It’s the time of year when white YA writers like to engage in vitriolic Twitter wars that expose biases, necessitate hasty apologies, and require an English degree to understand. In this year’s battle, some harmless tweets about Moby Dick being boring ignited a Twitter altercation in which a well-known YA author lost her agent after massively overreacting to an educator who correctly pointed out that canonical texts often mirror the harmful mindsets of the oppressive time periods in which they were written.
This particular fable about letting other people have opinions began on Monday when author and co-founder of the organization We Need Diverse Books, Ellen Oh, began a Twitter thread listing her picks for “Worst Classic Books Ever.” These books should no longer be included on K-12 syllabi, she wrote, “because they legit cause kids to hate reading.” Oh listed books that are likely too advanced and dated for high school curriculum but are often assigned anyway, like Moby Dick, along with “canonical” texts generally considered YA like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye. The thread drew the attention of other educators, many of whom agree that teaching century-old books focused primarily on the lives of white men is likely not the way to foster a love of reading in students who are not white men and were born in the 21st century.
One of those was Lorena Germán, an award-winning educator and facilitator of #DisruptTexts, an organization that advocates for more diverse and inclusive texts in classrooms. Germán noted the age of most of those books and encouraged readers to consider the fact that the racist, sexist, and all-around more oppressive time periods during which they were written shapes their content: “That is why we gotta switch it up. It ain’t just about ‘being old,” Germán explained.
But apparently, that explanation did not sit well with Jessica Cluess, a young adult fantasy author. Cluess jumped in to defend the words of dead white men like Nathaniel Hathorne and Henry David Thoreau in an argument that bafflingly conflated those writers with the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance and bizarrely instructed Germán to “stop taking drugs” and “sit and spin on a tack.” She also decided that one tweet was basis enough for determining Germán’s efficacy as an educator.
“This anti-intellectual, anti-curiosity bullshit is poison and I will stand here and scream that it is sheer goddamn evil until my hair falls out, I do not care,” Cluess exclaimed in a since-deleted tweet that contains a comma splice.
After many pointed out the fuckery of a white woman calling a woman of color who is also a teacher an “absolute idiot” for insisting on diversity in reading lists, Cluess issued an apology “taking full responsibility” for her Twitter attack making a commitment to “learning more about Mrs. Germán’s important work with #DisruptTexts.” Cluess’s former agent, Brooks Sherman also tweeted an announcement yesterday that he would no longer be representing her, as “Her tweets against Lorena Germán earlier this week were racist and unacceptable.”
Cluess’s unprovoked and unnecessary attack highlights the strange theater of Twitter, where a disagreement over a book written before the Civil War is an impetus for calling an educator an evil drug user—all played out in public. On one hand, these outlandish fights are outside the scope of real-world experiences. In the physical world, people simply do not normally yell as a first option in a misunderstood conversation.
On the other, Twitter holds a magnifying glass to problems that are subdued by social norms in the real world and amplified by the absence of those norms online. Long ago, white people chose the literary canon and created lists of books that are “acceptable” for young readers, and very often those books are far too advanced, archaic, and problematic to foster interest in reading outside those students who already love to read. The purpose of English classes in primary and secondary school is to teach students to read texts and use language in order to critically evaluate the myriad sources of information with which they are presented each day. The struggle for non-white and non-cis male students to access texts that are relatable to their own experiences is a struggle that has existed from the outset of organized education.
Shouting down educators speaking from experience about what works best for teaching students is nothing new. But what is new is the fact that we can now watch the ways those ideas are attacked in little bubbles of disembodied text, which makes their flaws more nakedly evident than they would be couched by real-world niceties. If anything, these yearly Twitter battles are at least good for exposing out in the open struggles that used to be fought in relative private.
Update: For clarity, Jezebel has added a missing “e” to the spelling of Hathorne but omitted a “w,” as the author also amended the spelling of his name to obscure the fact that his great-great-grandfather was a judge in the Salem Witch Trials, though the change was inconsistently applied throughout much of the author’s early writing life and as such could lead to further confusion.