Backtalk: YA’s Cancel Culture

This week, Dahlia and Amy dig into the world of YA drama. Recently, two YA authors have chosen to cancel their own debut novels after being called out by some readers for “problematic” issues in the text. Dahlia and Amy talk about the effects of a cancel culture that demands perfect art. Also, a Petty Political Pminute on what may be the road ahead to 45’s impeachment. And Amy vs. Dahlia is debating the worst of the worst: manspreading vs mansplaining! What’s your choice? Text “Man” to 503-855-6485 to let us know what you think!

 

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This episode of Backtalk is sponsored by Lewis & Clark College’s 38th annual Gender Studies Symposium in Portland, Oregon, from March 13–15. Titled “Who Cares?,” this symposium will examine topics such as reproductive justice, emotional labor, medical care, transnational care work, and care as resistance. Don’t miss out on this exciting series of free lectures, workshops, and panel discussions, an art exhibit, and a keynote talk by acclaimed author Maggie Nelson. We’ll see you on campus!

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Photo credit: Cover of A Place for Wolves by Kosoko Jackson
 

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TRANSCRIPT

DAHLIA: This episode of Backtalk is sponsored by Lewis and Clark College’s 38th annual Gender Studies Symposium, which will take place March 13th, 14th, and 15th in Portland, Oregon. Titled “Who Cares,” this symposium will examine topics such as reproductive justice, emotional labor, medical care, transnational care work, and care as resistance. Don’t miss out on this exciting series of free lectures, workshops and panel discussions, an art exhibit, and a keynote talk by acclaimed author Maggie Nelson. Learn more at Go.LClark.edu/gendersymp. We’ll see you on campus.

[theme music]

Welcome to Backtalk. This is the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Dahlia Balcazar, Senior Editor at Bitch Media.

AMY: And I’m Amy Lam, Contributing Editor at Bitch Media.

DAHLIA: We start every episode by talking about our pop culture moment of the week. Amy, what’s yours?

AMY: My pop culture moment has to do with the Oscars because of who won Best Picture. I felt like I could hear a collective groan across the land when Green Book picked it up.

DAHLIA: Oof.

AMY: [Chuckling.] I know. I mean I know I was groaning from my little home. But the most amazing part was right after that movie won the, L.A. Times published an ahmaaazing piece called Green Book Is The Worst Picture Winner Since Crash.” And it’s written by a writer, his name is Justin Chang. And I just loved his take down. It is so smart. It is succinct, and it just goes, lays in on why this is like a bad choice and also why this bad choice sort of supports white supremacist understanding of racial relations in this country. So, my favorite pop culture moment is this piece.

This review of Green Book as the Best Picture win is like a piece of art on its own right. Honestly, I think people should write short papers about this article. So, my pop culture moment is an article. Please check it out. It is on LATimes.com, written by Justin Chang.

DAHLIA: And since we argued about the Oscars, we’re gonna talk about it a little bit more. We’ll recap our argument when we get to Dahlia Vs. Amy in a second. In October of last year, the writer Stephen Elliott filed a lawsuit in New York court against Moira Donegan. She is the writer and the creator of the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet that was circulating last year. In his lawsuit, Stephen Elliott was listed on the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet because he’s a shitty media man. And he has denied some of the allegations that are on the spreadsheet. And so, he sued the creator of the spreadsheet, Moira Donegan, for defamation and emotional distress. So, that happened.

You know, I’ve sort of been following this since last, since October. But on Friday of last week, Stephen Elliott appeared before Brooklyn federal Judge Lashann DeArcy Hall, who just shut down all of his arguments. So, Stephen Elliott’s lawyers said that because Moira Donegan had tweeted things like, “I hate men,” that that meant that she was intentionally inflicting emotional distress on men. And so, here’s what the judge said. The judge said, “Let’s assume she hates men. Just for the record, let’s assume she hates men. I don’t see how you can go from her generalized hatred of men to a reasonable inference of malice with regard to your client.” So I like how the judge is like, Okay, maybe she hates men, but does she hate you? I don’t know what that has specifically to do with this man. So, the judge actually ended up dismissing the count of emotional damage, although she’s allowing the pursuing the defamation charge. But Stephen Elliott and his lawyer only have until the end of this week to let the judge know if they’re gonna amend their complaint or not. Otherwise, this could be fully dismissed within two weeks.

I think a lot of people had a lot of dread seeing what happened to Moira Donegan, you know, that she was working on this crowdsourced document to help protect women from the shitty and unethical behavior of men that they might run into in their careers. And it just felt like so devastating to see that this woman is gonna be dragged through court. She was being threatened with huge, huge financial, a huge financial burden. And I think it’s very, very satisfying and pleasing to see the judge be like, “Okay. We’ll assume she does hate men. What does that have to do with you specifically?” And so, I can’t wait till this gets fully thrown out of court.

I also think it’s really cool that Moira Donegan is being defended by the Time’s Up legal defense fund. That’s one of the really concrete things to have come out of the Time’s Up movement. The legal defense fund connects people who have experienced sexual misconduct in the workplace with legal and public relations assistance. So I’m eager to see all charges dismissed, and more shitty media men should be taken down.

[cutesy bells ring]

It’s been a little while since we’ve had a petty political p-minute. I think partly it’s just so hard to squish all of this stuff into a p-minute. But we really had one of the most momentous days in the Trump presidency last week. I know it’s wild to say that because it’s like every day is momentous, certainly every Friday feels like something cataclysmic is about to happen. But on Wednesday of last week, Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former fixer and lawyer testified. It was actually one day of open testimony, but he’d also testified for hours in front of Congress in closed doors testimony. I watched, honestly, I watched it all day long. It was like eight or so hours. And of course, the Republicans spent a lot of time being blustery and being mad, and the Democrats spent a lot of time asking very precise questions.

But a lot of really bananas stuff came out of it, some of the things that we know now because of Michael Cohen’s testimony. We know that Donald Trump cut a check to Michael Cohen for $35,000 in August 2017. That’s of course, while he was president. He cut that check from his personal bank account to reimburse Michael Cohen for hush money.

AMY: Totally normal. Very, very normal.

DAHLIA: Totally normal. Can you imagine if you’re like “I’m writing my check for my crimes. And I’m literally writing a check, and it has my name on it and the date and my address.” Like he actually wrote a check to cover up his crimes.

We also know that there, according to Michael Cohen, there was conversation between Trump and his associate Roger Stone regarding WikiLeaks. You know, Trump manipulated the value of his assets. And we learned that Michael Cohen sent threatening letters to Trump’s high school, college and the College Board saying like, “I’ll sue you if you ever even think about releasing Trump’s grades or SAT scores.” So, you know that they’re quite bad. Cohen is going to be reporting to prison in May. But as he made clear during his testimony, he’s still actively participating with investigators working out of the Southern District of New York, which is where there are a lot of other Trump— Many speculate—I mean we know that a lot of other Trump crimes are being investigated by the Southern District of New York. And in fact, there was a terrific moment. Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi asked him, “Is there any other wrongdoing or illegal act that you were aware of regarding Donald Trump that we haven’t discussed yet?” And Cohen said, “Yes. Those are part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York.” And honestly, I felt like something exploded in my heart. I was like, oh my god, there’s more!

All of this was happening while Trump was in Vietnam trying to come to a deal with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. That ended catastrophically with no deal. And another thing Trump has to not look forward to is that just a few days ago, the Democrats announced that they have launched a Judiciary Committee investigation into, they’re calling it a broad investigation into President Trump. They issued document requests for 81 people and entities, and people are saying this is potentially trying to lay the groundwork for impeachment. So, while many thought maybe Michael Cohen’s testimony would, you know, Republicans hope it would be the end of a chapter. Democrats are just opening the book and saying, here’s all this stuff that Michael talked about, and we would also love to continue talking about it.

So, man! I mean I know it’s been like three years of all this Trump nightmare and not to say that it’s closer to ending, but I think everything everyone thought he had done, all the crimes he did were the real crimes he did. And I think you know…gah. It’s like it’s painful in a way to be watching these Republicans just cover their ears and cover their eyes and be like, I’m not listening. I don’t care. I’m not listening. I don’t care. While the rest of us are like, oh, wow. He committed a shit ton of crimes. But that’s the world we live in now, and we have both the pending drop of Mueller’s report, hopefully this month. That’s what people are saying. And then also who knows what’s going on with the Southern District of New York that may someday press charges against Trump and his 81 associates.

[cutesy bells ring]

AMY: Thank you, Dahlia, for that petty political p-minute because all this shit is like, there’s just too much information and so much to process that sometimes it’s difficult for me to get all of my information ducks in a line. And so, I really appreciate it when you’re able to condense everything so that it makes sense and so that— We all know that we’re like one centimeter closer to impeaching this motherfucker. [Laughs.]

So I was trying to think of what do we do with our rage? We could make it productive rage by going onto iTunes and rating and reviewing us. [Laughs.] You like how I turned this into a plug to go to iTunes and rate and review us?

DAHLIA: Yes.

AMY: [Chuckles.] It’s so helpful for us at our visibility for the podcast if you could rate and review us on iTunes. And while we were on break, some people left some amazing reviews. I’ve been telling you guys for days that I read them all the time. I check in. It’s kind of like when I get a piece of mail that isn’t junk mail or a bill in my [laughs] in my mailbox. It’s kind of really exciting going to a mailbox to see if there’s anything interesting. Sometimes I get a postcard. So, whenever I get a sweet review on iTunes, it’s like getting a postcard from a friend I didn’t know I had.

DAHLIA: Aw!

AMY: I know. So, recently somebody named N MarLaine wrote, “This podcast is so cathartic. I find myself increasingly feeling isolated, and it’s refreshing to listen to criticism that I agree with but feel too scared to voice myself.”

DAHLIA: Ooh.

AMY: Yes! I mean that’s like… When I read that, I was kind of floored by that sentiment that maybe there are folks that are, I don’t know, that feel like they don’t have the strength to say the things that we’re saying. So yes, I mean if we could be anything for you, if we could be these rage cheerleaders. [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: Yay, rage cheerleaders.

AMY: Yeah, these catharticism cheerleaders, like I’m so glad that we’re in the place that we can do this. And if you have similar feelings, please head over to iTunes and rate and review us. It helps boost visibility for our podcast and let other people know about us. Thank you so much!

[cutesy bells ring]

DAHLIA: In every episode of Backtalk, Amy and I argue about something. And I think this is, I’m like so bamboozled by this Amy vs. Dahlia.

AMY: [Chuckles.]

DAHLIA: Because we were both so wrong! Last week—

AMY: So wrong.

DAHLIA: —we argued, or last episode of Backtalk, we argued about who we thought was gonna win the Best Picture Oscar. I really thought it was gonna be The Favourite. I felt like it was sort of a noncontroversial choice amongst potentially controversial choices. And Amy thought it was gonna be Roma because of how beautiful the film is and sort of how impactful the win would be in this political moment. I hope I’m paraphrasing your argument correctly, Amy.

AMY: You got it.

DAHLIA: Okay. Turns out, Amy, most of our listeners thought you were right. They also thought Roma was gonna win. A few people told us we were both wrong, which is what ended up happening. We’ve never been so wrong. Actually, Cher, our producer, while we were recording last week straight up said to us, she was like, “I think you’re both wrong. I think Green Book is gonna win.” And I was like, “What?! How could that be? Who would do that? How could this happen?!”

But I should’ve known, of course, the worst thing that could happen would be the thing that happens at the Oscars. And as Amy said earlier, Green Book, the movie about white saviors that like really no one wants or needs ever won Best Picture. And it was so anticlimactic. It was like, there was no host for the Oscars. So, when they won, Julia Roberts, who gave the award was like “Oh. I guess it’s over now? Okay. I guess let’s all go home. See ya later!”

AMY: [Chuckles.]

DAHLIA: ‘Cause like everyone was so done.

AMY: [Laughs.] I mean I was done. [laughs] Okay. But let’s be clear, though. Though Green Book who won the Best Picture award, I won the argument.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

DAHLIA: That’s true. Okay. Totally true.

AMY: Because—

DAHLIA: True.

AMY: Because people voted for Roma too. [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: Okay true. All right. Another one that Amy won. [laughs] We’ll see. We’ll see about this time. This time Amy and I have a really important argument. It’s about two different, very bad man behaviors. I present to you which is worse, manspreading or mansplaining? Obviously, it’s very difficult to decide. But since this is all about deciding, I have chosen the side I believe manspreading to be the worst. Here’s my thought. Mansplaining, if a man is ‘splaining, you can walk away. You can be like, “No! Stop telling me that. I already know that.” You can, there’s a lot of things you can do to a mansplainer.

And I hate to say, sometimes mansplainers are even your friends, you know? And so, you have to be like, “Oh, sorry. I actually totally know that.” Anyway, you can shut down mansplainers in various ways. But manspreaders, I’ve found, are almost always strangers, and I don’t wanna interact with a strange man. And I certainly don’t want to tell a strange man like, “Yo! Why are you sitting like this? Do you understand that like you’re being super rude?” I wanna have no conversation with men that I met, strange men ever, certainly not on public transportation. Any number of really weird things could happen when you talk to a man on public transportation.

But I feel like manspreading sort of spreads—oh my god. No pun intended— manspreading spreads this message that is like women don’t belong in public space. Like if I’m being a man, I’m manspreading, I’m saying like, I don’t care about your comfort. I don’t care about your space. I own this space, not you. Get the fuck out of here. Like that’s what I feel like it says every time someone manspreads, especially I keep saying on public transportation ‘cause I think that’s where the manspreading is the worst. And I feel like manspreading is so hard to combat because you know it’s so difficult to say something to someone. You don’t wanna start a conversation with a stranger. And third, it’s like it just pisses you off for the whole rest of your commute. ‘Cause you’re like, that fucking guy wouldn’t let me sit down, and now I’m having a shitty day.

I just feel like…you know, I think mansplaining can be an accident. I think that men can ‘splain with good intentions. And then with your good intentions, you should be like, “Hey, you’re ‘splaining. Can you stop ‘splaining?” But I think manspreaders don’t ever do it with good intention. They always do it to project some sort of like, I’m a cool dude. Fuck you. I own the world. Like I think that’s what manspreading says, and I fucking hate that!

AMY: [Laughs.] First thing, I really love that you’re using ‘splain as a verb.

 

DAHLIA: [Laughs.]

AMY: My argument against that is I think that mansplaining or ‘splaining as it were is way worse than manspreading. I think first of all, it’s because I’m such a fucking introvert and a hermit that I am not in as many public spaces to get manspread on. [Chuckles.]

DAHLIA: Oh, I see. I see. [Laughs.]

AMY: So, I’ve been able to inoculate myself from it just because I just keep myself out of spaces where I can be manspreaded upon. But I think that mansplaining is way worse because it’s way more insidious, and it has real life, real world effects, you know, like in the workplace if I gave you have a male coworker who mansplains things to you over you while you’re trying to talk. Or even like in medicine when you’re like, you know, there’ve been studies about how women, or even particularly Black women, if they go into medical settings where they need to talk about like how they’re not feeling well, they’ll have like a doctor doctorsplain/mansplain to them how their symptoms are not real. Or like on the internet, on Twitter, we see mansplaining interactions all the time. And you know what? One time, I got fucking mansplained in a grocery store parking lot. [laughing] That’s how insidious this shit is.

DAHLIA: [Laughs.]

AMY: This guy you know, out of Mississippi—I have Oregon plates on my car—and this guy was just like, “Oh, you’re from Oregon.” So, we start talking about it. And he asked me what I was doing out here. And I was like, “Oh, yeah. I’m studying in the creative writing MFA.” And so, he was like, “Oh, you’re a writer!” And I was like, “Yes. And so, he was kind of mansplaining to me what the world of communications and marketing and jobs was like—

DAHLIA: Oh no.

AMY: He literally offered me this, or very informally, was just like, “Hey, if you’re ever looking for a communications like PR job, hit me up.”

DAHLIA: [Laughs.]

AMY: I’m like, “Bitch!” [laughs] Do you know who I am?!

BOTH: [Laugh.]

AMY: I was like, I don’t need your job! [laughs] But I think that mansplaining’s just like, has such serious real-world effects that I just can’t get over how pervasive it is. And yeah, I think that people in our personal lives do it to us, but also perfect strangers always feeling a way about coming into my face and telling me things and how I should be doing stuff. So, I think that it’s harmful in the way projects that often people who are not men would just know better. Like they just have a better base of knowledge, and that we’re just not doing anything right. I think that’s the same way how you’re talking about manspreading, like it’s about men taking up space. And I think that in this sense, this is also about men taking up space, but taking up so many different types of spaces that could make it so that it looks like you’re doing poor job performance or that you’re not really as sick as you are when you’re in a medical setting. Or that you’re just trying to get along and like put your groceries in the trunk of your car, and this guy’s talking your ear off ‘cause he thinks that he knows better about what you should do with your career. [laughs] So, I think that mansplaining is way worse, and we’ve all been mansplained upon big and small.

DAHLIA: [Chuckles.]

AMY: So I think that our audiences will totally agree with me. I’m sorry, Dahlia.

DAHLIA: I know. Well, certainly I think this will be contentious, but I do feel like you made a good argument. But I’m gonna stop now and say we would love to hear what you think. If you would text the word “man” to 503-855-6485. That’s the word “man” to 503-855-6485. Let us know what you think. And also, I’m gonna ask you in advance, think of like if you have a great manspreading or mansplaining—and by great, I mean terrible—anecdote.

AMY: Yes! Yes.

DAHLIA: Oh my god. Please share that, and we’ll read those next week.

AMY: Tell us. [Laughs.]

DAHLIA: We can’t wait to hear. So, text “man” to 503-855-6485.

[cutesy bells ring]

AMY: Recently, there’s been a few stories about fandom criticism and cancel culture, particularly in the YA world, like the young adult literature world and YA twitter. So, most recently is a story about Kosoko Jackson and his debut novel A Place for Wolves, which is about two young gay men of color who fall in love amidst the turmoil and the destruction during the Kosovo War in the ’90s. So, some background is that Kosovo Jackson himself, he’s a Black queer man who does work as a sensitivity reader for other publications. This means that he reads other people’s work to make sure it’s culturally appropriate. And often, people who are sensitivity readers will sort of read for things that have to do with their own identity. So, there are sensitivity readers who are trans, who are disabled, who are queer, who are like a specific type of person of color. And they might read your work to be like, oh, your treatment of this character makes sense, or your treatment of this character is stereotypical or exploitative. So, Kosoko Jackson himself was doing that type of work, and he was very active, a very active part in the YA community that calls out problematic material.

And so, what’s happened recently is that he was on the receiving end of the call out. So, he was called out, of all places on Goodreads, when a reviewer accused the book of being insensitive to genocide of Albanian Muslims. The book was accused of being sort of Islamophobic to an extent. Yet the reviewers still gave the book two stars because it was well-written. [Laughs.] So, the uproar around the review caused people to call out Jackson to the point where he asked his own publisher to pull his book from publication. This is his debut novel, which was supposed to come out later this month. This incident is super bizarre, but it isn’t isolated. Because in January, writer Amélie Wen Zhao who is Chinese, Chinese American I believe, she is a writer of a fantasy novel called The Blood Heir, and that novel got called out for accusations of racial insensitivity where Amélie Wen Zhao, she’s also known as being part of the YA call out culture. But after some folks had read advance copies of her novel, it was called off for the mistreatment of a Black character and even for plagiarism. And the call out was so intense that she canceled her own book. She’s just straight up like, “I’m just not gonna publish it, period.” So, this is mostly Twitter backlash. It’s kind of mobish from the YA fandom, and so we wanted to talk about what it means to sort of call out work by people who are culturally sensitive or doing work to help further POC or representation of marginalized folks in the publishing world.

And the thing that I think that like why there’s so much uproar and so much fervor in YA literature community is because publishing is overwhelmingly white. Overwhelmingly, publishers, editors, heads of publishing houses are white, and so I think that audiences are hungry for good representation in literature. But what does it mean when they’re sort of cannibalizing themselves? When call out culture is so intense that these writers are getting nitpicked over their work? And so, when Kosoko Jackson got called out on Goodreads, then a ton of people went onto Goodreads and gave it one-star reviews without ever having read the book. They were basing their feelings about the book off of another super-long review on another website. And is it fair to call out and to say, you know, to ask publishers to not put these works out because of one person’s interpretation of how it went down in the novel?

DAHLIA: I understand the impulse to say, “Oh, this material is harmful. This material is dangerous. I don’t wanna engage with this material. But I wanna alert other people that they also shouldn’t engage with this material.” I understand that impulse. And at the same time, as writers, as editors, I also feel like it’s really hard. You know, many of these call outs are happening not only without this book having been read by the person criticizing it, but in many cases, with the book not even being published yet, right? Like some of these authors are canceling their books before they even come out because there’s so much contention around just the premise or just the blurb or just the setting.

And the sort of like the college student in me is like, well, you can’t criticize something. You can’t mount an argument against something if you haven’t read it, if you haven’t engaged with it, if you don’t know what it is. And at the same time, I know that like…I wouldn’t say that about material that promotes the KKK or material that is pro-Nazi. You know, on its face, there is material that is intrinsically harmful and dangerous. And I think it is both interesting and problematic how those ideas are sort of swirling around in the YA community right now.

AMY: You know what’s super wild is that in both of these instances, with Amélie Wen Zhao and with Kosoko Jackson, is that they’re both writers of colors themselves, and Kosoko Jackson is also gay. And so, it’s like it just feels icky. And like yes, I’m well aware that there are POC and that there are people from marginalized communities who can be horrible human beings who have not great ideologies that they practice. But these two people don’t seem like that. You know, I mean I think that their works overall, from other people who have read them, both of their respective novels, is that like overall, they’re like, these are works that are not promoting hate or promoting something that’s awful. It’s just that they’re telling a story in a specific way that readers don’t appreciate or don’t think it’s fair or right. And I think part of it is that it has to do with there’s such a lack of representation that there’s kind of like this demand that every type of representation be perfect.

And you know, I think that like in Jackson’s novel, the Goodreads review that kind of went viral, they spent—‘cause I read the review—that reviewer spends an inordinate amount of time describing how the war in Kosovo was a genocide, that people died, that it’s not like some kind of cute backdrop for a gay love story. But I think that there’s kind of a little bit of a bad faith argument happening there when how can somebody argue against or argue back against somebody saying, “Well, tons of people died. There was a genocide. Therefore, your book is insensitive.” It’s kind of difficult to argue against that without looking like a complete jerk, you know. And so, I think that sometimes these types of call outs come from a place where it’s not about making that writer’s work stronger but just about tearing it down. And you know it kind of has these icky feelings of censorship because then can anything be published if it’s not “perfect?”

You know, and I was reflecting very deeply on this because, as a person who’s writing a fictional piece that might be touching on things that some people might say are not handled well or isn’t representative of these people from a specific marginalized community, I wonder, how does call out culture or cancel culture affect that? And then it made me think about times when I participated in it, and what’s the difference from when I did that to how I’m reacting very sympathetically? Personally I’m very sympathetic to these two writers and how, in a way, they got bullied to the point where they don’t feel like they can’t publish their work. I still think they should publish it and let readers decide. Because like I said, tons of these reviews popped up without anybody having read it. And it’s based on a handful of people’s opinions on how a certain thing was being treated. But I think about how we as—like you and I on Backtalk in particular—we talked about, remember when the guys who do the HBO show Game of Thrones said that they were going to do a show called Confederate.

DAHLIA: Yes, yeah.

AMY: Yeah. And so, they wanted to do a show that I think the name in and of itself triggered a lot of us, you know. Like do not produce a show called Confederate in this landscape right now.

DAHLIA: Right.

AMY: But it was supposed to be about, I think the premise that I had heard was that what would have happened if the enslavement of Africans was never abolished, and it continued? And what would America look like at this time and place if that were still true? And so, I remember being like, fuck you guys. Don’t make this show. The show sounds terrible. HBO needs to cancel the show before a script is even drafted, you know. And what did two white guys know about this experience? How are they gonna do this thing justice? Like we had a whole segment about it. But I think that in that case, I think that there are nuances to that type of argument. And I don’t know if like—and I’m still trying to think, honestly reflecting whether or not that was a fair thing to put upon a show like that. But I think that the difference here, if I can sort of parse it, is that the thing about HBO paying these two guys who are so fucking rich to do this is that HBO really does have a specific limited sort of airtime that they can give people and a sort of funding that they can give people to put on their TV station. Whereas, I think with publishing, there aren’t as many limits. And so, I think that there should be space for folks to publish whatever they wanna publish, and then the marketplace dictates whether or not those things succeed. Like you’re saying, of course I don’t think that white supremacist literature should be celebrated or should get to be on New York Times bestseller’s list. That’s why we were like, fucking cancel Milo Yiannopoulos’s book.

DAHLIA: Right.

AMY: Also, when we saw drafts of that book, it looked like trash.

DAHLIA: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.]

AMY: You know what I mean? And I think that the most offensive thing about Milo Yiannopoulos’s book was that he got crazy amounts of money for it. He was given like a quarter million advance or something for it. And I think in those instances, we are more upset that this guy’s profiting off of ugly, ugly rhetoric. Whereas I’m thinking now about these two debut novelists writing about like a fantasy world or writing about two young gay men of color struggling to come of age in a really, during a really awful time. They’re not making anywhere near as hundreds of thousand dollars off of this thing. Let them express their art. And if, as a community, people who have read the book can read it and see like, Okay, these are how these things were mishandled or this is not good representation or this is actually harmful to the community, we can all have the same text and refer to it and have those things backed up.

And I think that in that case, it’s different than somebody who’s been spewing hate like Milo Yiannopoulos and who is legitimately profiting from it in the tens of thousands and that he can continue to build a community around his work, a community that could cause serious, real harm. I don’t know if that’s true of a fantasy novel called Blood Heir or another novel about these two young gay lovers. I don’t think that there are going to be hordes of hate mongers rallying around those two books and using them as texts to support their hate.

DAHLIA: I think considering the positionality of the person being called out is exactly the key to understanding what feels icky or what feels different about this. Because like you’re saying, there is a world of difference between two white men who have been successful, hugely successful on TV getting offered a project by a huge conglomerate. I think that’s very different from, in these examples that we’ve been talking about, most of these writers who ended up canceling their own books are writers of color or multiply-marginalized writers. And I think that person trying to make art, in many cases, their debut novel, I just think the positionality of that is so different. They have completely different advantages and privileges and aims. I think it’s so much easier to be like, well obviously, on its face, Milo Yiannopoulos’s work is grosser. On its face, this show, Confederate is gross because it is, we know, about profit. Because we know HBO is a huge conglomerate, because we know Milo Yiannopoulos is only about himself. And I think that’s different than if we’re assuming that these writers are writing in good faith, which I absolutely do, I believe that they’re trying to express something meaningful or important. And maybe they made mistakes. I mean of course! I’m always saying writers make mistakes; people make mistakes.

And I think part of what feels so kind of icky is these writers agree that they made mistakes, and rather then—but I think what’s unfortunate is rather than feeling like they had the ability or that anyone would give them the chance to engage with that feedback and make those changes, maybe it was too late. But in some, again, some of these books hadn’t even been released. I think it says a lot when we examine these marginalized creators who say like, “Oh, you’re right. I’m sorry. I never”—And they release these very lengthy and good apologies saying, “I intended to do this. I didn’t intend to do this. Here’s why I’m not writing this book anymore.” And I think both their position and their response is so different from people making a show about the Klan at HBO and then being like, “Oh, well, you’ll like it when you see it. You’ll see. You’ll like it. It’ll be better when you see it.” You know, I just think that’s part of the issue of it, is like where is the good faith? And also who is getting what kind of money for it?

AMY: These are products that come out. And I think it’s unfair to demand that they be do they do all things for all people like. I honestly think about the things that we love. Like art pieces that we love that are not perfect art and that we’re all you know we’re always equal it’s all a matter of that. But like everything else about it is amazing it’s doing all this other stuff and how those specific types of pieces of art enrich our life even though they’re not perfect.

And I think that we’re forgetting that these are pieces of art from folks who have historically been left out in the publishing world. And I think that that means something, and I think that for these YA Twitter mobs to attack these writers. Who I can’t imagine how long they spent conjuring these worlds and putting these characters’ lives together and rendering them so that they’re fun to read, that they’re beautiful sentences, making all this happen, and then to have a Twitter mob say, “Yeah, well the representation just wasn’t good enough. Like the setting was inappropriate for that.” Who’s to say? I can’t say that now because the book isn’t gonna be published. And I just don’t know how productive it is, and I think that like—

I think we’ve talked about this a little bit on Backtalk, but I think that cancel cultures can be and is sometimes way more harmful than the thing that it’s trying to cancel. [laughs] I think that there’s sometimes, for folks from marginalized communities’ sake, sometimes we have just been so hurt that we don’t know what else to do but to sort of exert some type of power. And I think that canceling things feels really powerful. It feels so powerful, and social media and the way that we interact on social media gives us a way to sort of exert that power. And I think that the way like Twitter works, it’s not exactly a place for serious debate or engagement. It’s actually a place that like it’s easy to rile people up, and it’s easy to create mob responses. And I don’t know how productive that is. And now there are these two books that could have been really great. But because people called them out for very specific issues, “issues,” they won’t be published for the time being.

And it kind of hurts my heart as a writer and as an artist and to think that these writers and artists made things that I think that they truly believed in. And I know that these two people aren’t ignorant, you know. They were also part of communities that were really sensitive to these things. I don’t believe that they went into writing something that’s Islamophobic or writing something that’s anti-Black. I think that they should publish the work and then have lots of people read it and to see what the consensus feeling is about that representation and if the text backs it up. I think that we’re living in a time where clicks and outrage is actually prioritized over giving something time and actually investing energy into seeing what the real issue is.

[cutesy bells ring]

DAHLIA: At the end of every episode of Backtalk we share something we’re reading, watching, and listening to. I just finished reading the book The New Me by Halle Butler. It really spoke to me in the sense of have you ever felt like capitalism is fully ruining everyone’s life? That’s what this book is about!

BOTH: [Laugh.]

DAHLIA: The New Me is about a woman named Millie. She’s in her 30s, she lives in Chicago, and she works a temp job. And it’s sort of stream of consciousness but also, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set sort of like in the work place that I found so affecting. But as Millie sort of cycles through her bullshit temp job, her commute, she’s also kind of an alcoholic, and so she sort of drinks to forget the day and then starts the day all over. You know, sort of the monotony and like the drudgery and the pain of all of that I think is a really sharp bitter commentary on you know capitalism and earning a paycheck so that we can go to bed at our apartment and then come back to keep earning the paycheck and sort of the cycle of can we ever escape capitalism and have a meaningful life. And I know that sounds depressing. It is a bit depressing but in a funny way it’s a dark comedy about capitalism and how to make how to have a meaningful life.

I also want to recommend movie that I saw a couple of weeks ago but I have not been able to stop thinking about it. I actually think I’ve watched it like three times total. It is the movie Velvet Buzzsaw on Netflix. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette. It has a supporting role, which actually, small side note: I’ve been recently thinking about how many horror movies Toni Collette is in, and it’s a lot!

AMY: Yes.

DAHLIA: It’s so many.

AMY: Yes!

DAHLIA: It’s so many. I just re-watched The Sixth Sense.

AMY: Yes!

DAHLIA: And I was like, wow! Toni, you look so young. Anyway, she must really love horror movies. I love that about her. Velvet Buzzsaw is a horror movie, but I will say it is not scary at all. Just sort of its horror premise is like what if art was haunted? So, just accept that premise. But really, what it’s about also is capitalism and the art market and sort of the ways in which art has become a consumer good and not artistic, personal exploration. It is also a dark comedy. Amy, what did you think? I know you watched it too.

AMY: Yes, I watched it, and I loved it. It’s so fun. It’s also super campy. So, it’s kind of like campy, and visually it’s super rich. I just, I loved the visuals of it, and the acting is amazing. I think that when I was watching it, I texted you.

DAHLIA: [Laughs.]

AMY: I don’t even remember this, but I was like, oh my god. Watching Jake Gyllenhaal, I was like, I was like my heterosexuality is jumping out at me.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

AMY: Like what the fuck? It was so good. And Toni Collette’s amazing. I think that Toni Collette needs, I think that they need to give her some kind of big ass award for being such an amazing horror actor.

DAHLIA: Lifetime achievement. [Laughs.]

AMY: Yes! So good. And also, John Malkovich is in it, and he’s also really great. And just really great performances from other actors I had not seen before. So, I echo Dahlia’s recommendation to watch Velvet Buzzsaw.

Also, I have the listen pick! So, the track that I chose is from a supergroup called Our Native Daughters, which is put together by Rhiannon Giddens. So, Rhiannon Giddens is a Grammy Award winner, and she was also awarded a MacArthur genius prize.

DAHLIA: Whoa.

AMY: So, she kind of convened, yeah, she convened together this supergroup that consists of Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla, and Amythyst Kiah early last year to play Americana folk music full of banjo and soulful singing. So, all of these women are Black women who do Americana music. And there’s this picture of them for their PR stuff where they’re all holding banjos.

DAHLIA: [Laughs.]

AMY: I’m just like, yes! What representation. I really am loving this. So, the track is called “Quesheba, Quesheba.” And one of the band members, Allison Russell, wrote this song as a tribute to her ancestor Quasheba, a woman who had been sold into the slave trade in Ghana. So, she was able to trace this and find this out. And so, she actually said, and I really wanna read this quote because it’s so touching. She said, “I knew I wanted to write about Quasheba, bring her forward, and basically thank her. It really made sense to do that with a group of ladies. It sounds hokey, but when we were writing and recording, we felt surrounded by circle of ancestors and their strengths. In these times where there’s all this toxic talk surrounding immigration, I think a lot about how we all come from displaced people and how there’s resilience in those stories as well as pain. But there is a vast, deep pool of strength that carries all of us forward.” So, I’m like yeah, damn! I don’t think I’ve heard sort of folk music from an all-women, all-Black women group.

DAHLIA: Yeah.

AMY: And so, I was just so excited to discover this. The group is called Our Native Daughters. And this track is so beautiful.

[“Quasheba, Quasheba” plays]

♪ Quasheba, Quasheba/
You’re free now, you’re free now/
How does your spirit fly? ♪

AMY: Thanks for listening!

DAHLIA: Thanks for listening.

♪ Blood of your blood/
Bone of your bone/
By the grace of your strength we have life…. ♪

DAHLIA: Thanks for listening to Backtalk. This show is produced by Cher Vincent. Bitch media is a reader- and listener-supported feminist nonprofit. If you wanna support the show and our work, please head over to bitchmedia.org and donate.

by Amy Lam
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Amy Lam is Bitch Media’s contributing editor. Find her at @amyadoyzie.