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.
We are very sorry to @SarahDessen for the comments made in a news article by one of our alums in reference to our 2016 Common Read. They do not reflect the views of the university or Common Read Committee. (1/4)
— Northern State U. (@NorthernStateU) November 13, 2019
Hey Sarah! I'm the writer of this story, and I definitely didn't mean to be cruel by including this quote.
I am so sorry.
Common Read has specific set of criteria, and many, many novels wouldn't make the cut.
— Katherine Grandstrand (@kgrandstrandABR) November 12, 2019
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:
Something important I’d like to say. pic.twitter.com/3MIhe5rxxH
— sarahdessen (@sarahdessen) November 15, 2019
I absolutely messed up. When I responded to Dessen’s tweet I didn’t read the article just the screenshot. I related to a fellow author feeling the sting of criticism. I had no idea the young woman was not anonymous or was being harassed. I apologize for my part in all this.
— roxane gay (@rgay) November 15, 2019
Same (RTing Roxane because as always she says it better than I can). I wanted to express sympathy to a fellow author, which I still feel, but absolutely do not support anyone targeting or harassing the woman involved. I apologize for my part in this, as well. https://t.co/pno1ja6U4X
— Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) November 16, 2019
Adding to @pronounced_ing and @rgay’s comments here. In no way would I or do I condone harassment and it upsets me to know that mentality prevailed when my comments were only meant to support an author and the genre in which she writes. My apologies to all who have been hurt. https://t.co/ihQabagSEU
— Jodi Picoult (@jodipicoult) November 16, 2019
Something else that needs to be said re the Dessen affair: I need to apologize to Brooke Nelson. I have nothing but sympathy for her as the young woman at the center of all of this. I've been harassed; it's hurtful and scary. If I contributed to that in any way, I'm sorry.
— N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin) November 16, 2019
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.
A self reminder to avoid reading these authors' work moving forward:
Sarah Dessen, Dhonielle Clayton, Jenny Han, Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, N.K. Jemisin, Roxane Gay, Siobhan Vivian, Tiffany D. Jackson,
Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan, Angie Thomas, Adam SILVERA & Celeste Ng
— Void Changeling (@Felicity_M2) November 16, 2019