Would you like to read a case study in shitty apologies and social media implosion? You are in luck!
VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates) is a journal of young adult literature. It recently reviewed a novel called Run by Kody Keplinger. The review contained a problematic sentence. Many people pointed this out. Instead of listening, VOYA exploded like a malfunctioning ball machine, spraying invective at critics and blocking anyone who expressed even the mildest dismay, combining attacks with terrible apologies, then deleting willy-nilly.
Let’s dive in!
The original review is now lost to the ages, but here is the key sentence, courtesy of several recappers: “The story contains many references to Bo being bisexual and an abundance of bad language, so it is recommended for mature junior and senior high readers.”
As writer Tristina Wright pointed out yesterday on Twitter, the mere presence of a bisexual character in a book should not be grounds for recommending that the book’s audience be restricted. Would you say the mere presence of a straight character was cause for only letting mature readers get hold of the book? How can someone’s very human identity be lumped together with “bad language”? And it was extra-bonus hurtful to publish such a review during Bisexuality Awareness Week.
On her Tumblr, Wright noted that “When you tell children that mentions of bisexuality in a YA book require[s] a content warning, you tell them they are something Other. That their orientation is something to be ashamed of, to warn others about, that they’re not good. That they’re wrong and unacceptable.” She noted that reviews like VOYA’s are important because they help dictate whether books get into libraries. “These types of reviews, in addition to being insulting and harmful to actual queer teens, hurt queer books because they could be passed over. Queer books, by and large, don’t get the big advances or the huge marketing budgets so they depend on word-of-mouth, hand-selling, and libraries. Being in a library could quite literally make an author’s career.”
Wright wrote to VOYA about the problematic sentence. She mentioned that she herself was bi and that she had a gender-nonconforming child. Here’s VOYA’s nasty response, which Wright shared (along with her letter) on Twitter.
WHAAAAAAT? “I am sorry you took offense” is, as we have discussed more times than we can shake a cartoon-librarian-censorious-finger at, NOT AN APOLOGY. The letter-writer (Wright concealed that person’s identity) went on to condescend to Wright about the purpose of the magazine and reiterated that the warning about bisexuality belonged in the review. Please note the gratuitous slap at Wright’s parenting. And saying “our writers and reviewers have various lifestyles” is like saying “some of my best friends are Black.” DO NOT. (Also, “lifestyles”? Ironic PBR-drinking-and-mustache-cultivation is a lifestyle. Being bisexual is a life, integral to someone’s sense of self.) Finally, the parting shot about “your need to find and destroy your enemies” is just WHACKADOODLE.
Another library worker sent a note to VOYA objecting to the last line of the review, noting “LGBTQ characters do not need a content warning.” He put the journal’s response on Facebook.
Once more, snottiness (“Why does that upset you?”) and willful or clueless insistence that the sentence in question “does not have anything to do with whether the sexuality was homo, hetero, bi, or other — sexuality is sexuality.”
But author Phoebe North (I’m a fan!) began going through old VOYA reviews to see which ones garnered a content warning for sexuality. SHOCKINGLY:
Even Keplinger’s first book, which was CHOCK-A-BLOCK with heterosexual sex, did not get a scarlet S for sexuality. And in Run, the seXXXy stuff only happens between straight characters.
But VOYA just kept on doubling down on Facebook. Another screenshot for the historical record:
“Ignorant, accusatory, vile!” And the unsubstantiated “Okay, well, I’m marginalized too”? (Note: this is when my inner heart of hearts goes “O PLEASE LET THIS PERSON NOT BE JEWISH.”) And pointing out with feeling that someone has done something offensive is not being “obnoxious.”
At some point in this mishegas, VOYA institutionally apologized. With about as much eagerness and sincerity as Paul Rudd obeying Janeane Garofalo’s instructions to clean up the mess he made.
— Laura Silverman (@LJSilverman1) September 22, 2016
OK, saying that the LGBTQ community “has taken offense” and “has demanded” an apology puts all the onus on the LGBTQ community. They’re the ones attacking! They’re the ones holding VOYA hostage! Now hold VOYA’s “apology” to your ear. Do you hear, much like the sound of the ocean waves, the aggrieved sighing of the VOYA editor-in-chief? (Who, btw, seemingly cannot spell “editor-in-chief,” DESPITE THE FACT that “editor in chief,” “Editor in Chief,” or “Editor In Chief” all would have been acceptable to me, what with my LOOSE NEAR-BISEXUAL STANDARDS OF COPYEDITING.) Do you feel her annoyance as she lists ALL THE PEOPLE she apologizes on behalf of and that snitty “insulted or harmed” and “and/or”? As if she’s so dang beleaguered to be covering all the damn bases of LGBTQ lameass hoop-jumping requirements?
Despite this “apology,” VOYA began blocking anyone who criticized them, including famous writers. It was a veritable case study in what not to do in a social media crisis of your own making. (Contrast this with the web site Autostraddle’s superb, thoughtful apology for praising that lesbian taco weenie movie.) Writer Saundra Mitchell actually changed her Twitter handle to BLOCKED BY VOYA! (The writer KT Horning also pointed out the irony of VOYA being founded by an outspoken lesbian feminist.)
BUT YOU’RE HERE FOR THE APOLOGY INFO, RIGHT?? HERE IT IS:
YO, VOYA. For free we give you this good apology. It would have been a lot easier to apologize if you hadn’t compounded your error by ONE GAZILLION BAJILLION the longer you kept FB’ing and tweeting. BUT FOR FUTURE REFERENCE, TRY THIS:
We’re really sorry. We made a terrible mistake when we equated “bisexuality” with “bad language,” and when we recommended the book Run by Kody Kiplinger only for older readers. Bisexuality does not deserve a warning, any more than heterosexuality does. It was particularly hurtful that we published this review during Bisexual Visibility Week. We’ve now edited it, and we’ve provided a link to the older version along with a note about how we messed up; we want there to be a record — for us and for the readers who keep us accountable — of what we did wrong. That’s important. Attempting to erase the past is not productive. We apologize to everyone: Our readers, the LGBTQ community, and all humans who value open discourse and the power of literature to entertain, educate and inform. We are still learning, and we promise to listen to your criticism in the future instead of reacting with defensiveness. We’ve sent a personal apology to the author and to the people we addressed inappropriately and disrespectfully on social media. And we’re updating our writers’ guidelines for reviewers and for our own editors. In the future, everyone who does work for VOYA will know that the mere presence of LGBTQ characters is not sufficient for a book to be given a warning. There’s no excuse for the way we responded to legitimate criticism, with personal attacks and fruitless, ham-handed attempts to silence anyone who as much as expressed disappointment in us. We hope you’ll continue to read our reviews closely and hold us accountable.
Truthfully, the editor-in-chief and whoever does the social media for VOYA should be fired. But this is not our purview as your premier Journal of Apology Studies.
By the way, here’s another deleted FB post — this one from the reviews editor. It was gone before I could screenshot it, but I did cut and paste it before stupidly refreshing the browser tab and finding it GONE, BABY, GONE:
My name is Lisa and I am the reviews editor at VOYA. I am the person responsible for the publication of our review for Run. While I understand that many of you have addressed comments about the review to RoseMary, it is not her position within the magazine to check reviews. That is my responsibility, and I take full claim for having missed the fact that the last sentence of the review may have been (obviously, IS) offensive and harmful to certain people in our reading community. I offer my sincerest apology, and would appreciate the opportunity to be heard about the issue. When editing this particular review, I noticed when I got to the last sentence that it had not been mentioned above that there was a bisexual character in the novel. I am always happy to have titles with diverse characters of any nature since we are constantly striving to find and review more books with diversity of cast and setting. When I read the second paragraph – the last sentence – which is always the paragraph of a VOYA review containing recommendations and/or opinions, I simply did not recognize that including bisexual and “bad language” in one sentence was effectively “lumping them together.” I saw it as two pieces of factual information that led to the age recommendation. Reading it now, seeing it through the eyes of our concerned readers, I can totally understand what I missed. I am perfectly happy to retract the review and have the last paragraph rewritten to express what was intended, instead of what was actually stated. I am very sorry that my editing error caused such intense anger, hurt, and bitterness against VOYA Magazine. It certainly has not ever, nor will it ever be, a magazine that believes in or supports judgment of any kind about how characters (and people) live their lives. I also think it is extremely regrettable that my mistake caused many people to attack the characters and beliefs of those who work at VOYA Magazine. It simply is NOT true that anyone associated with our magazine is a bigot, a hypocrite, or any of the other things that have been said. And so, having seen that this review’s summary is terribly insensitive and hurtful, I will retract the review and fix it. I will also be ever more diligent in my editing position, making certain that all people and lifestyles are represented fairly and with respect.
Alas, it started well — with an attempt to take responsibility (in vain, since the buck always stops with the editor-in-chief). But it’s clear that Kurdyla still doesn’t understand what she did wrong. And “I offer my sincerest apology” should not be the first half of a compound sentence that concludes “and would appreciate the opportunity to be heard.” Not about you, Lisa! Listen! Do not defend! Then her “apology” goes WAY off the rails, with a “this is not who we are” statement (you did the thing; therefore it is who you are), and the WAAH WE ARE BEING ATTACKED STOP CALLING US NAAAAAAAAMES. And again with the “lifestyles.” NO LIFESTYLES. Genug with the lifestyles.
HOW MUCH WOULD YOU PAY FOR A KNIFE LIKE THIS?? BUT WAIT, THERE’S STILL MORE!
VOYA went on to delete every mention of the controversy from their Twitter and FB feeds and set its entire Twitter feed to private. How you gonna Voice for the Youth Advocates when none of the Youth Advocates can hear you, VOYA? What is the sound of a Voice in the void? Is it like the sound of one hand clapping?
Right now, all I can find is this, a reply to the editor of The Horn Book, another children’s literature journal.
Yeah, you don’t get to decide what defines your past. Lance Armstrong tried to reframe his past; it didn’t work. As for the future, that is up to you. It indisputably needs to start with an apology, though, not with erasure. Your community awaits.
PS. Here is a list of young adult books with bisexual characters.
PPS. I lied. I can’t keep up. The latest:
NOOOOO. You guys can take it from here, right? (I’ll just say “While we admit our errors and recognize the hurt we caused, and apologize for it…” NO THAT IS THE WHOLE SENTENCE STOP NOW DO NOT KEEP TYPING NO NO NO NO NO NO NO OK I’M GOING TO BED NOW)
PPPS. One more!
At this point, it’s time to stop. If there are more apologies (what is this, #5?) we won’t cover them. It’s clear that RoseMary and her team do not understand what a good apology is and what it’s supposed to do.
But to do a close reading, as is our wont: Again, this starts well and then goes off the rails. RoseMary. Do not apologize for “giving anyone reason to think” something. APOLOGIZE FOR WHAT YOU DID. You did entertain bigotry and prejudice. (But bigotry and prejudice are not inherently unforgivable; humans are are all flawed. The issue is whether we can learn from our mistakes…instead of, oh, doubling and tripling and quadrupling and quintupling down.) Do not apologize for your absence (?) on Twitter and FB — apologize for blocking your fellow young adult literature allies right and left, making your account private, and shutting down conversation. This is not “absence.” This was an active choice. The fact that you call this “absence” instead of the punitive, chilling act it was (one that incidentally displayed a profound lack of understanding of the medium) is an indication that you still have learned little or nothing.
The last three paragraphs are a garbage fire. It is not about you. It is not about you. It is not about you. A good apology is about the feelings of the people you hurt, not your own need to tell us you’re a good caring person. And saying “I know there are those of you that [sic] won’t forgive” is utterly uncalled for. You do not get to decide it’s time to move on; it’s not your call to say you deserve forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift for others to grant. Even asking politely for it is, in our opinion, a faux pas…let alone jumping ahead to I KNOW SOME OF YOU ARE NON-FORGIVING DICKS.
I can’t think of a successive apology that would have any impact here. SorryWatch is done.
PPPPS. Hi, It’s Tuesday! VOYA provided an apology to Bustle Magazine (???) which is better than its previous attempts. You can read it here (it links to and gets much of its info from the post you are currently reading, full disclosure). The latest version pretty much adheres structurally to the template we provided. Yay? Nonetheless, problems remain.
- Still claiming that the phrase “references to Bo being bisexual and an abundance of bad language, so it is recommended for mature junior and senior high readers” was an editing error rather than a problematic equivalency.
- This sentence still reveals a troubling worldview: “Not only have we caused tremendous insult to commenters online, we have potentially put our supporters in the uncomfortable position of being criticized for supporting us.” The implication is that those who said “hey, you did a bad thing” are NOT supporters. It’s still an us-against-them perspective. And it’s wrong: Many of the folks who tried to educate VOYA started from a position of support, and only got mad when VOYA kept attacking. Many noted that making mistakes is a normal part of growth, and if VOYA had simply owned up to its initial screwup (which, we note, it still hasn’t done), Does being a friend mean never being critical? “Supporter” doesn’t mean “person who says ‘you go, girl’ no matter what.”