Was Lindsay Ellis’ Casual Observation About YA Fiction So Bad?

Don’t say negative stuff about another author’s book is an unspoken rule among traditionally published authors. Ostensibly, this is because a writer never knows who they’ll bump into at a book convention or a signing and what unpleasantness may follow.

But the real reason is that they’re all published by the same five publishing houses. Publicly badmouthing another writer’s work hurts not only that author, it also hurts the investment a publishing house has made in that author’s product.

Which means you’re essentially biting the hand that feeds you.

As a traditionally published writer, Lindsay Ellis should know this, but I guess she didn’t get the memo.

Two weeks ago, she tweeted a casual observation about a new Disney Film: “Also watched Raya and the Last Dragon and I think we need to come up with a name for this genre that is basically Avatar: The Last Airbender reduxes. It’s like half of all YA fantasy published in the last few years anyway” [bold emphasis is mine, obviously]

Many read this tweet as saying all Asian inspired fantasies were derivative. Later, Ellis called out The Children of Blood and Bone and Blood Heir as examples, both works by minority writers.

Well, naturally, a dig like that cannot be allowed to stand. The book community came for her, and Ellis went on the defense. She saw the objections to her tweet as being an uncharitable misreading or her intention.

Is this all a misunderstanding?

People came to her defense. One suggested that she “def[initely] has foot in mouth syndrome.”

However, I’m not sure if this was a case of simply misspeaking.

Now, I’m not a fan of Lindsay Ellis’ work, or BreadTube/ LeftTube in general (outside of Maggie May Fish), but I’ve seen and enjoyed many of Ellis’ videos. To anyone familiar with her work, the tone of her tweet is instantly recognizable as her trademark snark that made her famous to begin with.

A major issue raised by her detractors is that criticisms of works being derivative are often only implied about novels produced by minorities. In her defense, Lindsay claimed: “I can see where if you squint I was implying all Asian-inspired properties are the same, especially if you were already privy to those conversations where I had not seen them. But the basic framework of TLA [The Last Airbender] is becoming popular in fantasy fiction outside of Asian-inspired stuff” [bold emphasis is mine, obviously]

In short, she’s protesting her innocence.

She continues her protestation of innocence by tweeting: “saying a thing is structurally similar to another thing is not a dig. Why do people immediately get defensive and think it’s a dig.”

Well, that’s an easy question to answer. It’s because Ellis’ whole brand is thoughtfully making digs at films and books. So, why would anyone think the tweet was anything else? In fact, it’s the reason I’ve watched any number of videos she’s produced over the years. But usually Lindsay Ellis doesn’t make digs for the sake of making digs. She does it because she’s making a larger critique.

But as far as I can tell, the larger critique here is missing.

After all, there’s probably a small hill of minority-authored manuscripts pitched at literary agents and publishers. That an overwhelming number of them that get the greenlight for publication are derivative of Avatar: The Last Airbender is more a systemic issue than anything else.

And surely, Lindsay knows that publishing expects comp titles. In a video she made about her own publishing journey, she said her own book, Axiom’s End, is the famous Chinese Science Fiction novel The Three-Body Problem but with girls.

Ellis could have done a critique of the publishing industry but didn’t.

She probably didn’t want to bite the hand that feeds her.

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