Imagine you’re a writer, and you’ve finally achieved your dream, your first novel published. Imagine you’ve had the good fortune of landing a number of positive reviews ahead of publication. Everything’s going great, then someone writes a horrible review of your novel, not just calling it bad, but dangerous. Your book is racist in the worst way imaginable. You thought you wrote a book against prejudice and intolerance, and now you’re facing a Twitter crusade against you and your book, people calling on your publisher to pull it, and an avalanche of one-star reviews by readers who have not even read the book but are now certain it is problematic.
The Black Witch, a debut young-adult fantasy novel by Laurie Forest, was still seven weeks from its May 1 publication date, but positive buzz was already building, with early reviews calling it “an intoxicating tale of rebellion and star-crossed romance,” “a massive page-turner that leaves readers longing for more,” and “an uncompromising condemnation of prejudice and injustice.”
The hype train was derailed in mid-March, however, by Shauna Sinyard, a bookstore employee and blogger who writes primarily about YA and had a different take: “The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read,” she wrote in a nearly 9,000-word review that blasted the novel as an end-to-end mess of unadulterated bigotry. “It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.”
The Black Witch centers on a girl named Elloren who has been raised in a stratified society where other races (including selkies, fae, wolfmen, etc.) are considered inferior at best and enemies at worst. But when she goes off to college, she begins to question her beliefs, an ideological transformation she’s still working on when she joins with the rebellion in the last of the novel’s 600 pages. (It’s the first of a series; one hopes that Elloren will be more woke in book two.)
It was this premise that led Sinyard to slam The Black Witch as “racist, ableist, homophobic, and … written with no marginalized people in mind,” in a review that consisted largely of pull quotes featuring the book’s racist characters saying or doing racist things.
If that was all, this wouldn’t be as concerning. Every book is bound to push some reviewer’s buttons. However, it didn’t end there.
In a tweet that would be retweeted nearly 500 times, Sinyard asked people to spread the word about The Black Witch by sharing her review — a clarion call for YA Twitter, which regularly identifies and denounces books for being problematic (an all-purpose umbrella term for describing texts that engage improperly with race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other marginalizations). Led by a group of influential authors who pull no punches when it comes to calling out their colleagues’ work, and amplified by tens of thousands of teen and young-adult followers for whom online activism is second nature, the campaigns to keep offensive books off shelves are a regular feature in a community that’s as passionate about social justice as it is about reading.
The campaigning to “keep books off shelves” is shudder-inducing for anyone who cares about freedom of expression.
At the height of the pushback against The Black Witch, Forest was being derided as a Nazi sympathizer and accused of palling around with white supremacists, while those who questioned the tone of the discourse were rebuked for coded bigotry.
The irony, of course, was that the book was intended to be anti-bigotry. However, it seems human nature that when someone’s beliefs reach a particular furor, their greatest wrath is expended on nominal allies who just aren’t pure enough.