Scott Westerfeld Talks with PopMatters About Bitch Media’s Top 100 Feminist YA List Debacle

Note: This is the first installment of this topic. See also Diana Peterfreund Talks with PopMatters About Bitch Media’s Top 100 Feminist YA List Debacle

Bitch Media has a lot of wins under its belt — its flagship project, Bitch Magazine, is a must-read for feminists everywhere. The non-profit has been lauded by critics, authors, and readers for its mission “to provide and encourage an empowered, feminist response to mainstream media and popular culture,” and for calling out anti-feminist attitudes in a thought-provoking, often entertaining, way.

Until now. Last week, Bitch Media published a list of 100 feminist young adult books on their blog. Packed with excellent reads, the list was quickly gobbled up buy YA authors and enthusiasts, and there was joy all around. Except there wasn’t–the day after the post, a commenter questioned the inclusion of Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red and Bitch Media removed the book. Soon after, it removed two other books Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels and Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl, for the same reason–comments and an email about the books’ rape, rape culture, and trigger content (e.g., content that might trigger flashbacks or have other detrimental effects in survivors). Shortly after, the internet exploded — the YA section of it, anyway. (As of this writing, there are 379 comments on the original post.)

Three books were added in place of the removed titles: Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, and John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began.

Bitch’s explanation?

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.

We’ve replaced these books with Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley and Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden. Thanks to several commenters who pointed out the need to include these excellent books on our list. I’m excited to add a few more rad girls to our list and I can’t say how happy I am to know that there are WAY more than 100 young adult books out there that tackle sexism, racism, homophobia, etc… while presenting us with amazing young adult characters. Young adult lit has come a long way. We’re really excited to keep talking about feminist-friendly YA books on the blog.

Several YA authors have responded on the Bitch site, some on their own blogs. Here’s award-winning YA author Scott Westerfeld’s take. Westerfeld’s novel, Uglies, appears at 99 on the list (it’s in alphabetical order).


How did you feel about the Bitch list at first? What was it like to have Uglies make the cut, before and after the the debacle?

Bitch is one of those iconic ’90s magazines, like Wired or Bust or Sassy (which started in the late ’80s, but still). Having Bitch give a shout-out to YA was great, and being on the list was just icing on the cake. It’s like one of those accomplishments where your teenage self is proud of you, though sadly in my case it’s my 30-something self.

After what you rightly call “the debacle”, I asked for my name to be removed from the list in protest. (This was a purely symbolic move on my part, I admit. But lists are merely sets of symbols, and so are books.)

Do you think books like Tender Morsels, Sisters Red, and Living Dead Girl belong on the list?

Absolutely. I’m glad that BitchMedia made some bold choices, and that’s what I would have expected of them.

How do you feel about people who wanted the books removed because of rape and/or trigger content?

I think any List of Best X creates arguments and people saying “You listed that rubbish?” That’s what lists like this are for. I have no problem with commenters stating strong opinions, except for my usual annoyance with people who don’t agree with me. (But I disagree with my wife and best friends constantly, and mostly about books, so fair enough.) It was Bitch Media’s reaction that was poorly handled, wrongly thought out, and now is being badly defended.

Because it will become important later in this interview, I also add that the commenters who said Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels “validates… rape as a tool of vengeance” have made a disastrous comprehension error. They are applying the standards of a contemporary “issues” book to a dark literary fairytale. This sort of hasty, even well-meaning, analysis is at the heart of this red hot mess.

Should books come with warnings?

Sure, on a list or in a review. But warning stickers on books would be a nightmare. Do you want kids in schools who’re reading Bermudez Triangle (Maureen Johnson) to have to deal with a big GAY CONTENT sicker on their copy? Because that’s exactly where it would start. 

But yes, Bitch Media might have wanted to add warnings after the (very few!) comments started coming, but that’s quite different from redaction.

What do you think prompted the removal of Tender Morsels, Sisters Red, and Living Dead Girl? Do you think it was just the “Oh, crap” factor, or is it a deeper issue?

Well, the two staffers said they read the three books over the weekend after the challenge, which seems rather hurried, and they didn’t consult with the people who had originally recommended the books, which seems odd. So there was clearly a measure of “Oh crap, let’s get this sorted fast!” I think anyone reading three books in a few days under those conditions might have their literary radar jarred. After all, you’ve been accused of validating rape as a tool of vengeance! That isn’t a fun result when you were whipping up a list of cool feminist books.

And so a handful of comments (in one case, a single email!) lead to the creation of an ad hoc committee looking into three challenged books. No one has looked at any of the other listed books in this way, now that there are hundreds of comments, many of which bring up other issues. Is Bitch Media bored of this now? Or is it: Only the first 20 commenters need apply! If these are important issues, why not take another look at the whole list?

I had a hard time with Tender Morsels (compounded by reading it when my son was only a couple of months old), and it doesn’t make my personal feminist YA list. That said, I can see why it was put up in the first place (and am glad I read it, though it took me a long time). Can you tell me a bit about why hard books — books that make us squirm — should be included on lists like these?

Because teenagers love to squirm. They discuss in detail horrible car wrecks they’ve heard of, awful diseases they just learned about in bio, and swap tales about serial killers, parasites, and awful parents. Mortality and body horror are a big deal when you’re at that age. All teens enjoy urban legends about that stuff, some will also read a book like Tender Morsels, which won the World Fantasy Award, the Ditmar, and was short-listed for the Aurealis and the Printz. They’ll get their diet of squirm in either way.

More important, for those teens who’ve actually lived these nightmares, books that address them can be literally life-saving. One reader’s discomfort should never stand in the way of another reader’s survival.

What could/should Bitch have done differently?

They should have created a list they could stand behind from the beginning. But if, after thoughtful contemplation, they realized that they hadn’t, they might have done one of two things: 

1) Take down the whole list and have a general rethink about what they were doing and what they wanted to accomplish.

2) Add warnings culled from a broad-based discussion, not just the first commenters. Or maybe let the discussion in the comments itself serve that purpose.

Which books make your personal top feminist YA list?

Making a list of this kind is something that should be approached thoughtfully, not off the top of one’s head, so I politely decline the opportunity. (Though Tender Morsels would definitely be on my list.)

What’s the most frustrating part of this whole issue?

Well, it’s the internet, so the most frustrating part is the people who are wrong and stupid. To list a few:

1) The derailers who keep explaining that this is NOT censorship. (Duh, it’s wishy-washy editorial practice.)

2) Those who insist it’s NOT the same as removing a book physically from a library. (No kidding, but it does erase the book from the list, and either that matters, or the list itself doesn’t matter.) 

3) The people who insist that we authors only engage these issues because we want publicity. (I just got off a three-country, two-month publicity tour. What I want is SLEEP.) 

But perhaps most annoying is the fact that we self-aggrandizing authors and our librarian allies will be fighting this exact fight in some small town next week while the other 90 percent of the commenters over at Bitch Media have moved onto the next internet slapfight. If you’ve never read a YA book in your life and you’re spending pixels on this, please shift yourself over to some other blog and fix heath care!

What can readers do?

Tell Bitch Media that you hold them to higher standards than this. It’s that simple.

Can you elaborate on how this sort of waffling feeds into censorship and banned books? I know you and Maureen Johnson have used banning as an analogy in the post comments and on your blog. Is this a symptom of a larger problem?

Ad hoc review processes like the one that Bitch Media’s staffers fell into, and those that crop up in schools and libraries all the time, always empower the cranky minority. A tiny handful appears and makes noise, the response is rushed and not very thoughtful, and books are banned, delisted, de-shelved, or whatever. Then the Ad Hoc Committee is shocked — SHOCKED! — to find that a new bunch of noisy people have shown up to complain about THAT. So the Committee retreats into a crouch, and in a weird Stockholm Syndrome way allies itself with the original book-challengers, who, though annoying, were at least not so numerous.

Bitch Media is more sophisticated than that, but they’re still talking out of both sides of their mouths, trying to please everyone. Their current line is pretty much: “Tender Morsels validates rape as a tool of vengeance, so it’s not for this list. But it’s still a great book, even with the rape-vengeance! Everyone happy?” (Note, I haven’t read the other two challenged books, so I’m sticking with what I know.)

How is this different from an individual posting a list?

Bitch Media is a media outlet, and it has editorial standards to uphold. Making good editorial decisions is the first stage of that, standing by them is the second.

What do you think of Bitch not just pulling books from their list, but adding some in their place?

The added books are great novels (those I’ve read) but there was a certain slap-dashery about Bitch Media’s approach here, as well. It reminded me of this girl in my older sister’s 10th grade class who would invite a bunch of people to a party, then have a brainwave and disinvite some of them and invite new ones. She seemed to think this was totally cool and normal, because it was HER party, after all. 

But she never accused her disinvitees of validating “rape as a tool of vengeance.” She was classier than that.

Any closing thoughts?

The long comment thread at the original Bitch Media issue, here, has turned into madness, and I’m interested by that in the way everyone is with internet fisticuffs. Given that we’re all sensitive to attacks upon ourselves, I’m fascinated by how we authors who’ve protested by asking for our books to be removed from the list are characterized. We’ve been called crazed, petulant, even “hysterical”. But if you read these authors’ comments and their fuller explanations on their blogs, you’ll see a measure of cogency that the rest of this kerfuffle lacks. So why are we singled out in the middle of a huge, messy slapfight? I’m not sure.

Perhaps it’s because we make it clear that this issue is righteous to us, and righteous indignation is always a bad thing in our culture. But look at it from our perspective. We’ve had kids write us who stopped cutting, or survived a rape, or escaped an abusive relationship because some librarian or friend handed them a squirm-making novel. We’ve seen the real-world and life-saving effects of getting the right book to the right kid at the right time. And every time books are delisted, banned, or otherwise disappeared because they make people squirm, that process suffers.

Scott Westerfeld

Perhaps it’s worth saying again: One reader’s discomfort should never stand in the way of another reader’s survival.

As this is about to be posted, Peta informs me that Bitch Media has decided not to remove my name and those of the other protesting authors from their list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader. I congratulate Bitch Media on not succumbing to our demands. It takes backbone to ignore a bunch of internet bullies, and to stick by your editorial guns. I hope you’ll be showing much more of this sort of brio in the future, just as you have so often in the past. (Bitch, let us never fight again.)