If you came to this blog for the Leviathan fan art, maybe you should skip this post. But if you have a few minutes to kill, you’ll see what goes on inside the heads of writers when they deal with media kerfuffles about their books.
But first a little background . . .
Last week (decades ago in internet time) an organization called BitchMedia made a list of 100 YA Novels for the Feminist Reader. There was great celebration on the YA interweebz, because the list included many fine novels. Moreover, certain writers of a certain vintage always liked Bitch Magazine when it was an edgy west coast zine in the late 1990s, and being listed by it provided validation to our aging souls.
But then bad things happened. A handful of commenters on the blog questioned three of the titles: Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red, Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels, and Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl. A weekend later, BitchMedia decided to yank them. A few hours after that some of us authors on the list (Maureen Johnson, Justine Larbalestier, Diana Peterfreund, E. Lockhart, Ellen Klages, and possibly more) commented to express our disappointment and request that our own books be removed from the list.
If you go to that post now, you’ll find several hundred comments of varying degrees of relevance, vitriol, and snark. I have waded in a few places, but it’s a red hot mess over there. So to better address all the questions directed at me (or not to me) in one place, allow me to share with you this dialog, in which I mercilessly decimate a straw man.
In other words, here’s all the stuff that goes through us writers’ heads while we are reacting to examples of not-quite-censorship:
Q: Why are you so crazy angry about this?
A: I’m more disappointed than angry. Particularly saddening was these words from the staffers at BitchMedia about one of the challenged titles: “This book came as a recommendation to us from a few feminists, and while we knew that some of the content was difficult, we weren’t tuned into what you’ve just brought up. A couple of us at the office have decided to spend the rest of our weekend re-considering this choice by reading the book.”
Hmm, by “reading the book.” A good place to start, and yet . . .
Just put your mind in this staffer’s place. You go out into the YA world and ask for recommendations for a 100-long list of books. You don’t read them all, of course, because you are an un- or little-paid staffer at a blog, not the frickin’ Printz Committee. When your list is posted, suddenly someone is accusing three of these books of being morally bankrupt and evil. So you hunker down and read 1000 pages over two days, with these comments lingering uppermost in your mind. You may not have a firm grip on why your original sources recommended the book, because you haven’t asked them specifically to respond to the disparaging comments. And you don’t have time to think about the issues raised here in comparison to those raised in the other books on the list, because you also haven’t read all of those either. So you cave into the tiny group of protesters, because that seems easier, especially having just read the books with those commenters’ objections in mind.
In other words, this whole process unfolded in much the same way that school library challenges do. A small group of people complain, and then people who haven’t really read these books before hearing awful things about them (and who, more important, haven’t immersed themselves in the entire set of books involved, challenged and unchallenged) have to make a snap decision.
This is what has disappointed me and many others, because we’d thought better of BitchMedia.
Q: But this isn’t like a library challenge, because the books aren’t being physically removed from anywhere!
A: True, my analogy here (Maureen’s originally) compares these events to a library challenge. But in analogies, some things are the same and some are different. If every point of comparison were the same, it wouldn’t be an analogy, it would just be the same thing—a library challenge. That’s what “analogy” means.
And yet despite its differences to actual library challenges, we believe this is still an important case, because we felt this list was important. It provided visibility for books we thought were great to a potentially new readership outside the normal YA world. Erasing books from this list was a way of making them invisible to that audience. And the people who work ceaselessly to make the books they don’t like disappear should be fought, whether they’re physically removing the books, removing them from databases or awards, or simply making them harder to find. Letting those voices win pisses us authors off.
Q: But it’s BitchMedia’s list. Don’t they have the right to change it?
A: They do. And I have the right to point out how pathetically they did so. This is about holding them to a higher editorial standard than they displayed, not claiming any legal or constitutional right.
Q: So you aren’t fighting censorship?
A: The answer to that question is long and boring and semantic. But without a doubt we are calling out wishy-washy editorial practices that mimic many of the same processes as censorship. (By using analogies. We love them!)
Q: But you didn’t just point out BitchMedia’s editorial shortcomings, you demanded your book be taken off the list.
A: I didn’t demand, I asked, using the word “please” and everything.
Asking to be removed from the list is a communication strategy. To point out the obvious, everything going on here—the list, the comments, this post—is communication. Asking to be removed was a way of displaying my strong feeling that the list was made less legitimate by their editorial practices.
For example, if a list had a few books on it that were paid endorsements, and my books were placed on it as a way to make that list look more “real,” I would make a similar request. The manner in which a list is compiled (or edited) matters, and it matters rather more to me when my name is used on it.
Q: But no one PAID to have these books removed!
A: Please look up “analogy” in the dictionary.
Q: Whatever. If someone’s book was removed from a library’s shelves, you would ask for your books to be removed too?
A: No, that would be silly. Again, the library analogy is only useful in regards to how this happened, and to some of its effects. Not in every particular.
Q: But isn’t it ironic that your response to a book being removed from a list is to try to have your own book removed from that list?
A: Not really. The strategy is explained above.
Q: But isn’t it ironic that your enemies in this affair wanted to change this list by commenting on a blog, and you also tried to CHANGE THIS LIST BY COMMENTING ON THAT SAME BLOG!
A: No, that’s just how discourse works sometimes. But you and Alanis Morissette should totally get a room.
Q: So you think you’re so great that if Uglies was taken off the list, no one would take the list seriously?
A: Most people wouldn’t notice the absence of any one book, but the demand itself is a useful rhetorical strategy. In particular, I pointed out that the Uglies series has many of the same issues that Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red was delisted for. But the BitchMedia staffers didn’t apply those criteria to Uglies, because they only applied those criteria to books mentioned in the first twenty or so comments to their original blog post. In other words, I was pointing out the craptasticness of their editorial process, in which the fastest and most vitriolic commenters are granted special powers over the books they dislike. (Just like in, you know, libraries.)
Q: So your request to delist Uglies is merely a symbolic gesture?
A: The list is itself symbolic. It wasn’t an award that came with money or superpowers, and it’s made of symbols (letters and punctuation marks). As I said, this is a set of communications, and asking to be taken off the list was a communication strategy. Symbolic is not a bad thing, it’s just what it is.
Q: But you haven’t been taken off the list. So your strategy failed!
A: Not if more people have been drawn to the discussion thanks to the rhetorical forcefulness of my (and others’) requests to be taken off the list. That was the actual point of the request, and it seems to have worked.
Q: But wait, you said that the folks at BitchMedia hadn’t read all the books in the list. So it wasn’t that illegitimate anyway, right?
A: They got recommendations from people who they believed to be experts in some way, and the results seemed pretty awesome to me and to many others. The folks who zipped through the challenged books over the weekend were staffers, who didn’t bother to get back to the people who recommended the books in the first place. In other words, a small ad hoc committee was convened and rushed a decision out in response to a tiny minority of complainers. This is the dynamic of small-town library challenges, and we expected better of BitchMedia.
Q: But didn’t asking to be taken off this list make you look over dramatic?
A: “Overdramatic” is one word, so I win this entire argument.
Look, this stuff happens all the time in YA lit. People come in and comment with varying degrees of expertise, odd and snarky assumptions about what it is to be a teen, and randomly assigned power (like politicians commenting on texts for teenagers written forty years after they were teens), and that annoys us.
Q: What I really meant was, you’re just stirring this up for money, right?
If you think that this controversy will materially increase my sales (or the sales of any of the other authors involved), you are confused about the relative scales of those things.
Q: You really think you’re awesome, don’t you, Scott?
A: I’ve had librarians scream when they see me. So yeah. Also I’ve read one of the books in question, unlike most people in the conversation.
But more important, I’ve had decades of experience as a teacher, textbook editor, and YA writer, in which I’ve seen various flavors of control over teen books exercised by parents, teachers, politicians, other teens, and concern trolls. I’ve corresponded with and met thousands of teenagers and talked about what and how they read, and have worked for twenty years in an industry in which lists of books are compiled, argued about, and in which they make a big difference. In other words, the authors in this fight are acting from long and deep sets of experiences, and we will be fighting this fight as part of our day jobs while many others moved on to the next Internet fisticuffs. Trivializing artists involved in a these kinds of fights as self-aggrandizing is one of the oldest tricks in the book, like saying “Oh, you’ll just sell more copies, so you must be LOVING THIS.” It is a way of avoiding the much more gnarly and unpleasant issues involved.
In other words, the possibility that I’m being a pompous git for asking that my books be removed from the list doesn’t make BitchMedia’s behavior any better, or the parallels between this event and library challenges any less unsettling.
Q: But if they put the challenged books back on the list, wouldn’t they just be caving again? This time to a bigger (and better connected) group of bullies?
A: I think they should go back to their original recommenders of these challenged books and have a real discussion, not one that takes place over a weekend with “a couple of us at the office.” And if they’ve added new criteria based on a few commenters who simply got there first, why not take down the whole list and look at everything from the beginning in light of the many, many comments and concerns up there now?
Q: Um, because they’re not the Printz Committee and don’t have time?
A: Well, then maybe they could simply ask the members of the Printz Committee why one of the books they delisted, Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels, was a Printz honoree. (SNAP!)
Q: But BitchMedia isn’t saying these are bad books, just that they are inappropriate for this list!
A: It’s not the exact adjective that matters here, but the process. Again, these books were singled out and subjected to an ad hoc first reading because of a few plaintive commenters. This is not the way to do things.
Seriously, even if those two office staffers had read everything in the list again that weekend, wouldn’t it still have the appearance of impropriety?
Q: This whole kerfuffle is really not that important. Why are you making such a big deal out of it?
A: If it’s not that important, why did you read this far? Why aren’t you off on some other blog fixing Egypt?
Q: But what if BitchMedia doesn’t want to ever do anything about YA lit again because you were mean to them?
A: If they cut and run because that seems too hard, they will not be missed.
But I suspect that they’ll think long and hard about how they approach YA in the future, and will do a better job. They’ve done countless cool things for the last fifteen years, and that’s why we authors got so riled up. We remonstrate because we love.
Also, check out Margo Lanagan’s excellent post on this matter.