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.