Ownvoices, Outing, and Book Twitter: What Happened With HULLMETAL GIRLS?

If you’re wondering why your Twitter timeline was suddenly flooded with oblique references to “harassment” of authors or reviewers and debates over the right way to criticize “ownvoices” works, it might have something to do with the discussion of queer representation in a new YA release.

Hull Metal Girls by Emily Skrutskie book cover

         As many Twitter-fueled controversies do, this one comes in several rounds of statement to blowback to backlash, so I’ve tried my best to parse it.

        Emily Strutskie‘s third novel, Hullmetal Girls, was released earlier this week. The science-fiction adventure received many strong early reviews but also garnered some criticism from a few readers disappointed in the book’s representation of its trans and aroace characters.

         Acquadimore Books gave the book three stars and a largely positive review but called the queer representation “tokenism.”

“… I don’t think “casual queer rep” should look like “everyone 100% passes as allocishet, they just mention they’re queer at some point”.”

         Other criticism went further, arguing that aspects of the representation were poorly handled. Heather at The Sassy Geek describes two scenes in which queer characters are abruptly outed, focusing in particular on one controversial scene in which, she says, an aroace character is outed without consent after being forced to witness two other characters having sex:

“I personally thought this was a pretty insensitive way of handling the revealing of the characters’ sexualties and gender identities.”

         Leah at Small Queer, Big Opinions used even stronger language, calling the representation “harmful” and arguing that the novel trivialized those moments:

“Skrutskie should not have treated Aisha’s potential trauma as some kind of joke.”

         What might have ended with a few poor reviews morphed into a controversy about ownvoices representation and readers’ spaces when it moved onto Twitter. The evening of July 16, YA author Rosiee Thor tweeted a short thread about aromantic and asexual spectrum representation, specifically criticizing the writing of scenes in which aro or ace characters are forced to witness sex and then treating it as a “joke.”

It is worth noting (and many have) that Thor did not tag the book, its author, or use any searchable terms that would specifically identify the novel or the review in question.

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The following morning, Strutskie replies to Thor’s thread, calling the interpretation Thor refers to a “deliberate miscontextualization of an ov moment.”

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While neither Thor nor Strutskie names the Small Queer review in their Tweets, many have assumed that Leah’s blog was what Strutskie was alluding to with “what you’re reacting to.”

Leah subsequently quote tweeted Strutskie’s reply, arguing that the book’s status as an ownvoices work doesn’t negate the potential harm.

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Leah and Strutskie exchange several tweets, and Strutskie accuses Leah of “outing” her publicly in referring to the book as ownvoices.

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Leah also received replies from others criticizing her review, including two from Tara Sim, author and (self-identified) friend of Strutskie, who calls Leah’s tweets “targeting” and “harassment.”

         These exchanges set off a flurry of responses that are generally difficult to find because they deliberately exclude searchable terms, but a number of threads clearly reference the Hullmetal Girls controversy in discussions of a wide range of issues, from ownvoices representation to author etiquette to being outed in a public space.

         Several users posted tweets arguing that the ownvoices designation should not be a “free pass” in the case of harmful representation and that authors should accept differences in reader response.

         Artist and YA editor Wendy Xu repeated Strutskie’s claim that she was “outed,” calling the criticism to Hullmetal Girls “untoward” and “harassment,” then suggested that bloggers should not be allowed novel galleys if they “treat the author like this.”

         Several hours after the Strutskie threads, Author Cit Callahan tweeted a  thread arguing that the ownvoices designation “is not a certification” that allows an author to speak on behalf of an entire community and that it does not mean a work is “exempt from critique.”

Callahan also argued that the mere inclusion of a triggering experience should not be grounds for dismissal and that a reviewer “can say “I don’t like this part” or “this part was triggering for me” without denying it as a valid experience.”

         Several posts criticized Strutskie and others for “invading” readers’ spaces and “harassing” reviewers.

         This miniature controversy, of course, has now drifter far from the actual content of the novel. In addition to the many possible interpretations of Strutskie’s work itself, these debates raise several interesting questions about the larger publishing ecosystem and the way the reading community discusses ownvoices works.

         Some questions are evergreen debates about the role of reviewers and the relationship they have with authors. Is it acceptable for authors to personally respond to reviews and criticism? How should reviewers interact with authors online? More broadly, the suggestion that Leah “outed” Strutskie brings up more questions about online spaces. Does an author “out” themselves by referring to a book as ownvoices? When an author has identified themselves as ownvoices in a public arena like Twitter, do they have the right to expect that other users will treat that information as private?

         Most interesting to me, however, are the more thorny questions raised about representation and ownvoices authors.

         The ownvoices label is still relatively new. According to the Washington Independent Review of Books, the term was coined by Corinne Duyvis in 2015. Google Trends shows that the term did not come into wide use until late in 2016. In the years since Duyvis created the hashtag the label has taken on a life of its own, and it is impossible to point to hard-and-fast rules on when the label is and is not appropriate. Duyvis states that ownvoices simply refers to a work in which “the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity.” For Read Brightly, Kayla Whaley writes:

“When we talk about #OwnVoices, it is not about policing what authors write. It’s about being aware of the stories we as readers seek out and promote, and about carefully considering the perspectives of the people who write those stories.”

         While (in my very non-scientific experience) I see #ownvoices invoked most often for identities related to race or disability, it also has a rich history of application to LGBTQ+ stories. When applied to queer identies, however, the ownvoices label because increasingly complicated and controversial.

         Does the ownvoices label pressure queer authors to publicly out themselves? Does the label hold up some stories as “universal” portrayals of an identity? Is the label still appropriate in SFF and other non-realistic and non-contemporary settings? What responsibility do ownvoices works have to represent the community to others? What responsibility do they have to engage with intra-community differences? How should ownvoices works be approached by reviewers who share those identities? What about reviewers who do not?

         I certainly have my opinions, but I don’t think many of these questions have easy answers. Ownvoices is still a very new way of considering author perspectives, and thoughtful discussions among readers, reviewers, authors, and publishers are necessary as we continue to navigate portrayals of diversity and marginalization in fiction.

What did you think of the Hullmetal Girls controversy? What does the ownvoices designation mean for the reviewer/reader/author relationships?

 

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12 comments

  1. Oh goodness, I havent read HullMetal Girls yet, but i got approved for it a few weeks ago on Netgalley. As someone on the aspec, I’m now super wary of it, but thank you so much for sharing all the info! It’s great to know that going in!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!
      (I want to say, though, that I don’t want it to sound like I’m warning people away from the book–I haven’t read it, and there are certianly many people who enjoyed it and appreciated the rep. I was most interested in tracking the controversey itself; I don’t have an opinion on the book.)
      But I absolutely get what you mean. When I see those kinds of interactions online, I tend to get turned off of authors… basically forever.

      Like

  2. Wow, great post! Thank you so much for summing it all up so succinctly. I knew some of what had gone down, but not all of it, and as someone who posted an early review of Hullmetal Girls and had major issues with the acearo and trans treatment, but didn’t know how to word my concerns, I think I may add links to my review to some of what is being said, just so that my followers get the clarification, too. :/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’ve actually heard that sentiment from several people in response to those reviews–that something didn’t sit quite right but they weren’t sure how to articulate it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for posting this information! I did know a little bit about the controversy before but I’m glad to see it all out in the open like this. As you know I posted an early review of this and didn’t like how the characters were outed and I felt that I should warn readers of the potentially triggering content. I also am never a fan of authors going into reviewer’s spaces so I don’t think I’ll be supporting her works anymore.
    I will definitely be sharing links to this post though, just to help inform people! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was such an insightful post! Thank you for so eloquently summing up what happened. Personally, I think both the author and the reviewer could have acted better. I 100% think it was wrong for Skrutskie to invade a reviewer’s space like that — and the fact that other authors did so too is abhorrent — but I also feel like the reviewer in question didn’t behave the best??? I don’t want to upset anyone as I am not on the ace-spec but I am part of the queer community and I only bring this up as I read a thread by an asexual reviewer (who’s a mutual) who also read Hullmetal Girls and loved the representation, and was then incredibly upset by the things many people were saying about the novel. I think in situations like Own Voices, no portrayal of an identity is ever going to be completely accurate because we are all different human beings and we all experience things differently too. So I think in the future, saying something like “I personally found this book hurtful, please be warned about possible triggers” and then leaving it at that is a good idea. I do that all the time! I’ve read plenty of books with what I personally feel is bad representation of my sexuality (Autoboyography), but I’ve had friends of the same sexuality who loved the book. But I also don’t want you to think I completely disagree with the reviewer! I think Leah was totally within their rights as an Own Voices reviewer to criticise the novel — I think perhaps the controversy got away from everyone and blew up into something it didn’t have to. Also, I am about to work in the publishing industry, so maybe my opinion is a bit biased too, but hopefully we can all learn from this!
    Again, thanks for summing everything up so well! You’ve really captured the heart of the issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I personally don’t like the troubling scenes described and wouldn’t read it now, despite having looked forward to this as I’m ace myself. but I don’t think that means that authors aren’t allowed to write about those things? yes, corrective rape is a real and horrible issue, and personally, I loathe ALL sexual assault storylines, no matter how minor, and will avoid books that include that, but I’m not going to tell an author she can’t publish a book with it…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a really good point that I saw some people getting at on Twitter. The fact that the material is potentially triggering should not, in itself, be reason for criticism.

    Like

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