Friday, February 4, 2011

Bitch Magazine is Very Sorry Anyone Was Offended

Oh, the kids book corner of the Internet exploded again. See, Bitch Magazine published a list called "100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader." And some books were removed after people complained about the presentation of rape in them--including Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels because the authors of the list (who had never actually read it before) decided the book "validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance..." And then some other authors asked that their books be taken down, and, well, there you go. Colleen at Chasing Ray tells the whole story--and it's really worth a read.

I'd be curious to know what you think of the list. Despite authors removing their books, it still stands at 100, and given that the original list included many books that no one making it bothered to read, one can only imagine the last minute scrambling--Are You There God, It's Me Margaret! That's got a chick in it, right?

Of course it's not easy to determine what makes a book--or anything else--feminist or not. The introduction to the list cites "kick-ass teens" and "inspiring feminist themes," that will, naturally, "empower" the reader. I'm not sure what an inspiring feminist theme is, really--though I suggest to the authors of the list that having the courage to stand behind your words might be one--but surely that's not the only thing that can make a book feminist, and to equate feminism only with empowerment and inspiring themes Lifetime-izes the whole project. I don't think Laurie Halse Anderson's sophisticated, devastating Wintergirls, for instance, qualifies under any of these criteria--it's a facile reading that calls it "empowering"-- yet I would say its aesthetic is wholly feminist.

To make a list and then remove books because a couple commenters complained is to say, essentially, that a feminist reader is not capable of critiquing for him or herself. But its antithetical to the very nature of feminism to only allow works that tell the reader what to think. It seems more pertinent to take these themes--whether inspiring or not--reveal them for their complexity, and ask the reader to think about them. The act of presenting something dark and terrible demands that readers critique it for themselves, and in fact empowers them to do so--just as they should do with the world around them. Or maybe Lanagan should have had those characters die in a car accident at the end so we know what they did was bad.

The entire reason for this post, though, is to highlight this quote from Margo Lanagan on the whole kerfuffle, which says a great deal, not just about feminism, but about the work of fiction:
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.

There we go. Feminism: it doesn't cover up the nasty bits.


  1. Sounds like a great critical thesis topic...

  2. "Feminism: it doesn't cover up the nasty bits."

    Just so. It brings them out into the cold, clear light of day where they can be examined, discussed and debated, and thus prevented from expanding like mold in damp, dark, hidden places. So glad to see Anne Ursu shining the light here as Margo Lanagan did in TENDER MORSELS.

  3. I am a feminist and I love Bitch magazine. And I love that they're concerned (as they and everyone else should be) about the way society views rape. Especially in light of the recent bill that was introduced, but I digress. I also love that Bitch put out a list like this which says, in part, that girls are important. That what they read matters. That YA authors can write hella good books that touch lives forever.

    But Lanagan was right--the idea is to spark conversation, challenge ideas, and engage in critical thinking by looking at a CHARACTER'S viewpoint. A fictional world with flaws and issues that mirror our own. The weird idea that every author espouses what their characters think is, well ... weird. Nabokov would be in some major trouble.

    To me this is like the Huck Finn debate. Why take out the controversial bits when we can use them to discuss?

    Anyway, awesome post Anne. If anyone thinks we should take this down, I'll stand behind you! :)

  4. What a mess!

    Much of this debacle fills me with white-hot rage--Why not ten books the list's authors knew well/could personally support instead of 100 books they'd barely read??--but I'll speak only to the depressing removal of LIVING DEAD GIRL. The novel ends with a girl reclaiming her identity from the monster who stole it. Is there a more "feminist" theme than that? In a way, Bitch mag. has stripped LDG's narrator of her identity yet again.


  5. Seems as if the list was put together by recs from a few people, so no one person or team of people read all 100 books. And it also seems they wanted a cross section of books from every genre dealing with every sort of feminist issue. Well, fine, except for fact that they couldn't defend any of the titles once people started debating them. Seems certain readers are intolerant of any sort of ambiguity -- car wrecks please! -- and that Bitch caved to them.

    I also love Bitch mag, but I hate seeing my fellow feminists behave in such a chickensh*it manner. The whole thing is depressing.

    -- Laura

  6. Anybody who has had enough of BITCH might consider my favorite magazine BASTARD. There's never a list-of-100 books in BASTARD. Or even 10, and 10 is a lot of books. 10 books would last us bastards a long time. Like 10 summers. Or years, maybe. But 100. Jeez. If I wasn't such a bastard I'd get depressed thinking about 100 books. So I won't. Think about it, I mean. There. I feel better already.

  7. I used to subscribe to BASTARD, but my issues kept not showing up. And when they did they were all wrinkled and perfume-y. They tried to convince me they'd accidentally brushed against GLAMOUR in the mail bag. Yeah, right.

  8. I was hoping someone from the Inkpot would write about this, and Anne's post was just what I was hoping for.

    Laura R's point above captures my main thought on it. It's as if they had no idea it wasn't a good idea to make a book list of books you hadn't read, even if it wasn't based on a tough concept like feminism.

    Making such a list would, as Jessica noted above, be a great thesis (or a dissertation) topic.

  9. "Tender Morsels" was a complex book which wove old folk tales together so seemlessly I felt trapped inside the story-- like I was reading the original source of those old collected tales. It was so real that I felt it was the true world, and my world was just a story. Not many books can do that-- almost none. I suppose it was the world building, but I was too keep into the world to notice how the author did the magic. And the spell was broken not just when the story went on too long, but when the major rule of fairy tales was officially broken. Every child knows unconsciously that fairy stories are metaphor, even before they can understand the term. In "Tender Morsals" the reader is ripped out of the story for a brief moment of personal vindictive revenge. The author breaks the smooth capsule and reveals the bitter pill inside. As long as the metaphor is intact, the healing applies to a thousand ailments. But when you hang your hand-made-lace-white-linen story out on the line, and then write in red lipstick, "this is about feminism," you've made it only about one thing and even then no one will swallow it.
    Besides all that, of course I'd leave this book on the list--and especially if someone complained about it. It was written by a woman and that's almost enough in a day when there are still families who are sending their first woman to college.
    My grandmother was born in 1912 and she's still kicking. Her college advisor let her major in home ec. and she didn't speak up otherwise. She told me a few months ago that she'd planned to learn to bake bread when she retired, but she never got around to it. She was always out trying to fight for the rights of the disabled. I'm the one that majored in underwater basket weaving, stays home barefoot, and knows how to bake every kind of bread in existance. To each her liberties, and tell "Bitch" to stop backing down.

  10. I am going to buy this magazine out so that I can close it down. Women who are bitches never find a guy to marry. Men want ladies, not bitches.