Writing in the Age of Cancel Culture
Representation in publishing is more important than ever.
How can authors keep up?
As of late, the publishing world has placed significant attention on the importance of representation in both the authors of stories and in the stories themselves. We want to see richness, variety in the worlds we read about, and if that diversity comes from diverse writers, all the better! But diversity alone isn’t enough today. I’ve come across a handful of stories in the news lately about diverse authors of diverse stories who faced backlash over insensitive conduct, either in their writing or in their day-to-day life.
Natasha Tynes, a Jordanian-American author, had her book cancelled after going on Twitter to call out a D.C. metro worker -- a black woman -- for eating on the job. Her publisher characterized her tweet as “policing [a] black woman’s body.” Tynes apologized, mentioning that she was not native to the United States and wasn’t aware of the implications of her tweet, but the damage was done. Since then, Tynes has faced a barrage of racially charged attacks and is suing her publisher for defamation. She remains unpublished.
Y.A. author Amélie Wen Zhao was all set for her debut novel, Blood Heir, to be published, but withdrew the work just months before publication after critics who read the book pre-release called her depiction of slavery blatantly racist. Like Tynes, Zhao acknowledged her non-nativity to the US and by extension, her lack of awareness of the weight of slavery here, as reasons for why she wrote what she did. Six months later, Zhao’s three book contract sits in limbo as her work undergoes revision. She remains unpublished.
Kosoko Jackson, a black and queer author, withdrew the publication of his book A Place for Wolves after criticism of his portrayal of Muslims and his treatment of war in the novel. The story centered on two American boys falling in love during the Kosovo War, and had initially received loads of good press for Jackson’s tasteful handling of the subject matter, but one critical Goodreads review triggered an avalanche of negative attention on Twitter. He remains unpublished.
Clearly, the sociocultural landscape of publishing is not insulated from the goings on of the world at large. Here, just as in film or music or any other artistic arena, creators and consumers of the products of publishing are not only molded by, but evaluated by the standards of the greater context in which they operate.
Calling out racism, sexism, and prejudice is the right and important thing to do, and I’m so happy that it’s becoming the standard, but you have to accept that the aim isn’t always on the right target. With the world the way it is today, and with the massive, sometimes unpredictable shifts we’re seeing toward a more enlightened progressive social consciousness, how can writers protect themselves from charges of insensitivity without sacrificing their artistic liberty? What’s a writer to do?
In each of the instances mentioned above, I don’t believe any of the authors had a malicious intent behind their words, but their lack of awareness of the surrounding social and cultural context was interpreted as insensitivity, and they faced repercussions for it. Fair? Maybe not. Fitting? Yes.
Here’s the thing: I, and many other publishing professionals understand that representation and sociocultural consciousness can be a tough thing to stay on top of. We understand the desire to write diverse stories. We understand that when any author writes, they write with an entire history of sustained perspectives, implicit biases, uninformed attitudes behind them. It’s unavoidable.
But what is avoidable is letting that background characterize your work in a way that’s detrimental to progress. We need to know that authors are approaching diversity in their stories in the right way -- that is to say, informed; respectful; and conscious of the background they’re coming from, the background of their characters, and the background of their audience.
Tynes, Zhao, and Jackson all faced unfortunate consequences for their actions, but it wasn’t inevitable. The simple solution to avoiding the kind of tone-deafness that has crippled their and many others’ publishing careers? Collaboration -- and more specifically, collaboration from the right community.
The most productive way for this collaboration to happen where writing is concerned is a simple sensitivity reading. I worked with an author, a white woman, a few years back who was working on a novel about teaching black students in the deep south. She came to me concerned about setting herself up for failure as white author writing about a population that she had interacted with and experienced, but in many senses was very far removed from. My recommendation to her, and every other author with this worry, was to go through sensitivity reading with a member of the population she was writing about. She was receptive to the idea, so I connected her with a reader and they dug right in. Together they found that many of the author’s initial instincts about the subject were good, but the sensitivity reading helped tease out tiny details that could have been interpreted the wrong way in the end. Revisions were made and the author was left with a book that incorporated diversity in a conscious, respectful way.
If you’re uncertain about whether or not your book needs sensitivity reading, play it safe and bring on some editorial assistance. It’s always a good idea to have your book vetted before ever sending it down the road to a publisher, because most of the time, books are bought as-is. When a publisher picks up your book, they’re assuming it’s final and ready to roll, and they expect you, as the author, to have had your book for the most part fact-checked, edited, and researched. While your publisher will do some of that legwork, the majority of it is supposed to be done up front.
And as for your online presence, it’s simple: you need to be aware of the scrutiny you are under as someone whose words are in the spotlight. On social media, you’re entering into a dialogue, not a monologue, and everything you put out there opens a door to discussion. If you’re going to open that door, be sure that it’s a room you want to enter first, because you will have an audience and they will talk back.
Anything you’re putting out (tweet, blog post, novel, and everything in between) should be considered three ways: once as yourself, once as your audience, and once as the population you're discussing. Don’t feel like you’re not a capable writer if you use others’ input to get a more conscious grip on your story. You’re doing your due diligence! You’re doing the work of a thorough professional.
Today, anyone, anywhere can pick up your words and read what you have to say. The world is potentially your audience. You might be writing to speak to a certain population, but you can’t make the mistake of thinking your words don’t exist except for the people you intend to address, because they absolutely do. For every author that gets red-flagged for insensitivity in their representation of diversity, there are a dozen who avoid that pitfall by putting in just a little extra effort and seeking out a frame of reference that’s different from their own. Writers have taken up the task of creating a written snapshot of the world from countless points of view so that when it all comes together, we can see the human experience for what it is. Do your part to contribute to the accuracy of that picture, and readers everywhere will thank you for it.