Bookish Thought: Sensitivity & ‘Cancel Culture’ in Literature

This may end up being a unpopular opinion post though I’m not sure. Let’s just hope that no one attempts to ‘cancel’ me for writing this.

With all the changes, good and bad, happening across the political and cultural landscapes in the US (I can’t speak for other countries of course), I think it’s great that people are being more outspoken regarding inequality and marginalization.

However, when it comes to the book community (and it seems particularly the YA community), I don’t think it’s being handled correctly; at least not all of the time. It doesn’t help that we’re in a very digital age where it’s easy to post something fueled by a strong emotion without much of a second thought where it can easily become viral. I believe that it’s easy for many to say and do whatever on the internet because you’re behind a screen and no one can interact with you face to face; it seems that many don’t think the consequences apply to them or will be as bad.

This ‘cancel culture’ and readers being outspoken about books and authors who are deemed racist or not sensitive enough first became apparent to me when the news about Amélie Wen Zhao pulling the publication of her novel Blood Heir because readers were offended by her depiction of slavery (I believe that this was the main issue).

I understand why so many were against her book being published. However, we’re in a culture where things go viral regardless if everything being said is true or even in full context. One or two people call an author out for showcasing slavery or racism in the wrong light and suddenly it’s been retweeted a few hundred times, at least, and everyone is demanding her book be pulled.

It’s frustrating when people get sucked into these parts of our culture. How many of these people actually read the whole book before giving an opinion?

I am also appalled at every single person who has sent death threats to authors, publishers, and people who didn’t outright hate a book that people deemed wrong to publish.

How is sending threats to someone and being an online bully helping to create constructive conversation over this issues?

This is no way me saying that a book that doesn’t depict situations of things like slavery, racism, sexism, etc well should be published. Yet, I haven’t seen a lot of evidence showing anyone stepping up to explain why it offends or why it’s written wrong. Or even offering up solutions or advice on how to improve!

Sure, there are people who are professional sensitivity readers now and are found to be very helpful. However, I worry if these professional readers read the summary or get info from the author or editor about where any inspiration came from. I say that because Zhao’s depiction of slavery was apparently drawn from Chinese slavery while everyone thought she was trying to showcase American slavery. Yet no one seemed to listen to her.

I worry that we’re setting grounds for an (interesting and concerning) form of censorship. At some point we have to say that if you don’t like a book or don’t think you’ll like it, then don’t read it. If enough people do that, the publisher and author won’t get their money. I’m very much a millennial and most of my views are stereotypical millennial views. However, while I feel in the middle about all of this, I do lean more away from the crowd on this.

I think we’re in a weird transitional period a la middle school where we still have a lot to learn in order to better adapt and grow with the changes occurring, especially since so many changes are happening rapidly.

Check out the discussion regarding the Guardian’s article (linked below) on reddit here. It’s very interesting.

What are your thoughts on this cancel culture that is occurring in publishing?

How do you think we as readers should help authors and publishers become more aware and educated on what could cause issues with certain readers/ groups?

Related Articles:

The Guardian’s Torn apart: the vicious war over young adult books by Leo Benedictus

The New Yorker’s In Y.A., Where Is the Line Between Criticism and Cancel Culture? by Katy Waldman

Slate’s An Author Canceled Her Own YA Novel Over Accusations of Racism. But Is It Really Anti-Black? by Aja Hoggatt

Women’s Media Center’s The problem with “cancel culture” by Garnett Achieng

Paper’s Why Cancel Culture Doesn’t Work by Stephanie Smith-Strickland

16 thoughts on “Bookish Thought: Sensitivity & ‘Cancel Culture’ in Literature

  1. Great post. It really is so weird, especially when you understand(?) both sides? I don’t know. Part of me feels like things get taken way too seriously now, and sometimes things should just “be.” If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it. But on the other hand I kind of support people who are trying to hold higher standards to people who are getting paid to speak on them? I just don’t know! Good points though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! It is hard when you can see both sides, which I do. I guess it’s more how some on each side are going about it. I definitely want books to be held to a higher standard; we need to give chances to have books not at that standard to be corrected. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post! I think cancel culture is more than the YA community – there was knitting drama recently (among others) and I think in general, society is moving towards a ‘cancel culture’. You mentioned Blood Heir and as a non-US person, I found it so ridiculous. It was obvious, to me at least, that she was writing from a Chinese Point of View and the reluctance of the people calling for her ‘cancellation’ to even acknowledge that quite ridiculous.

    On the other hand, Buzzfeed recently published something about Kathleen Hale (just saw another article of hers on Longreads too) and she’s someone that I still don’t feel comfortable with and who I won’t read, so clearly I am conflicted on the whole issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing! Yes, it’s definitely in various cultures and it is a weird topic; especially since I can easily see where both sides would be coming from. I just think that we aren’t trying to create any kind of conversation and instead are just getting sucked into the social media/ viral part of it. Once something new comes along, it seems people move on. I don’t know, like I said, it’s weird.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think this is nearly as an unpopular opinion as people think- I’ve seen so many people talking about how call out culture goes too far and definitely think it goes too far. Zhao is a really good example of this (I think it’s especially worrying given the fact that slavery is a global and ongoing problem- which is too often ignored). It’s terrible (and somewhat ironic) for “do-gooders” to silence somebody from speaking up about a troubling part of human history. So I don’t view this in a positive light at all. Thanks for doing this post and sharing all the articles!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts! That’s a really good point about how it’s a global problem as well as an unfortunate part of history.


  4. I think the desire to see more diversity in publishing is laudable. I don’t think people are going about it the right way. Too many books are being cancelled because people don’t understand what the book is actually about/trying to do–often because they haven’t read it. Zhao is a good example; proponents of diversity ended up silencing a diverse opinion because it was a non-Western perspective and they didn’t understand it. I have also seen people angry because they can’t separate a character from the author; they assume the presence of a sexist character, for instance, means the author is promoting sexist views. And people who missed social commentary, such as in Eleanor & Park, where Park feels inadequate because he doesn’t see characters like himself represented in media. This is clearly Rainbow Rowell critiquing how society influences people, yet some readers concluded Rowell must be racist since Park feels inadequate. Of course, Eleanor & Park wasn’t cancelled–but you see how it easily could have been, with the right Tweet to get a mob started.

    There’s also the issue that readers now seem to think that there is only ONE correct way to represent anything. So if someone writes a character with depression, for instance, people want to ban it because it doesn’t represent the way THEY experience depression. No matter that depression manifests different ways in different people. Readers are taking their idea of their lived truth and now using it to deny that others might experience things differently, which is antithetical to the whole idea of your “lived truth.” But people and readers are not a monolithic group. There’s no one way to be a woman, for instance. There’s no guarantee that every member of X group thinks and feels the same way. And it’s actually, I think, a little insulting that people are now acting like members of marginalized groups are basically a hivemind, and not individuals with their own lives, thoughts, and opinions.

    And a lot of the irony surrounding cancel culture is that you have a bunch of readers arguing that books should be cancelled–when they haven’t read the book in question. The spirit of intellectual inquiry and debate seems to be dead. All you need is one anonymous Tweet from someone purporting to have read a book and everyone assumes this Tweet is the one and only truth. Even though we’ve seen how often insulted readers have actually misread texts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a great addition to the conversation! I definitely agree that there seems to be some hivemind going on as well as Western perspective being the dominant and people not stopping to realize that there are more perspectives. It also frustrates me that people who read are making an opinion before actually reading the book themselves.
      Thank you so much for adding to this discussion!


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