“She’s fine for teen girls,” Nelson said. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”
That quote in a local newspaper in a city with fewer than 30,000 residents has sparked a massive backlash from thousands of YA fans and multiple internationally best-selling authors after Dessen highlighted it on Twitter.
“Authors are real people,” Dessen wrote in a Tuesday tweet. “We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.”
To Dessen’s defenders, including literary big names like Jodi Picoult and Roxane Gay, Nelson’s quote showed how teen girls’ experiences are marginalized and YA fiction is not given the respect it deserves.
“The underlying frustration is that teenage girls and their opinions and preferences are all too often demeaned and dismissed,” Gay told The Washington Post in an email. “For YA writers, whose audience is comprised of a significant number of young women, such disparagement hits close to home and, as you might expect, inspires defensiveness.”
But to Nelson and her friends, the response was far out of proportion to her quote. They note that she also helped guide the freshman class to read Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” a memoir that unspools the story of a black man wrongly sentenced to death for a 1986 murder he didn’t commit.
“My quote was taken out of context,” Nelson said in an emailed statement to The Post, noting that in addition to Stevenson’s book she also argued for “Breath, Eyes, Memory” by Edwidge Danticat and “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. “These three books are beautifully written and push readers to stand against the racial inequality that the judicial system perpetuates, to consider the heritability and influence of tradition and trauma, and to contemplate what brings meaning to one’s life.”
Dessen, who has landed on the New York Times Best Sellers list multiple times, won the Margaret A. Edwards Award for her “significant and lasting contribution" to young adult literature in 2017.
On Friday afternoon, the celebrated writer apologized for her now-deleted tweet and its impact on Nelson, saying “with a platform and a following, I have a responsibility to be aware of what I put out there. I know this apology doesn’t change what happened, but I am truly sorry."
It’s unclear how Dessen, who lives in North Carolina, spotted the article in South Dakota. She did not immediately return a request for comment late Thursday. But on Tuesday morning, the 49-year-old author scribbled out Nelson’s name in an image of the Aberdeen News story and posted it for her more than 268,000 Twitter followers.
The backlash to Nelson was swift. By Friday morning, the post had 729 retweets and 2,500 replies. Many piled onto the 2017 college graduate, as other well-known authors joined the fray.
Soon, other prominent authors with hundreds of thousands of followers piled on, including Gay, Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, Jenny Han and Angie Thomas. Even Penguin Teen, an imprint of Penguin Books USA, shared Dessen’s complaint, encouraging people to respond to it. Many people who weighed in early in the week deleted their tweets on Friday, and some of the authors apologized Friday afternoon.
At the heart of the anger is a persistent feeling that young adult literature, and particularly YA books aimed at teenage girls, is treated less seriously than other genres. Many of the upset authors interpreted Nelson’s dismissal of Dessen’s work as a commentary on all authors who write for teen girls.
But Nelson’s supporters say the Twitter outrage missed some key facts, including that the university book selections are chosen annually by a large volunteer committee of current students. In her junior year, Nelson was just one vote on that committee.
Also, Northern State University has selected young adult literature in past years as its required reading for freshmen, including Thomas’s “The Hate U Give” and the science fiction novel “Ready Player One.”
Amid the enormous backlash, both Northern State University and the reporter who wrote the news story apologized to Dessen on Tuesday.
“I definitely didn’t mean to be cruel by including this quote,” reporter Katherine Grandstrand tweeted. “I am so sorry.”
In a lengthy Twitter thread, Northern State University distanced itself from Nelson, who graduated from the school in 2017.
“We are very sorry to @SarahDessen for the comments made in a news article by one of our alums in reference to our 2016 Common Read,” the school tweeted. “They do not reflect the views of the university or Common Read Committee.”
Meanwhile, many outraged fans found the original Aberdeen News story and learned Nelson’s name, piling onto her social media accounts. She soon deactivated her Twitter and Facebook pages.
In the days after the online pile-on, which was first reported by the Argus Leader and Jezebel, a second wave of online backlash has begun — this time aimed at the powerful writers who sparked the controversy.
“Very strange to watch a host of female authors pile on to show love to Sarah Dessen after Dessen threw a public hissy fit b/c [Nelson] offered some tepid criticism of her work,” tweeted Hillary Kelly, who writes about books and television. She engaged in a back-and-forth with Weiner and others who defended Dessen, questioning why they used their platform to go after a young woman without the same kind of influence.
“You are novelists,” she wrote. “Facing (valid) criticism is part of the job.”
Others chided the authors for teaming up against an obscure graduate student with no public profile.
“A MILLIONAIRE dunking on a COLLEGE GIRL for not liking her work is the person who should be issuing an apology,” tweeted writer Carrie Courogen.
Some of the authors who supported Dessen said they didn’t know the young woman’s name had been made public and denounced the harassment Nelson received.
“I thought she was anonymous,” Gay told The Post. “People shouldn’t be harassing her. That’s unacceptable.”
Becca Simon, who studied with Nelson at Northern State University and worked with her at the school’s tutoring center, said she was shocked by the backlash against her former classmate. She was also puzzled by the university’s apology.
“I was totally not expecting a slew of best-selling authors to rally around her to shut down a college-grad they knew nothing about,” Simon told The Post in a Twitter direct message. “A university is supposed to foster intellectual diversity, not force all of its students to share an opinion about one author’s book. I don’t feel it was their place to get involved. This would imply that Northern has to apologize every single time a celebrity criticizes one of their students/alums, which quite frankly is ... strange.”
Nelson, for her part, said she hopes the controversy draws more people to read books that will encourage them to think critically about pressing social issues.
“If anything comes out of this larger conversation,” Nelson told The Post, “I hope it is that others will make it a point to read books like ['Just Mercy'] that push them beyond their usual perspective and challenge their assumptions of society.”