February 3, 2011

Censorship or responsiveness?

Bitch magazine posted a list of “100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader”. The original list included Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce and Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. After receiving critique that Tender Morsels validates (by failing to critique or discuss) rape as an act of vengeance, Sister’s Red has a victim-blaming scene and Living Dead Girl is triggering, the editors decided to remove/replace the books commenting: “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.”

John Scalzi posted about this on his blog and reported that:

a number of high profile, award-winning and/or bestselling YA authors, including Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Maureen Johnson and Ellen Kages hit the roof and show up in the comments to demand their own books be removed from the list as well.

But I’m not so sure that this deserves to be called censorship. I find myself feeling differently about this than I did about a teenage literary festival disinviting guest of honour Ellen Hopkins after one librarian challenged the suitability of her work. Is Bitch really wrong to ensure that their list of YA books is feminist-friendly? If a book had made it on to the list but had the conclusion that a feisty female character should stop being such a tomboy and wear high heels, they’d surely be right to remove it. Obviously in an ideal world they’d have researched, read and discussed all the titles before putting them on the list but even a book might be challenged by a reader who noticed something the editors didn’t.

I haven’t read any of the contentious titles so I don’t know if the criticism is validated. (I turn out to have read only 17/100 so I need to get to the local library and check out all the books I’ve missed.) I am a little uncomfortable with one person making a complaint and then the list being changed. Although, in the case of Sister’s Red the commenter did link to another blog post with 98 comments at the BookSmugglers blog on the potential problems with the book.

Part of being an active feminist or feminist ally means listening when someone tells you that text or imagery is problematic, that the message you are sending is not the one you intended to send, that you need to think harder, think deeper about certain ideas and concepts.

Does Scott Westerfield’s status as a published YA author of a book on the list or his opinion that Tender Morsels is a good book constitute more valid grounds for inclusion than the complainants’ grounds for exclusion?

What do you think, readers? Bitch made a mistake, I think we can all agree on that. But what was their mistake? Including the books in the first place? Taking them off the list again?

Is this censorship or response to criticism? (Interestingly one commenter liked the list but thought it was inappropriate to show to a teenage girl because it includes the word ‘bitch’, the name of the magazine. Now that *is* censorship and the magazine rightly refused to remove their own name from the list. I can usually tell what is and what isn’t censorship.)

Let me know your thoughts. And also how many of the books on the list you’ve read – or if you’ve read the three contentious titles.


  1. Something I discovered just after posting this is that Jackson Pearce commented at the BookSmuggler’s blog to defend Sister’s Red and said that his intention was not to victim-blame in the passage the editors singled out. I accept that this was not his authorial intention but the highlighted passage does appear to me to read the way the editors read it.

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — February 3, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

  2. I have read Tender Morsels and if I have kept it (can’t remember) I will lend it to you.

    I certainly would not have put it on a feminist booklist and it has some VERY disturbing passages but she can certainly write.

    Comment by Mary Hoffman — February 3, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

  3. The mistake was listing a bunch of books under such a rubric without reading/researching them in the first place… that seems idiotic, or excessively lazy.

    Having done that, though, they only have responsibility for their own readings: so if they decide to remove certain books, no-one can sensibly criticize them for doing so.

    Comment by Mo — February 3, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

  4. Personally I don’t feel they did necessarily make a mistake. From my perspective a willingness to revise a list like this in the light of feedback doesn’t necessarily mean the initial list was wrong.

    The question of whether to include a book the content of which may be “triggering” for some reader is particularly difficult. The vast majority of fiction contains topics which may be distressing to some readers. Are some kinds of distress considered less legitimate than others by virtue of being less obviously connected with feminist concerns?

    Comment by Dom Camus — February 3, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

  5. @Dom, I don’t think the compilers have thought through the implications of removing one book for triggering material and yet retaining others which also may be triggering. I think triggers are real and important. But I’d really really like to know the thought process behind that particular decision.

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — February 3, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  6. I’ve been racking my brains to remember why the name Justine Larbalestier is so familiar to me in a censorship context. Then I remembered she’s got reason to be worried about censorship of YA fiction after what happened to her book Liar. I blogged about that here: http://blog.rhiannonlassiter.com/2009/08/07/colouring-over-the-whitewash

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — February 3, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

  7. I liked your post and agree with you but I think that there are a couple of other factors coming into play here.

    1. If Bitch magazine had gone round removing the copies from bookshops, libraries and people’s shelves that would be censorship. What they have done is akin to their including “Crime and Punishment” on the list, someone pointing out this isn’t really YA and them going, oh yeah sorry, how about “Bad Blood” instead. No-one would suggest C&P was being censored but that Bitch were correcting a mistake. A mistake they clearly shouldn’t have made in the first place but a mistake nonetheless.

    2. What about all the books that never got on the list in the first place. Are they being “censored” no – they just didn’t make the cut, in the same way that not everything in a publisher’s slush pile gets published.

    3. John Scalzi (and I suspect several others of the writers) are confusing “good book” with “good book that is feminist”. Going back to my earlier example Crime and Punishment is a good book, however it is not both a good book and a YA book and therefore simply shouldn’t have been on the list in the first place. It feels like people are complaining about their work being judged and in some way found wanting. They are complaining about something they don’t really have a right to complain about i.e. Does Person A (in this situation Bitch Mag), having read your book, consider it to be feminist? That is a judgment call. You don’t get to control how people view your material once it is set loose in the world and if Bitch revised their view of these books then maybe they weren’t very feminist (at least accordingly to Bitch – who own the list and therefore get to choose what goes on it) and respect to Bitch magazine for admitting that they put “Crime and Punishment” on the list in error.

    4. Throwing out words like censorship in this situation gets out of hand and in my view massively devalues the word “censorship”. Seems to me people are using overly emotive language to complain that someone judged their book. Not even that someone said their book wasn’t “good” but that is wasn’t “good and feminist and YA” – that is a fairly narrow set of criteria to fall within.

    5. At a more basic level it looks a bit like a few bruised egos crying “censorship” in order to derail a difficult discussion about whether their books are feminist or not.

    Hmm – that may have got a little more strident than I intended. Largely because this seems indicative of a trend I have observed on the internet whereby I have observed a number of people conflating “having their opinions criticized” with “having their opinions censored”. And I am very keen to nip that ridiculous standpoint in the bud wherever I encounter it!

    Comment by Becky — February 3, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

  8. Here via Twitter.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think it was censorship. I do think though that Bitch Magazine made a fundamental mistake right at the very start of this exercise, i.e. don’t publish a list of books entitled “100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader” that (a) you haven’t all read and agreed as an editorial board and (b) that you are not prepared to defend if people disagree with it.

    I’ve read Sisters Red and I don’t personally think that it has a victim blame mentality so much as a survivor guilt theme to it – but I do get why other people think that. I haven’t read either of the other two books (although Meg Rosoff read an extract from Tender Morsels at an Arvon Course last year and it was very disturbing).

    The censorship debate doesn’t really help anyone in this situation and I also don’t think that it’s helpful for authors to ask to be removed from the list (although again, I understand why they might want to do so). Picking up on the comment made by Becky, I think the sad thing is that this was a chance to have a discussion as to what is meant by “feminist reader” in the context of the listed book. By appearing to cave in to one or two comments, Bitch Magazine has lost that opportunity.

    Just wanted to make a contribution to an interesting post.

    - Caroline Hooton

    Comment by Caroline Hooton — February 3, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

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