Move over, Liz Warren: Here comes John Smelcer.
Smelcer, the celebrated author of the young-adult novel “Stealing Indians” is apparently another fake Native American. The book, which is about the experience of teens forced to attend an Indian boarding school in the 1950s, had been a contender for the PEN Center USA Literary Award — but was withdrawn last week because Smelcer’s racial background has been called into question.
While he claims to be a member of the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska, his adoptive father has said, “He’s a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian. . . . If he’s used my Native heritage for his personal or professional gain, then that’s wrong.”
In the world of young-adult literature, it now matters much more whether you can claim a minority identity than whether your stories are any good.
Just last month, the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis canceled its conference on writing for children and young adults because 21 of its 22 speakers were white.
The lineup included bestselling authors, a Newbery Medal winner and a National Book Award winner, but the conference organizers announced: “We have set a goal for ourselves to be inclusive and to work toward equity, and we didn’t think the conference would live up to that mission . . . We made a mistake.”
The push to diversify young-adult literature has been on for decades, with teachers assigning more books by nonwhite, non-male, non-straight authors and librarians prioritizing them for recommendations.
The American Library Association’s list of “notable” books for teens includes stories from a survivor of Nagasaki, a boy trying to save elephants in Nepal, several tales of kids experiencing slavery, segregation and racial bias and one about an immigrant from Guatemala.
The outfit We Need Diverse Books sponsors grants, mentorships and other programs to publish and promote authors of various backgrounds. Its Web site says, “We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.”
(The asterisk links to a notice of the group’s “broad definition of disability”: not just physical or even mental conditions, but also ones “created by barriers in the social environment.”)
The idea is that kids are more likely to read books about kids who look like them, and if they don’t see enough such books, they’ll be less likely to read at all.
Does anyone believe this is working? In 2015, one in three high-school seniors admitted not having read a single book for pleasure in the past year, three times as many as 30 years before.
Now we’ve gotten to the point where race is enough to disqualify an author from being read at all. What other explanation for the recent uproar over “The Black Witch”? Published in May, the novel is about a girl growing up in a racially stratified society who eventually comes to rebel against it.
But sales have tanked since one YA blogger called it “the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read . . . 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 [people of color] like they are actually human.” Widely shared on social media, the review slowed sales to a crawl.
Indeed, it’s a wonder the book was published at all. Not only is it increasingly unacceptable for white, heterosexual, cisgender people to write about anything outside their own experience, but an army of “sensitivity readers” now carefully monitors the YA works that get published.
The Web site Writing on the Margins offers the services of these glorified censors: “A sensitivity reader reads through a manuscript for issues of representation and for instances of bias on the page. . . . A sensitivity reader reviews a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language.”
As Katy Waldman noted in Slate this year, “Some publishing houses provide their own sensitivity readers, particularly in genres — such as young adult literature — where the industry feels protective of its audience.” Where the industry fears the PC critics, is more like it.
The idea that adolescents need to be “protected” from authors who don’t exactly mirror their own identity-group experience is a recipe for creating snowflake college students who’ll never want to touch a book that hasn’t been pre-approved by a committee. At this rate, the publishing world will purge itself out of existence.
?Naomi Schaefer Riley is an Independent Women’s Forum senior fellow.