Young-adult book Twitter took an especially surreal turn this week when the best-selling novelist Sarah Dessen took offense at a brief critique of her work, inciting a minor Twitter riot, with some of the most famous writers in the world jumping into the fray to defend her.
The drama began on Tuesday morning, when Dessen tweeted about an innocuous local news story about the ten-year anniversary of Northern State University’s “Common Read” program. Each year, a committee of students, professors, and local community members picks a book for every first-year student to read, and then invites the author to give a talk. Dessen was upset because a 2017 Northern State graduate named Brooke Nelson had told the Aberdeen News that she didn’t think Dessen’s work was worthy of inclusion in the program back in 2016, when she was a junior. “She’s fine for teen girls,” Nelson said. “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.”
“Authors are real people,” tweeted Dessen, with a screenshot of Nelson’s quote. “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.”
The pile on began soon after, and quickly spiraled into darker territory. Roxane Gay, Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, Jenny Han, Angie Thomas, and N.K. Jemisin were among those who showed support for Dessen. Some of the comments from the famous authors took on the tenor of bullying. “Fuck that fucking bitch,” wrote best-selling author Siobhan Vivian. (“I love you,” replied Dessen.) “And now you have a nemesis,” added Gay, who has written extensively about the pleasures of having one. (Dessen did not reply to a request for an interview.)
Many felt that Nelson’s quote was not merely a critique of Dessen’s body of work, but a misogynistic attack on all books written for teenage girls. “Not only does it suck because because @sarahdessen is one of the loveliest women you’ll ever meet,” wrote Picoult, “but because this implies something more sinister.” Like Weiner, who declared that Nelson’s quote “reinforce[d] systemic discrimination,” Picoult saw the young woman’s statement as evidence of the same insidious force that prevents female artists from achieving the recognition and success they deserve. “This kind of thinking is what leads to gender discrimination in publishing,” Picoult continued. “To not speak up about this incident isn’t just demeaning to Sarah. It’s demeaning to women, period.”
By Tuesday night, Northern State University had tweeted out an apology. “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,” the college said. “We love young adult novels, and we appreciate the broad-ranging impact of YA novels.”
Nelson, now a graduate student, told Vulture in an email that she felt her quote had been taken out of context. Less discussed on Twitter by Dessen’s supporters were the books Nelson preferred to Dessen’s. “I followed my evaluation of Sarah Dessen’s work with a rationale advocating for three other books that I felt better addressed relevant social issues: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi,” she wrote to me in an email, noting that the original Aberdeen News article had left out her reasoning for why she’d advocated for other books. “These three books are beautifully written and push readers to stand against the racial inequality that the judicial system perpetuates, to consider the heritability and influence of tradition and trauma, and to contemplate what brings meaning to one’s life. These themes are relevant not only in the current social justice epoch, but they are especially meaningful and important for university students who, as emerging adults, are often engaging with social issues with a newfound sense of agency and urgency.”
Nelson studies linguistics — specifically, online harassment. “The irony has not evaded me,” she wrote. She is currently in the midst of fall semester finals, and declined to talk about how it felt to live inside the center of a raging Twitter storm. “I can summarize my experience as the following,” she wrote. “Since I actually have a scholarly interest in online aggression, it’s been a really interesting experience to observe how people use language to frame the issue and to express their perspectives in so many different ways.”
Justin Fraase, the university’s director of communications and the author of the apology tweet, told Vulture he decided to weigh in in part because it became clear to him that university would not walk away from the battle unscathed. One “significant factor,” he said, was when the reigning queen of YA, Angie Thomas, tweeted at the university, calling Nelson’s quote “appalling.” Thomas’s book, The Hate U Give, was the Common Reads’ 2018 pick. “It was written for TEEN GIRLS,” Thomas tweeted. “Don’t make any of my books your common reads since my demographic is beneath you.”
“We felt initially that we were on the outside looking in, but we quickly became aware that we were right in the middle of this, and we wanted to send a statement out there that we believed helped to clarify this,” Fraase said. “That this was an alumna’s statement, and while we understand that our alumni have the rights to say whatever they may want, that specific quote did not reflect the views of the institution. We really needed to make it clear that we were not against that genre.” He added, “And empathy is not a wrong thing to show. Especially on Twitter.”
The goal of the Common Reads program, according to Erin H. Fouberg, who runs it, is to pick an engaging book that inspires students to reflect on their own lives and consider diverse points of view. Back in 2016, Dessen’s book, Saint Anything, was just one of 52 considered for selection. It wasn’t an especially contentious year of debate. “There wasn’t a lot of discussion of Dessen’s book,” Fouberg said. That was the year that the committee picked Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, a memoir by a black lawyer about racial bias and economic inequity in the criminal-justice system. “Just Mercy kept rising to the top, because that book was amazing, and everyone who read it loved it,” Fouberg said. “It’s powerful and transformative. It makes you think about your assumptions, and also process your own personal experiences, which is what a Common Read should do.”
By Thursday, after the university had apologized, the backlash to the backlash was in full swing. Many accused Dessen of punching down, expressing their bafflement that so many famous authors would go after a student. “I will not use my platform to directly go after someone with less power,” wrote Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, who focuses on race in children’s and young-adult literature. “If your life and career is about young people, you’d know that’s bullying.” “Y’all come on,” tweeted Tressie McMillan Cottom, a 2019 National Book Award finalist. “It’s a student on a common book committee. It’s a thing that stings to read but it is not a political statement. This is so wrong.”
On Friday afternoon, Dessen deleted her tweet. When Weiner was challenged on Twitter for her comments, the author doubled down, saying that she has “zero regrets.” Vivian, meanwhile, deleted her tweet calling Nelson a “fucking bitch.” She wrote to Vulture in an email, “I tweeted a thing that I should have DMed.”
Update: An hour after this article was published, Dessen tweeted an apology.