What Is #OwnVoices Doing To Our Books?

In May of 2018, young adult fiction author Kosoko Jackson wrote a tweet that would come to haunt him.
"Stories about the civil rights movement should be written by black people. Stories of suffrage should be written by women. Ergo, stories about boys during horrific and life changing times, like the AIDS EPIDEMIC, should be written by gay men. Why is this so hard to get?"
Jackson's stated belief, that stories about marginalized people should be written by authors of the same identity group, is a common one in YA fiction. It's also the central ethos of a movement known as #ownvoices, which aims to improve diversity in the industry by matching authors to subject matter. It’s not hard to see why it caught on: What better way to improve the representation of marginalized authors than to have them write what they know — or what they are? Who better to capture these stories than someone who shares an identity with the main character? Not only would the books be more diverse (the logic goes), but they'd be more honest, too.
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But in its present form, the impact of this movement on the landscape of YA has turned increasingly toxic, leading to callouts, controversy, and cancelled books — often for the underrepresented authors it was supposed to help. And no author learned this lesson more harshly than Jackson. His debut novel A Place for Wolves, was set to publish March 26, but was cancelled for not being #ownvoices enough instead.
The main character in A Place for Wolves is gay and Black, like Jackson himself. But none of that mattered when an online reviewer accused the author of appropriating a setting — war-torn Kosovo in the 1990s — that he wasn’t qualified or entitled to write about. This story, critics said, was not his to tell — and Jackson responded by pulling A Place for Wolves less than a month from publication. It was a costly choice not just for the author but also for his publisher, who had to pulp the 55,000 copies of the book that had already been printed.
"I apologize to those I hurt with my novel," he wrote in a statement. "I vow, moving forward, to do better and use this opportunity to grow." (A representative at Sourcebooks confirmed that Jackson was not required to return his advance, and the second title in his two-book deal is still slated for a 2020 release.) But the entire controversy had an ironic flavor given Jackson’s own past stridency; when that May 2018 tweet resurfaced last month in the wake of his self-cancellation, one commenter wryly responded, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”
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Over the past four years, publishing has worked to improve diversity within its ranks. Some measures, like an initiative called “DVPit” which matches diverse writers with interested agents, have been an incredible success (albeit one that offers little protection from YA outrage culture. Author Amelie Wen Zhao scored a six-figure book deal after matching with an agent on DVPit, only to self-cancel her novel in January after allegations that it mishandled racial issues.) Others, including the implementation of sensitivity readers whose job it is to review the portrayals of characters who share their racial or religious background, have been polarizing (the concept of "sensitivity reading," with its reductive approach to identity, strikes some critics as fundamentally racist in and of itself.) And it’s worth noting that whatever its pitfalls, #ownvoices has certainly had its high points: Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You, or Duyvis' own novel, On the Edge of Gone all belong under the #ownvoices umbrella, and have all earned well-deserved acclaim.
But with political tensions at an all-time high and the YA category seemingly shrinking, many authors say that the single-minded focus on "authenticity" as a standard for publication has begun to act as a hindrance, not a help. For some, seeing Kosoko Jackson's career being torpedoed by the same culture that was supposed to protect and value his voice was a particularly poignant wake-up call.
"When a gay Black man writes about his own experience falling in love, he better choose the right backdrop for it or else — only there is no right backdrop,” one author, who requested anonymity fearing professional blowback from the community, told me via email. “They tantalize us with the possibility that if we just do enough research, if we hire enough sensitivity readers, if we go to enough diversity classes, it'll be enough. But it'll never be enough."
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That Jackson was both a sensitivity reader and an enthusiastic enforcer of YA callout culture himself — he was among the voices denouncing Amelie Wen Zhao in January— speaks to the way the community can turn on even its wokest members. People are nervous; with one exception, everyone who shared their thoughts with me for this piece requested anonymity. Clearly, the landscape has changed dramatically since The Fault in Our Stars, the massively bestselling novel whose disabled, female protagonist had very little in common with author John Green. According to today’s authors, it's not uncommon to submit a labored-over manuscript, only to be dinged for making their characters the wrong sex or race. One such rejection, sent to an aspiring writer whose story centered on a white female protagonist, read, "If you happen to write another book with a male protagonist, preferably #ownvoices… I would be glad to read it."
"I don't want to be told what to write, and I especially don't want to be told to write a specific kind of diversity to appeal to the checklist of white gatekeepers," the author wrote in an email, adding that he assumed his (recognizably ethnic) surname prompted the agent's unusual reply. And rather than being encouraged, he decided not only to never submit to that agent again, but to abandon YA entirely — an ironic outcome that he's sure nobody will recognize as such. "There's no reflection on what it means when your movement to bring about diversity destroys minority writers you're supposedly trying to support."
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It’s not lost on minority authors that the quest to police their books is largely being led by white gatekeepers who desperately want more diverse books, but are terrified of being seen as racist, ableist, or otherwise un-hip to progressive values if one of their books "gets it wrong." It’s also become the source of awkward and inappropriate conversations between young writers and their editors and agents. "I had an agent actually ask whether I had a history of mental illness," says another YA author, who recently sold her debut novel to one of the big-five traditional publishers. With #ownvoices extending to everything from medical conditions to sexual orientations, authors describe feeling compelled to either reveal private information in order to assert their right to tell a given story, or abandon the material entirely.
"According to the principles espoused by this movement, to have my story be appreciated, I’ll need to make myself unsafe," an aspiring author and member of the LGBTQ+ community wrote in a Twitter message. "I'd have to sell myself to sell a book."
Additionally, gatekeepers who consider themselves anti-racist allies can have troubling preconceptions of what marginalized people's stories should look like, and will pressure writers with different backgrounds to stick with "issue books" centered on oppression or injustice. "Issues are important for sure, but damn! Can a bitch be entertained? Can I be Black and be entertained?" says Francina Simone, a YA author whose YA debut, Smash It, will be released by Inkyard Press next year. "Sometimes my Blackness is a struggle, but that doesn't mean my whole life is. Imprints want those kinds of books, but it's feeding the crowd who wants…I don't want to call it trauma porn, but it kind of is."
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"I don’t want to be boxed into the permanent ‘Other;’” Zhao wrote on Twitter last year. “I want diverse books written by POC to become part of the mainstream."
Meanwhile, some reviewers are beginning to measure the quality of books by these same standards, sometimes with troubling results. In one case, the #ownvoices author of The Hollow Girl was criticized for "stereotype-laden depiction of Romani people”; in another, a Muslim reviewer gave a glowing review to the novel American Heart, a dystopian novel in which the U.S. Muslim population has been imprisoned en masse, but was pressured to change her opinion after a white editor decided the book was “problematic.” And even as publishers and the media grapple with what amounts to censorship, the YA community on Twitter remains hungry for the next outrage. The latest controversy centers on another debut author, trans writer Alina Boyden, whose upcoming YA fantasy series takes place during the Mughal Empire in 17th century India. (The now-familiar argument is that Boyden is not Indian, hence she should set her story elsewhere.)
"Do those writers not see the artistic dead end they are creating for themselves?" one 20-year veteran of YA publishing wrote in an email. She has a point: Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach to storytelling will set strict and claustrophobic limits on imagination, confining authors according to an ever-narrowing concept of which identities, settings, or narratives are their "own."
But there's still time for the industry to course-correct, not by sacrificing its focus on diversity, but by relinquishing its stranglehold on the stories themselves. A colorful and creative future lies in welcoming and supporting authors from all backgrounds — and then letting them use their voices to tell whatever kinds of stories they want.
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