Author S. Andrew Swann stops by today to give his take on the craziness in YA Publishing as of late.
I published my first novel, Forests of the Night, in 1993. I was in my twenties and had all the emotions one would expect from a debut novelist. I was getting published! The world was going to see my stuff! I was being reviewed in Starlog and Asimov’s! It probably still counts as the most exciting time of my writing career.
And I thank God that happened twenty-five years ago, and not today.
In the vernacular of the woke kids nowadays, I am a heteronormative, cisgender, white male, and I wrote something that could be interpreted as an allegory about racism. You see the potential problem there? It doesn’t really matter that my novel is about a few generations of genetically engineered animals fleeing a global war to settle in the US. The fact is, I have themes of prejudice, immigration, refugees and assimilation. I have racist characters acting racist, and I have some members of the oppressed classes reacting to prejudice by responding in an equally prejudiced manner. It would be hard to come up with a sfnal plot that contains more triggers for the modern social media Stasi.
When Laurie Forest wrote The Black Witch, in 2017, she thought she was writing a story about how prejudice was a bad thing and how growing beyond it, to see other people as actual people, was a good thing. But to one reviewer, that meant her story was the “most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read.” Toxic Twitter exploded with how offensive this book was, and campaigns were launched to try and get the publisher to withdraw the book.
More recently, Amélie Wen Zhao sold her book, Blood Heir, and two sequels, to the tune of something like $500,000. Again, she thought she was writing a story about how slavery and human trafficking was a bad thing, drawing on the contemporary issues in China to fuel her narrative. But to the woke guardians of racial morality, this was not okay— especially because the promo materials described her world as one where “oppression was blind to skin color.” It didn’t help that one of the characters dying could be interpreted as being black. (Not actually black, just that the character could be read that way.) Again, Toxic Twitter exploded with how offensive this book was. And, in this case, the mob got the author to actually withdraw the book.
Back in the nineties, before every obsessive identitarian had an on-line platform, the worst you could expect in terms of unbalanced, unjustified rage would be a one-star review on Amazon, or some nasty hate-mail sent to the publisher. And in both cases, there was a really good chance that the person in question actually read the book.
Today, one hot take or deliberate misreading of an ARC, can snowball into hundreds of individuals convinced by fourth-hand accounts that some book is a hateful abyss of racist ideology and the author should be condemned as a member of the secret Klan. This all can be done without actually reading the book, seeing a copy, or having any more than some vague idea of what it’s about.
Another change that’s happened in the last twenty-five years is the creeping political polarization of the industry. So, were I to debut Forests of the Night today, I would be doubly screwed. Not only is the subject matter problematic on its face, but I’m a known libertarian. Back in the nineties that meant I was a harmless eccentric that wanted to legalize pot. Today, that means I am a scary right-wing radical that wants to feed the homeless into the Koch brothers’ infinite poverty machines.
The industry used to be more tolerant of differing political views. However, nowadays, you can be a best-selling female author disinvited from being GOH at a feminist convention for expressing the wrong ideas on immigration and assimilation. You can be a well-known editor kicked out of a Worldcon for mocking people’s oversensitivity. You can be a best-selling author, known for gaming, and be deleted as GOH at a gaming convention because you made fun of some douchebag’s political rant years ago. You dare mention the wrong ideas about abortion in a single chapter, in a sequel to a well-received book, and your editor can shut you down, pull your book, and consign you to the wilderness. You can be pressured to refuse the nomination for a major award, because the wrong people might have had a hand in nominating you. At times we’ve even had editors at respected publishing houses calling fans Nazis for not liking the right things.
I can barely imagine how intimidating the current environment must be for a new author, especially anyone who wants to break into traditional publishing. The knives are out for anyone who might express a dissenting opinion, and worse, anyone who might be interpreted as having a dissenting opinion by some random crank on the Internet. I can imagine someone trying to publish something like Forests of the Night being dissuaded entirely, leaving it for a trunk novel in lieu of something safer. Worse, if that hypothetical author did publish it, and had a modicum of success, it might mean the wrath of the Internet mob coming down. It’s just too easy to picture another Amélie Wen Zhao, sabotaging a barely-started career just to get the attacks to stop.
Worse, I think, are those people in the industry who don’t engage in these attacks directly, but who are happy to look the other way, or even tacitly endorse them. They see someone being attacked and rationalize that the person did something to deserve such treatment. They see someone of a differing political persuasion and believe that they will never be targeted because they don’t hold such vile opinions. Such people enable the mob without understanding the first rule of mobs:
Mobs turn on everyone, eventually.
S Andrew Swann has been writing science fiction and fantasy since the halcyon days of the early nineties. You might want to read his current novel, Marked, before the social justice mob comes for him. It’s written for fans of steampunk, time-travel, urban fantasy, airships, zombies, and Dodge Chargers.
“A great book. I’ve never read any stories with the premise…. A mix between Doctor Who and the Invisible Library series, with a dash of that old tv show Sliders mixed in as well.” —Slapdash + Sundry
“Thoroughly impressed by this book, and highly recommend it to anyone familiar with the urban or high fantasy genres. The story will cleverly subvert the tropes you expect it to follow, and I bet that by the end, you’ll be wishing that the sequel was here already, just like I was.” —SFRevu
“Marked is a fast-pasted, suspenseful urban fantasy-mystery. . . highly recommended.” —Midwest Book Review
“As deadly serious as the dangers are, the story is still an entertaining, occasionally raucous romp…. Recommended for all fantasy readers.” —Publishers Weekly