The Problem with Problems (shelftalker)

This post is strictly my personal opinion about something I care deeply about—children’s books—and view as having saved my life as a child. I have loved children’s books for 57 years, 28 of them as a bookseller. It is no accident that children’s books are filled with portals leading to other dimensions, wardrobes and tesseracts, Platforms 13 and 9 and ¾, Neitherlands and multi-verses maintained by nine lived enchanters. These passageways are metaphors for those real-world portals into other dimensions, books themselves.

We know from books of wonder that accesses to magical portals are periodically threatened by a variety of evils. These ills are sometimes the results of mistakes made by heroines and heroes, other times by ill will or the return of an ancient malice. We know too what must be done. Mistakes need to be set right, access to the portals preserved, whether through some manner of renewal, or by the beating back of a constricting malice. That is the heroine’s task.

In many ways our own multi-verse of books has been in a kind of golden age these last few decades. We have enjoyed an array of splendid new, entrancing, and increasingly diverse and inclusive worlds made available to readers alongside well trodden older doorways into realms whose pathways, castles, battlefields, museums, and gardens still beckon, beguile, and enrich.

We also know that evils often appear just when the sunlight is brightest. And so it is now, that a potent threat has manifested.

If we were to encounter, in the pages of a book, a maleficent communal voice which, with the heavy prongs of fear and public shaming, enforced an orthodoxy of perspective that constricted what people could write about, which consigned their identities to ethnic and racial attributes, that rewarded conformity and castigated dissent, we would know what the heroine’s task was. She would fight for what is truly important, creativity, social justice, imagination, liberty, a robust forum for dissenting opinions, for individuality and personal association and expression.

The force with which our heroine is confronted is currently being animated through Twitter. There has been a series of Young Adult books whose authors were pressured or, if you like, edified into submission, to remove their own books from pending publication. The pace of these removals is increasing. There have been two in the last several weeks, Blood Heir and A Place for Wolves. More are likely on their way as other people find problems in books and exert force on authors to remove their own work from imminent publication.

There is an enforced narrative at work here which demonizes dissent while rewarding compliance. Free speech advocates are lumped together into a composite persona, that of privileged people yelling censorship to maintain their privilege. Authors who pull their books are doing so because they are brave not because they are being held under water and desperately looking to get back to the surface.

When your personal identity is in the hands of other people you will do most anything to preserve your safety. It is no coincidence that the two most recent authors to pull their books from publication were themselves active YA Twitter members. Both of them have been involved in argumentation within the Twitter community, and both were more susceptible to being flamed and dragged in an environment their identities were already embedded in.

This toxic environment is reinforced by pressure for people to stay in their racial and ethnic lanes and to adopt the opinions of others which have been granted imprimatur by virtue of authenticity.

Advocating for the increased inclusion of Own Voices authors on publisher frontlists is a very positive development. Pressuring authors to stay in their racial and ethnic lanes is not. I’m Jewish but I should hate to be limited to being an expert on Jewishness. I don’t consider myself to be very “good” at being Jewish, actually, and I know that I hold opinions and perspectives widely in variance with other members of my ethnicity. Even considering Judaism as an ethnicity as opposed to a religion, or rather viewing its religious element as an ethnic form of community theater, is not a uniform perspective to say the least.

A brief glance back at history should make the notion of enforcing race and ethnicity as a rigid defining element of who we are terrifying to anyone. Why it can pass as a progressive idea now, even though it has been a source of nightmare events in the past, escapes me. These are aspects of identity that vary widely according to place, time and individual persona. The application of them to identity by force is a proven means of oppression.

Ultimately, boiled down to its essence, the YA Twitter narrative is rooted in notions of harm, specifically that recommending or reading books with problematic content causes harm. Protecting people and children in particular from harm is the age-old rationalization for suppressing books. It is also the most understandable of impulses. Most of us wish dearly to protect children. In other contexts, however, such as helicopter parenting, we can see clearly that the impulse to protect children from harm can be harmful in itself. Characters in YA novels plow through mountains of travail, misapprehension, bias, and heartbreak to a better understanding. Are we then to treat young adult readers as though they are hermetically sealed off from harm in a bubble, lest the slightest taint prove fatal?

Everyone experiences a sense of harm from books. It is how we engage with that sense of harm, whether through critical discussion or through suppression, that is the vital issue. The YA Twitter narrative is built around absolute harm with the only safety valve being absolute apology. Orthodoxy adherents are affirmed for apologizing correctly. For example, if one has recommended a book before it was flagged as problematic a correct apology must be issued emphasizing having f*cked up, that one will work harder to detect harm in the future, and is sorry for the harm caused by their recommendation.

This is not to say that issues of privilege and biases of all kinds are not real, nor that we should not do our best to critically discuss them. It is when we veer into absolutism and orthodoxy that the nature of addressing harm shifts from being productive to being oppressive.

Different individuals of the same ethnicity can differ profoundly in reading a book with charged content. Speaking as someone who is Jewish, my reaction to encountering anti-Semitism in a book is personal to me and differs greatly from other individuals who share my ethnic background. For example I love Henryk Seinkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword and The Deluge. I love them despite the fact that they are marred with anti-Semitic elements which are certainly offensive, but I also found to be unhappily instructive. Another Jewish reader might consider these elements to be a deal breaker. These are our separate personal choices. I am certainly happy that these masterpieces of historical fiction were not literally lit on fire, though.

We may ask ourselves how a crushing orthodoxy could possibly be the means of social justice and change as opposed to a healthy environment of robust critical discussion. Many criticisms being leveled on Twitter have validity. Why not engage in legitimate criticism as opposed to pretending that the toxic environment of fear and public shaming isn’t affecting the nature of the “conversation”? Why not stick to substantive debate as opposed to name calling, labeling and bullying?

The ultimate result of being governed by fear is constriction. We need open access to good books.  Many children live in dangerous worlds. For children in danger, whose personal worlds are often subject to violation, portals into books are life savers. Books provide an escape into living worlds where they can experience dangers and adventures in safety.  Books are vast interior spaces and no one can know what complex connection a young reader forms within them.

An enforced orthodoxy is toxic to creativity and personal expression. Furthermore, the chilling effect of flaming agents and editors for their role in books deemed problematic cannot be underestimated. The worst harm related to books is the imputing of harm to books. That too is a terrible irony and one we should resist. We should defend an open, dynamic environment for books, one that incorporates change and evolving senses of social justice enriched by critical discussion, respectful dissent, and individuation. Twitter’s propensity for facilitating avalanches of uncivil communication is obvious. Once conflict starts between two competing perspectives, a polarized environment of hate, fear, and self-righteousness flows freely. We’re all better for reading and being engaged with YA literature.

Let’s put that into practice. The next time you see someone being piled on or bullied on Twitter, ask yourself what a YA heroine would do.

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