Kat Rosenfield and Stan Lee Wrote a Superhero Novel About Cancel Culture
Stan Lee, the legendary head of Marvel Comics for decades and a co-creator of characters such as the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Spider-Man, died in 2018. But it turns out he still had at least one more book in him.
A Trick of Light was released earlier this year as an audiobook and immediately became a bestseller on Audible. That sparked the release of a print version of the novel, which came out in September. The story follows the adventures of two teenagers: Cameron, a high school senior and would-be YouTube star who gains superpowers after a freak accident on Lake Erie, and Nia, a young hacker shrouded in personal mystery. It’s a meditation on virtual and augmented reality, on how the internet has failed to deliver on its promise of facilitating ever greater human connection.
Lee’s co-author on the book is Kat Rosenfield. She is the author of two highly acclaimed young adult novels: Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone and Inland. She is also a former reporter for MTV News and a regular contributor on a wide range of subjects to outlets including New York magazine, Wired, and Playboy.
In September, Rosenfield spoke with Reason‘s Nick Gillespie about the book, about collaborating with the godfather of superheroes, and about how cancel culture has infiltrated the literary world.
Gillespie: What is A Trick of Light about?
Rosenfield: A Trick of Light is a story centered in digital culture in the internet age. In it we meet a young man named Cameron who’s an aspiring YouTube star, and we meet a young woman named Nia whose history and origins are a little bit more mysterious. Together, they form a connection that could either change the world, save the world, or destroy the world entirely.
When the audiobook was released, you told Teen Vogue, “The amazing and also terrible thing about the internet is that it’s changing the way we relate to each other, even to the point of warping our own sense of who we are. Cameron and Nia are struggling with the same questions and anxieties that we all experience as a result of inhabiting digital spaces where identity and reality become malleable.” Can you talk a little about how our identities and our realities are more malleable than they might have been? Obviously there are some good things and bad things.
This was one of the things that really sparked the novel itself. It was something that fascinated Stan, this question of what becomes more real when we’re allowed to create our own realities and create identities within those realities that may or may not line up with who we are in real life. What is the real you? When you go into this virtual space where you’ve curated your reality and you’ve decided who gets to be in there with you and you get to decide very much how you’re perceived online in a way that you can’t necessarily in real life.
It becomes this question: Do you present a more flattering version of yourself? Are you more likable? Are you more provocative? Are you more volatile? Something that I wanted to explore as we were working on this story and something that is probably a familiar experience to a lot of people—and particularly anybody who works in media—is knowing somebody in real life who is a totally normal, decent person offline. They have a job, they have a family, they have pets. And then they get on Twitter or Facebook and they turn into a monster. What happened? What happened to you?
But there’s also a positive side to this. Particularly if you’re a person who is shy or if you’re literally or figuratively disfigured, you can reinvent yourself online. That’s a positive thing, right?
Absolutely. And you can test things out. Testing out identities is something that people have been doing since the dawn of time as part of the normal developmental process for a young person or even a not-so-young person. Online just gives us another forum, maybe over which we have much more control in which to do that kind of exploration.
You’re 37, so you remember a time before 24/7 connectivity.
But it’s probably fading, right?
In high school, toward the end of high school, people started getting AOL, and you could instant message people. And this was actually a very interesting thing that you could have conversations online with people who wouldn’t interact with you at school. I was not popular in high school, but once we had Instant Messenger, some of the boys who were popular found me on there and started talking to me, which I thought was really interesting.
I’m older than you. I’m 56. So I remember a time before that. But on CompuServe, your name was known. It was in every message. You couldn’t hide. Whereas AOL, one of the great things about it was you could be anonymous.
That was the great anonymizer.
That changes a lot, right? People who are growing up now don’t remember a time when there was only meatspace.
Is it a fundamentally different experience to grow up online where you’re in an augmented reality to begin with, and you have your real physical identity and set of friends and family, and then you also have this supplemental space? Is that a different experience than merging into an online world?
I think it definitely is, in so many ways. Some of them are good and some are bad. I spent 10 years writing this teen advice column at the SparkNotes website, and one of the things that was fascinating was seeing how, as social media became more and more ubiquitous, kids got more and more anxious about interacting with each other offline.
Did you ever give any obviously ruinous advice as a teen advice columnist?
Ruinous? No. I’m so happy to say I think I didn’t.
One of the interesting things that I addressed related to online culture was the emergence of sexting. There was this panic circa probably 2010, where suddenly teenagers, of course, were doing what teenagers do: taking pictures of themselves and sending them around. And I remember being like, “Look, I understand you’re going to do this. This is a part of exploring your sexuality. You’re going to want to. You’re going to do it. Just crop out your face. Crop out your face, please.”
Discuss the creative process with Stan Lee and your other collaborators. Lee is the dream merchant. So much of our lives are playing out in text that he wrote or landscapes that he helped create, and they take on a life of their own. Was it daunting to collaborate with somebody like that?
Stan was especially interested in how the internet had failed to deliver on the promise of connecting us. Has this actually done what it was supposed to do, or is it driving us apart? Is it making us tribal and isolating us?
When I joined the project, it was because they were looking for somebody who had a different background to tap into the dynamics of the character, to make this a work of literary fiction, not just a long, bloated comic book story.
Your journalism is about the intersection of political correctness and publishing, particularly in the young adult (Y.A.) space. Earlier this year in New York magazine, you wrote about a mind-boggling incident in which first-time author Amélie Wen Zhao actually canceled a prospective fantasy novel she was about to publish due to a backlash over her treatment of slavery and race in the book. What happened? And what does this controversy tell us about where we are in terms of online culture?
The Amélie Wen Zhao situation was crazy and unique, but it also needs to be understood as the culmination of maybe three to four years of activism in the Y.A. space, where this movement has emerged. It was originally about diversity in publishing, diversity in the Y.A. fiction space. But it really transformed over the course of a few years to be much more about policing content—policing who is allowed to tell certain stories and how they’re allowed to tell them along the parameters of identity: racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, and so on. There had already been this push and there had been books coming under fire with campaigns to see them edited or canceled, some successful, some less so.
If it’s, say, a white author writing about a slave revolt, do they have the legitimacy to write and represent somebody else’s experience?
The main thing now is: “Stay in your lane. This isn’t your story to tell.” That’s a predominant sentiment—not necessarily in Y.A. across the board, but among this very vocal group of activists who’ve managed to, for better or for worse, gain quite a lot of influence in the space.
What’s interesting about Amélie Wen Zhao is that she was a huge diversity success story to begin with. She’s a Chinese immigrant. She came to the U.S. at age 18, and she started writing in secret because she felt that her conservative family would not approve of a nonremunerative career path.
So she’s working in finance, I think, doing incredibly well for herself, and then she’s writing this fantasy novel in secret. One of the arguably good and successful initiatives to diversify the landscape in terms of who’s getting through the door in publishing is this pitching contest called Diversity Pitch. And it’s happening online, where authors from marginalized backgrounds, diverse backgrounds, are invited to pitch on Twitter using this hashtag to connect with agents. This was how she met her agent, and then she sold this novel for $500,000, which was an unheard of—just incredible—for an advance in general, but especially in Y.A.
She was exactly the kind of author who diversity advocates want to see succeed. They should have been on her side when it came to getting this book out the door and having it be a huge success.
The fact that cancel culture came for her anyway was really an interesting moment for anybody who has been watching this stuff unfold. The people who are advocating for this stuff, you should’ve been on board with this. What is it that you’re actually trying to accomplish?
What do you think is going on there? On a certain level this is isolated, or at least it’s not clear how representative it is. But there have been other incidents. A gay, black author, Kosoko Jackson, canceled his debut novel after being attacked for cultural appropriation. And ironically, he himself had been a pretty robust enforcer of the notion that if you’re not gay, if you’re not black, don’t write about something that you are not.
Exactly. And then that bell tolls for thee.
I have to speculate here, but I think what we’re seeing is a lot of well-intended pushing for solutions that seem like they’re going to work. And some of them are good ideas and some of them are not such good ideas. But we’ve seen what happens in a space where a lot of people mean well—they’re very fearful of misstepping. Publishing, and Y.A. particularly, is dominated by white women who are generally educated, upper-middle-class, very anxious about being on the right side of things in terms of political correctness.
So what you have is an environment where it’s very easy for a few manipulative people to get hold of power and to wield it like petty little tyrants for the purposes of aggrandizing themselves. In cases like Amélie Wen Zhao’s that’s basically what you’re seeing. You’re seeing something that’s less about promoting good books or promoting diverse authors and more about a few people who have power in the community, wielding it to try to hurt the career of an author they don’t like.
In 2017, you wrote about The Black Witch, a book by an author named Laurie Forest. It was pre-emptively attacked online, but it actually went on to garner really good reviews and sales. So it’s not clear how powerful cancel culture is in the overall scheme of things.
Right. A lot of it depends on how the author reacts. Laurie Forest, the author of The Black Witch, took what I think is ultimately the best possible tack when it comes to having a bunch of people campaigning to cancel your book, which is that she just didn’t engage. And she had never been a part of this call-out culture to begin with, so it was easy for her to just ignore what was happening, ignore the noise, and focus on the people, who obviously were numerous, who did love and appreciate her work, understanding that it was something she had to bear for a few months and then it would be over and they would move on to something or someone else.
Amélie Wen Zhao, when she chose to cancel her book herself, a big part of this was because she had gone all-in on calling out other authors, getting into these—I don’t want to say spats, that makes it sound trivial, but I guess it is on Twitter—related to who’s allowed to write what and so on. Once she put all her eggs in that basket, it’s very difficult to extricate them when people start getting upset and calling for your head.
I’m thinking of The Catcher in the Rye, which emerged in the early 1950s, long before Y.A. became a self-conscious category in publishing. Have non–prep school jerkoffs appropriated Holden Caulfield yet and just written endless books about how tough it is to be an upper-middle-class person from New York in the ’50s?
I think that Holden Caulfield is canceled.
And not necessarily out of ideology, but because the world that he belonged to doesn’t really exist anymore.
Right. Now it’s like he’s an entitled white guy, so how seriously can we really take his pathos?
To bring it back to A Trick of Light, does any of that Y.A. drama—again, a lot of it is happening online, so it’s internet culture. It’s an augmented reality or supplemental space. What are your tips for exploring yourself online? What are the smart moves and what are the dumb moves?
One of the plot points in the book is that after Cameron and Nia team up with their respective abilities, hacking and otherwise, they make it a point to go after people who are behaving badly online, who are hypocrites, who are cruel, who are victimizing other people. And they’re very equal-opportunity about it.
It sounds kind of pat, but the golden rule really applies. I think that overall, you shouldn’t be mistreating people or treating them in a way that you yourself would not want to be treated. Specifically, attacking people [and] accusing them of bad faith….Overall, in terms of how to behave on the internet, [don’t] lose sight of the human being, the individual human being on the other side of a screen, who you’re engaging with for the sake of putting on a show.