Elin Hilderbrand writes novels about people who spend the summer in Nantucket with lots of family secrets and complicated love lives. The books – whose covers feature beach scenes with women wearing sun hats and sherbet-colored towels floating in the sea breeze – are reliably on every July bestseller lists, snapped up by fans at looking for vacation readings. Hilderbrand seems to be having a dream life, raking in the money by giving fans a few hours of sunny and harmless escape. But don’t get too comfortable in this lounge chair: social media has arrived at Hilderbrand’s tough softness.
As described in an article in Publishers Weekly, Instagram readers criticized Hilderbrand’s 2021 summer book, The Golden Girl, for a passage in which two teenage boys, Vivi and Savannah, discuss plans for Vivi to hide in the attic of Savannah’s house without the knowledge of Savannah’s parents: “You suggest I hide here all summer? ? Vivi asks. “Like … like Anne Frank? ”The two friends laughed, but Vivi thought to herself,“ Is this really funny, and is Vivi that far from the base? ”
On a Instagram post in the Hilderbrand Editor’s News Feed, a surfer who calls himself “poursandpages” posted a comment (since deleted) denouncing the joke as “horribly” anti-Semitic and demanding an apology. Others described themselves as “disgusted” and “stunned by the callousness” and accused Hilderbrand of thinking “anti-Semitism is funny”. After trying to extinguish these fires via DMs, Hilderbrand issued a formal apology and said the line will be deleted from the book.
And it’s not the only time this month that an author has been criticized for something one of his fictional characters has said. A few days later, a Twitter user posted a passage from Casey McQuiston Red, white and royal blue, a popular gay romance novel released in 2019, in which a supporting character who is the President of the United States complains, “Well my ambassador to the UN screwed up his job and said something silly about Israel, and now I have to call Netanyahu and apologize personally. This, a user insists, “normalizes the genocide and war crimes committed by Israel which will always be supported and unabashedly supported by America”. It apparently doesn’t matter that the line is clearly interpreted as a soft satire of overly deferential US foreign policy; another Twitter user explained that “Mentions of Israel (especially when they are also completely unnecessary, like in books / movies / shows) normalize the occupation of Palestine. All mentions, even those that don’t seem bad on the surface, are fake. Like Hilderbrand, McQuiston tweeted that the line “will be modified for all future prints”.
Complaining about other more successful writers is one of the most popular activities on Twitter, as is developing rigorously demanding standards of correct speech and vigorously, even informally, of prosecuting those who violate them. What’s unusual about these two examples is how quickly both writers gave in to what appears to be a very small number of criticisms. It’s both absurd – Elin Hilderbrand sells hundreds of thousands of books, and she’s going to edit a post-release novel for the benefit of a dozen Instagram objectors? – and a little understandable. The irresponsible nature of social media gossip makes it too easy for vague and unsupported slag (“I’ve heard she’s anti-Semitic,” “I’ve heard they’re Zionists”) to push like weed in the neglected corners of the reputation of an eminent person.
Why do stupid things like this happen? I know that some will take Hilderbrand and McQuiston’s obedience as a sign that the “toxic drama” reigning on YA Twitter– in which ambitious critics and influencers insult writers for breaking extremely fine and ever-changing lines on race, gender, and other sensitive issues – has spread to the world of commercial adult fiction . It is not uncommon in these arguments for critics to make the rookie mistake of confusing the statements and feelings of the fictional characters with the author herself. This, of course, is nonsense; if fictional characters had to pass purity tests to exist, we would be left with rather bland fiction. The President of the United States is, in general, obliged to behave as if the nation of Israel exists. And most American schoolchildren read Anne Frank’s Diary; if you would suggest that one of them hide in an attic for a whole summer, a comparison to Anne Frank would certainly come. That doesn’t make the child an anti-Semite who thinks the Holocaust is funny, let alone an author who puts such a child in his novel.
While it’s puzzling that people who always rejoice in their love of reading can be so bad at it, the truth is that the incentives to interpret a book’s meaning in the worst light possible are high. Awareness disparities seem to arouse even more resentment than income disparities, and readers savvy enough to take advantage of this resentment have seen their influence increase. My small account might only have a few thousand followers, but if I can muster a handful of book grammars to back up my accusations, then even such a prominent and successful author as Elin Hilderbrand can be made to dance to my air.