On the Sarah Dessen Drama

the discourse

So let’s get into this nonsense, shall we?

In a completely innocuous article about how Common Read* books are chosen at Northern State University, the Aberdeen News quoted Brooke Nelson, who served as a volunteer on the selection committee her junior year of college: “She’s fine for teen girls,” the 2017 Northern graduate said of Dessen, “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

[…]In response to the news item, Dessen tweeted a screenshot of the quote to her 268.4k followers, saying she is “having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.”

*This isn’t a thing here – for anyone else wondering, this is a book an entire university, or just freshers, are supposed to read and consider in the year.

Various other big writers joined in to defend Dessen against Nelson’s alleged misogyny against teen girls/elitism, and the university has rolled over to apologise.

Wow, what a stupid mess.

Firstly – Sarah Dessen was not tagged in the article! This is a small publication dwarfed many-fold by Dessen’s twitter followers. Either she went out of her way to encounter this, or she stumbled on it but should have simply had the maturity to let one student not like her. I understand feeling hurt, but seriously?

This is a slightly different situation, but it bears repeating that reviews are for readers.

On the merits or otherwise of what Brooke Nelson said, people are reading a lot into very brief statements. Yeah it does sound mean, but we also don’t know if they made more constructive points in the committee.

Yes, it is common for things aimed at teen girls to be looked down on in ways things aimed at teen boys aren’t – the university had previously picked Ready Player One, which is more aimed at boys. ‘Literary merit’ is an incredibly complex subject, and whether or not a work is considered to have it can easily be shaped by biases and who gets to decide. People can be pretty snobby about works aimed at girls/women and YA.

I haven’t read Sarah Desson’s work. But isn’t it possible that it really might be – gosh! – suitable for teen girls but not an academic context? Books can be fun and good whether or not they’re ‘difficult’ or packed with dense ‘meaning’, but university reading lists tend to – understandably – value literary merit. YA books can be appropriate for academic study, and blanket statements otherwise are elitist. But they can also not be – and that’s fine.

The book picked over Dessen’s is about racial bias in the justice system. Like, that sounds like a decent thing to get students discussing?

In any case, a successful author shouldn’t be getting so dramatic because one person thinks their books aren’t university material. Why is it not good enough to have many readers appreciating what’s there?

The greater part of this drama isn’t about sticking up for teen girls, which is laudable but would take a better discussion than whatever *this* is. Liz Bruenig had a good point here on issues with how good but under-developed woke principles can work out poorly in real discourse.

[…]In this case, the YA fiction writers with huge followings and plenty of social/professional capital responded with overwhelming force to a young nobody because they *represent* teen girls.

Essentially, the fact that they *market products to teen girls* means that, in the market place, they *represent* teen girls, which means that no matter how powerful they are, attacking their work is an attack on teen girls tout court. So you can never really ‘punch up’ at them.

In my view, this is obvious nonsense. These adult women are not teenage girls, and marketing products to teen girls shouldn’t imbue them with the moral status of teen girls in woke discourse[…]

Writers – don’t do this.

2 thoughts on “On the Sarah Dessen Drama

  1. Oh my goodness- I completely agree with you here. Yes, it wasn’t a very nice comment (in my personal opinion) BUT regardless of the person’s reasoning for not wanting to include Dessen in the list, I still think Dessen shouldn’t have weighed in on this debate. Also, like you said, the article wasn’t tagging her directly and this really was just a reader’s opinion of her work. I see a lot of authors going off on twitter (often to massive followings) about negative reviews/comments they’ve seen about their work and to me it just smacks in the face of not respecting readers to form their own opinions (unless that opinion is “ahhh I love your work!!”) I also agree that there is a difference between books in an academic context and otherwise- this isn’t to denigrate certain works (because I actually think some YA for instance does merit academic study) but just to be honest about what deserves closer attention. I do agree that literary merit can be a complex minefield- but to be honest, I’m questioning the fact they put Ready Player One on the list just as much as I would dispute Sarah Dessen being there (I’ve read both). This isn’t to be mean to either- to me it’s just stating the obvious 😉 Neither are deep enough to start studying in a university context and I don’t think any author should be shocked/offended by that assessment- most books aren’t in that category and that’s okay!
    Sorry for the rambly thoughts! Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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