In the last day or so, controversy involving three YA novels, Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red
, Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl
and my own Tender Morsels
, has arisen in several places online. The main one is the Bitch Media site
, where these three books were first included on a list of ‘100 Young Adult books for the feminist reader’, then, on the strength of comments made ‘and emails received’, removed and replaced with other less objectionable books.
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.
For a rundown on what’s been happening, and lots of comment, I suggest you look in several places:
- Liz Burns's post at the School Library Journal
- Colleen Mondor’s post at Chasing Ray
- the post at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
- Twitter—search for “@bitchmedia” for a start. Somebody started using the hashtag #bitchplease, but as night fell in the Northern Hemisphere the original users of the #bitchplease tag crawled out of the woodwork, and that stream is a now a hilarious mix of wild misogyny and earnest feminist outrage. Search if you dare.
For a calm, intelligent defense of Tender Morsels
, thank you, Kirstyn McDermott
At the moment, because we’re not privy to the content of the emails Bitch Media received, it looks as if Tender Morsels
was pulled entirely because of comments by ‘scrumby’, who hates the novel worst for the ‘moral ambiguity’ surrounding the gang-rape scene by the cloth-men, but has lots of other reasons besides: ‘That book is absolute crap on every possible level…This thing is just so bad on so many levels it boggles the mind that anyone actually liked it’. This attack strikes me as pretty woolly and intemperate.
I think that the charge that ‘the book validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance’ is idiotic. The entire novel amounts to a critique of characters who use rape for any purpose whatever. How consciously Urdda ‘uses’ rape is also very much in question, and when the gang-rapes are traced to her witchly powers it’s immediately clear to her and to everyone around her that this is not the way such powers should be used.
There's no mention of guilt or accountability or even an acknowledgment that this was a bad thing that happened. There's no mention of the men period; once that scene ends the victims disappear completely from the story.
This is quite simply not true. The scenes following the gang-rapes are very clear about the evil that’s been done, and about who is responsible. Several reactions are detailed—the townspeople’s horror, Liga’s distress, Ramstrong’s calling Urdda to account, Urdda’s shame, her immediate banishment to learn how to control of her magic. (There is also the gleeful reaction of the witch Lady Annie: ‘Greater love no daughter has, than to shaft the buggers what shafted her mam!’ This signals that a certain kind of justice has been served. But no one in their right mind could read it as an incitement to either rape or violence in the real world.) It’s clear to me, if not to ‘scrumby’ and the list-compilers, that this is as much critique and discussion as a novel (as opposed to a feminist disquisition on the novel) ought to venture.
No, I don’t linger on the sufferings of the victims, although I do indicate how deeply it’s scarred them: ‘Widow Fox, it’s said, has lost her senses, seeing its effects upon her son. Hogback has sent for his physician at High Millet. And there are fears for Joseph Woodman’s life, he is bleeding so badly’. I don’t continue in this vein, though, because (a) it’s clear from what I’ve already put Liga through that they will suffer, and for a long time, perhaps forever, and (b) it’s not their story—it would push the novel out of shape for me to follow their fortunes any further than I do.
There is a lot of pressure from anxious adult carers of children and young adults to fill children’s and YA literature with explicit moral messages that can only be read one way, the ‘right’ way. This is not, I believe, the purpose of books and reading. Fiction is a means to make parts of the world visible in all its complexity and ambiguity, not cover up its nasty bits and hope they’ll go away. Fiction (particularly fantasy fiction) provides a safe place where uncertainties can be considered and explored.
I think it was a mistake for Bitch Media to remove the three books from their list. It’s exposed the haste with which the original list was put together, and lost them a lot of credibility. And I can’t speak for the other two novels, but in the case of my own, I think the reason they give for its removal can’t be supported.