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And so yesterday there was a huge explosion across the lit blogosphere regarding a list of YA books recommended by Bitch magazine. In case you missed it, here are the highlights:

1. Bitch released the list last week entitled "100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader". Lots of folks were impressed by titles on the list and by the fact that Bitch had thought to put a list together for feminist teen readers in the first place.

2. The list began to spread far and wide.

3. Bitch opened a discussion on the list wherein lots of folks chimed in with books they wish had been included (I have to agree with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - I adore that book) and said many complimentary things about the books that were listed.

4. Some folks however, were disturbed by a few of the titles.

5. There were specific complaints about SISTERS RED by Jackson Pearce and TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan. There was also apparently an emailed complaint about LIVING DEAD GIRL Elizabeth Scott. (I didn't see any commented complaints about that one but might have missed it.)

6. First, SISTERS RED. The complaint was about the rape culture debate sparked by a Book Smugglers review of the book last year. If you're unfamiliar with the book, it is a retelling of the Red Riding Hood story with two sisters who live in a society where women are essentially hunted - it's about hunting the hunters. (There's also a lot more than that, but you get the picture. If you've ever seen "The Wish" episode of BUFFY then you have an idea of what is going on. But no vamps. Or vamp slayers.) Here's part of what the Book Smugglers didn't like:

The Dragonflies [pretty girls] laugh, sweet, and bubbly, and I groan in exasperation. They toss their hair, stretch their legs, sway their hips, bat their eyes at the club's bouncer, everything about them luring the Fenris. Inviting danger like some baby animal bleating its fool head off. Look at me, see how I dance, did you notice my hair, look again, desire me, I am perfect. Stupid, stupid Dragonflies. Here I am, saving your lives, bitten and scarred and wounded for you, and you don't even know it. I should let the Fenris have one of you.

The complaint was that the author was suggesting here some girls deserved rape because they asked for it (by the way they dressed/acted). The one protagonist, who has little sympathy for them, is reinforcing this idea with her unsympathetic thoughts. I did not chime in on the debate when it went up because it did not seem to focus on the book or the Red Riding Hood story much at all instead devolving into a discussion about rape in our society and a lot of author bashing. When Pearce commented (and boy was that a mistake), her comments were immediately parsed and analyzed. It was an unproductive discussion and to see it called up as a reason to remove the book from the Bitch list was troublesome to me.

7. Please note, Red Riding Hood has always been a story about female sexuality and allure. The older versions included Red stripping to fool the wolf and escape him (although she did not always get away) and it is believed that Charles Perrault (who made the first use of the color red with the cap or hood) was using the color as a symbol that the girl was a wanton woman - she lured the wolf. The moral was that girls must always be careful of men (wolves).

8. Essentially, if you're going to have a book where women and clothing and sexual attraction and men are a part of the story (even a very small part), then Red Riding Hood, or SISTERS RED, is the one to do it.

9. The author of the Bitch list responded that she had not read all the books on the list (including this one), yet from her research thought SISTERS RED was a good fit for it. But based on the complaint and Book Smugglers review the book was now being removed.

10. After a quick complaint about its removal, Bitch then replied that some people at the magazine had read the books on the list and it was not just a negative review that was causing them to remove SISTERS RED but (and this is the first time three books are mentioned as being removed): "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 assaults."'

11. Complaints about the removal of SISTERS RED continued as did complaints about it being associated with rape culture.

12. Then a complaint appeared about TENDER MORSELS stating in part: "That book is absolute crap on every possible level and you should be ashamed for putting it on the same list as Speak."

13. Bitch responded they would be rereading the book as "We definitely don't want to be promoting a book that supports rape as vengeance."

14. On Tuesday, Bitch announced after rereading TENDER MORSELS, SISTERS RED and LIVING DEAD GIRL, all were being removed for the following reasons:

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.

15. Many complaints ensued.

16. And then several authors whose books are on the list (Scott Westerfield, Justine Larbalestier, Maureen Johnson, Ellen Klages, Diana Peterfreund) asked to have their books removed as they did not wish to have their work associated with it.

17, Many more complaints ensued about the removal of the three books - several of these complaints were quite detailed and nuanced and directly refuted Bitch's reasons for refusing the books.

18. Bitch responded: "I hope that even those of you who disagree with the decision to remove the books from the list understand that, as a feminist, reader-supported organization, if members of our audience contact us and tell us something that we're recommending might be triggering for rape victims, we're going to take that seriously."

19. And then author Maureen Johnson made a significant point:

I was absolutely delighted to see my book, The Bermudez Triangle, on this list when it was published. I'm a fan of the magazine. But I have been incredibly disheartened to see your process for removing books. It mirrors EXACTLY the process by which book banners remove books from schools and libraries--namely, one person makes a comment, no one actually checks, book gets yanked.

You've removed Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. I think that's a disgrace. You were right the first time, when you put it on.

Ladies, feminist media should be held to the highest standard. This kind of waffling and caving on comments is no good. Lots of people would have LOVED to use this list for educational purposes, but it's such a mess now that no one wants near it.

I request that either you get a grip or remove me from this list. If Margo is removed, I'd like to be removed with her. And please remember that young feminists are looking up to you. When they see you so easily intimidated, so easily swayed, so eager to make concessions . . . it sets exactly the wrong example.

20. To which I respond "HERE, HERE!"

21. Aussie author Lili Wilkinson then made a salient point:

Many - most - of the girls in your list behave in unpleasant or dangerous ways. Should you remove The Hunger Games or Tomorrow When the War Began because Katniss and Ellie are both killers? Ditch Forever because Katherine cheats on her boyfriend? Or deny Frankie Landau Banks or Lyra Silvertongue or Alanna because they lie? Liesel in The Book Thief steals. Tally in the Uglies series betrays her friends and becomes cold and cruel.

Does moral ambiguity make these books unfeminist? These characters bad role models? And do you really think that teenage readers are so shallow and naive that they can't make their own decisions and judgements after observing the behaviour of others?

Put Tender Morsels back on the list, or consider removing the word "feminist" - and replacing it with something else. "Safe", perhaps. "Uncomplicated?"

22. The obvious point here is that killing is okay on a feminist list but having a character suggest someone is foolishly luring dangerous male attention is not okay. Got that?

23. Then a troll showed up. We shall ignore the troll. (DO NOT FEED TROLLS!!!!)

24. Doret made a very significant point - and something I'm still trying to wrap my head around:

It makes no sense to remove anything but I am even more confused that Living Dead Girl is removed yet, Sold, a novel about [a] girl sold into prostitution stays.

I loved Sold but there are people who probably believe it's is too adult for YA and would love to have it removed from this list. I wonder if such a person left a comment would there be four books removed.

25. Quick update: sold into prostitution is feminist and okay, discussing rape in a realistic and somewhat disturbing way is not.

26. An argument was then made by a commenter that this was not censorship in any way but rather an error in judgment: "Personally, I prefer to save my righteous indignation for something that could have real impact on women."

27. Rape survivor and upcoming YA author (2012) Alina Klein had her own thoughts on books being "rape triggers":

Do you know what the biggest triggers are for me? Judgement--swift and without due consideration, rape survivors are well versed in that, I assure you. Conclusions--reached by people who have never been where a character in a book has been, or where each individual rape survivor has been, but who still see fit to decide what we are strong enough to read. What I can handle, enjoy, weep over, laugh about, is different than what other rape-survivors can. Like cutters, anorexics, and a plethora of other survivors. Singling out rape survivors to be "protected" from literature is not doing us any favors.

28. And then someone said they agreed with the removal of all three books as LIVING DEAD GIRL was "straight up torture porn", TENDER MORSELS is boring and SISTERS RED "...was questioned because of the way the author negatively portrays the sister who has been raped, while favoring the more feminine sister. I haven't read the book, but that sounds like a valid concern to me. "

29. Then things got really ugly and the web administrator stepped in. (Good call.)

30. A commenter then reiterated - AGAIN - that there was no rape in SISTERS RED.

31. And then the author of the list chimed in with some final thoughts:

Regardless of how frustrating this might be for some people, we took these books off the list because readers left comments and sent us emails explaining why these books were particularly triggering or victim-blaming, and when we took time to read/re-read the books we found some of the same problems as they did. This decision was not one that was made out of intimidation, but one that was made thoughtfully after having many conversations amongst staff and interns as well as with readers who contacted us.

Additionally, retracting a recommendation is not the same as pulling books off library shelves. We did not remove these books from our shelves... Yes, our library does hold all three of these books and will continue to do so.

We also did not say that these books were anti-feminist. Conversely, we didn't call the books that we put on this list feminist, but instead recommended them to feminist readers. We do not feel that these books don't deserve to be read. We actually enjoyed many things about these books and some of us might find ourselves recommending them in other instances.

Lastly, we are not going to be putting these books back on the list.

32. And someone then pointed out that the total page count on the three books was 960 pages which:

"...a 'couple' of you Hoover'd through them in three days. ('Scrumby' complained on 1/29; you caved on 2/1; subtract some time for "conversations" and, nope, make that 960 pages in two days. Yowza! Somebody got gold stars at Evelyn Wood.)

And given the timing, do you really expect anyone to believe you separated yourself from scrumby's complaints? That you read the books with a truly open mind, cleared of any bias? I know I couldn't have done so.

Is what you did censorship? No. It's editorialization. That's fair, and really, I wish people would learn the difference.

Is it cowardly? Oh, yeah."

33. And then a conversation ensued as to whether or not when an avowed feminist publication recommends titles they are considered, by default, feminist books or merely books for feminist readers (which is apparently not the same thing) (according to Bitch).

34. I'll be honest, I don't know what the hell that is all supposed to mean. How can books for "the feminist reader" not be considered feminist books? Is this some sort of adjective placement thing?

35. So what does all this mean? Well, for one, that what started out as a great list is now tainted in a lot of different ways. It went from being smart and inventive and unique to a symbol of weakness and confusion. Readers now wonder just how much research went into the list (since apparently the author of it didn't even read all the books) (and seriously - if you haven't read a book then what are you thinking by recommending it?) and further, what the whole point was. Either it's a YA feminist list for feminist readers or not. Either it's about the many different ways in which women can be strong or its not. Either it's about how complicated women's issues are in this world or it's not.

Either you stand for something or you fall, right?

36. Rape is a reality in the lives of woman. Threat of rape is a reality. Variations on just what rape means (as is clear from the current House bill) is a reality. Societies around the world do judge what women wear and how that attracts unwanted male attention (some societies force women to cover themselves head to toe because of it). And this is something women everywhere talk about. Red Riding Hood (and all that it means) is actually more relevant now than ever before in some respects - but only if you acknowledge what the story was originally about, and how complex are its messages.

37. But is this entire thing about rape culture or rape triggers or censorship or feminism or a magazine being utterly, and colossally, and very publicly, stupid?

38. I know what I think. But then again I've always thought Margo Lanagan was brilliant. You go read the whole post and decide for yourself. Or better yet - read SISTERS RED, TENDER MORSELS and LIVING DEAD GIRL. They are not for the faint of heart but I think you'll be okay - you're a strong woman, aren't you?

39. I thought so.

ETA:
The Smart Bitches response is a must read.
Bookalicio.us wrote a helpful open letter to Bitch Media (which name drops Colleen Lindsay!)
Liz Burns with a librarian's perspective - note that Liz was a member of the Printz Committee that awarded TENDER MORSELS an honor.

Also Gwenda salutes the YA community response, Riot Grrrrls, indeed.

Margo Lanagan responds: "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."


[This is the British cover for TENDER MORSELS - it rocks, don't you think?]

comments

GOSH, I look away from the internets for FIVE MINUTES, and this is what happens. Geez. I see I miss a lot by not being on FB and Twitter... and it's probably just as well.

You need to be on twitter! Just to check in for a few minutes everyday. I only use FB for my family and old friends (mostly sharing old pics) but twitter - you gotta get on twitter, T!!!

In Sisters Red I thought Scarlett's feeling towards the girls she was protecting was a bit of jealousy.

She's forced to live her life knowing the truth, she can't go out and get dressed up. But here are these girls.

Another part of it is Scarlett hates their ignorance, she knows it not their fault but she can't help hating them for living in the dark.

Finally I think Scarlett is insecure because these girls are pretty and perfect and she can never be that.

So to me Scarlett's reaction to girls is expected. I respect the BookSmugglers critique of Sisters Red, but I don't agree. Though I do think its worth discussing. And Bitch could've been the perfect place.

Removing Living Dead Girl but leaving in Sold, a novel about prostitution, makes no sense.

Thanks for the summary. I was catching part of it at the end of the day, but as the comments went on and on I began to fade from following it.

I haven't said anything because the list itself confuses me and the subtractions only make it more confusing. Like Doret, I think that Sold is more of an adult book than YA - and I also feel that way about Living Dead Girl. But more to the point, I'm not sure how either is for the feminist reader. They aren't about strong girls, except in surviving. In Living Dead Girl the character makes a last minute show of strength, but it's mostly because she finds she has no hope anyway. Unless the books are feminist because they show the victimization of women, thus raising our awareness and ire? I'm not trying to judge here, I really don't understand.

But in any case, I think that the makers of the list should have worked that through before hand so that they had a better understanding of what they wanted to present.

Thank you for your thoughtful summary of the disturbing decisions made by Bitch Magazine. I appreciate you including my comment. :)

I read all of this, it is a great recap,when I first saw the list a couple of weeks ago I didn't think it was the greatest list in the first place. I had no idea what Bitch Media was or what banner they flew under but anything that gets our children to read and empowers young girls is alright with me! Whenever you do something online there is going to be backlash. You have to be prepared for that.

Thank you so much for the summary, which allowed me to stop reading the comments and lower my blood pressure.

Also thanks for the dose of humor your inserted often enough to keep that blood pressure down.

As a librarian, I am shocked that they would so easily remove books from their list. As a feminist, I am even more disappointed.

22. and 25. make me lol at the utter lack of logic.

Love your post--very detailed summary of the issue. We also posted on this at GotYA:

http://thegotya.blogspot.com/2011/02/bitch-media-does-wishy-washy-equal.html

I do think the one overriding conclusion everyone is making is to ask just what the heck the point was for the list, Pam (Mother Reader). I could argue against some inclusions as well (and still pine for others) but why on earth think LIVING DEAD GIRL was a proper inclusion in the first place if you're only going to be shocked - SHOCKED - that it's a brutal depiction of rape later?

Somebody didn't do much thinking ahead of time here, that's for sure.

Thanks for the summary, Colleen. I took minor note of the list early on but have since been away from this part of the world (thanks, grad school!).


I think the point that keeps being made about how it's not right for a publication to think it knows better than its readers what they are capable of handling is the most valuable one. In cases like these, I think it might be valuable to have annotations which indicate what type of material we can expect from a book.


As for Sisters Red, I haven't read it but what I think this is a fine example of a time when the narrator and the author aren't the same person. Is it wrong to blame the victim? Absolutely. But do people do it? Also absolutely. Should we pretend that people don't do it, to keep our literature safe? Absolutely not.

Kelly Fineman

It went from being a great list to being something else. Why in the hell would they recommend books they hadn't read? *headsmack*

Meanwhile, I sit here thinking "I'm so glad I lined up an interview with Margo for the SBBT". Mwahaha.

Oh Kelly - Margo for the SBBT? you just made me weep with joy!!!!!

I'm with Tanita, somehow between the time I viewed the list (and thought: I will so use this for future reference in my summer reading), things got heated and changed! To me, books for feminist readers, must feature feminist main characters.

I haven't read any of the books in question and while I can't handle Living Dead Girl, I have wanted to read Sisters Red for quite some time. And now I want to read Tender Morsels.

Bravo to all the authors asking to be pulled off the list.

While I have not read TENDER MORSELS or LIVING DEAD GIRL, I have read SISTERS RED. And I am honestly and truly baffled. I have caught snippets of the discussion off and on through other blogs and I really appreciate your summary.

I think Bitch made a mistake in removing the books from their list and their action will have the opposite effect that they were probably hoping for. Instead of shying away from those books, I think more people are going to read them now. I know I myself would have perused the list and tried to pick out ones that sounded good, but now my total focus is on reading the two out of the three that I haven't yet and I probably won't ever look at that list again.

And I absolutely love the British cover for TENDER MORSELS. Thanks for sharing it with us.

you know, i'm on twitter and somehow i missed the beginning of this firestorm and it took me a bit of backtracking through people's streams to figure out what had happened...

so first, what a great, clean summary of the situation. given what you clearly slogged though, this is an incredibly concise overview.

second, it's always sad when these things happen and various communities (feminist, kidlit, bloggers) end up hashing things out so publicly. it isn't that these discussion shouldn't happen, its that usually the good gets lost in the process and everyone simply walks away with a bad taste in their mouth about the whole experience.

of the books in question i've only read TENDER MORSELS. it was assigned reading for my MFA program and we were scheduled to have a program-wide discussion about the book in advance of margo lanagan coming to speak. i have to say, i was surprised by the negative responses within my (95% female student) program to the book, so i'm not surprised to see these same sorts of comments appear once again around this book.

any word on whether the authors who were asked to be removed from the list have had their wishes fulfilled? it cannot be a good thing to risk having authors publicly disassociate with you. tells their faithful readers that your list and organization aren't to be respected/taken seriously/acknowledged to my thinking.

Fantastic summary of this recent craziness. I also wonder about YA as a genre here. If there was a list for feminist fiction (not YA-specific) would titles like Sisters Red have gotten the same reaction? Would "The Color Purple" have been taken off the list? (When I read that in high school, I was really startled by the first fifty pages, but it's such a worthwhile book and issue to discuss.) Or are we trying to block younger readers from the topic of rape just because of their age?

Thanks for the mostly painless recap. I tried to keep up with this yesterday, but it just made my head hurt. And having heard of all the books, but not having read them, I didn't feel like I had any right to comment on their worth on such a list. I tend to cringe when I hear anything about a "feminist" reading list, because the word itself is so loaded, and open to interpretation.

I'm making it a point to remove these books from my too long tbr list, and download them to my e-reader so I can form my own opinion.

Thanks again.

David: The final post from Bitch's Exec Dir informed the authors who requested to be removed that it was not their choice and they would remain on the list. (The irony of this decision apparently missed Bitch entirely.)

Annie: Good question about YA vs Adult as the age of prospective readers of the list never came up in the comments (that I saw) and most of the commenters were clearly adults. Bitch never used age as a reason for removing the books - just those three very specific reasons concerning how the books dealt with rape. The suggestion by this (at least to me) was that unless rape is handled a very specific way in literature then it could not be recommended by them. But they denied the books were "Feminst Books" so I'm not sure if that was a feminist thing or what. Honestly, I think they have kind of spun themselves in circles a bit on all this and don't know the answers to anything anymore.

It's all very - VERY - confusing.

Thanks for this! It's really helpful to have a clear summary of what's been going on. So much drama...

When will people learn that they need to READ books to know what is inside of them. You should not recommend a book for something like this that you (or your team) hasn't read.

Elizabeth Gregory Author Profile Page

Thank you for this. I am a subscriber to Bitch Magazine but I am horrified by the way they treat issues like this. BITCH is willing to back away from anything they say if commenters are loud enough. It makes me so sad.

P.S. I am adding you to my bookmarks.

I just don't pay lists enough attention! It would seem that Bitch Magazine doesn't realize that the true power of a list is in the conversation it generates. It's not a good list if no one talks about it!

I'm so glad the recap worked for everyone and that at the very least the three books in question will now be read by many more people who can form their opinions.

My overriding thought on this entire debacle though has been less about the books (which will survive, regardless of the drama) and more about how BITCH handled itself. If I was teaching a Journalism 101 course, this would be front and center on my syllabus. From start to finish, from choosing books for a list that the listmaker herself had not read, to immediately and publicly removing titles after single complaints online (and they can point all they want to nebulous "email complaints - the exchange between one commenter and BITCH on "Sisters Red" is right there for everyone to read) has been a train wreck. IMO, the decision now to start a YA book club is a transparent attempt at calming the masses.

hope

Not so much an attempt at calming the waters, I think, as an attempt to keep all those useful eyeballs they generated with their controversy. If half the people who commented stay to watch the book club, this will be the best thing that ever happend to Bitch.

Colleen, thank you for your wonderful post on this. And I agree with your comments above. Anyone purporting to advocate feminism should stand by her words, but it certainly helps if you've put thought into your words in the first place.

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