On Neon Yang’s Toxic Reputation

Publisher Neon Hemlock Press recently launched a Kickstarter for a science fiction anthology entitled Luminscent Machinations. Part of the launch was an announcement of the first nine authors to contribute — and this announcement sparked heated controversy. Dozens of Twitter commentators raised their voices to condemn one of the nine authors: Neon Yang. The backlash led to one of the other eight, Elizabeth Kestrel, pulling out of the anthology.

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Clearly, Neon Yang’s reputation is toxic. When a publisher is shamed for hiring them, and other writers shamed merely for working with them, there are few terms quite as appropriate. But what, exactly, did Yang do to provoke such burning contempt?

The answer is complex, but the short and simple version is that Yang was one of various people who objected to Isabel Fall’s short story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”, which was pulled from publicaton at the request of its author following the backlash. If you’re unfamiliar with that affair, I wrote a whole essay about it shortly after it blew up in January 2020. I made a point out of documenting the (in my view, seriously misguided) condemnations of the story by commentators such as Orion Rodriguez, Jay A. Rama, Phoebe Barton, Vanessa Rose Phin and Nibedita Sen.

I’ll have to admit, though, I missed out Yang’s involvement. And I was far from alone: exactly what Yang said about the story during the controversy appears never to have been archived. The closest documentation I’ve found is from a widely-disseminated Vox article that was published more than a year after the affair, the author of which interviewed Yang:

“When the story was first published, we knew nothing about Isabel Fall’s identity, and there was a smattering of strange behavior around the comments and who was linking to it that led people to suspect right-wing trolls were involved in this,” says science fiction author Neon Yang. They were publicly critical of the story on Twitter. “In hindsight, they were probably just drawn by the provocative title and possibly did not even read the story. And yes, it seems like an overreaction on the part of the trans people who responded this way, but being trans in this world is having to constantly justify your right to existence at all, and when you’re forced to be on the defensive all the time, everything starts to look like an attack.”

There are two things I’d like to stress here.

First, Yang’s comments neatly encapsulate the kind of parochial point-missing that I took a stand against in my article. The “strange behavior around the comments” mentioned by Yang was, quite simply, the story getting an unusually large amount of praise for a debut piece; finding it suspicious that an outsider could receive acclaim smacks of (probably unconscious) cliquishness. Yang’s reference to “an overreaction on the part of the trans people who responded this way” implies that the debate was one between trans people who objected to the story, and cis people who defended it; this is a gross oversimplification. Many transgender commentators (myself included) defended the story, and many of the attackers were cis people who, I suspect, believed that they were doing a good job as allies.

A case in point is Gary Tognetti, a blogger who (to the best of my knowledge) is not trans. Tognetti was, I believe, the one who first floated the conspiracy theory mentioned by Yang that Isabel Fall was actually a right-wing troll. When I brought up his involvement on Twitter earlier this year, I received a reply from him admitting that the theory was a fatally flawed one; I can’t link to his comment as he’s deleted his account, but if I remember correctly, his words were “I deserve to be dragged for this.”

Tognetti’s apology struck me as a sincere effort to own up to his mistakes. Yang’s comments, meanwhile, seem a little more self-serving, like an attempt to frame their error as an understandable mistake. To put things in context, here’s how the Vox article summarises what happened to Isabel Fall:

“Most of all, I wanted people to say, ‘This story was written by a woman who understands being a woman.’ I obviously failed horribly.” That was when she asked [her editor] Clarke to take down the story. That was when she checked herself into a psych ward, so she wouldn’t kill herself in the midst of her dysphoric spiral. “It ended the way it did because I thought I would die,” she says.

The trans person hurt most in the affair wasn’t any of the readers who found the title or subject matter of the story uncomfortable; it was the author who was pushed to the brink of suicide by an utterly misguided backlash. That shouldn’t be forgotten.

All that being said, there is something else I’d like to stress. Since the initial controversy, Neon Yang has been repeatedly, consistently and inaccurately portrayed as the archvillain of the story. I have seen nothing to justify this.

I’ve seen people accuse Neon Yang of instigating the attacks on Isabel Fall. In reality, they were a relative latecomer to the debate: if you read the contemporary articles about the January 2020 affair, you’ll see that Yang is conspicuously absent from the quoted authors. I’ve seen people accuse Yang of starting the speculation that Fall was an alt-right troll; as noted above, I believe this was actually minor blogger Gary Tognetti.

I’ve even come across lurid allegations that Yang was deliberately trying to drive Isabel Fall to suicide in an attempt to do away with a potential rival. I’d say this is where Hanlon’s Razor is worth bringing up: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. To me, those endorsing the story’s removal from publication seemed to be acting out of misguided self-righteousness rather than calculated cruelty.

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This narrative of professional jealousy appears to stem at least in part from the fact that Yang wrote a story entitled “A Stick of Clay, in the Hands of God, is Infinite Potential” that was published (but not necessarily written) a few months after Fall’s story, and covers similar themes of mech pilots with gender dysphoria. However, I personally see no particular overlap between the two stories beyond what could reasonably be expected from two transgender writers with comparable genre interests. Yang’s contribution to Luminscent Machinations has been attacked on similar grounds, as the anthology is themed around queer mecha stories — but given that the story hasn’t even been published yet, I’d say it’s too early to dismiss it as an imitation of Fall.

Yet, despite the flimsiness of the accusation,  Neon Yang retains a reputation as the person who did the most to bring down Isabel Fall. As far as I can tell, the misconception can be traced back to the aforementioned Vox article, in which Yang is the only person quoted as justifying the backlash against the story. Nowhere does the article state, or even imply, that Yang was the main aggressor; yet nonetheless, it seems to have established Yang as the face of the anti-Fall movement.

The aspect of the Isabel Fall affair that I found most disturbing was the sheer disregard for creative freedom shown by so many of those attacking the story — many of them creative professionals themselves. N. K. Jemisin, for example, tweeted that she was “glad the story was taken down” on the grounds that “sometimes art causes harm” (she later deleted these comments and apologised). Vanessa Rose Phin similarly declared that the story’s “withdrawal is to be commended”. Nibedita Sen was another who sided with the story’s censorship, calling it “art that was hurting vulnerable minorities”.

Those that live by the censor’s scissors are liable to end up being snipped at themselves. There is, perhaps, a degree of karma in a person who rolled along with the erasure of Isabel Fall’s story — simply because it made some of the readers uncomfortable — being placed in a position where their own presence in an anthology is deemed uncomfortable, to the extent that at least one collaborator has decided to pull out.

But there’s no justice if this retribution is focused specifically on a single person who wasn’t even one of the key players in the affair. When I look at the ongoing mobbing of Neon Yang, I can’t help but feel that what I’m seeing is not so much karma as the second turn of a vicious cycle.


Update: when I wrote this post I was unable to find copies of the tweets Neon Yang made about Isabel Fall’s story back in January 2020. After I published it, I found screencaps posted on Twitter:

YangTweet1

YangTweet2

So, Yang’s stance was that the story was somehow harmful to transgender people, and they inaccurately framed the dispute as one between offended trans readers and complacent cis people (as they would more than a year later when interviewed for the Vox article). In other words, Yang said much the same thing as everyone else condemning the story. Note, also, that these tweets came from January 14 and 16 2020, relatively late in the controversy (the unease set in around January 11, and the story was pulled on January 15). As evidence that Yang initiated the campaign against Fall, or was any more objectionable in their conduct than the other authors attacking Fall’s story, I’d say these tweets fail.

In other news, Neon Hemlock has released a statement that is an absolute masterclass in failing to make a chaotic situation any better.

Update #2: The debate is still raging, and I have two more things I’d like to bring up. First, I’ve seen various people on Twitter questioning whether Yang was ever accused of being the leader or instigator of the attacks on Fall’s story. The facts are easily verified. Here are some of the tweets responding to Neon Hemlock’s announcement of the fiction anthology:

everyone that worked on this and was okay with working with neon yang just showed they’re okay with working with someone that led a hate mob against a trans woman for writing about the same genre

It always a shame to see a queer person get dogpiled by a hate mob. I’m so sorry. Maybe you shouldn’t have instagated one against Isabel Fall.

Just wanna say that you felt threatened, panicked and lead a campaign that near lead to a suicide. You – should – be ashamed.

Eight people with no principles and one person that lead a harassment campaign so awful that not only destroyed the hopes of an up-and-coming trans author but also made her give up on transitioning.

glad to see one of the instigators of a hate mob against a trans woman writing their own queer mech story shamelessly gets a place here

There are more, but you get the picture: Yang has repeatedly been accused of leading and/or instigating the attacks on Fall.

The other detail I’d like to mention was brought up by a reader on Twitter, who pointed out that my post made no mention of a July 2021 Twitter thread (archived here) in which Yang commented on the affair, having been interviewed for the Vox article. I left the thread out of the post because I didn’t find it all that significant: for the most part, Yang is simply elaborating on the sentiments they expressed in the Vox interview, quoted above. You might disagree, however.

7 thoughts on “On Neon Yang’s Toxic Reputation”

  1. It’s important to remember the racial dynamic as well. Most of the people going after Yang are white, and queer spaces still have a significant problem with racism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is starting to remind me of the atmosphere at a blogsite I used to frequent. This blog contained the most culturally left people I have ever encountered in a group. The commentators’ main shtick was to be more holier-than-thou so they would constantly attack each other as being less moral than the commentator. People kept talking past each other and insulting everyone who wasn’t them. I had to quit because the atmosphere was so toxic. The main bloggers used to write interesting articles, but the comments were all attacks and insults on each other, no discussion of the articles.

    Bah, humbug. I wonder if science fiction magazine writing and discussions could go the same way. Urgh.

    Like

  3. pretty even handed piece overall i have to say (the Jessica Ritchely tweet gave me serious side eye when i saw it, stinks of someone taking their personal dislike of another’s work and attributing malice to it). I do also wanna say that I also felt as though there is a racial dynamic to the amount of vitriol Yang is receiving but like you said, it’s impossible to truly determine the demographics of people tweeting. Still, there is a little radar that goes off in my mind when i see situations like this

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  4. > As far as I can tell, the misconception can be traced back to the aforementioned Vox article, in which Yang is the only person quoted as justifying the backlash against the story. Nowhere does the article state, or even imply, that Yang was the main aggressor; yet nonetheless, it seems to have established Yang as the face of the anti-Fall movement.

    My impression, FWIW, is that even more than the Vox article itself, Yang’s further comments on Twitter is where things really exploded. Their comments were massively retweeted with mocking “who did this” memes.
    I don’t think Yang intended the thread as an apology thread (they begin, “I thought I’d say something a little more in-depth about the issue,”) but it was definitely retweeted and amplified as a Very Bad Apology Thread.
    I think there was a lot of… extrapolation… about what, precisely, Yang was presumed to be apologizing for,
    and while initially there might have been some muddiness about whether “who did this?!” was aimed at Yang specifically or at SFF Book Twitter as a whole, the word very quickly became that Yang was (somehow?) directly responsible.

    There must have been some backlash even before that (Yang refers to it in the first tweet), but I think this is where this particular framing started.

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  5. i think this is a pretty fair article. i think the reason yang specifically is getting so much blowback is because they have continued to insist they did nothing wrong, unlike other parties involved who have mostly all either admitted to the harm they caused or at the very least stopped posting about it.

    Like

  6. Really fucking sick of the constant implication that no one was hurt by fall. Shit like what she wrote has damaged a lot of trans people and driven then from the community as well. The story is by default alt right astroturfing even if fall didn’t mean it that way because it had exactly that effect. And all the people caping for fall now against Neon are acting exactly as racist and “couldn’t give a shit about the damage my art causes” type of people I imagined would be “empowered” by falls self hate story.

    Like

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