Sarah J Maas and YA cancel culture (what’s up?)

I saw this thread on Reddit asking about Sarah J Maas and cancel culture and wanted to share some quick thoughts here. The question, basically, was “why is SJM so controversial as a fantasy, young adult author… what did she do wrong?”

Following that question, a very helpful user posted a short list of problematic issues, which were these:

1: in the second TOG book, the only important character of color is killed to further the white protagonist’s storyline.

2: on social media before/around the release of the last TOG book, Maas posted fan art portraying one of the main characters as Asian, when previously no indication had been given that she was anything but white. 

3: in the ACOTAR books, there are instances of abuse the protagonist experiences in romantic relationships that readers believe weren’t handled well.

4: Four, in the third ACOTAR book, one of the main characters comes out as gay, but says she sleeps with men to protect herself.

The user admits she may have the details wrong and I haven’t done my own research to verify, so take this with a grain of salt. Even so, it’s enough to begin a discussion.

What you need to know: young adult literature specifically has a very passionate following, with multiple YA reviewers with large platforms who include their book and publishing feedback within a larger social justice framework.

The main idea, seems to be, books meant for young readers have an obligation to resist and avoid harmful, outdated stereotypes and bigotry, especially related to marginalized sub or countercultures, racial prejudices or sexual violence against alternatives genders (I recognize I’m already failing, by calling them “alternative” which points to a “normative” or ordinary… this is not my intent, I just lack the right language.)

Mostly, I think this is a positive shift, and it’s important to have “watchdogs” pointing out the accidental inclusion of potentially dangerous, passive forms of disenfranchisement.

It’s also true that some reviewers look for controversial topics to stir up their base for social or political gain (controversy and emotional topics create fandom and support). And some might say, things go to far, when otherwise decent fantasy books get cancelled for straying too far over lines that have been newly drawn. It *is* important to pay attention and have a conversation about why these things are harmful – I’m sharing those 4 things above because they are a good indication of what *some* people will find objectionable or taboo.

If you’re a YA writer, you should stay informed: however, it’s also the case that unless you’re a mega-huge bestselling author writing specifically for a trad-pubbed YA fanbase, this sensitivity may not apply to you (the majority of YA readers who are consuming a lot of KDP, self-published or indie books, may only be looking for a great story and may not call you out on problematic issues). So while I wouldn’t worry about it, I would certainly pay attention to it, and try to do better.

In the four examples above, #1 is pretty common: the inclusion of diversity in a side character, who then dies: the token black character that gets killed is an unfortunate trope that’s outdated. But the solution, is either not to include black characters, or make the black character the main character (which, some would call appropriation, and claim only POC authors have the right to write main POC characters).

#2, sharing fan art which has been tweaked to include one artist’s understanding of one character, and the author’s tacit approval of alternative forms of visualizing her characters, I personally have trouble finding the issue but that probably points to a personal paucity or limitation… something I fail to currently understand because I haven’t done enough research, so that’s something I will investigate further.

#3, I have heard the issue of sexual consent, especially in YA books, is a topic of much controversy and I understand why: people often ask how much sex is too much – some authors have none in YA books, but major, tradpubbed YA novels often have explicit sex scenes. This issue specifically I think relates to trigger warnings and themes or sexual abuse and consent: statistics show that most women have personal experience with these issues, and I believe that powerful fiction should relate to real experiences, but agree that teaching and understanding modern ideologies about sex is important. I’ve been told that some of my books, which feature scenes that could have been fine a decade ago, are no longer fine, and I need to be careful to make sure future books adapt (though, I don’t believe I need to go back and revise earlier books).

4: This is another one where I feel like I must be missing something; I do have gay characters and I will strive to find LGBTQ beta-readers to make sure I’m not accidentally doing something wrong, like killing off gay side characters (see #1).

I’m a very small indie author who aims to entertain, without accidentally becoming part of the problem, so it’s on me to learn and educate myself. I do what I think works best for my story and my characters, but I also acknowledge that writing is a relationship between the author and reader which must leave both satisfied (and, if I can only choose one, I’d rather please my readers than adhere to my own limited worldview).

I’m sure many people have a much deeper, much fuller understanding of these issues so I will defer to their expertise – reading the negative reviews on controversial books (on Goodreads especially, where issues like these will be more heated and detailed) is a good way to gain awareness.

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One Comment

  1. Anon

    April 11, 2023 at 10:07 pm

    I feel like shading an author or trying to “cancel” them because their work doesn’t fit your lifestyle is going a little too far. People may not agree with the relationships between characters or the “lack of inclusivity” and may refuse to read the books, and that’s fine. But just because I don’t enjoy something doesn’t mean I’m going to try and “get rid” of it because I disagree with it. It’s simply a matter of “Don’t like it? Don’t read it. And move on.” Just like 50 Shades of Gray or The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty isn’t for everyone either. But if people are trying to “cancel” authors or books because they disagree with the writing, then how is that any different from people banning To Kill a Mockingbird or Animal Farm? Also, people forget that authors don’t have to cater to you specifically. Just like I don’t try to cancel the BET Network/Awards because a white/asian/hispanic person didn’t get nominated or win an award. Just let people enjoy things. Is it really harming you because they don’t have a certain character? Then you’re gonna have to cancel everything that existed before you decided to become offended or left out by it. May I suggest writing your own book?


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