#writer, your body does not define your #writing voice: a response to the #YA #cancelculture among #readers and #authors

Purity tests are the tools of fanatics, and the quest for purity ultimately becomes indistinguishable from the quest for power. 

Jennifer Senior, “Teen Fiction and the Perils of Cancel Culture”

There is a darkness creeping along the edges of Twitter. Like the Nothing from Neverending Story, it haunts authors with hushed whispers until it moves in swiftly with a power unmatched by any other.

It is the Cancel Culture.

I had not heard of cancel culture until last month, when debut YA author Kosoko Jackson pulled his book from publication because he was accused of being insensitive to the Muslim community. You can read the account here. Like article writer Jennifer Senior says, there’s a strong sense of irony that this YA author pulls his book after he and others demanded YA author Amélie Wen Zhao pull her book due to evoking “an offensive analogy to American slavery.” Click here for that article. (Oh, and here’s another article I found while editing this post that mentions yet another YA book mobbed by cancel culture.) This issue’s grown to such a point that PENAmerica recently held a panel featuring a diverse array of writers and critics to discuss the matter–click here for that, as it’s a thought-provoking read.

Whether you wade through all the articles or not, I really want you to see the quote from Jackson that speaks to this stormy state of YA Literature:

What Jackson’s case really demonstrates is just how narrow and untenable the rules for writing Y.A. literature are. In a tweet last May, Jackson himself more or less articulated them: “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 life-changing times, like the AIDS epidemic, should be written by gay men. Why is this so hard to get?”

On the one hand, I LOVE the idea of bringing all the voices from all the walks of life onto the page. No one’s voice is worth less than another.

But while the cancel culture and purists may say they are fighting for diversity, their words come off more as calls for segregation.

Case in point: American Heart by Laura Moriarity. Initially her book was awarded a starred review from Kirkus…until cancel culture called for otherwise. Not only did Kirkus pull its star, it completely altered the review. Click here for a comparison of the two reviews. The New Yorker even did an editorial on “problematic” book reviews, (click here for that) and I think writer Ian Nolan’s conclusion on criticism is worth noting here:

…criticism exists in different flavors, but its defining feature is an individualism of response. That response can be wise or unwise, popular or unpopular. A reviewer can squander authority by seeming too often at odds with good judgment. But, without critical autonomy, the enterprise falls apart. The only reason to hire a critic, instead of giving a megaphone to the crowd, is that creative work—books most of all—isn’t processed as a collective. People make sense of art as individuals, and their experiences of the work differ individually, too. A reviewer speaks for somebody, even if he or she doesn’t speak for you.

Ian Nolan, “Kirkus Reviews and the Plight of the “Problematic” Book Review

In an age when people are supposedly only making books (and movies, as the bickering over Captain Marvel shows) for certain groups of people and NOT for the general public, I would like to ask this:

Why must my body define my voice?

I am a white woman born of two white parents in the Midwest. My parents both worked for protestant churches, and together barely made enough to make ends meet. Frugality was the name of the game no matter where we lived, be it a small farming town up north, or deep in Milwaukee’s North Side.

My father was born and raised in Milwaukee in a tumultuous time. White flight, housing discrimination, police brutality, and the Civil Rights movement all boiled over to overwhelm the inner city and scald it with the Milwaukee Riots. I can’t imagine how this affected my dad, seeing the death, the pain, the hundreds upon hundreds arrested in a war for equality. Maybe taking that Call to serve his childhood church in Milwaukee is answer enough.

Milwaukee has become infamous for being one of the most segregated cities of America. We saw it then, that first Sunday: even though the church is situated in a densely populated area, only a handful of elderly white people sat in the pews. Not a single resident of the church’s neighborhood attended. No one had tried to connect with the predominantly African American community. They had merely preached to their own.

I think Dad saw this and remembered the prejudice and anger that had poisoned his town so deeply in the 1960s. It would explain what he did next.

Juneteenth Day comes every 19th of June to celebrate the emancipation of slaves in 1865 in the last “holdout” state (Texas) after the Civil War. Dad reorganized the church’s annual outdoor picnic to be held in June as close to the 19th as he could get. He invited a gospel choir directed by a friend of his in a church from Milwaukee’s East Side, another struggling area. Then he reached out to the congregation’s few young members to form groups for canvassing the neighborhood, leaving flyers of invitation to the church’s outdoor service. With a mixture of words from the Bible and Civil Rights activists, Dad preached a message of Love, Equality, Justice, and Hope.

If I am to take this cancel culture to heart, then my father should not have worked to heal the old neighborhood. He was a middle-aged white man; therefore, he cannot possibly connect with those of a different color. He should have kept with his own kind. We should all only keep to our own kinds.

That mindset might help explain how Milwaukee was deemed “America’s Most Segregated City” in 2016.

Have we forgotten what it means to look beyond ourselves?

Have we forgotten what it means to have empathy?

em·pa·thy
[ˈempəTHē]
NOUN
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Oxford Dictionaries

Why must my body define my voice?

Stories have a power completely, utterly unique: they can take a person born in one body, and transplant them into another. That body could be living three hundred years ago on the other side of the world, or three hundred years into the future buried deep beneath the earth, or even three thousand universes away. When we take the age-old writing lesson of “write what you know” and give it the Orwellian twist of “write only what you know,” we limit that power severely, dangerously.

When we limit that power, we limit our ability to empathize with one another. We lose our ability to connect with those beyond ourselves. We begin to turn away from the wealth of a diverse world, and huddle with our own kind.

No.

Do not let others take your power away. There are countless worlds inside of you, filled with people of all cultures and creeds. You have every right to bring those people to the page.

No voice should be fettered by the body it’s born in.

I’m still pretty wound up about this, so if you feel like talking, add your comments below! If you’re new to my site, welcome! You are welcome to sign up for my newsletter, check out my free short stories, or pick up my first novel, which is free on Kindle Unlimited. Thanks for coming by!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

66 thoughts on “#writer, your body does not define your #writing voice: a response to the #YA #cancelculture among #readers and #authors

  1. Everything you say is spot on, Jean, and your quote on purity unveils the ugly dictatorial heart at the case you examine in this post.

    A similar argument occurs with acting: should able actors be banned from playing, say, people with disabilities, hidden or otherwise? Should Dustin Hoffman not have played someone on the autistic spectrum if there are actors on the spectrum available? (Were they any at the time?) Should Eddie Redmayne not have played Stephen Hawking? (How would an actor with that condition have played Hawking before the onset of his impairment?)

    It’s all one, the creative arts, writing and acting: that’s what acting is about—playing someone you’re palbably not—and writing is as much about metaphorically putting yourself in someone else’s shoes as writing merely about what you know.

    The crunch point comes when that part, that character, can be played or written equally well or better by someone with that disability, that gift, that ethnicity, that gender, that culture. Or if someone not of that group can say something new but valid about that condition, that existence, that point of view.

    I’m rambling now but you’ve made some excellent points, Jean, and points that deserve the kind of serious consideration you’ve given here. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Jean. I had no idea about this movement. I completely agree with everything you said. If we were to take the ridiculous logic even further, does it mean that only people who were in car accidents should write about them? Only people who worked as veterinarians should write about that? Where do the restrictions stop?

    Thank you for speaking up against this form of segregation. Please tell me how I can help (other than sharing your article, which I’ve done.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much! I think it’s a matter of showing people that they’ve twisted these good intentions for the worse. Diversity in storytelling is a must, but it shouldn’t come at the price of confining people to the voices they may or may not use.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such a complicated issue, and I think you did a great job of portraying how constraining and segregating it feels for those of us on the “other side” of cancel culture. On the one hand, I can see why people are calling for sensitivity readers — that makes sense, to help the author see how his or her words could be interpreted by others who may be closer to the real-life situation, or will otherwise view it from a different perspective. I can also understand how offensive it could be to see something that you personally experienced horribly misrepresented on the page, treated too lightly or melodramatically, presented falsely, or fostering dangerous stereotypes — and then to learn that the author never lived that experience themselves? That they are writing from what seems to you to be total ignorance? Why is this outsider telling *your* story? So, okay, I get that response.

    But I still think it should primarily be about the *quality* of the story. If the experience communicated in the story feels valid and real and honest, then it shouldn’t matter where or how the author got there, whether through personal experience or through empathy and research.

    I also worry about what this implies for the diversity of characters, if authors are only “allowed” to write characters who are their same race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.. Guess what, folks, most authors are cis straight white Christians. If the cancel culture makes authors afraid to include characters who are different from themselves, or to at best make them secondary characters, then whole swaths of humanity won’t be represented as full characters for the reader to care about. And that seems like going backwards, to me.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, exactly right! I totally agree about the dangers of misrepresentation. A writer who does not properly research and/or prepare to write on an experience, time period, etc. is going to be found out. True respect, love, admiration, or whatever deep feeling in a writer that drives her to write about a particular group of people, place, or time should spur that writer to learn as much as she can, I also agree that beta readers–ideally beta readers with some experience with the material in the story–could do wonders.
      I guess that’s what really stirs me up about that Kirkus incident. The original review was written by a Muslim woman of color–just the sort of person who is sensitive to the elements of the narrative. Yet even she was considered “wrong” for liking the book.
      This is not just a slippery slope–we’re looking at the Cliffs of Dover of freefalling logic.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Cliffs of Dover is right! That’s an example of how I think identity politics can be toxic, when individuals are told that they have to share the (supposedly) monolithic group opinion of whatever group they belong to — which is problematic both because individuals in any group should have the right to express their own opinion, and also because each individual belongs to multiple groups, and those groups’ self-proclaimed spokespeople may disagree. That said, just because you have the right to express your opinion, anyone else also has the right to criticize and judge you for it. I just don’t think it’s right to pressure people to have a specific opinion because of their group membership.

        Liked by 2 people

    • This is such a touchy subject, almost so much so that I’m a bit afraid of ostracism if I say anything. But, this all worries me quite a bit. Like you mentioned, I completely understand the knee-jerk reaction of having ‘outsiders telling your story’, and I imagine there are hoards of horrible examples of people doing this in disrespectful ways, but it all feels like a form of censorship. I hope that sometime soon it will all settle down and authors will be free to write they stories they need to write, as long as it is done without ill will.

      Liked by 2 people

      • My impression is that the pendulum was stuck on one end for so very long that now that people are aware of the issues, it’s swung all the way to the other end instead. I hope that we all will eventually find an acceptable middle ground of understanding and sensitivity and respect. The problem with basing it on good versus ill will is that it’s impossible to measure or verify. To me, any evaluation should be focused on the text itself. The problem with that approach is that probably nothing has ever been written that didn’t offend *someone* so… there’s no clearly good answer that I can see.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly. If these reactions were initiating some sort of dialogue like that PENAmerica panel, I wouldn’t be nearly as worried. But instead it’s a mobbing of readers who’ve not even read the story demanding publishers and authors recall their work…and rather than encouraging a dialogue, the authors and publishers just acquiesce. We should be forging new new ground in conversation, not silence.

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  4. omg, I hadn’t heard of this YA twitter cancel group either and I found myself getting angrier and angrier as I read the interviews and articles that you linked to. Basically just WTF? Things have gone too far when an author cannot write from their own imagination. The fact that a person from the culture written about liked the book and was then slated is outrageous. Your Father did something wonderful and in the spirit of all heroes who try to change the bad into good. This cancel culture would have us living in a world of grey, dull and without any color at all. Sensitivity readers are a good thing but don’t pander to the twitter brigade who just want attention. They are not supporting the community they are out to destroy it. Whew, rant over. Thank you so much for this post, Jean. Keep writing and keep imagination alive. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, exactly right! Like Joy said, there’s definitely a good point to having sensitivity readers to help books avoid using stereotypes, or making sure that a kind of experience or culture is given a fair representation (as opposed to insensitive dismissal, derision, etc). It’s as if we’re not allowed to imagine ourselves into another person’s experience…and that’s bloody scary. Thanks for sharing this post on your site!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Some great points Jean. The beauty of fiction, for me, is its ability to explore ideas, situations, problems and solutions etc. the author assuming another identity is part of this ‘beauty’. I, for one, had never heard of cancel culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, exactly! How on earth can historical fiction be written without imagination? And plenty of authors have written novels with another gender as narrator. Is that no longer allowed then, either? While I know this movement began with the initial good intentions of encouraging more diversity in books, diversity shouldn’t come with the cost of segregation.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Love this ! Recently I have also heard the term Cultural Appropriation being thrown about. It seems that since some of my belief system follows that of Native or Aboriginal Americans and Meso-Americans, I am told I must abandon my beliefs because they originate in a culture that is not mine. I find this extremely weird and bigoted. It would be no different than to say I was born into a particular religion and thus had no choice as to what my beliefs should be as to the Source of all things. People learn, evolve, experience, grow, and can become experts in any matter even if certain experiences are limited. And why not welcome others with the thought of inclusion instead, like you note, promoting further segregation 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jean, this is such an important topic and post. I am aware of some of what happened in the YA writing community. I have a lot of different thoughts on this, as an earlier commenter wrote; it is a difficult topic. And a sensitive one. Which is why I think sensitivity and beta readers are so important. But what struck me most in this is your question: Why must my body define my voice? This is a well-articulated post, and has given me MUCH to think about. As for your dad, what a fine example of what it means to be a human being—whatever color or other defining adjectives that could be applied—a kind, generous, benevolent human being.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He really was, thank you. 🙂

      And thank you for your input! I agree that considering past examples, sensitivity readers are important. When you have a reader close to the subject matter somehow, they can spot where the writer’s mistakenly gone shallow or insensitive, for instance. But it scares me that this mob mentality is so quickly sparked on so, so little–and that publishers would rather buckle to it than to invite a dialogue. That is dangerous.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Firstly and most importantly your Dad is the sort of hero we need around.
    Secondly, the challenge of a writer is to think outside of their own experience , observe, ponder, write, craft, re-write, re-write, ponder some more, then re-write. No one has the right (write?) to put you in a box and limit you to what you know (There’s be no SF or Fantasy for instance).
    In my fantasy series the three central characters are women; one is slightly off the wall with a London accent, another is a professional soldier with a ‘southern accent’ and the third is of sub-Saharan decent and started off as a housemaid…oh yeh and the first two are in a gay relationship. As a male, white ‘brit’ 67 years old can you imagine just many trip wires I could set off if these books ever sold well?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much for your kind words about my father. I can’t imagine what he’d think of the current state of YA fiction, a subgenre he enjoyed with its Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and so on.
      I know that this movement started with good intentions–more diversity in literature. Awesome! Yes, we need that. But diversity should never come at the cost of silencing others, and that is where things start getting scary to me. You’re quite right that you’d likely rub the cancel culture here the wrong way–heck some of the authors in that PENAmerica summit said their own work would never have been published years ago had the cancel culture been in place then. So just imagine how many stories this group of people is killing now that could have been loved by so, so many….it’s sad.
      Thank you for your input!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Powerful post, Jean, and I agree. I don’t think that people should only be able to speak for or about their specific group. The world would be so boring if so, but also, imagine the silence if at the end of the day, all we got to talk about was what we knew. Everyone gets a say, even flat earthers. It doesn’t matter if it misses the mark; it’s called freedom of speech and it’s our first amendment right. I hadn’t heard of the cancel culture before, but those individuals should be ashamed of their isolationist selves. To think that the batshit craziness of the world has now infected the YA culture is just downright nuts. And what a great man your father was. How lucky for you to be his daughter. xo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Pam, your words mean the world! xxxxxx
      And it’s true: I think what started with decent intentions–yay, diversity–has now gotten so contorted that writers like Jackson think that this “you only write about your group” consider this some sort of cultural freedom, when it all it does is imprison us. I’m actually going to see if I can incorporate this situation into my lesson plans for next term. It’d be interesting to see how I can use this situation to discuss stuff like diversity, segregation, and logical fallacies. I’ve a sinking feeling that many adults find it easier to join the bandwagon than to do a little research for themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, I agree. I am careful not to stray too far into this dialogue because I think it’s often a losing argument no matter what position you take, but many are offended by certain names being used to describe them – and rightfully so – but then they turn around and use those same names to describe each other, saying that it’s okay because they are of a certain race or ethnicity, but why self-disparage? I find it not only hypocritical but it keeps people down. Anyway, my two cents.🧐

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I wasn’t aware of this cancel culture myself, but it does cause me to worry. To me, it feels like censoring. It feels like there’s a group of people who don’t want others to have a voice. In a way, this topic is also interesting in another way, and by posting here I probably wade myself into a deep muddy swamp of controversy in the eyes of some. I’ve written a series, just re-released the first book of it after pulling it to improve the storytelling aspect of it, and it deals, to a degree, with the suppression of knowledge, thought and truth… this is in a way that, from what I understand of this phenomenon, the cancel culture seems to be doing. My book isn’t YA but I decided to comment as adding a voice of reason to this topic is important like you’re doing.

    I state that I write about the rights and the wrongs of our world. As a human rights activist, an anti-bullying spokesperson and humanist, I see humankind that needs to learn to embrace each other and stop the ridiculous notion that skin colour makes another person another race. I’ve given the example of this a few times in public fora before. For example, if tomorrow a Martian did land on Earth and told us “I come in peace” that’s another race compared to ALL humans who are themselves a race. All seven billion of us are ONE race. So, to me at least, an individual who is intelligent enough to recognise that there are differentiating aspects of how one human is to another, is like saying that one egg is white and the next one is brown, and both are STILL recognised as “an egg” (to put it in simple terms).

    I draw from a wide range of cultural, religious, geographical and other aspects of human existence. I’ve issued, though jokingly, to readers to identify ALL of these bits of human influences in my book, and there are way more than any person might realise from their first reading experience. I reference war events, cultural changes in history, religious doctrine, racial issues, mental health issues (like me, the main character goes through a period of PTSD, which I had to overcome because of personal circumstances). The second book of my series (currently undergoing a similar rewrite to re-release it) deals with diversity and hints at racial discrimination. The book series is called The Wolf Riders of Keldarra, and the men who are the Wolf Riders are not the friendliest group around. Essentially, they are the terrorists of that world. They abduct replacement “soldiers” similarly to what has happened in Africa with the so-called “boy soldiers” there, who were forced to stand against their own families and cause harm to them.

    Personally, I see as a social duty of authors to raise awareness of “the wrong stuff” in our world IF they want and IF they can. Censorship is awful. It leads to a scenario as in 1984, and suppression of the right to speak up can lead to a world similar to (but not limited to) The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood is one of my personal voices of inspiration to achieve a similar sense of warning in my own writing. If that makes me “bad” in the eyes of “some people” then it tells me that I’m hitting home because, historically, those who are on the “wrong side of history” (which is the general premise of my book series) are the first to shout from the roofs about “we don’t like this.” I encourage authors to KEEP writing. We can contribute to a better world because we enrich the minds of those who read our works.

    Sorry for the long reply. I had much I wanted to say as a reply.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh don’t be sorry! I’m happy to read your thoughts. Thank you so much for adding your input to this issue. You’re so right that it’s our duty to take readers–and ourselves–outside of our personal experience. Fight the good fight! xxxxx

      Like

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  12. Dear Jean Lee, thank you for this article. All I can think of after reading your post are the words of a great Justice of the American Supreme Court who said a person’s greatest freedom is the freedom to be left alone. It is a good, thorough post. Best wishes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much! It’s a frightening thing when the “mob” dictates this censorship, rather than the publishers, authors, and readers encouraging a dialogue everyone could learn from.

      Like

  13. This is such an important issue, Jean. As a person who was raised by parents from two very different cultures (and religions), I have always been fascinated by cultural differences. And as a scholar who focused on Ojibwe and Native American issues (among many other topics), I have read truly misinformed (even racist) literature from all types of genres. I am grateful I have had that opportunity, All of those perspectives helped me critically assess how the past continues to influence present conditions. Understanding those forces and dynamics provide a crucial foundation for working toward change. It helped me develop a dialectic, dialogic approach for teaching – to expose students to differing views and allow them to critically reflect about divergent points of view within historical and cultural contexts.

    Imagine my concern when I read that the local school system had replaced classics because they included offensive language (https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/news/education/4399793-duluth-schools-remove-kill-mockingbird-huckleberry-finn-curriculum), rather than add resources that would help students understand how those books that now seem offensive to some were instrumental in humanizing people who were generally seen as inferior by many who had been socialized to see people from some cultures, religions, nationalities, etc, as inferior. They reflect specific historical contexts that should be part of our foundational knowledge, lest we continue to allow those in power to keep us all safely within our separate comfort zones.

    Writers have an opportunity to do more than preach to the choir, and from my perspective, a responsibility to speak authentically. It’s the responsibility of teachers to help inspire students to dig beneath the surface and think critically.

    Sorry for ranting and pontificating…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh no, Carol, never be sorry! I’m so happy you shared your input, because you strike such an important point. The literature of the past and present alike provide countless opportunities for growth and learning.
      It just hit me now that this issue parallels the debate surrounding sex ed. Many push for reformed curriculum to better cover STDs, contraceptives, and more besides simply preaching abstinence. Fine. I get it. Knowledge is power.
      So how can these same people turn around and pull classics because of offensive language?
      The past has so, so much to teach us. The scars of prejudice and hate don’t have to get infected. But to learn means to actually face what’s been said and done. To learn means actually talking about that which makes us uncomfortable.
      And too often, people would rather just avoid what makes them uncomfortable.
      The result? No one knows how to handle perspectives outside of their own. Like you said, we all just stay in our comfort zones, and nothing changes.
      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Carol. Recently I proposed integrating this kind of critical study into my course’s curriculum, and now it’s going to be the subject of a Gen Ed meeting next month. We’ll see if I can swing it, because all too often the typical student doesn’t dwell on this. They accept the sound bytes as truth and move on. This is the time to dig into the context, to grab the causal chain and follow it link by link to see where ideas come from. It’s time to listen and to think, dammit.
      Now you got me ranting! 🙂 But that’s okay. Hope you’re well otherwise, my friend!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. What an excellent discussion. I’d not heard of ‘cancel-culture’ before. Sadly, reading it I wasn’t surprised, just sorry. I think you make the counter-points very well. Fiction should not offend, but what I value in it is its diversity. As you point out, it allows a variety of voices to emerge.

    Not having read any of the books you’ve mentioned, I wouldn’t like to comment on the results of this drive. Thinking back over the fantasy novels I’ve read, some were deliberately drawing attention to social issues, but not all. Does this mean I should object to any plot that doesn’t reflect my experience of growing up in a village in Britain?

    Does this argument that you have to belong to the community and race your writing about mean that Malorie Blackman’s much respected novel Noughts and Crosses should be taken off the sales shelves and the reading lists at schools and universities?

    Liked by 1 person

    • This has been an awesome discussion, Cath, and I’m glad you jumped in, because that’s what’s so scary–people would rather hide literature than talk about it. If it offends someone, then it is no longer “safe” and must be removed. Literature provides such a wealth of opportunity for discussion over the tough questions and issues that still run rampant through today’s society. If anything, discussing those issues in the context of literature is far “safer” than the real-world problems. Yet heaven forbid we offend, so it’s removed.
      The result: people no longer know how to handle perspectives dissonant with their own.
      And that’s bloody scary.

      Like

      • Is it connected to what’s happening with all the twittering and ‘fake news’, I wonder? A few powerful voices seem to be able to ‘set’ ideas that I’ve always hoped and believed should be fluid.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Twitter’s a big part of it, to be sure. There’s no room for context with twitter–it’s all reactionary, soundbyte after soundbyte. Fake news, though, I don’t think so. I think it’s more like people ready to follow a few powerful voices, and just running with it rather than reading for themselves. That’s why I like that Slate article (forget which link that was in my post), as they go through the book and confront every accusation people wrote in their angry reviews. In most of those reviews, the book had not even been read! Howcan you critique what you haven’t read?!?

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  16. I had read recently about this “cancel culture” in YA. Until then, I didn’t realize that there was a person who said, like Mr. Jackson, that only people directly impacted by the AIDS crisis (i.e., gay men) should write about the AIDS crisis, for example. This has always seemed so, so limiting to me. I’m not a scholar in the field, but I think that the cancel culture has found it (more) difficult to make its way into the genres and subgenres I primarily write in and read in: namely, speculative fiction. Like so many fields inside and outside of the literary world, white men (and men of privilege, across countries and cultures and religions) dominated the (author) rolls for so long, and even they found it necessary to write characters outside their own categories of religion, race, class, gender or sex or intersex or nonsex, ability/disability, and so on. I have worried, from time to time, with some of the stories I’ve written, about whether they will be well-received and authentic from my outsider perspective, but, perhaps ironically, I have been published (short stories only so far) several times now, for instance, writing from an LGBTQIA perspective. Both times in the science fiction genre. Two of the best stories I think I’ve ever written, as yet unpublished, also come from that space of being an ally but not a lived-in category, so to speak (I like to think I do lots of good research and incorporate that); perhaps they are not authentic enough. That would be my worry. Even as a fiction writer, I feel I have a duty to be factual insofar as I can. For me, it’s an issue of whether a writer would be trying to appropriate a culture for either their own greed or doing so in a negative fashion (i.e., issues like blackface, which have a long tradition, true, but it’s a tradition of hurting people, which I am loath to do). Anyway, great discussion, and I really liked what Carol Hand said above.
    One last thing would be that I’ve had encouragement, through my blog, from people from marginalized communities who don’t seem to feel as Mr. Jackson does. That only gay people can write about the AIDS crisis or about LGBTQIA issues; that only women can write about women’s issues; and so on. Context is a big thing here, too. Whereas it now might be insulting to have an “abled” person play a disabled character on TV or film, I think that writers are allowed more leeway because of our medium. Heck, as we all know, Stephen King has several times tackled disabled characters as main protags, especially in his short stories, with Monkey Shines coming to mind instantly. If we only wrote exactly what we had lived, I feel, the world would be much worse for it.
    Oh, one last last thing, it is also important to me that I would not be “canceling out” other writers, so to speak, any more than they cancel me out. I feel like there’s truly room for all at the inn nowadays, with great strides being made so we who are not in those communities can get to know POC and LGBT communities in particular, and that writing from those of marginalized spaces benefits writers and readers alike.
    Sorry for the long-windedness, Jean! Great topic, once again.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha! Let me edit that to say I’m completely misremembering King’s story, “The Monkey” from the Skeleton Crew, and conflating it with the movie Monkey Shines. If I replace King’s name with George Romero’s, though, the analogy works. Romero, AFAIK, was never a quadriplegic, yet he wrote Monkey Shines with a main character who was. Again, to put a finer point on it, because Sci-fi, horror, and fantasy traffic in the impossible and the uncanny, I believe we spec fic authors are able to ‘get away with more’ and are less affected by cancellation concerns, because imagination takes a central role in these genres, maybe moreso than others like romance (sometimes), thriller, or Westerns do. And then I was thinking of King’s Misery, where the writer briefly becomes disabled due to the traffic accident and then due to Annie’s cockadoodie care. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you so much for your comments! Yes, I totally agree that there should be room for aaaaall the voices, and no one should feel like they must “write ONLY what they know.” We can’t help the characters who speak in us–why force those characters to only wear copies of our skins? How boring that would be!
        On Facebook someone did point out to me the difficulty of publishers not listening to sensitivity readers when they find problems in advance copies. Perhaps this is the problem: not listening to those who help us locate characters built on stereotypes, or mishandling of a major cultural practice/event. I cannot fathom a writer purposefully treating a person or culture poorly; they just need that reader’s perspective to find it. And if it’s found too late? Maybe instead of busting out pitchforks, we all just sit around and talk it out. You know. Like decent people.
        Thanks again for reaching out!

        Liked by 1 person

      • One last thing I wanted to say is that sometimes we can move into (and out of, I’m sure) marginalized communities. Some, like our race or nationality, we cannot change; others, like our sexual preferences, might change over time or they might not. For myself, I have become disabled over the years, so I identify with that community now, whereas years ago, I was largely ignorant about their concerns. So, perhaps giving the writer the benefit of the doubt, that s/he is trying to do justice to that marginalized community that sometimes we don’t even know whether they’re a part of, such as with disability. As you know, Jean, disability is not always visible, as with some mental illness or even autism spectrum issues. I love what you say about civility and having advance/beta readers, too. I understand that publishers are in a difficult spot with this. They obviously don’t want to offend readers. Again, great discussion. Happy writing, Jean!

        Liked by 1 person

      • And happy writing to you as well! I know I certainly didn’t appreciate the depths of depression until I lived it myself, so when people speak of “living the experience,” I get it. I really do. We just need to get past yelling “you don’t know ME!” at each other so that we CAN know by listening, talking. You know, dialogue among civilized human beings. 🙂
        Thanks again for commenting!

        Liked by 2 people

  17. The point is what we all have in common – we are people, we are human, we are journeying through our lives and all of us have voices. To be fair, all voices should be heard. There should be no forced silence. Thank you for your voice.

    Liked by 2 people

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