Yesterday, New York Times bestselling authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult were among those to tweet outsized outrage that a single recent college graduate expressed distaste for author Sarah Dessen’s YA novels in a local news item out of Aberdeen, South Dakota about the selection process for Northern State University’s Common Read program.
Northern State University is a small school with an enrollment of just 1,500 students, and Brooke Nelson joined the selection committee when she was a junior because she believed Dessen’s books were “fine for teen girls, but definitely not up to the level of Common Read,” according to the local paper. She said she joined the committee to stop them from selecting Dessen’s book for the list, but the article gave no indication that hers was the deciding vote or even a major factor in the selection process.
That did not stop Dessen, Weiner, Picoult, and other authors from interpreting the quote as an attack on all teen girls’ stories, not just a handful of books about teens written by an adult woman. Picoult tweeted that “To not speak up about this incident isn’t just demeaning to Sarah. It’s demeaning to women, period. Want to fight the patriarchy? Start by reminding everyone that stories about women are worthy, that they matter, that they are necessary.”
But the “incident” was the opinion of one young woman, and the committee ultimately chose Just Mercy, a book about injustices in the court system by Bryan Stevenson, a black man written from personal experience. In the 10 years Northern State’s Common Read program has been choosing books, they have chosen a relatively diverse range: five of the books were written by women, three of those five by women of color. Those numbers could be better, but the argument by Dessen, Weiner, and Picoult doesn’t seem to be that this one very small college isn’t including enough books by women. Nor does it seem to be that no one takes their books seriously, which is not true, judging by the thousands of famous authors and fans alike who rushed to Dessen’s defense.
Their argument is that the quote represents the ways that young adult novels featuring the stories of teen girls are dismissed as unserious and not literary by an industry that values men’s stories above women’s and ignores teenage girls’ lived experiences altogether. In a reply to one of Picoult’s tweets, novelist Jennifer Weiner compared one young woman’s opinion of Dessen’s books to the Larry Nassar scandal, in another, she wrote, “There is—as you know—a long, unpleasant tradition of high culture dismissing everything that gives girls and young women pleasure, while elevating the things that young men love. And it’s especially sad when young women are themselves the ones swallowing that poison.”
This isn’t the first time Weiner has seen sexism in failure to give work attention she thinks it deserves. In 2015, for example, Weiner claimed that Oprah’s book club had stopped championing women writers by including Johnathan Franzen and rehashed those arguments the next year when Oprah chose another woman’s book over hers, though she later walked that argument back.
The idea that the decision not to include a single YA novel on a single booklist is automatically the work of the patriarchy creates a straw man of the teenage girl, oppressed by college coursework that is not interested in her experiences or her feelings. This teenage girl, regularly conjured up in the name of fighting sexism, is failed by an elitist literary world that denies her the only books she cares to read—young adult novels with characters who look and think like her. But what happens when the teenage girl does not enjoy books that authors insist are written for them? Does that girl’s or young woman’s opinion matter less? Dessen’s book did not give Nelson pleasure. Perhaps Nelson was dismissive in saying the book was written for teenage girls, but the book was, in fact, written for teenage girls. One woman, still in her early twenties, wanting the books included on a college booklist to be written at the college level does not warrant a two-day public shaming by some of the highest-paid authors in the industry whose criticisms are emulated and amplified by hundreds of thousands of fans.
One of the tweets Dessen liked yesterday read “Stop shaming girls for the things they enjoy.” But what about shaming them for the things they don’t enjoy? A response to Dessen’s tweet calling out Nelson read “Fuck that fucking bitch.” Dessen responded with “I love you” and a heart emoji.
Meanwhile, Northern State University has issued an apology, and friends of Nelson say on Twitter say that she is working to cope with the flood of online vitriol over a two-sentence quote she gave to a small local paper.
Canonical inclusion of women is a real problem, on college campuses and in high school classrooms alike. In my college Southern literature class, our booklist was made up entirely of white men and when I brought this up to my professor, he let me write my term paper on Carson McCullers instead. The opinions of these authors, however, rest on one negative comment from one young woman reader whose opinion was just one of many on a selection committee for a booklist that has included YA books, one of them The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, which centers the story of a 16-year-old black girl.
This outrage doesn’t seem to be about including women on booklists, it’s about criticism of a book by a woman by a woman. Disliking the books of a woman author is not always a byproduct of “internalized misogyny” as a comment on the local news article by an account with the name Jennifer Weiner accused. Sometimes young women do not like books that are written “for” them. And that is okay.
Inclusion absolutely matters, in the classroom and outside the classroom, but yelling at a single woman with absolutely no sway in the publishing or academic worlds, is not the way to get it. And creating a Twitter pile-on to dismiss the opinion of one young woman on behalf of mythical teenage girls is not fighting for the rights of all girls. Instead, it allows this platonic ideal of a teen girl—this perfect reader who is appropriately wounded—to exist only a cipher for the adult women who create her.