If you’re wondering why your Twitter timeline was suddenly flooded with oblique references to “harassment” of authors or reviewers and debates over the right way to criticize “ownvoices” works, it might have something to do with the discussion of queer representation in a new YA release.
As many Twitter-fueled controversies do, this one comes in several rounds of statement to blowback to backlash, so I’ve tried my best to parse it.
Emily Strutskie‘s third novel, Hullmetal Girls, was released earlier this week. The science-fiction adventure received many strong early reviews but also garnered some criticism from a few readers disappointed in the book’s representation of its trans and aroace characters.
Acquadimore Books gave the book three stars and a largely positive review but called the queer representation “tokenism.”
“… I don’t think “casual queer rep” should look like “everyone 100% passes as allocishet, they just mention they’re queer at some point”.”
Other criticism went further, arguing that aspects of the representation were poorly handled. Heather at The Sassy Geek describes two scenes in which queer characters are abruptly outed, focusing in particular on one controversial scene in which, she says, an aroace character is outed without consent after being forced to witness two other characters having sex:
“I personally thought this was a pretty insensitive way of handling the revealing of the characters’ sexualties and gender identities.”
Leah at Small Queer, Big Opinions used even stronger language, calling the representation “harmful” and arguing that the novel trivialized those moments:
“Skrutskie should not have treated Aisha’s potential trauma as some kind of joke.”
What might have ended with a few poor reviews morphed into a controversy about ownvoices representation and readers’ spaces when it moved onto Twitter. The evening of July 16, YA author Rosiee Thor tweeted a short thread about aromantic and asexual spectrum representation, specifically criticizing the writing of scenes in which aro or ace characters are forced to witness sex and then treating it as a “joke.”
Oh. Oh hey. Don’t force your aro or ace spec characters (or anyone) to witness sex and then make a joke about it.
This is a very real and violent act that happens to real people as part of corrective rape culture and it’s damaging and not a funny thing.
— Rosiee Thor @ YALLWEST ?? (@RosieeThor) July 17, 2018
It is worth noting (and many have) that Thor did not tag the book, its author, or use any searchable terms that would specifically identify the novel or the review in question.
The following morning, Strutskie replies to Thor’s thread, calling the interpretation Thor refers to a “deliberate miscontextualization of an ov moment.”
While neither Thor nor Strutskie names the Small Queer review in their Tweets, many have assumed that Leah’s blog was what Strutskie was alluding to with “what you’re reacting to.”
Leah subsequently quote tweeted Strutskie’s reply, arguing that the book’s status as an ownvoices work doesn’t negate the potential harm.
Leah and Strutskie exchange several tweets, and Strutskie accuses Leah of “outing” her publicly in referring to the book as ownvoices.
Leah also received replies from others criticizing her review, including two from Tara Sim, author and (self-identified) friend of Strutskie, who calls Leah’s tweets “targeting” and “harassment.”
Hey Leah, I just want to take a moment to express my disappointment with this. Harassing an ownvoices writer like this isn't okay–especially since it's coming from within the community. You can dislike a book and its tropes, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's harmful to all.
— Tara Sim ★･ﾟ*｡☆ (@EachStarAWorld) July 17, 2018
These exchanges set off a flurry of responses that are generally difficult to find because they deliberately exclude searchable terms, but a number of threads clearly reference the Hullmetal Girls controversy in discussions of a wide range of issues, from ownvoices representation to author etiquette to being outed in a public space.
Artist and YA editor Wendy Xu repeated Strutskie’s claim that she was “outed,” calling the criticism to Hullmetal Girls “untoward” and “harassment,” then suggested that bloggers should not be allowed novel galleys if they “treat the author like this.”
Several hours after the Strutskie threads, Author Cit Callahan tweeted a thread arguing that the ownvoices designation “is not a certification” that allows an author to speak on behalf of an entire community and that it does not mean a work is “exempt from critique.”
I hate the way ownvoices gets so twisted. Ownvoices doesn't mean:
– exempt from critique
– the one true experience
– *anything not related to a marginalized identity*
— Cit Callahan (@AuthorCCallahan) July 17, 2018
Callahan also argued that the mere inclusion of a triggering experience should not be grounds for dismissal and that a reviewer “can say “I don’t like this part” or “this part was triggering for me” without denying it as a valid experience.”
This miniature controversy, of course, has now drifter far from the actual content of the novel. In addition to the many possible interpretations of Strutskie’s work itself, these debates raise several interesting questions about the larger publishing ecosystem and the way the reading community discusses ownvoices works.
Some questions are evergreen debates about the role of reviewers and the relationship they have with authors. Is it acceptable for authors to personally respond to reviews and criticism? How should reviewers interact with authors online? More broadly, the suggestion that Leah “outed” Strutskie brings up more questions about online spaces. Does an author “out” themselves by referring to a book as ownvoices? When an author has identified themselves as ownvoices in a public arena like Twitter, do they have the right to expect that other users will treat that information as private?
Most interesting to me, however, are the more thorny questions raised about representation and ownvoices authors.
The ownvoices label is still relatively new. According to the Washington Independent Review of Books, the term was coined by Corinne Duyvis in 2015. Google Trends shows that the term did not come into wide use until late in 2016. In the years since Duyvis created the hashtag the label has taken on a life of its own, and it is impossible to point to hard-and-fast rules on when the label is and is not appropriate. Duyvis states that ownvoices simply refers to a work in which “the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity.” For Read Brightly, Kayla Whaley writes:
“When we talk about #OwnVoices, it is not about policing what authors write. It’s about being aware of the stories we as readers seek out and promote, and about carefully considering the perspectives of the people who write those stories.”
While (in my very non-scientific experience) I see #ownvoices invoked most often for identities related to race or disability, it also has a rich history of application to LGBTQ+ stories. When applied to queer identies, however, the ownvoices label because increasingly complicated and controversial.
Does the ownvoices label pressure queer authors to publicly out themselves? Does the label hold up some stories as “universal” portrayals of an identity? Is the label still appropriate in SFF and other non-realistic and non-contemporary settings? What responsibility do ownvoices works have to represent the community to others? What responsibility do they have to engage with intra-community differences? How should ownvoices works be approached by reviewers who share those identities? What about reviewers who do not?
I certainly have my opinions, but I don’t think many of these questions have easy answers. Ownvoices is still a very new way of considering author perspectives, and thoughtful discussions among readers, reviewers, authors, and publishers are necessary as we continue to navigate portrayals of diversity and marginalization in fiction.
What did you think of the Hullmetal Girls controversy? What does the ownvoices designation mean for the reviewer/reader/author relationships?