Voices of Youth Advocates (VOYA), a magazine dedicated to recommending young adult novels to libraries, created a social media storm of complaints on Thursday (22/09/2016), after a “mature” rating and content warning was put on a review for Kody Keplinger’s novel Run, because the book contains “many references” that the main character (Bo) is bisexual.
Reviewer Rachel Axelrod wrote: “The story contains many references to Bo being bisexual and an abundance of bad language, so it is recommended for mature junior and senior high readers.”
This last sentence sparked outrage, with online commenters calling the review biphobic and Keplinger pointing out the double standard of putting a content warning on Bo’s bisexuality and bad language with no mention of the sex scene between two straight characters in her book.
The backlash was made even worse when VOYA editor in chief, Rose Mary Ludt, responded to an email of complaint from bisexual author Tristina Wright. Wright claimed that she was “disturbed and insulted” by the content warning because it dangerously implied that the sexual orientation of bisexual youth “was something to be warned against” and “only for mature audiences”, urging the editor to amend the piece and make a public apology.
“To see this sentence in your review makes me wonder how you would treat my 6yo daughter, who is genderqueer. It makes me think about my 15yo self who was just realizing she was bisexual for the first time. It makes me wonder how you would treat my teen readers, many of whom ID as bisexual and find refuge in books with bisexual characters,” wrote Wright. She added that the language Axelrod used was a “kick in the chest” because the review went live during “bi visibility week”, an event that exists to combat biphobia and destigmatise bisexuality.
Ludt responded: “I am sorry that you took offense [...] When I was a YA librarian, I found VOYA‘s ratings very helpful when doing readers advisory with teens. Knowing if a book had mature content, which would include sexuality and ‘foul’ language as this one does, would help guide me to the readers who would most enjoy and appreciate the book.”
She then went on to criticise Wright directly: “I find it awkward that you feel it’s relevant and necessary to announce and label your five-year-old child’s sexuality to me. That definitely is private and up to your child to discover and announce […] the assumption that I or VOYA magazine might be bi- or any other kind of phobic is just that, an assumption. A misguided one.”
Ludt’s email concludes: “Since this is Bi Visibility Week, I understand your need to find and destroy your enemies in a public forum, however, VOYA magazine and I are not your enemies. Thank you for reading VOYA magazine.”
The email exchange was then not only publicly revealed with blacked out names via twitter by Wright, but was also posted onto the VOYA website without comment by one of the VOYA staff with all names visible, which was then deleted hours later.
The controversy continued when more complaints were sent to VOYA with similar responses, doubling down on the content warning with the justification “language is language.”
VOYA quickly became inundated with complaints from LGBTQ+ people via twitter, Facebook and email, escalating to the point where fans and authors alike were threatening to boycott the publication, with literary agent Barry Goldblatt tweeting that he would be pulling his ads from VOYA and writing to other advertisers to do the same.
Rose Mary Ludt eventually issued an apology of sorts via the VOYA magazine Facebook page: “The LGBTQ community has taken offense at a review of Run by Kody Keplinger and has demanded an apology from VOYA […] I apologise for myself (editor in chief), the magazine, the reviews editor, and the reviewer that anyone was insulted or harmed by this sentence in the book review and/or read it as biphobic.”
Another apology, this time from VOYA’s reviews editor Lisa Kurdyla, attempted to explain why the mistake was made and stated she would retract and amend the review: “I noticed when I got to the last sentence that it had not been mentioned above that there was a bisexual character in the novel. I am always happy to have titles with diverse characters of any nature since we are constantly striving to find and review more books with diversity of cast and setting […] I simply did not recognize that including bisexual and ‘bad language’ in one sentence was effectively ‘lumping them together.’ I saw it as two pieces of factual information that led to the age recommendation. Reading it now, seeing it through the eyes of our concerned readers, I can totally understand what I missed.”
The posts were met with mixed responses from LGBTQ+ commenters, with many labelling them as “non-apologies” that did not account for the inflammatory comments directed at Tristina Wright or the unprofessional responses to complaints overall.
The situation was made worse when the VOYA Facebook page apparently chastised Wright for “posting private letters on twitter”, accusing her of using bisexuality as an excuse to be “obnoxious”. VOYA continued to be flippant and defensive towards criticism from commenters before deleting both Facebook apology posts and comment threads below them, as well as blocking some critics on twitter, including Barry Goldblatt and Tristina Wright.
The next day, the bad PR was made worse when sources detailing the ongoing scandal was added to VOYA’s Wikipedia page, only to be quickly deleted.
Today, yet another apology was issued via the VOYA Facebook page, this time the “open apology” admitted that “the review was offensive, and VOYA’s response to the criticism was even more offensive.”
However, the post continued to defend VOYA’s policies and actions, which included drawing attention to the fact that there was no huge outcry about the review until Thursday. “It is curious that the review in question was printed, published, made available online, and sent to the publisher and (presumably) the author (having read her tweets yesterday) in March, 2016, and no one—not one single person—sent an email or a tweet or put up a post on VOYA’s Facebook page until yesterday, the 22nd of September. Not one. Not a single complaint or comment about the review that was public since March. While we admit our errors and recognize the hurt we caused, and apologize for it, the more general criticisms of VOYA and its staff cannot stand without defense response.”
This post was also criticised for not fully taking responsibility for the actions of Rose Mary Ludt and other VOYA staff, as well as not directly apologising to Tristina Wright, Kody Keplinger or any other critic met with blocking and rude responses from the publication. The post has since been deleted from Facebook.
Kody Keplinger, in response to the controversy, initially said that she didn’t feel comfortable commenting on VOYA’s apologies, but after the third Facebook apology she explained that “I responded to them directly for the 1st time in all of this on their Facebook post. Short Version: I was scared/didn't have that power.” She was also critical of VOYA for mentioning her directly in their open apology claiming she had never said the review was biphobic, but had also noted that they read Keplinger’s tweets in which she explained why she had not publicly commented on it.
Additionally, Keplinger has decided to turn the debacle into something positive by giving away three free copies of her novel.
This is not the first controversy VOYA has been a part of this year, in June they published an article that was heavily criticised for being “racist in tone.”
Update: Yet another apology has been written for the VOYA Facebook page, this time from Rose Mary Ludt, here and here. This one appears to be more sincere and comprehensive, but is still under heavy criticism from commenters claiming that their social media accounts and comments are being blocked and censored by VOYA.
Additionally, VOYA magazine seems to be liking their own Facebook posts.
Alex Liddell is the deputy editor of Bitopia and a non-binary bisexual with a love of pop culture. They also blog at obscuricom.com and tweet from @obscuricom.