ knowledge: “You’re suggesting I hide here all summer?” Vivi asks. “Like … like Anne Frank?” The two friends laugh at this, but Vivi thinks to herself, “Is it really funny, and is Vivi so far off base?”
On an Instagram post in Hilderbrand’s publisher’s feed, a user who goes by the name “poursandpages” posted a comment (since deleted) denouncing this joke as “horrifically” antisemitic and demanding an apology. Others described themselves as “disgusted” and “gobsmacked in every way with the insensitivity” and accused Hilderbrand of thinking “antisemitism is funny.” After trying to put out these fires via DMs, Hilderbrand issued a formal apology and stated that the line would be removed from the book.
And this isn’t the only time this month that an author came under fire for something one of their fictional characters said. A few days later a Twitter user posted a passage from Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue, a popular gay romance novel published in 2019, in which a supporting character who is the president of the United States complains, “Well, my UN ambassador fucked up his one job and said something idiotic about Israel, and now I have to call Netanyahu and personally apologize.” This, one user insists, “normalizes the genocide & war crimes done by Israel that will always be backed up & unashamedly supported by America.” It seemingly doesn’t matter that the line clearly reads as a gentle satire of the United States’ overly deferential foreign policy; another Twitter user explained that “mentions of Israel (especially when they’re completely unnecessary as well, such as in books/films/shows) normalize the occupation of Palestine. All mentions, even ones that don’t outwardly seem bad, are wrong.” Like Hilderbrand, McQuiston has tweeted that the line “will be changed for all future printings.”
Complaining about other, more successful writers is one of the most popular activities on Twitter, as is devising elaborately exacting standards of correct speech and vigorously, if informally, prosecuting those who violate them. What’s unusual about these two examples is how rapidly both authors caved in the face of what appear to be very small posses of critics. This is both absurd—Elin Hilderbrand sells hundreds of thousands of books, and she’s going to revise a novel post-publication for the benefit of a dozen objectors on Instagram?—and a little bit understandable. The irresponsibly gossipy nature of social media makes it all too easy for vague and unsupported slagging (“I heard she’s an antisemite,” “I heard they’re a Zionist”) to grow like weeds in the neglected corners of a prominent person’s reputation.
Why do silly things like this happen? I know some will consider Hilderbrand’s and McQuiston’s obeisance to be a sign that the “toxic drama” that prevails on YA Twitter—in which ambitious reviewers-cum-influencers revile authors for failing to toe extremely fine and perpetually changing lines on race, gender, and other sensitive issues—has spread to the world of commercial adult fiction. It’s not uncommon in those disputes for the critics to make the rookie’s mistake of confusing the statements and feelings of fictional characters with the author herself. This, of course, is nonsense; were fictional characters required to pass purity tests to exist, we’d be left with some pretty bland fiction. The president of the United States is, generally, obliged to behave as if the nation of Israel exists. And most schoolchildren in America read The Diary of Anne Frank; if you suggested to one of them that she hide in an attic for an entire summer, a comparison to Anne Frank would certainly come up. This doesn’t make the child an antisemite who thinks the Holocaust is funny, much less an author who puts such a child in her novel.
While it’s perplexing that people who are always rhapsodizing about how much they love reading can be so very bad at it, the truth is that the incentives for interpreting a book’s meaning in the worst possible light are high. Disparities in fame seem to encourage even more resentment than disparities in income, and readers canny enough to take advantage of that resentment have seen their clout increase. My little account may have only a few thousand followers, but if I can muster a handful of book ’grammers to second my accusations, then even an author as prominent and prosperous as Elin Hilderbrand can be made to dance to my tune.