The Elephant in the Industry
For a long time, too long a time, the elephant in the room—the thing almost everyone never talked about—was sexual harassment in the [fill in the blank] industry. That has begun to change, most notably in Hollywood with women speaking up about years of abuse from producer Harvey Weinstein and a growing list of others. This month, the scandals finally reached another corner of the entertainment industry: children’s book publishing.
Following a recent survey by Anne Ursu on sexual harassment in children's book publishing, in the comments of a School Library Journal article numerous people named some of the darlings of the middle grade and young adult fiction world, including Jay Asher, James Dashner, and Sherman Alexie. (This EW article provides a brief overview and links covering these revelations and their aftermath.) To say that many fans, authors, librarians, editors, are deeply disappointed, betrayed, and angry would be an understatement. But surprised? Not as much as you would think.
So why am I mentioning this here? As a guy in publishing, I feel like I should be saying something about it, and I realize that I haven’t been doing enough to address these problems in our field. I didn’t have any knowledge about Asher, Dashner, or Alexie’s behavior before—I’ve never even met them—but I do know another author who was called out in the SLJ post, Myke Cole. (Read his apology.) Myke and I are casual friends, primarily since we share an agent and mutual acquaintances, and I certainly was aware that he had a reputation for inappropriate advances toward women from even before I met him. I heard it directly from at least one woman he had been hitting on, and though I may be misremembering because it was a long time ago, I think I even witnessed it firsthand. (The fact that I can’t be sure actually underscores the problem; for me, and probably even Myke, that interaction didn’t seem memorable at the time—but it surely meant everything to the victim).
This would have been years ago, probably at some science fiction convention before my first novel was published. And as I think back on it, I didn’t say anything to Myke because a) he was basically a stranger, b) I was still a newbie in the field, trying to make friends, and c) I tend to avoid confrontation. But also, more troublingly, I likely dismissed his behavior as just the way some guys are, or assumed the women he was targeting could handle it on their own, or maybe I chalked it up to isolated incidents rather than a pattern of behavior. I was probably afraid, not just about my career, but because Myke is a big, strong guy with a strong personality, and I’m kind of… not. But these excuses are just that—excuses. I know better, and I’m disappointed in myself. I wish I had said something then, and that’s why I’m saying something now, and won’t be silent again when I see someone being harassed, regardless of my relationship with the harasser, because it’s the right thing to do.
It isn’t enough to be a nice guy, or just to treat women (really everyone) as a fellow human being who deserves respect, or to consider yourself a feminist ally and try to be someone your female friends not only trust to be around, but also can count on for help and support. You have to take action and speak out, and be as brave as the women who have been naming names, if we want to change this broken system.
I’m also mentioning this at Publishing Crawl because we have a lot of aspiring and new writers on this blog, who statistically are probably women, and I hope that whenever they become a victim of unwanted attention and inappropriate behavior, that they won’t be afraid to tell someone and hold their harassers accountable for their actions. Far too often promising (or even established) writers give up or are forced out of the field because they feel afraid and unwelcome, while their powerful abusers continue in their own careers unchecked--and continuing to hurt more people. It’s improving now, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
And this is also a call first to all the other men in publishing to question your own behavior and make apologies and changes as necessary, even if you think there's no way this applies to you. (Have I spoken over women on panels or in meetings, or tried to get the last word in? I think so, and I've become much more aware of how I and other men behave in those situations.) And second, for everyone in publishing to commit yourself to more than just not being part of the problem—we must be part of the solution.