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The Story of Lani Sarem & Her Handbook for Mortals Is Peak White Entitlement

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By now, you’ve probably heard about the brief but powerful scandal that hit the YA lit world last week. The popular book The Hate U Give was knocked from its long-held #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller list by an unknown newcomer, Handbook for Mortals. The book was written by a first-time writer named Lani Sarem, and was the first novel put out by the brand new publishing arm of the GeekNation website. Its immediate placement at the top of the NYT list was suspicious.

This was first pointed out by YA writer and publisher Phil Stamper. His investigations were thoroughly documented by Pajiba’s Kayleigh Donaldson, and I highly recommend you read her rundown because this whole story is a bizarre and fascinating read.

Stamper and Jeremy West, manager of OnBroadwayish, both received DMs from booksellers citing calls they received from someone asking if their stores were NYT reporting locations, then placing bulk orders, not caring when their orders would be fulfilled. It’s not unheard of for publishers to manipulate their numbers in this way, but as Donaldson notes, the NYT usually places an asterisk next to the title to indicate as much.

Also highly unusual: IMDB has an adaptation of the book listed as being in development. And on the site’s mobile app (I have no idea why there’s no cast listed on the desktop browser site), the author herself is attached to play the lead. So from the look of it, not only was Sarem trying to buy her way into a career as a best-selling author, but as the star of a YA blockbuster franchise.

Only hours after Stamper’s initial tweet, a revised NYT list was released, removing Handbook for Mortals entirely and placing The Hate U Give back at #1.

Sarem has admitted that she “didn’t play by the normal YA rules,” but insists that her book deserved to be on the list. The narrative she’s choosing to go with here is that of an underdog being victimized by an insular, snobbish YA world.

And it’s true that the YA lit world–like the publishing world in general–does historically have a diversity problem–a problem that only grows starker when we look at what books reach the eyes of Hollywood studios. Big money is going into recycling the same stories and the same voices. Sarem is attempting to paint herself, then, as a deserving outsider who managed to find a road into this tight-knit world of YA cool kids, despite the “unfair bias” that rules the industry.

The problem here is that the book Handbook for Mortals pushed out of the number one spot is the exact sort of book that breaks the mold Sarem claims is holding her back–but this one does so based on its actual merit. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is borne out of the Black Lives Matter movement, telling the story of a young black girl grappling with issues of police violence. This is the exact kind of voice that’s thrilling to see embraced by the largely insular, excessively white YA publishing community. The book is also getting a high-profile film adaptation with an incredible cast that so far includes Issa Rae, Regina Hall, and Common.

For someone like Sarem to try to buy her way into that position is bad enough, but to do so at the expense of a book that actually represents the “outsider” success story narrative she’s trying to fit herself into is a terrible look.

Oh, and if you’re wondering if maybe Sarem’s work actually deserves that #1 spot, despite the methods that landed it there, HuffPost has provided an excerpt. Here’s how the narrator describes herself:

I’m slender, but I do not believe most would say skinny. Not ‘hot-girl skinny,’ at least. I have long legs that are toned but I think my thighs are too large and I do not have a thigh gap. My arms are kind of flabby and while I do have an hourglass figure I have always felt my butt is a little too big and my face is a bit too round.

If you’re going to try to steal the spotlight from a black woman telling a much-needed and beautifully written story of political violence and systemic racial oppression, is it too much to ask that the writing not make readers want to claw their eyeballs out?

ETA: This just keeps getting better. Even the cover art is an unoriginal rip-off.

(featured image: GeekNation Press)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.