A Bitchin’ Debacle

A couple of days ago, Bitch Magazine created their very own booklist entitled “100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader”. It was described as “100 young adult novels that every feminist should add to the stack of books on their bedside table”. While I cannot locate a criteria on which books on the list were judged, it was within a day that the list started to see objections to certain title selections. Here is how it roughly played out:

[Note: The discussions quoted were going on concurrently. I’ve added dates for clarity. Fully quoted comments are marked as such.]

Commenter “Pandora” (Jan 29):

[…] I am surprised that you included Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red on the list, mainly because of the rape culture debate it brought about on the Book Smugglers review of it (and the author’s subsequent twitter flounce of self pity and cries of witch hunt):

http://thebooksmugglers.com/2010/07/book-discussion-why-we-didnt-like-si…

I wasn’t a fan of the book either. Not just because of what the Book Smugglers pointed out but also because of the way Pearce clearly favoured her younger, prettier, conventionally feminine character over the older, scarred sister. Left a bad taste in my mouth.

Bitch Magazine’s Ashley McAllister replies (Jan 29):

Thanks for bringing this up! I had only heard great reviews of Sister’s Red. I was excited to hear it reviewed as a feminist retelling of the sexist and scary Little Red Riding Hood story, and like Ana at The Book Smugglers said, I love a good fairytale retelling. While I read most of the books on this list, there were a few that I just researched, and it appears that my researching skills failed in this instance (kind of like the book failed over at The Book Smugglers — who sure know how to call out a book on perpetuating rape culture). Thanks for tuning me into this. I’m going to go ahead and remove Sister’s Red from the list and replace it with another book.

After another commenter objected, Bitch Magazine’s Katie Presley responds (Jan 31):

We didn’t put Sisters Red on the list without reading it, per se. Some staff members have read it, some haven’t. For those of us who haven’t, myself included, this discussion has been a good opportunity to read it anyway, so we can all be on the same page (BAD PUN ALERT).

The books we’re reading and re-considering are very specifically the three or so that deal with rape. This is a triggering subject matter, and part of what we’re weighing right now is whether the books are constructive enough to outweigh potential distress to readers who have survived sexual assault. Earlier in this thread, Ashley pointed out that we WILL be re-reading before removing any books, and will update readers either in the post itself or in the comments.

[Note: The emphasis that I have placed in this quotation is because I’m curious as to know what constitutes ‘constructive enough’. Since the selection criteria is still unknown, I am looking for more information. –A]

Author Diane Peterfreund answers Katie (Jan 31):

Sisters Red is not about rape. The single negative review I’ve read of it used the catch-all phrase "rape culture" to refer to a single passage told from the perspective of an angry young woman who is judging OTHER women going to a club in scanty outfits. So the idea that this book could be removed on "triggering" grounds is not applicable.

I have not read every book on the list, but I know at least half a dozen of them (including the one I wrote, RAMPANT — so that you know) does include depictions of, discussions of, threats of, or characters who have been raped (SPEAK, SOLD, LIVING DEAD GIRL, TENDER MORSELS, TITHE, and many more). The idea that discussions of and depictions of this incredibly important women’s issue would be stricken from a list of books for feminist readers is one that sits uneasily with me — as a feminist, as a reader, as a parent who wants my daughter (she’s a baby now, but someday) to understand the full extent of the issues and experiences facing her sex, and as a writer who has always been deeply concerned with feminist issues in my work.

Ashley answers Diane (Feb 1):

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I definitely agree with Samantha in that not a single book hasn’t been reviewed negatively, and that one negative review of a book isn’t grounds to remove a book from a book list. I was quick to say that I was going to pull Sisters Redfrom the list after reading the review at Booksmugglers, as I was super alarmed to read the victim-blaming passage on page 108. But after talking it over with a few rad ladies that I work with, we decided to read/re-read it (and I failed to mention that we were doing so on the blog). After talking it over today, we have decided to remove Sisters Red from the list.

While I liked a lot of things about this book, the scene that is critiqued in the Booksmugglers review still do not sit well with me. No, the scene isn’t triggering in that it portrays rape. However, we do feel that it is dangerous in that it perpetuate the idea that women who dress a certain way are asking to be raped, which is a belief that so many girls and women internalize. The book might not be about rape, but this particular passage is, and we don’t want to promote a book that will cause a girl to further internalize this belief. While we do think that this book has merit and should be picked up by readers who are prepared for this passage, we’re choosing to replace it on this particular list.

That was the end of Sisters Red from the list. But not the end of objections to specific selections.

Commenter Scrumby on Tender Morsels (Jan 29):

You are actually recommending Tender Morsels? What is wrong with you people? I didn’t think Bitch was the kind of place that supported rape as vengeance. That book is absolute crap on every possible level and you should be ashamed for putting it on the same list as Speak.

Ashley McAllister responds (Jan 29):

Thanks for voicing your concerns about this book. We definitely don’t want to be promoting a book that supports rape as vengeance. This book came as a recommendation to us from a few feminists, and while we knew that some of the content was difficult, we weren’t tuned into what you’ve just brought up. A couple of us at the office have decided to spend the rest of our weekend re-considering this choice by reading the book and discussing its place on the list. Stay tuned — we think conversations like these are really valuable and part of what feminism is all about.

The fruits of those office discussions are announced by Ashley in a reply entitled “Revisions to the List” (Feb 1, same day as the reply to Diane):

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.

This controversial decision regarding controversial titles set off, well, a controversy. Bitch Magazine had now tightly gripped a couple of literature third rails: rape/sexual assault as a subject matter for YA literature and removing books from a list that is touted as authoritative (“100 young adult novels that every feminist should add to the stack of books on their bedside table”). (Also, a different third-ish rail: the topic of triggering and whether the books would do more help or harm.) I’m going to stop quoting comments at this point because there are simply far too many after that announcement. I do suggest going over and reading through them for yourself.

I don’t know much about YA literature so I don’t feel comfortable or qualified to remark about the topic of rape or sexual assault in books for teens. There are certainly smarter and more well versed commentators for that subject. I do encourage the tackling of tough subjects like those, but I can feel the shadow of the ‘age appropriate’ debate looming over this sentence.

As to the books being removed from the list, anytime the words “book” and “removal” appear in the same sentence it is going to trigger an emotional response. In publishing a list of feminist YA books that are being described as ‘must haves’, the removal of a book is going to instantly beg the question “Is that book being removed because it is not feminist enough?” From there, people start creating hierarchies as to which books are more deserving to be on such a list, which books shouldn’t be on the list, and which books within the list are ‘more worthy’ than others for the purposes of future list substitutions.

For people defining such removals from the list as censorship, it’s not. Last time I checked, you can still get any of those books from Amazon. More than likely you can get it from your own library or order it via Inter Library Loan. The only place you won’t be able to find it is on a list of an online publication. As they picked the list, they get to call the shots. Granted, they have more at stake for changes they make in terms of reputation and public relations, but there is no way that list was going to satisfy everyone.

To be honest, the only thing that has bothered me about this debacle is the follow-up post on Bitch Magazine. It starts off in a tone that comes across to me as defensive and condescending with quotation marks for all the accusations and ends with proposing an idea for an online book discussion club. While I like the idea of an online book discussion group at the end of the post as a gesture of good will towards conversations about difficult subjects, everything before it makes my inner PR person grimace. It’s like a doctor that made a mistake which ended up killing the patient saying that their funeral was the best one he ever attended. Nice sentiment, but the events leading up to it are not the best. Go read the whole thing.

Now, the two parts that bothered me:

Nevertheless, when a high school teacher contacted our library asking for a list of YA recommendations, we took the request to heart and quickly became very excited about the project. We spoke to high school and junior high school teachers, writers, and readers, and solicited recommendations from staff, interns, and friends. We read and re-read many books and reviews. It was a lengthy process, but not a formal one. Because of our desire never to proclaim anything a “canon,” we knew this collection would updated from time to time.

In setting out to establish the research authenticity of the list, it seems counterintuitive that there was no actual defense offered regarding the inclusion of titles on the list in the face of challenges. (Especially in light of admitting that some books were just researched and then casually stating that the book will be removed.) In one sentence the list is proclaimed as the “100 young adult novels that every feminist should add to the stack of books on their bedside table”; in this paragraph, the list is proclaimed as a casual project that was never meant to be canon. So, which is it? The list is having an identity crisis.

Our eventual decision was to remove all three from the list. While many of the books we recommended cover difficult and controversial topics, we decided to remove these particular books because of how they deal with issues of sexual assault especially. Our particular concerns were elaborated upon in the comments of the previous blog post, as was our (continued) belief that the removed books deserve to be read and certainly should not be banned or otherwise kept from any audience. On a list of just 100 books, though, the problems we had with these texts were enough that three close runners-up deserved to take their place on our roster.

What kills me in this passage is how a reason is offered but never explained. It basically tells the reader, “Here is how we feel. If you want to know why, comb through the other threads 400+ comments and figure it out from there”. A clear statement as to why the books are being removed is in order so that people are clear as to ‘why’. Sending the reader to scavenge for the ‘why’ is simply lazy considering the amount of emotional upheaval that is on full display in the previous post. In fact, after they’ve read through 400+ comments, they might feel like I did: tired, disgruntled, and apathetic to any further discussion.

I certainly hope that there is some fruitful conversations that come out this debacle. It certainly highlights the role of literature in people’s lives, allowing for them to face difficult issues and deal with their own inner demons. It is also a reminder that literature can be dangerous and that’s a good thing. And if you really want to read about it, it doesn’t matter whether it is on a list or not. All that matters is whether it is in your hands.

14 thoughts on “A Bitchin’ Debacle

  1. You’ve touched on the fourth rail but it really should be named outright, and that is feminism. I’ve read a lot of the blog reaction and comments at other blogs, and there are some (not all, but some) who use the books & reader reaction to these books to create some line drawing to define whether one is (or isn’t) a feminist.

    • That’s one third rail I’m not going to touch upon either. I agree, it has sparked a bigger debate as to what the list means.

  2. Like you, I am not fond of the reaction to make a book club as a result of their actions. Was it their right to add and remove books from their list? Sure, no question. Was the way they’ve handled the whole situation the way I would have done it or encouraged them to do it? No it wasn’t. To that end it feels like the book club is less about discussion of YA books that touch on feminist themes but rather more of a way to capitalize on the situation (ie: increased attention and traffic). Maintaining those eyes, whether positive or negative in nature, seems to be their highest priority. I suppose, from a business perspective it’s quite shrewd but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    • I thought the book club was a good idea in order to turn some of the negative publicity around on it. Why not make those books the focus of greater conversation rather than leave them on a list? However, everything leading up to that was felt like a misstep, like they lost their audience before they could make amends. Not a good sign, surely.

  3. Oh, and another thing — this paragraph by Andy: “What kills me in this passage is how a reason is offered but never explained. It basically tells the reader, “Here is how we feel. If you want to know why, comb through the other threads 400+ comments and figure it out from there”. A clear statement as to why the books are being removed is in order so that people are clear as to ‘why’. Sending the reader to scavenge for the ‘why’ is simply lazy considering the amount of emotional upheaval that is on full display in the previous post. In fact, after they’ve read through 400+ comments, they might feel like I did: tired, disgruntled, and apathetic to any further discussion.”

    This, I totally agree with and clearly identifies what part of the problem is and continues to be. “read the comments” when the comments now include some really mean and insulting things, phrases taken out of context, things being misinterpreted, etc.? No.

    • Yeah. If you believe in your case, make it. Don’t tell people to hunt for it, especially if you want to justify the decision.

  4. I felt like the whole list was a game in the first place. YA is hot, lists are hot let’s make one, that shiz will sell like hot cakes! They caved. I feel like the book club is throwing a bone to a starving dog, the dog being the commentators who obviously didn’t agree with the removal of certain books such as Tender Morsels.

    I think Bitch would have done a lot better if they would have used some common sense going into the list in the first place, if you are going to try to push boundaries (and please do) and educate my children in feminism then talk to educators, those with degrees in library science and other fields and make a list that you can have the balls to back up the first time.

    • Their followup post outlines the steps they took to construct the list. Which makes any changes they a little more perplexing since they took the time and energy to make the list.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Andy. I volunteer at the Bitch Library, and say that not as a way to mark myself as some kind of “authority” on the matter, but rather to explain the many conflicting emotions that I’m having about this situation.

    As a first-year MLS student, I took immediate issue with the cries of censorship, which I’m glad to see being denounced by many people. But that’s the only thing that I can say I feel 100% certain about in this issue. The discussions that resulted from this controversy (regarding comments, the books themselves, the pitfalls of anonymity, review processes, etc.) were fascinating, uncomfortable, and revealing. Exactly what they should have been.

    Upon first thought, I agreed that Bitch was not putting forth any kind of canon. However, after some reflection, I realize that that is often what online best-of lists connote in the Web 2.0 world. I’m thrilled that the staff responded to a need for feminist YA literature recommendations, because they’re proving that libraries can often directly respond to the needs of their community. I just hope that in the future Bitch, or any other list-compilers, make the selection process and resulting revisions as transparent as possible so that the literature becomes the focal point, rather than the politics of list-making.

    To end this novel of a comment, I hope the last paragraph of your post is what remains long after the controversy of this particular situation has died down.

    • Thank you for your comments, Alyssa.

      Not to rehash what I wrote, but what I find perplexing is that an explanation of how much research went into creating the list when the books were very casually removed. I say very casually because there wasn’t much of a fight or defense put up for it. If there was research, there would be justification, an acknowledgement that ‘yes, we know this book is difficult because X issue, and we decided to include it’. Instead, it just looks sloppy. While one could say that the new information on Book Smugglers was not previously uncovered, it just makes the list creation process look haphazard. Also, it’s hard to say that it isn’t canon when the description touts it as such.

      In my personal opinion, Bitch really should have defended the list as it first appeared. By removing titles, Bitch has opened everything on the list to similar scrutiny. It makes the process of list making suspect, it makes future lists start out already under suspicion, and, well, it just looks bad unless there is an overwhelming and compelling case to swap out a book. There might have been an overwhelming and compelling case, but it was never made in a overt manner. Telling me to find the staff postings is not making the case. It weakens the resulting argument of “it’s our list, we can put what we want on it” because it shows that outside influences can get stuff moved onto or off the list.

  6. Pingback: Sunday Speculation: Uncomfortable Literature « Agnostic, Maybe

  7. I agree with Andy above. Bitch should have left the list and revised it in a few months.

    At this point, Bitch can’t offer a reasonable explanation because there is none. They made a series of big mistakes.
    Any explanation just underscores the mistakes.

    What a PR nightmare. I predict that this will be taught in library schools as what not to do.

    And, while it isn’t appropriate to say that Bitch censored books, they did in fact self-censor their list.

    And, it seems absurd to suggest a book discussion at this point. People were discussing the books but they in essence ended the discussion by taking the books of the list. I don’t have any respect for the magazine which makes me sad because I really liked the idea of their list.

  8. A 100 item list is too big to begin with. Changing three items at the first squawk was knee jerk. With a list that big there is going to diversity within it. What it boils down to: Bitch didn’t do a good enough job making the list in the first place.

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