03 February, 2011

Cold, uncertain feet—Bitch Media and Tender Morsels

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.

Says ‘scrumby’:
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.


Anonymous Pam said...

It takes guts to defend your work. You my dear have it! My post is linked at the bottom of Colleen's.

03 February, 2011 05:25  
Anonymous Kaia said...

I always felt like the critiquing and discussing is the "job" of the reader. If it wasn't every single book would read like an American after school special.

Which doesn't mean you can't bring certain themes forward, it just means that in the end it's the reader who take what they want and/or need from the text. And this is what makes reading such an amazing experience.

03 February, 2011 05:37  
Blogger Ana S. said...

I honestly blinked in disbelief when I saw that comment and realised that it framed ambiguity as a BAD thing. Your second to last paragraph says it all.

03 February, 2011 06:16  
Blogger Amy said...

Your second to last paragraph is pure gold.

Even though I haven't read Tender Morsels, and I'm now quite spoiled on the plot, I am very curious to do so.

03 February, 2011 06:23  
Blogger Sean Wright said...

Bravo Margo.

03 February, 2011 11:23  
Blogger Keith Stevenson said...

What a sad, sorry little episode. Luckily Tender Morsels is of such fine quality it will transcend this grubby affair and be remembered long after such tawdry ructions are forgotten.

03 February, 2011 14:30  
Blogger CharmedLassie said...

To be honest, I've only just stumbled across this situation but they seem to be completely in the wrong. How can you change your mind before people say so? Makes me less inclined to listen to them in the future.

Possible bright side for you? Your book is getting publicity and you know what they say about publicity...

03 February, 2011 19:28  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto to Sue's comment at No 1. Plus it takes remarkable intelligence and equilibrium to defend it so accurately.

03 February, 2011 20:59  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mean Pam

03 February, 2011 21:00  
Blogger Unknown said...

Small comfort, but I know Scrumby wasn't the only person who questioned Tender Morsels's place on the list when it was originally posted, because I also did.

Since it's been pulled, I think some excellent arguments have been made in the comments thread on the Bitch blog for keeping/putting TM back on the list. I also found your own defense of the book very reasonable. However, Bitch does get to decide what stays or goes -- it's their list, in the end.

I will absolutely give you this, though: It’s exposed the haste with which the original list was put together, and lost them a lot of credibility. They should have done their research before publishing.

I maintain that there's nothing remotely feminist or feminist-friendly about Living Dead Girl.

04 February, 2011 01:48  
Anonymous Rhiannon Lassiter said...

That's very interesting, thank you for posting.

I've said elsewhere that I don't think authorial intention trumps a critical reading. But I'm interested to know that you don't think the critique is valid and you write convincing about it.

I'm about to get hold of a copy of Tender Morsels so I can read it and the other listed and delisted books that I've not already encountered so I can judge for myself. I'm glad Bitch posted the list just because it's brought me to such fascinating posts and will be influencing my YA reading for months to come.

04 February, 2011 02:27  
Blogger Emily L said...

I haven't read any of your work before, but I've been following the comments over at Bitch during this whole shameful episode, and followed a link here from Scott Westerfeld's blog. I now plan to stop by a book store on my lunch tomorrow and pick up a copy of Tender Morsels. Not only because I think the plot sounds gripping and intriguing, but also because if you're fiction is even half as eloquent as your blog posts, I know it will be a fantastic read.

04 February, 2011 04:39  
Anonymous Celine said...

Well said, Margo.

05 February, 2011 09:05  
Blogger jagibson711 said...

I haven't read your book, nor the other two that were removed from the list, but after hearing about all the controversy, your bet I will be! I work as a teacher in the inner-city where rape among some populations is still rampant (and not necessarily considered rape). Allowing young adults to read books about tough subjects such as rape allows them to build awareness and sympathy for others who have that experience. One of the biggest pitfalls in education is the focus on testing and not on reading and real education.

05 February, 2011 12:20  
Blogger Helen V. said...

Well said. I think Tender Morsels is a stand out in the way it shows the consequences of rape and that applies to the cloth men rape as much as any other. I found the book confronting and disturbing but that is not a bad thing. I suspect those who objected think we should protect YA readers from real life. Unfortunately that is impossible and young people need to see these issues dealt with in a thought provoking way so they can learn. I'm a former secondary school teacher and librarian and I can definitely see a place for Tender Morsels on the shelves.

06 February, 2011 22:40  
Anonymous Liz said...

I once attended an author lecture where the author stated that no one book has a specific interpretation; that a story is actually as many unique stories as it has unique readers. I agree completely with this sentiment, and for that reason I was upset when the three books were removed from the list. I have read all three of them, and I never considered any of them as a validation of rape in any form. As a teen librarian, I am always looking for books which help readers who have suffered a trauma ralize they are not alone. I laud you and the other authors for providing such reading material.

09 February, 2011 05:27  
Blogger Jackie Morris said...

I am reading Tender Morsels. This is my second attempt to read the book. Last year I think my head was too wrapped in other things to truely settle to it and give your work the respect it deserves.
It was recommended to me by Meg Rosoff who promised that she would 'eat her hat if I did not like it'. I have tremendous respect for Meg as a writer and as a person. But I struggled.
In conversation with Marilyn Brocklehurst of the Norfolk Children's Book Centre I was saying how I hadn't really wanted to make Meg eat her hat as I felt the fault lay with my restless mind rather than your book.
Anyway, Marilyn virtualy threw a copy at me and ordered me to go away and read it! And how very glad i am that she did. The richness of your prose sets your writing so far far above much of what is being published today. I lose myself within the pages whenever I get time to read during teh day, amd staying awake far too late and just love the book.
Only half way through, but I find it shocking that it has been removed from this list. In no way at all does it do anything to suggest that rape or incest are anything other than terrible. Sometimes there is no accountability for evil acts. The world is not a fair place.
I am so glad that I have such good friends who have led me to your work and thank you for your writing and your courage.

24 February, 2011 20:59  
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