In The List, innocent lives are destroyed when a man is falsely accused of misconduct on the internet. Here, Adegoke discusses how she approached this complex issue
Earlier this year, a legal case sent shockwaves through the media industry. Five years after being accused of rape on the “Shitty Media Men List”, American author Stephen Elliot settled a defamation suit against Moira Donegan, the journalist responsible for creating the spreadsheet (but not the person who made the accusation, who remains anonymous). While the case never went to trial, Elliott was awarded a “six-figure sum” and, as he saw it, successfully cleared his name. To some, this result looked like the final nail in the coffin for the #MeToo movement: the “whisper network”, which had at first seemed like a viable way for women to seek justice against predatory men, had now been revealed as shaky, unreliable, and easy to corrupt. But the conditions which led survivors of abuse to resort to these tactics are mostly unchanged today: criminal prosecutions for rape and sexual assault are still shockingly low; across many different industries, men are still abusing positions of power and getting away with it. So what is the answer? The List, the debut novel by journalist and Slay in Your Lane co-author Yomi Adegoke, grapples with this question, while refusing to offer didactic moralising or easy solutions.
Lauded as “ambassadors for Black love” and “the British Obamas”, Ola and Michael are an Instagram-famous power couple who, as we first meet them, are due to get married in one month’s time. Ola works at Womxxxn, a sex-positive feminist site run by the hilariously awful Frankie, a white woman who rails against “white men” and talks a big game about diversity, all the while mistaking random strangers for FKA Twigs and waxing lyrical about the cuteness of mixed-race babies (“a compliment to both white and black people,” as she insists.) Ola is widely respected as a feminist writer, but not so successful that she’s above being forced to write branded content about Danish CBD-infused sex toy brands and their links to body positivity. Michael, meanwhile, is starting his first day at CuRated, an edgier Buzzfeed which trades off Black culture while having an entirely white workforce and a CEO who looks like a “member of the Conservative Party’s youth wing”.
When Ola is first forwarded “the list”, a crowd-sourced spreadsheet of abusive men working in the media, she reads it with grim satisfaction – right up until the point she sees Michael’s name, alongside allegations of harassment, threatening behaviour and physical assault. As her life begins to unravel and the wedding date approaches, Ola is forced to interrogate her deepest principles and the extent to which she is willing to discard them for the man she loves.
The List is a scathing satire, a mystery (to begin with, we don’t know who named Michael or whether he is guilty), and an incisive, thoughtful exploration of what justice means in the present day. Among its greatest strengths is Adegoke’s willingness to dwell in ambiguity. The novel is not really polemical, or rather it’s polemical in multiple, competing and contradictory directions: it’s about call-out culture going horribly, tragically wrong, while still making a powerful case for its necessity. It’s a propulsive, poignant and at times hilarious read, which, for all the perspectives on offer, never feels like a series of dramatised think-pieces. Below, we speak to Adegoke about the perils of call-out culture, the debate around toxic masculinity, the importance of culturally-specific representation, and more.
What first inspired you to write about the whisper network and call-out culture?
Yomi Adegoke: I’m sure you will have come across the type of list that the book focuses on. There was a period in 2017 when multiple lists, across different industries, were going viral concurrently. My knee-jerk reaction was to think that this was an amazing thing: women were finally able to hold abusive men accountable, men who had flouted the legal system, the police and HR, and doing so in a public way that protected other women.
But underneath the reaction I felt I was supposed to have, there was an underlying conflict. I'm a journalist, I studied law, and I’ve always seen ‘innocent until proven guilty’ as a default way of looking at allegations of whatever kind. So I didn't feel 100 per cent right about it. Even when their intentions are entirely pure, movements are very easily co-opted, just as online anonymity is easy to weaponise. Right now, I could create a burner and say anything I want about you, and you could do the same to me.
In light of the problems that the novel explores, what do you think justice actually looks like in the age of social media?
Yomi Adegoke: I hate to cop out, but I truly do not know, and that’s why the book is so morally grey. I look at the way that online movements and anonymity can be weaponised, and I know that's wrong. I simultaneously look at the fact that social media has provided a voice to the voiceless and has helped disenfranchised people to organise in such a huge way, and I see that as an absolute good. But I don’t know how to judge which outweighs the other, or if either do.
In terms of a solution-based approach, one thing I will say is that we need to wrestle back conversations about ‘cancel culture’ from the right wing. I was scared to write this, because I’m a left wing person and I was worried I’d be giving fuel to the meninists, who could go ‘see what this book is saying? Hashtag not all men!’ When in reality, what I'm trying to say is that ‘innocent until proven guilty’ should be a core tenet of left-wing thinking. People losing their entire livelihoods when we’re not actually sure about what’s happened doesn’t feel like a left-wing ideal to me either. It feels quite conservative and Salem witch trials-ish.
“We need to wrestle back conversations about ‘cancel culture’ from the right-wing” – Yomi Adegoke
I thought the characterisation of Michael was really interesting. On the one hand, he’s “toxic” in a lot of ways, but he’s written with a lot of compassion. There is currently a lot of discourse about masculinity and the problem of young straight men. What do you think about that debate? And what is your novel saying about masculinity?
Yomi Adegoke: I guess what I'm trying to say about masculinity is that it contains multitudes. Over the past few years, I think lots of conversations around it have become quite two-dimensional. We went from “toxic” being used to describe a type of masculinity to people making out as if masculinity is toxic in and of itself. The inverse of that is doing the exact same thing with women in the opposite direction, acting like women are essentially beyond reproach, flawless and inherently feminist, which to my mind is a deeply sexist argument.
I wanted it to be so that Michael might be trash, but this situation is unfolding and we don’t know whether he deserves it. I could have written a male character who was super-likeable and perfect, and we’d feel so bad for him. But for me, it’s more interesting to have this guy who is caught up in the worst parts of masculinity: does that mean that what happens to him is OK? Does he deserve it just because he’s a bit of a bin?
Without wanting to sound like such an auntie, the way social media fosters these debates is just super black-and-white. The algorithm encourages people to be really split, so when people tweet things about ‘men being like this, women being like that’, it tends to get a lot of traction. But I’m looking at some of the conversations and thinking, this is just giving ‘men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’. It’s just that, but elevated in some way or masked in intellectual jargon. Really, we’re still reducing men and women into these two-dimensional archetypes.
“I don’t think we realise how specific references are when the creator or the intended audience is white” – Yomi Adegoke
The List feels very specific in its references, and very grounded in Black British culture. What effect do you think that specificity brings to the novel?
Yomi Adegoke: I think representation is hugely important. It frustrates me when I’m watching a show, I’m enjoying it, I feel like I’m in this world, and then suddenly a character says a slang word that I haven’t heard for 10 years – even though it’s set in the present. Because I’m from the place they’re trying to portray, it just immediately feels wrong and takes me out of the story.
Writing this book, I knew that having the characters say certain things or speak in particular dialects could take some readers out of the story, because they might not understand it. But I wanted to prioritise the people who would recognise that world and ensure they stayed in the story. And you don’t have to be a British Nigerian, second-generation immigrant who works in the media to know these people. If you’ve ever lived in London, seen London on TV, or listened to certain music from London, you will know this world.
As you were writing it, did you feel any pressure to smooth things over for a mass audience?
Yomi Adegoke: It was important to me to be specific. I’m quite a flexible person, but that was something I wouldn't budge on at all. Thankfully, my editors were really open to that and didn't ever pressure me to explain anything. There’s a bit where Michael’s grandma is speaking Twi – a Ghanaian dialect which I do not speak and had my friend’s parents help me to write out. I was waiting for the feedback to be like, ‘you need to translate this’, but because it was so obvious what was being said in context, they never commented on it. It irritates me when someone writes, ‘he put on his durag, which is a cloth that…’ I don’t want the parentheses, and I don’t think you should have to explain what a durag is. I’m not even saying “use Google”, because that can be a simplistic retort and sometimes those explainers can be useful, but I don’t always think it’s necessary. It implies a lack of trust in the reader – and I don’t think anyone reading this book is stupid.
I don’t think we realise how specific references are when the creator or the intended audience is white. People take it for granted that lots of Black people watch or read things that depict a completely different world and there are no explainers. Take Only Fools and Horses, for example: it’s a fascinating show, but at the same time, I don’t look at that world and see it as something that I feel connected to. Yet I can still enjoy it, so I think it’s lazy when people insist that everything has to be explained.
There have been times in the past when I’ve read something, heard a phrase or seen an outfit in a show and thought ‘that doesn’t feel right‘. And then someone involved has told me, “Well, that wasn't right, because we were told we couldn’t do that”. It’s a real ongoing issue. And if this book does anything, I just hope that it makes people realise that is OK and it should be encouraged. I think it makes for a richer, and more authentic read.
The List is out now