Strong Books Make Strong GirlsFebruary 3rd, 2011 at 11:33
The title from this post is quoted from one of the comments in the threads over at Bitch Magazine – which I think is the best evidence I can give that it’s not all hysteria and piling-on. There’s some marvellous discussion and some really thoughtful posts over there, even if it’s slowly being lost among the noise as more and more people join the conversation.
It’s always disappointing when you’re in the middle of a conversation that to you seems quite robust and interesting, and the people around you suddenly start complaining that it’s too noisy, and asking questions like ‘why is this even important?’ and ‘why are you so angry?’ It reminds me of how many people dismissed RaceFail as a lot of people shouting at each other and getting everything wrong on both sides, and that it hadn’t achieved anything, while the group of people who had been all inspired and had their brains turned inside out and were making exciting plans to make the world better all blinked and went, “Excuse me?”
Conversations, sometimes, are noisy. Especially for those who came in late. So for those of you who did, here are some of the blog responses to the Bitch Magazine Thing.
In short: a magazine recommended some books. A couple of these books raised red flags with commenters – I believe roughly one commenter per book, though we were told there were also some emails. Three books were removed from the recommendation list for not being feminist enough, different reasons each time. And the internet went crazy.
Except it didn’t go that crazy. A lot of things were said, and many of those things were very important. It’s not about censorship, entirely, though that word is being flung around a lot (mostly by people who are saying ‘it’s not actually censorship’). But it is about the misrepresentation of books, about taking a single scene or excerpt and placing a really powerful and negative interpretation on that scene. No books have been banned, and yet, as Maureen Johnson pointed out, this is exactly HOW books get banned. This is the process, and the mindset that lets that happen.
So here we are, typing our brains out, defending books, because that is what we do. If Bitch Magazine had chosen not to recommend a few books that would have been fine, but because they recommended the books and then took that recommendation away, their reasons for doing so take on this huge weight, and it’s distressing to see that people will in fact walk away from the conversation believing that Tender Morsels is a book about rape as revenge (hint: it’s not) and Sisters Red is a book about rape culture (I haven’t read it, though I plan to, but many people have been distressed by this characterisation of the book as there is no rape in it) and Living Dead Girl as “torture porn” (again, I haven’t read it, but several commenters were very upset by this characterisation of the book).
This is a very roundabout way of saying that I have gathered some links of blog posts on the matter by a variety of smart people! It really is worth going back to read the comments on the original Bitch list because there are some marvellous ones – Penni Russon, Paolo Bacigalupi wrote two of my favourites, but there are also some excellent contributions from writers, readers, librarians and rape survivors. On the other hand, they are past 200 posts now and some of them are on the flaily or the ‘what are you all on about’ side, so I understand people choosing to give that a miss. [worth noting for those of you who take a deep breath before reading comments that they allow anonymous commenting and there isn't a lot of moderation going on, though they are trying their best to jump in when threads turn antagonistic or abusive]
One of the first blog entries I saw on this after the first Twitterstorm began to calm off was Kirstyn McDermott’s elegant defence of Tender Morsels, which does a very good job at addressing the interpretations placed upon that text over at the Bitch post.
Margo herself also addresses those criticisms of her book and I think does a very good job at it considering that an author defending her text is not a happy position to be in.
Karen Healey wrote up her own list of recommendations of great feminist-friendly YA books which she has read, and found on her own shelves. There has been a lot of snark about the representatives of Bitch Magazine and the degree to which they had read the book that they were recommending in the first place, and I think this is a fair criticism – one of the largest concerns in this discussion is that the list itself, which is full of quite marvellous, important, excellent books, had lost credibility due to the swapping out of titles, and apparent easy acceptance of only a small handful of criticism. Given that the best thing to come out of this conversation is people finding out about books they might want to read and share with others, I think Karen’s response is a very positive one.
Liz B gives a librarian’s perspective here, and in particular raises concerns with the way that reviews criticising aspects of the books are being used and indeed misused to push a particular reading of the text. The comments on this one are very thoughtful and inquiring.
SB Sarah also posted what I thought was a very good piece about Tender Morsels and the whole situation, and particular her disappointment in Bitch Magazine, as a publication she had a strong emotional investment in. Sadly the comments to this post did degenerate somewhat, and are an example of how frustrating it is when an internet topic turns into an echo chamber.
Abigail Nussbaum has also written a critical post on the topic, looking at it from many angles. I’m not in agreement with all her points – I definitely agree that there’s been a lot of unfortunate misinformation floating around the topic, but I also think there’s a lot more intelligent discussion going on in comments threads, blog posts and even on Twitter than she gives us credit for. This is especially the case for the comments on the original Bitch post itself – while there are many I find frustrating, annoying or just plain WRONG, I was also really interested in many of the perspectives expressed there, and among other things am now very keen to read Sisters Red, which I hadn’t heard of before the controversy, and which sounds exactly like the kind of book I love to read. Fairy tales, sisters, and clever use of opposing POVs!
The conversation may be noisy in places, but a lot of that is the sound of smart, informed readers going CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH while talking about books and feminism. Which is kind of awesome.
EDIT: A really good post from Scott Westerfeld clarifies the position of himself and many other YA writers who have protested the situation and requested their books be removed from the list.
EDIT EDIT: Diana Peterfreund has also blogged about the situation from her perspective, which is quite different to Scott’s, though they have several points in common. I think reading both of these posts is the best demonstration that there wasn’t some great committee meeting between all the YA authors, so that they could act as a powerful mob against the poor little offending magazine – while many of them are friends and know each other well, the authors in this case acted and responded as individuals.