Sunday Speculation: Uncomfortable Literature

In writing the recap on the Bitch Magazine YA feminist literature list situation, I couldn’t help but think about how librarians are by default put into defensive positions about materials in their collections. Each added item has a potential for igniting some sort of objection; even if that chance is miniscule, someone can find something objectionable in it (and if they go hunting for it and have some creativity, they will find it). Often times, this sheds the light on the profession that librarians are smut peddlers, pornographers, politically and/or emotionally insensitive, and otherwise defenders of society’s deviance.

It is the price that is paid for a near absolutist stance. Only the most morally deplorable items (such as child pornography) gain no refuge. But when literature covers incest, suicide, bullying, homosexuality, cutting, eating disorders, racism, blasphemy, and rape, the profession defends the choices of inclusion of unpopular, controversial, and/or otherwise socially abhorrent topics. It is never a matter as to judging whether the topic is acceptable or not; it is a matter of allowing individuals to make their own decisions whether to read it or not. Generally, like the comments to the original YA list post revealed to me, there is a divided opinion. A divided opinion is not a rationale for exclusion, but an impetus for insuring that it remains. As Ricky Gervais said recently after the row over his jokes at the Golden Globes,

“I’m not sorry for anything I said… Nobody has the right not to be offended. And don’t forget: Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re in the right.”

Such is the model and cornerstone for free speech guarantees in countries like the United States.

In noting that the three books that were removed from the Bitch list all involved the topic of rape, I remembered the George Carlin bit, “Rape can be Funny” (very NSFW, as if you needed a warning). Some will find it funny, some will find it offensive, but it has a kernel of truth to it: just because the topic is uncomfortable to others should not preclude any discussion of it. One cannot have ask rape victims to speak out against their abusers and about their ordeals as a means of educating people on the topic while simultaneously demanding that any other discussion outside of this scope cease. It is when we as a society stop talking about a subject for fear of offense that the issue will continue to linger on in the shadowlands of conversation, present yet unresolved.

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):…

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.

The Facebook Revolution

From the Washington Post:

[…] Facebook, which celebrates its seventh birthday Friday and has more than a half-billion users worldwide, is not eagerly embracing its role as the insurrectionists’ instrument of choice. Its strategy contrasts with rivals Google and Twitter, which actively helped opposition leaders communicate after the Egyptian government shut down Internet access.

The Silicon Valley giant, whether it likes it or not, has been thrust like never before into a sensitive global political moment that pits the company’s need for an open Internet against concerns that autocratic regimes could limit use of the site or shut it down altogether.

The article is a great read about the company that wants everyone to use their own identity, the dissidents of the world using it to network, and the regimes trying to gather up information through the site. It reinforces the importance of social media as a platform that can have a greater purpose than a place to play Farmville. To me, it also rekindles the notion that one of the most powerful connections in the world is the ability to share ideas. Facebook certainly streamlines that option and brings the world a tiny bit closer than it was before.

It also makes me wonder why libraryland isn’t using it for specific calls for change. Off the top of my head: ebook lending, copyright & patent law revisions, and maybe even putting a school librarian in every school. It might seem silly to some, but an active and highly populated Facebook group can have some clout. Hell, it can even topple governments.

Not bad for a site that has a “Like” button.

(h/t: Alexis Madrigal)

Bad Search Engines Borrow. Great Search Engines Steal.

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land has an excellent recounting of the initial story from Google. The short short version for the TL: DR crowd:

Google noticed that Bing’s top 10 for certain results had become very close to Google’s top 10, even yielding the correct result when there was spelling errors. Google decided to code a line that would manually make certain unrelated websites the #1 result to a list of nonsensical words. Google engineers were told to use Internet Explorer from their home computers with the Bing Bar and Suggested Sites (an IE feature) turned on and run Google searches for these nonsensical words. (The Bing Bar has an option to send search data to Microsoft.) After a period of two weeks, searching Bing with the nonsensical words yielded the same #1 result as Google. Google claims Bing is stealing their results. Bing says Google stacked the Bing results by running the same search over and over again in their Bing bar.

Silicon Valley slapfight, ahoy!

To me, this story is a big non-starter. Perhaps my indifference is misplaced, but it’s hard to get very excited about two multi-billion dollar corporations trading shots over proprietary search result algorithms. It is nice to know that they aren’t kidding when they say that they will use any data you are willing to share with them in order to make for a ‘better search experience’. Even if that experience is the product of a little corporate espionage.

Maybe libraryland will get lucky and Bing will start stealing content from Google Books or Scholar. That might get me out of my chair.

The Access-Ownership Line

“Where is the line drawn between information content that libraries want to own versus content that libraries are willing to just lease or license?”

That is a question that came to me late last night as I struggled with another blog post that has been frustrating me for over a week. As I closed down the laptop and crawled into bed, it was a question that stayed with me. Why do we demand to own certain materials and are satisfied to merely license or lease others?

In pursuing ownership of some materials, it makes sense in regard to the first sale doctrine. Libraries want to be able to take the steps necessary to facilitate the borrowing of materials. In retaining ownership rights, it allows the institution to be able to demand the return of items as well as sell or discard them at a later date. It’s certainly been true for every physical item that has crossed through our doorway.

As to leased content, the benefits of database access for our patron communities outweigh the needs of ownership. Given the demands on maintenance and management of such systems, it is far easier to purchase a license for access. All libraries have to do is facilitate access to patrons through the web portal. Book leasing works well for short term lending of popular titles that one doesn’t want to own fifty copies of later when the demand drops off completely. It’s perhaps the only time the library fudges the ownership desire in light of a economic advantage.

While those represent traditional lines of ownership and leasing, I’m wondering if they still make sense as the library moves forward. Why not look towards more leasing models for print materials? Can libraries look to assert ownership rights when it comes to databases? (Specifically, why not become shareholders of database content?) I will confess that some of these questions are just me wondering aloud; I really don’t have good answers for them. But as people’s interface with information content continues to evolve, I think they are good questions to examine for the future.

Two tangent thoughts that relate to the questions posed:

(1) The big ownership/lease item that gets the attention of libraryland are ebooks. As for ebooks, I can see two different kinds of models that would work well, both of which originate from the music industry. One would be like iTunes where the user purchases books through an interface with the capability of moving it from device to device. It’s an ownership based system in which the user would be granted rights over the material. The other would be more like Rhapsody in which the user pays a subscription for access to hundreds of thousands of titles that they can download at their choosing. A person can download as many titles as they wish so long as they are a subscriber to the service. If information access is our goal, how big an issue is ownership in the long run?

(2) I think libraries have their own paradox when it comes to access. We’ll proclaim that we are in favor of unfettered information access yet specifically prohibit people on the basis of the accumulation of late fees. Not lost materials, not wanton acts of disregard for public safety, but because they have returned materials late. For a dollar amount equivalent to a Starbucks coffee or an average movie ticket, we will restrict someone’s information access without much thought. While some may argue that it is a necessary component to ensure the timely return of materials, I find it remarkably draconian in light of our information access principles. I think it cheapens the institution to put such a low price and condition on borrowing rights; it would be akin to telling someone they couldn’t drive till they paid off their $25 parking ticket. To me, it’s an enormous injustice.

Where do you think the ownership/access line exists in libraryland?

Big Tent Librarianship Goes to the ACRL

Click to see the full brochure!

On Tuesday February 15th at 4pm EST, I will be presenting online to the ACRL membership. “Advocacy at the Academic Library! – An ACRL Web-Based Conversation Series” is series that has been put together by Valerie Glenn and Eric Frierson at ACRL and I’m flattered that they would ask me to be a part of it. My talk will be partly based on my “Vertical Advocacy” post, the Big Tent Librarianship article over at Library Journal, and a decent dose of the TED Commandments.

That last bit is important in a couple of different ways. I’ve never been one to really obey traditional conventions when it comes to presentations. I’m despise Powerpoint (though I will use it since this is a webinar). I talk till I say what I want to say and then shut up. With that in mind, I’m not someone who necessarily pays attention to the clock. While some may think that this means I will drone on for hours on end, the opposite is the usual result. In light of the topic, I really don’t mind being short because what I really want out of this presentation is a hearty chat discussion on the topic of advocacy. When am I going to get another chance to talk to a group of academic librarians all in one place?* Not anytime soon, I think!

This will be a fun time, for certain.

The talk is free to ACRL members. So, I hope to see all you academic peeps over there!


*Ok, the ACRL convention in Philadelphia at the end of March is right across the river from me. I should start looking at what social events are going on over there at night. Yes.