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Sarah Dessen Getty.jpg

Okay, Let’s Talk About Sarah Dessen And the Latest YA World Drama

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | November 15, 2019 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | November 15, 2019 |

Sarah Dessen Getty.jpg

I can’t lie: Every time I see subtweeting on my feed about the latest YA community drama or whatever has everyone up in arms that week, a shudder goes up and down my spine. As someone who got her start on the internet as a YA blogger, I have deep-seated respect and loyalty to the community in a way that can be tough to describe to people who have no knowledge of the publishing world or the historical and cultural context that young adult literature is a part of. You can’t talk about YA without discussing decades of misogyny and elitism, but you can also never get the full picture of this dedicated and often seriously tight-knit group through most mainstream media coverage of it. It feels like the vast majority of column inches dedicated to YA focus on either sneering at sparkly vampires, relating false concern over adult women who enjoy these books, and, more recently, bullsh*t rhetoric regarding censorship and hate mobs. Truthfully, I could write an entire thesis on this issue, including my own experiences in this world, and only scratch the surface. For now, I want to focus on the topic that has Twitter up in arms this week, why it happened, and why the response to it from otherwise well-meaning individuals, while coming from an understandable place, was ultimately misguided.

Sarah Dessen is an extremely popular and influential YA novelist who has been publishing books for over 23 years. She primarily writes highly emotional contemporary titles about adolescents growing up, discovering themselves, and frequently dealing with tragedy. Dessen is a regular presence on the New York Times best-seller list and someone who easily stands among the most beloved and recognizable figures in the history of contemporary YA. To put it bluntly, she is a very big deal.

This week, an article in the Aberdeen News quoted a student of Northern State University over the school’s involvement in the Common Read book club. She admitted that she joined the selection team with an express intent: ‘so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.’ The student, a junior, said that Dessen’s books were ‘fine for teen girls, but definitely not up to the level of Common Read.’ All in all, a pretty benign opinion, but one that’s also dishearteningly common with regards to YA: It’s ‘not up to the level’ of ‘real books’ and so on.

Dessen discovered this article and tweeted out the offending paragraph, covering up the student’s name, and sharing how hurt her feelings were over this incident. ‘Authors are real people,’ she wrote in a tweet that has since been deleted. ‘We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.’

Dessen’s fans soon rallied around her, with big names like Jodi Picoult, Roxane Gay, and Jennifer Weiner joining her. Many expressed disappointment with the way YA was yet again being denigrated as a frivolity unworthy of being put in contention with other genres and categories of literature. Soon, the student who gave the quote was discovered on social media and she eventually had to deactivate her Twitter and Facebook accounts over the harassment she received. Northern State University apologized to Dessen, as did the journalist who wrote the piece with the student’s quote.

This somewhat cryptic tweet seems to have been Dessen’s final word on the matter.

Part of being a YA reader, but especially a woman reading the category, is that you get dishearteningly used to being mocked, dismissed, and outright condemned for your choice of reading material. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people make nasty comments about YA I’ve shared with them, including some of my old English literature classmates during my undergrad years. I was told YA blogging was a waste of my time and energy, that these weren’t ‘real books’, that they were ‘dumbed down’ for silly girls, that they could never carry the emotional fortitude or literary merit of any number of old white guys who died before the beginning of the 20th century. As with anything you love that faces seemingly endless bad faith criticism and snobbery, you end up on something of a hair-trigger when it comes to defending it. Often, your fears are well-placed. The impact YA has had on publishing and literature as a whole for the past two decades is easy to downplay and it seldom gets the serious attention it deserves. Unless you take a special course on the subject (and there are few of those in universities), you don’t get to read a lot of YA and are rarely taught about its history (the same issues apply to romance, yet another genre driven by women.) A YA author living in this context reading an article where their work is potentially being denied a seat at the table of an academia-adjacent event will feel that sting for a reason.

YA is also a very particular fandom to be a part of. I’ve written before about how frequently toxic being part of that world could be and how YA readers were often treated horribly in places like Goodreads. I lived through the mess of Stop the Goodreads Bullies. I saw friends get doxed for giving bad reviews. I remember the story of the blogger who was almost killed by a writer she gave a bad review to. I think about Kathleen Hale and her media redemption story from people who never knew the full story way too damn much. One of the reasons I stepped away from YA to write more about general pop culture was because it became overwhelming to be in that environment. It’s strange to be in a fandom that’s constantly paranoid about who’s going to get doxed next, about whether or not your relatively mild two-star review will result in hate mail or someone setting up a website with your full name and job title to smear you with some horrid accusations because they perceive you to be a bully blogger (true story: happened to me many years ago.) All of those fears were tough enough but imagine dealing with them and knowing the outside world sees you as deserving it because it’s easier to buy the narrative that you’re all hysterical old lady bullies rather than fans who just wanted to enjoy the thing they loved without fear of stalking.

This is the context of YA as it currently stands, and that doesn’t even get into creeps like J*sse S*ngal trying to become authorities on the community in order to position it as a hive of censorship and mob rule. I’d tell him to go back to his day job but that gig is ceaseless transphobia, so maybe just take a nap.

It’s hard for me to look at the Dessen case and not see that paranoia. All that fogs my vision is that feeling of being on a hair-trigger and knowing that no matter how reasonable you are or how right your argument is, you won’t get the respect you deserve or have earned over years of hard work.

However, let’s be real here: Dessen shouldn’t have said anything on this issue.

Aberdeen News is a publication for a South Dakota city of just over 26,000 people. Northern State University has over 3,600 students. The issue of Dessen’s work was brought up by one student who was part of a larger committee to pick a book for a book club. In the grand scheme of things, this was a small fry issue and Dessen and company reacted to it with a fundamentally skewed sense of proportion. The Common Read project of NSU clearly has no problem with YA given that the previous two books the committee picked were by Angie Thomas and Ruta Sepetys. This wasn’t a panel to ban the book or remove it from the university’s curriculum or anything remotely resembling censorship. This wasn’t drama until Dessen made it so, and frankly, it seems like she did it more out of hurt feelings than any grander need to stand up for YA against a greater and more insidious force.

Dessen is very popular and has immensely dedicated fans. Clearly, this was something she knew when she tweeted this out. She wanted validation from fans and fellow authors, as many of us would, had we been in a similar position. We’re only human, after all. However, we should all be aware of the power we possess. If you’re a worldwide best-selling author with a Netflix deal, perhaps think twice before putting a student, one who’s probably young enough to be your own child, in the firing line. Not only will your actions make you look extremely petty and potentially turn off fans, it certainly won’t make your target change their mind about you. How was this any different from searching your own name on Twitter to drag people who just want to stay on their own corner of the internet in peace, or going after people who wrote bad reviews on a site intended for readers? All this did was drive another woman off the internet for no damn reason at all.

When people want to make another strawman argument about the supposed evils of YA, this incident is what they’ll point to, and that inevitability depresses the hell out of me. Yet it’s one that Dessen and many of her surrounding friends and fans brought upon themselves. This is what happens when you decide the rules don’t apply to you. It’s embarrassing. There are reasons to go all guns a-blazing against the prejudices of the world in relation to YA and its exclusion from discussions of serious literary merit. This was clearly not one of them, not by a long shot.

Header Image Source: Getty Images.