Literary Twitter: The Year In Review
Every writer embroiled in a 2021 cancellation controversy is actually thriving
If you see my by-line appear on this website, it can only mean one thing: a writer is raising hell online. And in the spirit of year-end reflection, looking back on all we’ve overcome and accomplished in 2021, I’ve collected and updated my biggest literary stories below to see how our favorite hellraisers fared after facing the Internet’s fury.
As in 2020, I maintain that few creatives are truly cancelled; that word in itself is misleading. Cancellation implies a total social and financial cut-off and real de-platforming. However, as we’ve seen, the expansiveness of modern communication and culture has only assured that there is always an audience for whichever author or creative is in today’s hotseat. “Cancelled” novels and memoirs are bestsellers—if not TV and film adaptations—turning the author into a hot topic rather than a pariah.
And the stories I’ve covered this year only exemplify that. Josh Hawley and Andy Ngo are as popular as ever; Elin Hildebrand and Casey McQuiston still released bestsellers; and J.K. Rowling has tweeted something harmful to trans people as recently as Dec. 12.
I, for one, have tried my best to only cover literary cancellations in a way that captures an interesting or nuanced issue. Updating these stories is a big part of that, a way to highlight the writers and creatives who still had a pretty good year, despite or perhaps because of their controversy. And so, in the equivalent of a sitcom’s clip show, let’s take a look back at the year on literary Twitter and recall all the crises we’ve survived in 2021.
A big year for unions
Staff at many legacy publications and online news sites have spent the past year in various stages of union organizing and contract negotiation. Early in 2021, I covered one such effort at The New Yorker, where staff stopped working for 24 hours to fight for higher wages. But you can read up on the progress of unions at The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Buzzfeed, Vice, Refinery29, and Gimlet at the links provided. (This is not an exhaustive list.)
Most recently, the Times’ Wirecutter staff striked over Black Friday weekend due to management’s failure to negotiate their contract in good faith. The action resulted in a deal—including higher wages and eliminating nondisclosure agreements—announced this week.
Simon & Schuster may have pulled Missouri Senator Josh Hawley’s book, The Tyranny of Big Tech, back in January over his role in the January 6th attack on the Capitol, but he seems to be doing just fine. Regnery Publishingimmediately picked the title up and published it in May, and it was an Amazon bestseller. Hawley has further parlayed this recent notoriety into a podcast, This Is Living, which he records with his wife Erin. I love myself too much to listen, but Slate’s Rebecca Onion calls the show, unsurprisingly, “bland.”
Problems at Powell’s
Earlier in the year, the famous Portland indie bookstore, Powell’s, pulled Andy Ngo’s Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy from shelves after critics decried the author’s book as biased propaganda. Since then, Ngo has been up to his old tricks (read: breaking up Mumford and Sons and getting sued by photojournalists). But it’s Powell’s that has appeared in the news throughout 2021 over financial crises and mistreating its unionized employees.
Fired literary agent is doing just fine
The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency fired agent Colleen Oefelein for using right-wing social media apps Gab and Parler back in January. Oefelein now reps authors at Adventure Write Literary Management, which lists as a co-founder of the agency, started in 2007. About the new gig, Oefelein tweeted, “Thank you so much! Your support is overwhelming & heartwarming! I’ve received 2000+ notes & more queries in the past 2 months than I had in the previous 3 years. Reading as fast as I can.”
Trans and anti-trans authors
In particular, many of the literary world’s controversies had to do with trans people and anti-trans beliefs. I am alluding, in part, to the Queen of TERFs herself, JK Rowling, who cannot simply stay inside her castle and mind her own business. I wrote about her anti-trans beliefs back in 2020, and she is still at it.
In the publishing world, two books—Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally and Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage—faced negative consequences for alleged false and harmful claims about trans people. Anderson’s book was a no. 1 bestseller on Amazon before the platform removed all anti-LBGTQ titles back in the spring, and is still widely available at most other retailers. Shrier’s book, on the other hand, is still available on Amazon, and was honored on The Economist’s 2020 Book of the Year list.
On the flip side, Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby, which made the news after a number of female writers decried its nomination for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, had a bang-up year. The novel was honored by Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Book Review, NPR, Time, Vogue, New York Public Library, Esquire, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Self, Kirkus Reviews, The Rumpus and BookPage.
The New York Times and the Times-Picayune published allegations of sexual assault and grooming this year against author Blake Bailey, around the debut of his Phillip Roth biography in April. The allegations are horrific on their own, but also call into question Bailey’s objectivity, given that Roth was a noted misogynist and frequently wrote sexist characters. As a result, Bailey’s agency, the Story Factory, dropped the author, and W.W. Norton & Company, who published the Roth biography on April 6, announced they would take the book out of print a few weeks later. Skyhorse Publishing acquired Bailey’s Roth biography and published it on June 15. The book was a New York Times bestsellerand generally received positive reviews. Read a really detailed analysis of this story here from Vox.
I failed to cover anything about the poster boys of cancellation in 2021, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. But they’re in the literary news this month: Andrew must return millions of dollars from his pandemic book deal, while Chris was recently fired from CNN for potentially aiding in his brother’s defense against sexual assault allegations and in response to an accusation of sexual misconduct against the anchor himself. Custom House is subsequently sending his forthcoming book—originally, hilariously titled, Deep Denial—into publishing purgatory.
Sharyn Vane has tirelessly chronicled censorship in the literary world this past year. While I will leave the updates to her, I wanted to circle back to authors Elin Hilderbrand and Casey McQuiston, who struck questionable lines from their already-published novels back in June. Hilderbrand’s Golden Girl received accolades from Amazon, The New York Times, Indiebound, and Kirkus, despite the negative press. And McQuiston’s queer romance One Last Stop was selected as a Book of the Month, as well as one of Kirkus’ Best Books of 2021 and an Indiebound bestseller.
Yes, I too read and loved the new Sally Rooney novel, published in September. You can read a perfect review of Beautiful World, Where Are You by author Brandon Taylor here. (“Characters acknowledging their privilege and access to capital has somehow come to be seen as actual class critique in one’s art.”)
But Rooney didn’t just make news for writing steamy love scenes or weaving Marxist arguments into literary fiction; the author hit the news cycle in October for declining to have her novel translated into Hebrew. Citing human rights reports and the Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions movement, the author refused to work “with an Israeli company that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.” Supporters lauded this pro-Palestinian solidarity from a mainstream writer, while critics decried the decision as anti-semetic. Nevertheless, the novel sold more than 40,000 copies in its first week alone, and was a New York Times bestseller.
Celeb memoirs? Booooo
On a lighter note, The New York Times reported last week that famous faces and social media clout aren’t enough to sell books—unless, of course, you’re Stanley Tucci.