Lessons Learned: Writing Career = Harsh Criticism

This past week, young adult author Sarah Dessen tweeted a quote from a college article by a woman who campaigned against her books in a campus reading program years ago. Many authors including Roxane Gay and Siobhan Vivian came to Sarah’s defense—until fans clapped back when the woman was being called derogatory names by top women authors. The authors backpedaled with some Twitter users accusing Sarah of white female victimhood and the authors of attacking readers with opinions on their works.

As of the weekend, the discriminatory tweets have disappeared from top authors’ Twitter feeds, including Siobhan Vivian, author of YA book We Are the Wildcats, who tweeted “Fuck that fucking bitch” about the quoted woman with Sarah saying “I love you” back.

Dhonielle Clayton, author of multicultural fantasy YA novel The Belles and co-founder of We Need Diverse Books, called the quoted woman a “raggedy ass fucking bitch.” Tiffany Jackson, author of YA novels Allegedly and Monday’s Not Coming, agreed. Siobhan’s Twitter account doesn’t exist anymore and her professional website has been made private, and Dhonielle’s account, which was very active with thousands of followers and tweets, now only has tweets from Nov. 14.

The Nov. 12 article in question came from The Aberdeen News on Northern State University’s Common Read program. Brooke Nelson, now a master’s degree student, says in the article:

“She’s fine for teen girls. But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

Brooke, according to the article, helped with the 2017 selection, which became Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a memoir by a civil rights lawyer in pursuit of justice which will be a movie starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. Sarah’s 2016 novel Saint Anything was in the running, a Vulture article reported. After Sarah mentioned the criticism in the infamous now-deleted tweet, the university issued an apology on Twitter in support of Sarah and against the free speech of an alum. Even the reporter apologized for adding the quote.

The Washington Post was one of the first news outlets to see the Twitter feud unfold. The reporter interviewed Brooke, who said the quote was taken out of context with her emphasizing she didn’t think Sarah’s book was appropriate as a top book for her college crowd, and asked for her input:

Nelson, for her part, said she hopes the controversy draws more people to read books that will encourage them to think critically about pressing social issues.

“If anything comes out of this larger conversation,” Nelson told The Post, “I hope it is that others will make it a point to read books like [‘Just Mercy’] that push them beyond their usual perspective and challenge their assumptions of society.”

 

Not everybody is going to like your book. And sometimes like in Sarah’s case, your book may be heavily scrutinized in some scenarios, even in a small-town news story about a small-town university’s book program. This comes with the territory.

Also, this story shows even as outspoken writers you have to be careful about what you decide to share publicly. Social media is an important asset to connecting with fans and readers, and now some of the authors involved have chosen to start over or take a break while most just deleted the first tweet in support of Sarah and tweeted an apology instead.

Ignore the haters if you don’t have anything nice to say; if it’s threatening in any way, then report the tweet and block the user, but just breathe when you see something constructive that you don’t like. Let it go, and if someone asks about the criticism, don’t respond or say something diplomatic because at the end of the day not everyone is going to like your work and they have the right to say so.

The unfortunate Twitter saga has some followers promoting a boycott, so we’ll keep a watch on how the authors involved will be impacted. Earlier this year, Netflix announced making three of Sarah’s novels into films.

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