In the late 1930s, more than 40 years before my family emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States, my maternal grandmother had a chance to become a published children’s author. She had been writing short stories for her two children, and my grandfather encouraged her to send them to a publisher. To her surprise, she heard from an editor. When she came to see him, he told her he liked the stories very much, except for one problem: they lacked a Soviet spirit. But that, he reassured her, could be easily fixed: for instance, in the story where a young girl who befriends a hedgehog in the woods and promises she’ll always be his friend, she could just say that she gives her word as a Young Pioneer. (The Pioneers were the Soviet mass organization for middle-school-age children.)
My grandma was not a closet anti-Soviet rebel, but she did quietly rebel at being told how and what to write. She thanked the editor, picked up her stories, went home, and never tried to get published again.
In recent years, with the rapidly advancing progressive politicization of American and more generally Western culture, I have often thought of that episode from my family lore. The ideological battles in the Young Adult fiction community, first chronicled a year and a half ago by Kat Rosenfield on New York magazine’s Vulture site, are a particularly obvious parallel.
The latest skirmish in that battle is playing itself out right now, and it’s an ugly one. A Chinese-American immigrant, Amélie Wen Zhao, has been bullied and shamed into withdrawing her debut novel, Blood Heir, due for release in June, after a Twitter mob denounced it as “racist” based on snippets from advance review copies. Zhao, who had a three-book deal and had been hailed as an exciting new voice in Young Adult literature, posted an apology for the “pain” her book had caused:
To The Book Community: An Apology pic.twitter.com/SCdYMOSLOA
— Amélie Wen Zhao (@ameliewenzhao) January 30, 2019
Jesse Singal has the details in Tablet. Needless to say, the controversy was not about racism or bigotry as anyone outside the world of “social justice” activism would understand it, but about supposedly racist “coding” that requires the fine lens of critical theory to discern.
Blood Heir—which I admit I haven’t read, something I have in common with most of its detractors—is set in a fantasy universe where some people, known as “Affinites,” have an innate psychic ability to manipulate various materials including flesh and blood; they are treated as freaks, imprisoned and enslaved. The heroine, Anastacya, is a princess whose Affinity is kept hidden until her emperor father is killed and she is framed for his murder and forced to flee the palace. The similarity to the Anastasia story is obviously not coincidental; the story takes place in a “Cyrilian Empire” loosely based on Tsarist Russia.
The backlash apparently started because another YA fiction author, L.L. McKinney, tweetstormed a tantrum over the publisher’s blurb describing the world of the book as one where “oppression is blind to skin color.” “EXPLAIN IT RIGHT THE FUQ NOW,” demanded McKinney. “How is [this] part of the blurb? In Twenty FUCKING nineteen.” Apparently, Zhao’s fictional narrative in which people in a fictional world are enslaved with no regard to skin color amount to denial of real-world racism as well as appropriation of black suffering. (Presumably, that means any portrayal of the Spartacus rebellion is out of the question.) The outrage alert was also triggered by reports that a “black woman” in the book—actually a ten-year-old child described as having “tawny” or “bronze” skin and bright blue eyes—dies saving Ana’s life. On the basis of such things, Zhao was blasted not merely for insensitivity but for “internalized racism,” “blatant bigotry” and “anti-blackness.”
(My favorite part of this campaign is the comment, apparently now scrubbed from Twitter but reported by Singal, asserting that it was racist to “take Black narratives [of slavery] and force it into Russia when that shit NEVER happened in history.” In actual history, Russian serfdom, which was only slightly less odious than American slavery and had many similarities to it, was abolished just two years before the emancipation of slaves in the United States.)
At present, it’s unclear what’s going to happen to Blood Heir. Faced with widespread negative reactions, some of the mob leaders suggested that claims of the book being killed were ridiculously exaggerated and that Zhao was simply taking the time to revise it and make it “better.”
Whether that will work is doubtful. In a similar controversy a couple of years ago, the publication of Keira Drake’s young adult fantasy-romance novel, The Continent, was delayed for a rewrite after the book was blasted for having a “white savior” narrative and stereotyping Native Americans as savages. Drake’s book tells the story of a teenage girl from a vaguely British civilization who gets stranded during a tourist trip to a continent torn by tribal warfare and eventually finds love and discovers the tribes’ humanity. In the new version, the young heroine was given a part-tribal ancestry, the natives lost their darker skin hues, and a conversation in which a minor character makes bigoted comments about them was padded with lines rebuking such “outmoded” thinking. When the revised book was unveiled, the critics were unappeased. One blogger wrote that the heroine’s tribal background felt like “a shield that gives Drake a way to say that this is not a White savior story” (no kidding!) and that the new dialogue felt “forced.” It’s a bit like railing against nudity in a painting and then complaining that the underwear painted in to cover it up looks preposterous.
Notably, the YA culture wars are largely about the Left eating its own. The targeted books almost invariably get attacked for things intended to promote “social justice.” Drake apparently meant for Continent to be an exploration of “privilege” and blindness to the suffering of the less advantaged. Before the storm, Zhao wrote that she wanted Blood Heir to be a reflection on the mistreatment of the “different,” from her vantage point as “a foreigner in Trump’s America.”
Two other recent books that have sparked similar outcries, The Black Witch by Laurie Forest and American Heart by Laura Moriarty, featured young heroines who outgrew their society’s biases and rebelled against injustice—one in a fantastic universe where the racial prejudice was directed at magical races such as faeries and shape-shifters, the other in a future America where Muslims are interned in detention camps. Both received enthusiastic advance praise for their anti-bigotry themes, only to be gleefully trashed when a flagged as offensive: “[W]ritten for the type of white person who … thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating [people of color] like they are actually human,” jeered a review of The Black Witch.
Obviously, people who are either sincere “social justice” true believers (as Zhao seems to be) or want to be part of the “club” are especially susceptible to pressure. But that doesn’t mean young adult fiction writers can simply ignore identity issues—at least, not if they want mainstream publication and promotions. Many publishers now use “sensitivity readers” to vet manuscripts, which doesn’t always keep the mob at bay: American Heart was apparently cleared by not one, but two Muslim sensitivity readers. And there’s the matter of reviews: After the American Heart hate-fest, Kirkus Reviews, the premier publishing industry site, changed its earlier positive review of the book and took away its star.
The Blood Heir debacle is a stark reminder that objectionable tropes and “codes” can be found in virtually anything. White character helps a “POC”? “White savior narrative.” Black character helps white character, especially at some cost? The “Magical Negro” trope. White and “POC” characters are perfect equals? Colorblindness. Zhao was attacked for creating a fictional world in which most slaves are white; had she created one with black slavery, she could have been attacked as a racist who can’t imagine black people in any world as anything other than slaves. (Meanwhile, less than four years ago, a short story cycle by the late Ursula LeGuin set in a world with white slaves and black masters was hailed as part of her “literary project of intersectional justice.”) The standards are so flexible and arbitrary that anyone can become the heretic du jour.
Speaking of “intersectional,” l’affaire Zhao is also a pretty potent demonstration of what a sham “intersectionality” is, at least if it’s meant to integrate all groups and identities into a joint liberation movement. Zhao’s status as an Asian-American and an immigrant earned her only stern lectures on how Asians are susceptible to “anti-blackness” and can be insensitive to the American cultural context if they grew up outside it. Zhao’s own cultural context—she has explained that the indentured servitude in her novel was based on human trafficking and forced servitude in Asia—was treated as completely irrelevant.
* * *
Is online bullying of writers who transgress against “social justice” norms a form of censorship? Some scoff at the notion, arguing that “anti-SJW” commentators are actually the ones attacking a basic form of free speech: criticism of a book. But there is a massive difference between criticism and public shaming. A collective attack that includes such declarations as, “[R]acist ass writers, like Amélie Wen Zhao … you’re going to be held accountable” is less criticism than a show trial.
No, there is nothing wrong with criticizing books (or other works) for anything, including the way they deal with race, ethnicity, religion, and so forth. There is also nothing wrong with listening to critics. In the 1860s, Charles Dickens made changes in the second volume of Oliver Twist after a correspondence with a Jewish fan about his portrayal of the villain Fagin, toning down the constant references to Fagin as “the Jew.” But to even compare this to Zhao caving to the online mob over abstruse accusations of “coded” racism is absurd.
I don’t know how good Blood Heir is. (The excerpt posted at the book’s Barnes and Noble page, which is still intact, is quite well-written; on the other hand, the plot seems a bit heavy on cliché.) But its cancellation, even if it’s eventually published in revised form, is a sign of an alarming trend, one that is by no means limited to young adult fiction. The notion that books can cause “harm” if they don’t handle identity issues in accordance with ideological diktat is a prescription for censorship no matter how that censorship is carried out. It’s what George Orwell called “the prevention of literature”—quite literal prevention, in the case of Blood Heir.
Orwell’s 1946 essay is quite relevant here, since it ends with a warning that liberty of thought—and literature with it—is not only doomed under actual totalitarian regimes, but endangered when writers in free countries adopt a “totalitarian outlook.” Current “social justice” ideology, which insists that all attitudes or tropes that may “uphold oppression” in some form must be ruthlessly eradicated, is fundamentally totalitarian. It may not have guns or gulags at its disposal, and despite its considerable influence it is certainly very far from having total control of society. But its zeal to remake culture and consciousness is strongly reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution and Soviet Russia.
A hyperbolic comparison? To be sure, no Young Adult fiction writer is in danger of being shot, starved, or sent to work in the mines for political transgressions. And yet when dozens of people post denunciations of a “disgusting” novel while stressing that they have no intention of reading it—much as Soviet citizens once did in letters to newspapers denouncing Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago—and bullied writers express gratitude for the correction they have received, I find the Soviet echoes unmistakable. On the bright side, this ugly episode may serve as a wake-up call for a number of liberals who think “social justice” culture is fundamentally benign despite a few excesses. Between the censorship-by-pressure and the public vilification of young female minority immigrant, this scandal is not a good look for the identitarian Left. One can always hope for a silver lining.
Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist and author. She is a columnist for Newsday and a contributing editor for Reason magazine andArcDigital. Her work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Weekly Standard, Foreign Policy, and Slate. You can follow her on Twitter @CathyYoung63