So, there’s this online feminist publication called Bitch Magazine, famed far and wide for its intelligence and integrity. And a couple of days ago, their library coordinator, a woman called Ashley McAllister, posted a list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader, the actual contents of which (as opposed to the subsequent shitstorm) can be found here. All was well for about a day – people were commenting, books both on and off the list were being discussed – until this commenter (whose handle, aptly enough, is Pandora) unleashed all the evils of the internet by objecting to the list’s inclusion of Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, citing agreement with an online review wherein it is argued that the story promotes a culture of blaming rape victims. Not having read the book myself, and being unwilling to judge a whole novel on the basis of a single paragraph, I’m not about to enter into a discussion of that interpretation, although I feel it’s important to point out that, according to those who have read it, there is no rape in Sisters Red. Regardless, as a result of Pandora’s complaint, Ashley McAllister admitted to not having read the book herself and, out of concern that its contents could act as a trigger to victims of rape or sexual assault, removed it from the list.
At this point, author Diana Peterfreund – whose novel, Rampant, sits in 71st position on the list – weighed in, criticising the removal of Sisters Red and pointing out that most of the books on the list, including her own, could similarly be said to act as a triggers for different types of people. After a short exchange with McAllister failed to resolve the issue, Peterfreund requested the removal of Rampant in protest at Bitch’s censorship.
It’s possible that things might have stopped there, but a few posts later, a new commenter expressed outrage that Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan was on the list, too – this being a book which, for many reasons, has never been far from controversy. This time, McAllister’s reaction was to reread the book with the commenter’s objections in mind, and then, two days later, to announce that not only had Sisters Red and Tender Morsels been removed and replaced with different books, but so had Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. The last of these is particularly puzzling, as nobody whatsoever had complained about its inclusion.
And then, the internet exploded.
Readers of all stripes started vehemently protesting the removal, expressing disbelief and outrage that Bitch had effectively censored their original verdict in response to the comments of just two dissenters. And then, taking a leaf out of Peterfreund’s book, other authors began chiming in, either requesting the removal of their own books if they’d made the list, or condemning the removal itself if not. First Scott Westerfeld, then Justine Larbalestier, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Kirstyn McDermott, Maureen Johnson, Ellen Klages, Lili Wilkinson, Emily Lockhart, Jeff VanderMeer, A.S. King, Penni Russon, Paolo Bacigalupi and Alina Klein – which is a pretty fearsome list of authors, by the way – all made their thoughts known at the site, and now other authors (such as John Scalzi) and feminist websites (such as Smart Bitches) are blogging about it themselves.
Right now, I feel sorry for Ashley McAllister, despite the fact that what she did was stupid. Because clearly, she’s a proponent of good YA novels. And clearly, she was trying to do the right thing – or at least, what seemed to her to be the right thing at the time, being as how her original efforts were intended to make rape victims feel more comfortable with the list. I’m not going to slam that as a motive, because really, how can you? But as the thread itself points out, it is impossible to write a book, or review a book, or do anything even vaguely artistic or critical without running smack-bang into fact that someone, somewhere, will wish you hadn’t, and if your first response to criticism on the internet is to back down – even if your intention was to be considerate – then the question becomes, why put up a list you weren’t confident in to begin with? Saying, “Oh, but we didn’t notice that negative interpretation the first time around,” or pleading ignorance because you hadn’t actually read the book and were just going off what other people said, is the worst possible defence. Abdicating responsibility for your own critical judgement will not win you sympathy with authors and readers who come to your magazine purely to engage with exactly that, and who therefore expect you to defend your opinions as a matter of course.
So when you recommend a list of books for feminist readers, then quickly remove three of them because you didn’t realise that some people would consider them un- or even anti-feminist, what you’re actually saying is, the dog ate my homework. Because, to crib shamelessly from Neil Gaiman, it’s not as though the only true criticisms of Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl are hidden in a cave in the black fucking mountains. All you have to do is type any of those titles into Google, look for reviews, and pow! – controversy! In removing those books from the list, Ashley McAllister wasn’t just backing down, no matter how pure her motives. She was effectively acknowledging the fact that a feminist magazine, in seeking to create a list of feminist books, had done their research so poorly as to feel obliged to change their verdict after two commenters told them about controversies they should already have taken into account. The reason so many people spoke out against the removal of Lanagan’s work in particular isn’t because Pearce and Scott’s books are somehow less important or less worthy of defence: it’s because public, prominent and heated debate has raged about Tender Morsels since the moment of its publication – is still unceasing, in fact – and if the team at Bitch were so unaware of that maelstrom as to be blindsided by the outrage of a single ranting commenter, then what the hell else did they miss?
Having made the decision to remove the books in (presumably) ignorance of how that decision would be received, I can appreciate that neither McAllister nor the team at Bitch wants to back down again, even if the subsequent debate has made them regret the initial decision. Doing so would only compound the offence, and cement the idea that their critical approval can be swayed by whoever shouts loudest. But even so, I imagine there’s a lot of soul-searching going on at their HQ – and if, as so many people have said, they are otherwise known as a bastion of good sense and good journalism, then I imagine that, further down the line, a frank discussion of where they went wrong can’t be far off – even if we don’t all agree with the verdict.
Update the first:
Given that the reaction to this whole thing is still ongoing, I’m going to link here to authors and other notable peeps who blog about the decision as and when I notice them to have done so. Thus, you may also like to read the responses of:
Update the second:
In the original version of this blog, I stated that Diana Peterfreund had asked to have her novel, Rampant, removed from the list in solidarity with Jackson Pearce. Since then, I’ve read Diana’s own blog (linked above) about the incident, and have therefore corrected her motivation.