Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A post not about Egypt, not yet; Or, I feel the need to comment.

Sometimes the internet is a really interesting place. Sometimes it's a place where things snowball and all you can do is stand back and watch with wide, wide eyes.

I read the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books; it's part of my morning ritual (up there with the NY Times and Questionable Content). It's funny and smart, and it wakes up my brain. Anyway, today I read this post: Bitch, Please. No, Really. Please.

In short: the magazine Bitch recently posted their Top 100 YA Books for the Feminist Reader. Some commenters complained about their choices of a few books--namely, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, and Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. The post authors then re-read the books and took them off the list. They explained the change with this comment:

A couple of us at the office read and re-read Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl this weekend. We’ve decided to remove these books from the list— Sisters Red because of the victim-blaming scene that was discussed earlier in this post, Tender Morsels because of the way that the book validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance, and Living Dead Girl because of its triggering nature. We still feel that these books have merit and would not hesitate to recommend them in certain instances, but we don’t feel comfortable keeping them on this particular list.
We’ve replaced these books with Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley and Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden. Thanks to several commenters who pointed out the need to include these excellent books on our list. I’m excited to add a few more rad girls to our list and I can’t say how happy I am to know that there are WAY more than 100 young adult books out there that tackle sexism, racism, homophobia, etc… while presenting us with amazing young adult characters. Young adult lit has come a long way. We’re really excited to keep talking about feminist-friendly YA books on the blog.

The internet then exploded.

Now. I haven't read the books in question (though perhaps I should add them to my ever-growing list), and I don't usually read the magazine. But I'm reading the many discussions that are swirling around the web. I think this post on the blog Chasing Ray and this post by the writer Kirstyn McDermott encapsulate the issues fairly well. From Chasing Ray, for example:

21. Aussie author Lili Wilkinson then made a salient point:
Many - most - of the girls in your list behave in unpleasant or dangerous ways. Should you remove The Hunger Games or Tomorrow When the War Began because Katniss and Ellie are both killers? Ditch Forever because Katherine cheats on her boyfriend? Or deny Frankie Landau Banks or Lyra Silvertongue or Alanna because they lie? Liesel in The Book Thief steals. Tally in the Uglies series betrays her friends and becomes cold and cruel.

Does moral ambiguity make these books unfeminist? These characters bad role models? And do you really think that teenage readers are so shallow and naive that they can't make their own decisions and judgements after observing the behaviour of others?
Put Tender Morsels back on the list, or consider removing the word "feminist" - and replacing it with something else. "Safe", perhaps. "Uncomplicated?"

and then:

32. And someone then pointed out that the total page count on the three books was 960 pages which:

"...a 'couple' of you Hoover'd through them in three days. ('Scrumby' complained on 1/29; you caved on 2/1; subtract some time for "conversations" and, nope, make that 960 pages in two days. Yowza! Somebody got gold stars at Evelyn Wood.)

And given the timing, do you really expect anyone to believe you separated yourself from scrumby's complaints? That you read the books with a truly open mind, cleared of any bias? I know I couldn't have done so.
Is what you did censorship? No. It's editorialization. That's fair, and really, I wish people would learn the difference.
Is it cowardly? Oh, yeah."

The commenter's right--it's not censorship. But it does assume that readers can't make their own choices, that they can't, for example, read the summaries of those books and choose whether or not to read them.

On the list itself: I looked through the new list, and it seems that, out of 100, I've read 16:
How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Avi
Graceling, Kristin Cashore
The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
Number the Stars, Lois Lowry
The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers
The Blue Sword, Robin McKinley
Alanna: The First Adventure, Tamora Pierce
Trickster's Choice, Tamora Pierce
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor
Uglies, Scott Westerfield
Dealing With Dragons, Patricia C. Wrede

I remember Alanna, Dealing With Dragons, and The Blue Sword being some of my favorite books when I was a pre- and early teen. And yeah, there are books on this list that are definitely worth reading.

But, but, but---without hard, complicated books, I would not be the person I am today. We need books that make us think, make us feel, make us question ourselves and our assumptions. Perhaps these three removed books don't do that (as I said, haven't read them yet). But trying to "protect" readers from those books robs them (robs us) of the chance to decide whether or not the books do do those things.


  1. The problematic word here seems to be "feminist" (surprise!)

    The issue is three-fold:

    1. It's for the feminist reader. So you have to make assumptions about what the feminist reader wants to read.

    2. But let's assume that it's not insulting to decide that the feminist reader only wants to read books with general feminist themes, or that the feminist reader will find them empowering to women--that is, books that are themselves feminist.

    But then you have to answer the question of what is feminism? There are probably as many feminisms as their are feminist readers, particularly when you extend the scope of your appraisal to issues that are not necessarily feminist per se, but which often fall into feminism's wheelhouse--such as the rape and blaming the victim questions cited above.

    But assuming for a moment you can find some common ground between your varied feminist readers and their varied feminisms...

    3. How do you interpret a work of fiction to be appropriate for feminist readers? Is it the absence of anything they might object to? Is it the eventual condemnation of anything they might object to? Must it have a strong female protagonist? What if the strong female protagonist is also a terrible human being? What if there's a weak female protagonist who's ultimately a good person? What about a male protagonist who treats women as equals or fights for their rights? Must it also have broader feminist themes? How do you determine what the themes of a book are?

    Consensus holds that Dracula is an anti-female work. I read it and felt that if the boys had just gotten out of the way, Mina Harker could have tracked down and killed Dracula twice as fast. I understand the criticisms of the book, and I would never argue that Dracula is a feminist work, but I use it to point up how difficult it is to reach an agreed-upon interpretation.

    Even a list of the "best" books is going to be contentious, let alone a list of books that best exemplify philosophy X, be it feminism, Christianity, or what have you.

    By all means, make the list anyway. It's a great discussion starter! But if you're making any list of books expecting it not to be contentious, you're, frankly, more than a little naive. And if you think that replacing books on a list when someone objects is somehow going to settle all disagreement, you're just dumb.

  2. Yup, I think you've hit the nail square on the head here.

    From what I've read, it seems that another problem included the fact that some of the post authors hadn't read the books in question before the commenters objected to them, and then they read them *with those comments in mind.* So--already biased.

    And yeah, any list of the "Best" whatever is going to stir the pot. And I think your #3 is spot-on, because it does point the difficulties of defining what a "feminist" book is. Hell, I LOVE L'Engle, but A Wrinkle in Time, though wonderful, probably isn't straight-up a feminist book in some senses (I think, actually, some of her other books are better suited for this list, but that's another discussion).

    Okay. I have many more thoughts, but I need to go get my laundry. :)

  3. I suspect that in a field so full of incompatible orthodoxies as children's books, something like this was probably inevitable - it happens even when feminism isn't part of the picture.

    I think the only thing to do in a situation like this is not dig oneself in any further - or as Fisher put it, "Never explain, never apologise". If a few people complained and one gives into them, everyone who didn't complain first time round will want a say...

  4. Complaints over the books included (and excluded) *were* probably inevitable. Like I said, and like Rebecca said in her comment, anytime you release a "Best Of" list, you're going to get people who disagree vociferously and sometimes viciously. What wasn't inevitable was the backing down of Bitch's editors.

    "Never explain, never apologize." In some cases, no. But in this case, probably.