The #MorallyComplicatedYA Brouhaha and Why It’s Not Just Sour Grapes

So yesterday, Publisher’s Weekly released this article about a YA debut that got picked up by a major publishing house at a striking six-figure price tag. But after reading the article, the YA author/reader community found the debut author’s commentary much more striking than the amount of his advance. For more thoughtful remarks from the YA community, check out Chuck Wendig’s take here and Laura Tim’s take here. A bunch of other people have commented as well, but here’s a summary of what happened..

Essentially what the debut author in question said was that his forthcoming book is particularly special, because he wrote a YA story with a morally complicated heroine unlike all the YA stories that have been written thus far. Naturally, all of us YA authors and readers felt insulted. How could we not? He just called us all vapid and unoriginal. He went on to say a few other things that were inherently insulting and moreover revealed that he probably hasn’t ever read any YA.


I can imagine that many onlookers from outside the industry might view the resulting Twitter explosion (see #morallycomplicatedYA if you somehow missed it) as a bunch of less successful female YA authors and/or aspiring writers who are merely jealous of this debut author’s overnight success. And I’ll admit it, I am a little jealous. I certainly didn’t get that large of an advance for my books, and though my first book (about a morally complicated con artist, btw) was optioned by ABC Family, nothing ever came of it. But after sleeping on it overnight, I can safely say that sour grapes are not the reason I still have a yucky aftertaste in my mouth this morning.

Now I’m sure that Scott Bergstrom did not intend to insult us all. I’m sure that was the furthest thing from his mind when he made those comments. And if Scott is reading this post, I just want to say, I ain’t even mad, bro. We’ve all put our foot in our mouths without meaning to. You just happened to do it in a very public place. And having lived through this sort of outrage over careless commentary a few times now, allow me to give you some free advice: Apologize. Don’t explain, don’t rationalize, don’t throw your interviewer under the bus. Just pay your mea culpa and start trying to mend fences by calling out YA books that you have read, that you’ve enjoyed, and that you respect. Do that, and this will eventually blow over. Also, try to do better in the future, dude. Really. Try.

But there is a greater issue at play here. This is just another confirmation that male-dominated society as a whole demeans the interests of women. Note that I didn’t say ‘men.’ I said ‘male-dominated society.’ Because women demean the interests of women, too. All the time. And many men are actively fighting to protect the interests of women (see the aforementioned Chuck Wendig). But the effects of white-male privilege are notoriously difficult to eradicate–those effects being an underlying assumption on everyone’s part that anything seen as ‘girly’ or ‘feminine’ or in any way of interest to women is considered weak or less than. That is not okay. It is Not. Okay. Ever. Stop doing it. Stop.

I could go on for ages listing YA books that feature morally complicated and vibrant and interesting “girly” protagonists, but I’ll just refer you yet again to the #morallycomplicatedYA hashtag on Twitter. There are lists and lists of books in that hashtag that are all exemplary of the bounteous complexity found already within the YA genre, and there are more being written every day.

But I do want to say something to the publishing house that bought Bergstrom’s book for such an enormous sum of money and other houses like it that threw their hats in the auction ring. I thought we were getting somewhere with this whole diversity and acceptance and positive representation thing, I really did. And then you pay six figures for a book written about a girl by a guy who clearly doesn’t understand girls or even read the genre he’s purportedly writing for? How do you justify the message that you’re sending to all other YA authors and readers, the message that his story is worth so much more than all the other stories written and loved by actual YA fans? All I can think is that you saw “Jerry Bruckheimer” and lost your heads. I’m not even sure what to say here other than there’s a point at which “it’s about the bottom line” ceases to be a good enough excuse.

At least there’s one media outlet out there getting it right. *trots off to watch episode five of Jessica Jones*

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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