Author note: This post is to act as a summary for all that has happened until the moment of posting, and so I have refrained from adding my own commentary. While I have met Smith in passing once, I have not read his books, and so cannot judge his female characters for myself. While I have my own thoughts on Smith’s comments, I have refrained from adding them here so as not to muddle the train of events. Should Smith want to respond to this article, my inbox is always open.
On March 8th, Vice published an article by their writer Hugh Ryan entitled “The Failure of Male Societies: Author Andrew Smith Tackles Monsters and Sex.” In and of itself, this article wasn’t anything spectacular; it was a short interview with an award-winning YA novelist, not designed to cause a splash or launch an online campaign.
However, in Ryan’s opening to the article, he commented that “female characters are Smith’s real Achilles heel: he doesn’t have many of them and they tend toward the stereotypical.” He then asked Smith about the lack of female characters in his books. “I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all,” replied Smith. “I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.”
And so the YA community took advantage of these comments to do what it does best, when its not reading – it began to talk about what it had read. Twitter exploded with commentary on Smith’s quote. Responses ranged from Sarah McCarry’s hilarious snark and thoughtful blog post, to actual earnest conversation about the internalized sexism in Smith’s remarks. Tessa Gratton wrote a blog post that would be cited, quoted and complained about – depending on the person talking – throughout the rest of the campaign.
Women are not mythical beings you might catch a glimpse of out of the corner of your eye. We are not unicorns. We exist. We matter.
— Jenuary Jones (@Pop_Reader) March 10, 2015
It’s dead easy to write a girl. First you write a human with their own needs, wants and experiences and then you don’t change a thing. — Kat Kennedy (@_KatKennedy) March 10, 2015
We all say problematic stuff. Especially those of us who are part of privileged majorities. The key here is to listen to people’s reactions.
— Tess Sharpe (@sharpegirl) March 11, 2015
Writers do not get the luxury of creating well-rounded characters who are like us and flat characters who are different,not without scrutiny — Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) March 11, 2015
I’m not a fan of the excuse “women are inscrutable and so I won’t even bother trying to understand them.” Women are individual humans.
— Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) March 11, 2015
The thing I keep think about the Andrew Smith thing is that you can’t be a woman and know nothing about men. — Phoebe North (@phoebenorth) March 11, 2015
With 50% of the population female, it’s really not hard to get to know real girls and women, even if you didn’t have sisters. You can do it!
— Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) March 11, 2015
Sigh. What does it say when a male author can writing about giant world-devouring bugs, but not realistic women? — Victoria Schwab (@veschwab) March 11, 2015
Author’s note: I did not witness one threat to Smith or direct attack on Smith’s character while this was going on; nor have I yet to find somebody to supply me with evidence. Should you have a screenshot or link, I would love to see it. As a reminder, critique of somebody’s comments is not an attack on their character.
While nobody denied the institutional sexism in young adult literature or the world in general – an issue that has been discussed in a variety of other places, including the website Ravishly and Tor’s UK division – others came to Smith’s defense, proud that he was acknowledging a fault and hoping to see him do better.
Here’s Andrew Smith defending a woman (Meghan Cox Gurdon from the YA is too dark piece)… pic.twitter.com/hJWs8DJnrA
— Pam Howell (@BookaliciousPam) March 11, 2015
Can’t believe the amazing YA writer & tender-hearted Andrew Smith is being vilified for honest comment abt a shortcoming. We all have them.
— Jandy Nelson (@jandynelson) March 11, 2015
Do you know what Andrew Smith does that few of us do, no matter how much we say we care about kids? He teaches them. Has for 23 years. — Ally Condie (@allycondie) March 11, 2015
As the conversation continued to unfold, the YA community began to divide. Some called for those critiquing Smith’s words to be nicer, using the hashtag #KeepYAKind – a spin on #KeepYAWeird, the name of the tour currently affiliated with Smith’s books. They called out those most open about their critiques of Smith’s words, said that they didn’t want to see an author being attacked and bullied, and that it wasn’t fair to Smith, who admitted that he was “trying to be better.”
Honestly perplexed by “Keep YA Kind” because I’m seeing kind, empathic, thought-provoking, intelligent, challenging, important discussions.
— Dawn Metcalf (@dawnmetcalf) March 12, 2015
And that happens 100% of the time. Some dude saying something sexist and getting called on it and then being portrayed as a “victim”? Ew. — Amanda Nelson (@ImAmandaNelson) March 11, 2015
And yes, teen readers need and deserve books that do the good things that Andrew Smith’s books do.
— Jenny Kristine (@jennygadget) March 12, 2015
In line with the #KeepYAKind campaign, a Twitter account using the username KeepYAKind popped up. They linked to an article in the Telegraph, which complained about a challenge to read non-white and non-male authors for an entire year, before launching vitriolic comments at those who didn’t support Smith or labeled themselves as feminists in general. After a few hours, the Twitter account shut down, thanking everybody for participating in their social media experiment. Those being told to keep quiet or more polite with the #KeepYAKind hashtag responded in kind with #KeepYAHonest in an attempt to remind people that discussion isn’t inherently unkind and that direct attacks on Smith had not been made.
Andrew Smith said a thing and expected zero fallout. Anyone who responded braced for a week of it. #KeepYAHonest
— Emily Kate Johnston (@ek_johnston) March 14, 2015
An incomplete list of things that do not actually exist in the real world: * Systematic prejudice against straight, white, cis men. — Marieke Nijkamp (@mariekeyn) March 14, 2015
— Daniel José Older (@djolder) March 15, 2015
I can’t tell you how many men writers have told me to my face that women are aliens. I’m sorry if you think that way, but that’s offensive. — Stacy Whitman (@stacylwhitman) March 16, 2015
On March 15th, Vice writer Jennifer Schaffer wrote a follow-up article entitled “Andrew Smith’s VICE Interview Pissed Off a Bunch of YA Authors.” Scahffer quoted Sarah McCarry’s satirical Tweets, talked to Tessa Gratton about her blog post, and discussed the issue with Gayle Forman, Carrie Mesrobian and Theodore Goeglein. Despite the title of the article, all responded that they were not pissed off, but that his comment was a symptomatic of a larger problem, one that they wish to discuss.
The straight white male on this representation panel is surprised at the consideration & work the other authors put into characters #NYCTAF
— Brian Gerald Murphy (@begeem) March 21, 2015
On March 21st, Smith participated in a panel at the NYC Teen Author Festival. Entitled “Issues of Representation in YA,” the panel was moderated by David Levithan and included multiple diverse authors, including I.W. Gregorio and Adam Silvera. Smith noted that he was surprised Grasshopper Jungle was considered “a bisexual book” and commented that he wrote things as they came to him, as if they flowed through him by some divine being. Smith also seemed genuinely surprised at how much work and effort the other authors put into including diversity into their texts.
That same day, Smith answered a Tweet from a fan about his new book The Alex Crow. “And there are some great GIRL CHARACTERS in this book,” he Tweeted, before adding the hashtags #SomePeopleAreFools and #
Author Kate Messner responded, and Smith apologized for his words and deleted the Tweet. He added, however, that while Messner’s point was a valid one, “I don’t believe words can be kind or unkind, they are vessels filled with the intent of the speaker.” Smith then blocked Messner.
Smith continued to deny that his Tweet had been aimed at the women critiquing him earlier in the month in a Twitter conversation with Clinton Kabler.
As of the publication of this article, Smith has yet to publicly respond to the KeepYAKind movement, and outside of his Tweets, he has not publicly followed up on his comments from the original Vice article. He is currently on tour.