McAllister's response to both complaints was to admit that she hadn't read the two books (on Sisters Red: "While I read most of the books on this list, there were a few that I just researched"; on Tender Morsels: "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") and that she and other Bitch staffers would read (or reread, as the case may be) them over the weekend with the objections raised in mind. Yesterday, February 1st, McAllister posted a comment titled "Revisions to the list," announcing the replacement of Sisters Red, Tender Morsels, and a third book, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, which is narrated by a girl who has been held as a captive sex slave for five years and is anticipating being murdered by her captor (no objection had been raised to Living Dead Girl in the comment thread until that point, but later comments from Bitch staffers indicate that they received comments on the list via e-mail).
A couple of us at the office read and re-read Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl this weekend. 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. 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.(Emphasis in the original.)
Outraged reactions began pouring in. Authors Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Kirstyn McDermott, Maureen Johnson, Ellen Klages, Lili Wilkinson, E. Lockhart, Jeff VanderMeer, A.S. King, Penni Russon, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Alina Klein--possibly alerted by Margo Lanagan's tweet on the subject--chimed in with their disapproval, some of them asking for their books to be removed from the list. The twitter hashtags #bitchplease and (when that turned out to have been taken) #speakloudly (an existing hashtag that protests censorship of media) played host to protests of Bitch's decision. Blog posts from John Scalzi, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Colleen Mondor, and the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books publicized the issue. At present there are nearly 200 comments on the original Bitch Magazine post, nearly all of them condemnatory, many equating the decision to replace the three books with censorship and book-banning.
My thoughts: In a nutshell? I don't think that anyone involved in this debacle comes away looking too good.
I think the fact that Bitch's editors recommended books they hadn't read is inexcusable. When McAllister responded to Pandora about Sisters Red, I took her meaning to be that the list was compiled by several editors, each of whom contributed titles they thought were appropriate, but that no single editor had read all 100 books--similar, in other words, to how The New York Times, Amazon, and Locus compile their recommended reading lists. Her reply to scrumby about Tender Morsels, however, indicates that the process was more informal, and that books may have been selected based on recommendations by people not affiliated with Bitch, and perhaps in an entirely ad hoc manner. Nowhere on the list itself or on the blog post publicizing it is this noted, and that's simply not acceptable. The responsibilities of librarians is a subject that has come up several times in this discussion, and surely one of the most basic of these is not to recommend a book without very good evidence--ideally the evidence of one's own reading--that it is worth the recommendation.
That said, I don't see anything wrong with Bitch's decision to review the list upon receiving objections to it. It's true that in the case of both Sisters Red and Tender Morsels only one objecting comment was received, and that in the latter case both the tone and style of the comment do not inspire confidence in the opinions it expresses (though how many objections were received via e-mail, and how many such e-mails objected to Living Dead Girl, is unknown). But McAllister quite clearly states that the decision to remove the three books from the list wasn't taken purely on the basis of these comments, but that they merely sparked the reading that led Bitch's editors to make that decision. That reading should have happened before the list was compiled, but that doesn't invalidate its results. It's true, reading the three books in light of the complaints raised against them would probably have predisposed the Bitch editors to look for those problems in the book, but is that a bad thing? And does it follow that the editors were incapable of concluding that the complaints raised against Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl were groundless?
Nor is the decision to remove books from a recommended reading list in any way comparable to censorship or book-banning. I don't even know how to expand on this point, which should be entirely self-evident and not worth making, and yet more than twenty comments on the Bitch thread call the editors' actions censorship, and several others accuse them of book banning, despite the fact that Sisters Red, Tender Morsels, and Living Dead Girl's availability has not been affected one jot by their removal from the list.
I also think that the failure to acknowledge, on the part of nearly everyone linking to the discussion and many of the commenters on the Bitch post, that the three books in question were removed for three different reasons, is at best irresponsible, at worst dishonest. John Scalzi writes that the removal happened after "someone complain[ed] in the comments to the list that Tender and a couple of other books are "triggering"." Smart Bitches, Trashy Books quotes McAllister's explanation in full, but stresses the triggering complaint, then later characterizes Bitch's reaction as "Oh, noes, it hurt someone's feelings, that scary scary literature." Colleen Mondor gives a play-by-play of the comment thread, but leaves out the actual substance of the complaint against Tender Morsels (she also quotes McAllister's comment in full, however), and her post is accompanied by a cover image of Tender Morsels but not the other two books. Tansy Rayner Roberts's post similarly focuses only on Tender Morsels. The #bitchplease and #speakloudly twitter streams are full of statements like ""Protecting readers" under any guise is still censorship," and "Your job is not to protect us from literature." Anyone coming to the discussion from these sources could be forgiven for assuming that Tender Morsels had been removed from the list because it was triggering, or because its subject matter was difficult, rather than for its handling of that subject matter (the sole exception is Kirstyn McDermott, whose post is impressively comprehensive). The comments on the Bitch post reflect this confusion. Of the twenty-three comments that specifically object to Tender Morsels's removal, only five address, in even the vaguest terms, the specific complaint that it doesn't critique the use of rape as revenge, while eight comments claim that it was removed either for being triggering or for being disturbing. There is much less discussion of either Sisters Red or Living Dead Girl, and hardly any of the latter's potentially triggering nature.
I don't think it's a coincidence that the triggering accusation became attached to Tender Morsels. As opposed to victim-blaming or rape as revenge, issues positioned rather firmly within the consensus of Bitch's readership, trigger warnings--the idea that discussions of rape and sexual assault can trigger traumatic reactions in survivors, and that it is therefore incumbent on bloggers and writers to post warnings when such subjects are discussed, and to avoid directing their readers towards potentially triggering material--are a contentious topic, even in feminist circles. To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about them. And the more general complaint that a certain book's subject is too difficult for young readers is a beloved bugaboo of the YA community. These are the weakest arguments in Bitch's arsenal (so weak that the latter was not, in fact, part of it), and they just happen to have become attached to the most popular of the three books selected for removal even though neither objection was actually raised against it (in fairness, the Bitch editors do themselves no favors by spotlighting the triggering issue over the other two complaints in later comments). Meanwhile, the book that was actually removed for being triggering gets hardly any discussion.
Bitch magazine made a lot of mistakes in creating and presenting its list of 100 YA novels for the feminist reader, but when it chose to remove Sisters Red, Tender Morsels, and Living Dead Girl from the list it laid a very specific complaint against each novel. Even if you take their narrative at face value, and many commenters have questioned its veracity, these complaints are all debatable--personally, I don't think that Tender Morsels validates rape as revenge, though I agree that it edges around Urdda's responsibility for her actions in ways that aren't entirely palatable. But what's happening in the comment thread at Bitch, and in other places on the internet, isn't that debate. It's a pile-on, driven by misinformation and perpetuating that same misinformation, recasting the issue as one of censorship and babying readers, and focusing on the most contentious issue raised in the discussion as if it represented the discussion as a whole. Whether you're writing a recommended reading list, or a blog post, or a comment thread, it behoove us all to ground our opinions in solid experience and in even more solid facts. I don't see that anyone, on either side of this issue, has done so.