Amélie Wen Zhao’s literary career almost imploded before it had even begun.
Her debut novel, “Blood Heir,” was six months from publication, but it was getting pummeled. The controversy started in January, when some readers argued that Zhao’s depiction of slavery was racially insensitive. It quickly snowballed into an online pile-on, as some commenters who hadn’t read the young adult fantasy book expressed outrage about its contents.
Zhao was stunned. “There were so many voices chiming in, and only a few people had read the book,” she said.
Overwhelmed by the criticism, she told her publishers to cancel the novel’s June release.
Afterward, Zhao, 26, agonized over her decision. She kept herself occupied at her day job as a portfolio manager at an international bank. Then she collected herself and reread her book several times, examining it to see if the critics were right.
She decided they weren’t. Zhao called her editor at Delacorte Press and told her that she wanted to move forward with the novel after all. She made some revisions, and “Blood Heir” is now scheduled to be released in November.
“Ultimately, it’s true to my vision,” she said.
Zhao’s decision to move ahead with publication will likely add fuel to the fractious debate about cultural appropriation in the young adult literary world. While some see the discussion as a necessary, if painful, step toward addressing the lack of diversity in publishing, others argue that the online YA community has become too cutthroat, even intolerant, in its attacks on authors who tackle challenging social issues or write outside their immediate cultural experience.
When the controversy over “Blood Heir” erupted, battle lines were quickly drawn. A small but influential group of authors argued that the novel dealt insensitively with race and the legacy of slavery and was an affront to nonwhite communities. The book’s cancellation then prompted an equally passionate backlash to the backlash from a camp that rallied to Zhao’s defense, arguing that the novel’s critics, who claimed to be championing diversity, had bullied a young Asian woman into silence.
Zhao is not the first YA novelist to be buried under an avalanche of criticism before her book even came out. Keira Drake’s fantasy novel, “The Continent,” was delayed by her publisher and rewritten after readers blasted it as “racist trash” and “offensive” in early reviews. In 2017, Laurie Forest was bombarded with hundreds of negative reviews on Goodreads by readers who claimed her debut fantasy novel, “The Black Witch,” was bigoted. And in February, Kosoko Jackson pulled his young adult novel, “A Place for Wolves,” a story set in the 1990s during the Kosovo war that features two gay American teenagers, after a firestorm erupted on social media over his decision to make the story’s villain an Albanian Muslim.
(Jackson was also part of the chorus of voices denouncing “Blood Heir,” an ironic twist that was seized upon by observers who claim the movement to police potential cultural appropriation in literature has gone too far.)
Social media’s influence
The magnitude and speed at which backlash builds seems to have accelerated, often amplified by social media.
“It’s a platform where outrage travels quickly and often out of context,” said Kat Rosenfield, a pop culture writer and young adult novelist. “It’s possible that some of the successful campaigns to either pull books or edit books have emboldened people to feel like initiating some of these complaints on Twitter can lead to some concrete action.”
Some free speech advocacy groups worry that the environment has gotten so heated that it could lead to self-censorship.
“What is worrying to us is the chilling effect,” said Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship. “If you’re a white author, would you want to have a minority character?”
Zhao was surprised to find herself in social media’s cross hairs. Born in Paris and raised in Beijing, she studied economics at UCLA and New York University and found a job in finance in the United States when she graduated.
She came up with the plot for “Blood Heir” in 2014, during a family trip to Russia. She imagined a fictional empire where a group of people called Affinites, who have special powers, are feared and trafficked for labor by the powerful elite — a system that is challenged by a fugitive princess who wields magic. In describing the plight of Affinites, Zhao aimed to invoke real-world issues, including human trafficking and indentured servitude in Asia.
“What I sought to interrogate and critique was the modern-day epidemic of human trafficking and endured labor,” Zhao said. “It wasn’t something I had seen in YA literature.”
She also drew on her own experience as an immigrant and her feeling of being powerless and not belonging, she said.
After Delacorte sent out advance reader copies of the novel to reviewers, librarians and booksellers, many of the early responses were positive. But those were soon drowned out by blistering critiques.
“I was really caught off guard,” she said. “It was very devastating to me that the book was read in a totally different cultural context.”
After Zhao decided she wanted to release the book, she and her publisher had scholars from different multicultural backgrounds, as well as one who studies human trafficking in Asia, evaluate the text. Zhao added new material and made changes based on their comments.
It’s unclear whether such efforts will mollify Zhao’s critics, or if the release of “Blood Heir” this fall will ignite another cycle of outrage — a backlash to the backlash to the backlash.
But Zhao and her publisher are excited that readers will have a chance to evaluate the book for themselves.
“We ultimately think our YA readers are very smart,” said her editor, Krista Marino. “They can read what they want to read and use their critical thinking skills to work through it.”