On Cancel Culture and How to Keep Writing

Alicia Haniford

In March 2019, the New Yorker published an article by Katy Waldman entitled, “In Y.A., Where Is the Line Between Criticism and Cancel Culture?” Waldman’s article discussed what she identified as an accelerating phenomenon of young adult writers and their books being targeted for being “problematic.” Most of the books Waldman discussed were targeted for the ways they depicted racialized historical events, made use of racialized historical experiences, or depicted racialized characters.

If you’re a YA writer, or really if you’re a writer at all, I’d highly recommend taking a minute to check out Waldman’s article, which does a great job of laying out the challenges and consequences of “cancel culture” in the realm of YA. Personally, being a writer of YA (among the many other genres I hoard, greedily and goblin-like, in the depths of my laptop’s dying hard drive), and being a person with a naturally frail and delicate sense of emotional wellbeing, I came out of the article educated but devastated. Writing is hard. Publication (whatever route you take) is hard. And now there was this extra hurdle to worry about, this community of people (many of whom aren’t actually YA readers themselves, as Waldman points out) ready to take you down viciously and anonymously at the slightest misstep. 

What’s a writer to do? In the face of this fear, how can you motivate yourself to keep writing? How can you prepare your work to potentially face not only criticism (never easy to hear, but often useful and important) but also cancel culture, which can sometimes be uninformed, confrontational, and downright mean?

This post isn’t meant to be a one-size-fits-all solution, nor is it meant to be the Final Word on issues of diversity, inclusion, exclusion, appropriation, callout, and criticism within the writing community. Instead, this is a practical guide on perseverance. Lots of things about writing are terrifying, and the “simple” act of putting a few words on a page (or screen) requires you to overcome a staggering number of psychological roadblocks, of which this is just one. Here’s how I (try) to work past it.

Appreciate the Transformation of the YA Industry

A couple of decades ago, YA didn’t exist. One decade ago, when I was reading YA as a teenager myself, I had a ton of books to choose from, but not always a lot of variety. Protagonists in YA fantasy and sci-fi (my preferred sub-genres) were almost exclusively white and straight. Books about queer, non-white, and disabled characters did exist, but their stories were almost always about how hard it was to be queer, non-white, or disabled, and they didn’t usually get to do cool stuff like beat up aliens or save kingdoms from corrupt undead sorcerers.

So let’s start off by thinking about how cool it is that YA has managed to diversify so much in such a relatively short period of time. Is there room for improvement? One hundred percent. Stories by and about white, straight, abled writers and worldviews are still the norm. But it’s better. And the motivation to critique and to call out is also exciting. It means YA audiences (reading audiences in general, really) are paying more attention to the importance of diverse characters, traditions, experiences, and worlds in the books they read. It also means people are increasingly attuned to the importance of having diverse voices telling those stories, and to the consequences of having identity-specific stories, cultures, and experiences appropriated and/or misrepresented.

How can you prepare your work to potentially face not only criticism (never easy to hear, but often useful and important) but also cancel culture, which can sometimes be uninformed, confrontational, and downright mean?

In other words, yes, astoundingly, the stories and characters you choose to write affect people, just as the books you read affect you. Should you think about this when you’re writing? Yes! (Well, sometimes. I’ll get to that in a minute.) Should you respond to this by “staying in your lane”—by only writing about things related to your identity or your experience of the world? No! (Or at least, I don’t think so.)

Know When to Shut Off the Inner (Social) Critic

Writers often talk about the inner critic—you know, that lovely little voice inside your head that likes to remind you how terrible your work is, how no one will ever want to read it, how everything you do is garbage, etc. We need our inner critics—how else are we supposed to edit our own work if we just think everything we do is immediately amazing? But listening to your inner critic can also be debilitating, especially early in the writing process. Successful writing usually means telling your inner critic to shut up and sit down while you hammer out a first draft, accepting that it’s going to be messy, imperfect, maybe even downright terrible.

I’ve tried to start treating my inner social critic the same way. This shift is a weird one. Most of us (at least, most of the people likely to be reading this post) like to think of ourselves as educated, socially aware people. We recognize that we live within a network power structures designed to oppress non-white, non-straight, non-abled people. We know that we internalize ideologies. Which is why recognizing the need to turn off (or at least turn down) the inner social critic creates a weird moment of cognitive dissonance. Wait, you might say. Is this thing I wrote somehow offensive? Is it problematic? Does it buy into a stereotype, or subvert it? Did I represent this well? Am I allowed to write about this? WHY CAN’T I TELL? AM I THE PROBLEM?

Well, yes, you probably are. Accept that. There’s no such thing as the Unproblematic Ur-Activist, no one person who has firsthand experience with every form of marginalization in the world and is Transcendentally Woke. Try talking out your concerns with someone, if your writing problem is really bothering you. But also recognize that the solution is not to devolve into a spiral of second-guessing and paranoia that completely halts your writing process. Instead, shelve the problem. Don’t ignore it, or forget about it, or gloss over it. But do keep writing.

Educate Yourself

I’m queer, white, Jewish, middle-class, and Canadian. Shockingly, all of my characters and stories are not queer, white, Jewish, middle-class, and Canadian, because that would be really boring, and also because in real life you are not constantly surrounded by people who are exactly like you. Unless maybe you’re part of a cult. In which case please do write about that, because I have the usual amount of voyeuristic fascination with cults and would love to read about your experience.

There’s no such thing as the Unproblematic Ur-Activist, no one person who has firsthand experience with every form of marginalization in the world and is Transcendentally Woke.

If you’re writing about a setting, religion, language, community, identity, etc., etc., that isn’t familiar to you, do your research. Do a lot of reading. Talk to people. Ideally, your reading and your conversations should involve people who actually have personal experience with whatever you’re trying to write about. Recognize that people’s experiences and opinions will differ, sometimes irreconcilably, and that you can’t make everyone happy, but that you can approach your work with as much as education and respect as possible. 

Consider Your Own Online Identity

Ren Iwamoto wrote a fantastic post related to doing social media as an artist/writer/creator earlier this year, so first off, go read that, then come back here. Have you read it? Awesome.

I want to take a look at “cancel culture” from the other side for a minute. Good writers are also avid readers, and you may be tuned into some of the online communities that talk about books and interact with authors, YA or otherwise. Reading a book that you feel messes up something important is upsetting, frustrating, and infuriating, and your first instinct may be to get on Twitter and @ that author to tell them exactly what you think. But taking a minute to calm down, organize your criticisms, and craft something thoughtful is worthwhile, and it’s probably what you would want a reader to do if they had a problem with your work.

Plus, what’s the point of your critique? What’s the end goal? Do you want to let the author know you think they’re a terrible person who wrote an offensive dumpster-fire of a book of which they should be deeply ashamed? Or do you want them to understand what they did wrong and maybe, hopefully, learn from it?

(This is, unfortunately, a best-case scenario that doesn’t always happen. Some people will get defensive as soon as you criticize anything about their work, whatever form that criticism takes. Some people firmly believe that they can do no wrong and that they have nothing to learn. But this best-case scenario is a lot more likely to happen if you write something constructive, instead of just posting that Tweet you drafted seconds after finishing the last page that just says UR A HOMOPHOBIC PIG. I HATE U AND U DESERVE TO DIE ALONE.)

(And, while I’m making long parenthetical digressions, I’ll add as well that Waldman’s New Yorker article also points out who tends to be most affected by this type of criticism: writers from marginalized identities, the very people making up the #ownvoices movement. So keep that in mind too.)

As Ren says, reviews are meant for readers, not writers, although as a writer it can be hard not to take an interest in what people are saying about your own work. At the same time, reviews and critique are an excellent way to learn as a writer and move forward. You want to know (at least, I do, so consider this an open invitation) if you’ve represented something or someone disrespectfully or inappropriately or just incorrectly. And you don’t have to respond to criticism by groveling subserviently, because that is weird and makes everyone uncomfortable. You can just apologize, thank the person who corrected you, and commit to doing better in the future.

You are going to make mistakes. I am going to make mistakes. All of us are going to make mistakes. The prospect is terrifying, especially given how straight-up mean people can be online. But goofing up once in a while means you’re taking risks. You’re writing outside of your lane. You’re trying to keep making YA literature—or whatever your genre is—more diverse and more inclusive and more interesting. And that doesn’t seem like a bad thing to me.


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