Thoughts on “Want to be a Fantasy Writer? You need to Travel”
Jill Criswell’s article about finding inspiration in global travel misfires when aimed at the YA crowd
Jill Criswell is a writer from Northern Florida. She took an MFA in creative writing from UCF, and, like me, she travels the globe. We haven’t met, but I think we’d be friends. Like her, I think world travel creates a perspective shift worthy of discussion. Unlike her, I’m not sure I’d say “everybody needs to do it,” especially when speaking to an audience of often-struggling writers in a genre sensitive to privilege.
Criswell plugged her book Kingdom of Ice and Bone in a September 1 blog post in the School Library Journal titled, “Want to be a Fantasy Writer? You need to Travel.” By September 6, it was burning out of control like that Labor Day fire in California that started with a gender reveal party, quickly surrounded campers, and later required military helicopter evacuation.
SLJ removed her article and posted an apology late Monday night.
The propellant to this inferno is that Criswell aimed her post at the Young Adult literary community.
YA as genre, YA as culture
Young adult is a literary genre. Unlike, say, Cozy Mysteries, however, young adult is also a social media subculture and community built around YA literature. Writers of less privilege — writers of color, writers with disabilities, LGBT+ writers and others see it as one of the most accepting genres in publishing. Discussions and debates in YA space often take the framework and tone of a diversity studies class at a liberal arts college.
Many YA authors see their craft as a labor of love for marginalized or hurting teens who don’t find positive representation in the media or feel alone and “othered” in the world. Over 50% of YA readers are adults, however, so it’s probably safe to say YA writers are also writing books for each other, to process and heal their own traumas, and to find community and acceptance, themselves.
A hallmark of the YA community is a passion for exegesis of everything from books to posts to statements to tweets. Anger erupts regularly over microaggressions, racism, sexism, cultural appropriation and perpetuation of privilege and structural inequity in teen lit. People call out infractions with zeal. They claim “exhaustion” from discussions, go on hiatuses, semi-hiatuses, and quasi-hiatuses that never last, then jump back in to “do the work.”
The call-outs are sincere but sometimes tip into bizarre sport, with people of every group competing for oxygen over the potential harm a piece of writing does to their subgroup. It’s not a criticism. These behaviors fit eternal sociological themes like the need for community and social group dynamics.
Beneath that, there's an undeniable, quiet “access to power” element playing out, too. If you’re an unknown writer querying and facing rejection, you want established authors, agents, and editors to like you. They make it clear they don’t want to represent or interact with anything “harmful,” so performative solidarity is, if not sincere, good business.
Criswell has worked in YA for some time, and that’s the rub. She should know this. Nothing quite screams “privilege” like a vacation photo of a white woman in front of a geyser in Iceland with an essay about how you need to travel if you want to be a YA writer.
Twitter erupted with the usual indignation. What might such an article suggest to somebody for whom a passport might never be affordable? Did she consider people with disabilities who cannot leave their house? How about people whose skin color makes a trip to Iceland uncomfortable or threatening? Angie Thomas, bestselling author of The Hate U Give, asks what essays like this tell underprivileged kids.
Had Criswell written her essay for Conde Nast Traveler, nobody would have cared. She picked the wrong audience.
If you write YA, your books are one product. You’re another.
Books are a product, but so is social media identity. Often, authors and readers believe the two are better linked than they are in reality. In truth, a person can be the devil on Twitter and sell massive numbers of books. They can also say all the right things on social media and sell nothing.
I can’t speak to Criswell’s books, but on social media, whether we like it or not, she delivered a popular product last week — a blatant example of “harmful behavior” people can share with their friends and use to drive conversation. It hit a particular sweet spot the community loves to discuss, too: a white person apparently blind to their privilege and advantages, suggesting that to write well, you have to take expensive vacations.
Had she written a benign essay, nobody would retweet it or talk about it. But here we are, saying her name and repeating the title of her book. As an advertising strategy, her post worked. I just wrote an essay about her and included an image of her book, and I don’t even read YA fantasy.
I’m not saying any of this is moral, just, or right. But it is the case. And, a few weeks from now, we’ll be on to the next thing.
I think Criswell would have avoided this controversy had she written in first person about how travel informed her writing. Instead, she wrote in the second person, suggesting the “universal you” needs to travel to write. We all do this sometimes. “You really need to try these nachos!” most of the time means “I really love these nachos.” Regardless, her essay appeared to be an inaccurate, tone-deaf statement to a community that actively makes room for underprivileged people in an America grappling with race and inequality and suffering from high levels of unemployment.
Particularly sad is that the subject — the benefits of travel to a writing career — got lost. Perhaps the age-old writing advice, “show, don’t tell,” is applicable. I’d love to do a side-by-side blog post with Jill Criswell reflecting on three places we’ve both been and the lessons we carried away. I bet we’d find she’s quite human. Maybe I’d find I am, too.
CT Liotta is nobody, but has a lot of hot takes on Twitter controversies and loves to run his fat mouth when he should be quiet. He deletes things that misfire, goes back and rewrites things that get him in trouble, and pretends he didn’t say things when he really did and there are screenshots to prove it. A total spalpeen, really. Follow him for more, and curse him on Twitter @CTLiotta