Books are dangerous. And that’s a good thing.
I talk a lot about how stories have shaped me, how they have, in their way, saved my life at various times. It’s entirely true, of course, but it’s also a simplification and so much prettier than the truth. Increasingly, I also think it’s a disservice to stories — stories I love and stories I want to tell. We’ll get to why later.
Right now I want you to know that stories have saved my life.
They’ve also made me cry and made me angry. They’ve made me feel alone, ugly, scared and victimized. They’ve made me ill. They’ve made me fall in love. They’ve taught me how to seduce, how to lie, and oddly (and this is totally true) how to ride a horse. They’ve made me victorious and taught me a thousand names for my otherness.
Stories aren’t comfortable — they are what we can be, what we were, what aren’t, what we desire and what we fear. And it should, I think, go without saying that not all stories are for all people and not all people have the same tastes and needs in stories.
Despite the large amount of fan and pro work I’ve done related to the Harry Potter series, I’m not a huge fan of YA. I don’t usually read it unless pressed by those close to me (who are, as a rule, fans). So I don’t really have an obvious personal investment in the controversy regarding Bitch Magazine‘s list of 100 YA Books for the Feminist Reader. I haven’t read most of the books on the list, and I probably never will.
But how the list got put together and how it seems the list got changed, is deeply troubling to me.
Stories, like words, have a great and terrible power. Some of us want stories that show the world at its best and some of it at the worst of its worst. And both of those types of stories, among hundreds of others, can provide the same value and feed the same personal, individual need for various individuals. It troubles me, deeply, that it seems (again, remember, this is Not My Area of Expertise) Bitch decided that some stories that show the way the world can hurt, simply can’t help. Anyone. At all. Ever. Because for some people, not all people, they were harmful.
Here’s the thing. I write stories about terrible people. Kali and I write stories about terrible people in terrible worlds. We write about colonialism. And racism. And there is misogyny in the plot of the book we’re working on so horrible sometimes it wakes me up in the middle of the night. And we write that stuff not because we advocate it, nor because we want to provide a transparent object lesson in its horrors. We write that stuff because we have a story to tell, not about a fantasy world you will long to live in, but one which, like historical reenactments, seems beautiful until you realize how if you were there it would chew you up and spit you out and grind you into the dirt and never respect you for a second. It is the world not as we wish it were, but as we believe it already unfortunately is.
So our thing? That’s not going to be a story for everyone. And, to be frank, I think we might be concerned if it were. But it’s something we find value in working on from our own personal intersectionalities of privileges, marginalizations and experiences — stuff that we certainly have overlap on in some regards, and stuff which we totally don’t in others.
I ultimately can’t tell you if the books that first were and then weren’t on the Bitch list are good or bad books. Or take, as opposed to show, views that can only cause harm. What I can tell you, is that orthodoxy when approaching the complex intersections of art and social justice, can be really harmful to both art and social justice.
I love, for example, C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen. Aside from a fabulously constructed narrative that can’t but appeal to a Cold War baby like me, it has helped me internally address female power, concepts of ownership and loyalty, and the consequences of being smarter than the average bear. It’s also a book that has a lot of profoundly ugly moments surrounding consent and sexuality, and it’s not a book that could have told its stories without those moments.
Too, I think of the film of V for Vendetta. While flawed, I find its rendering of Valerie’s Letter near perfection, and, as such, it is profoundly important to me as a queer person. Unfortunately, that sequence is almost impossible for me to watch. Due to my own medicalized childhood, I find it disturbing and personal to the point of inducing a feeling of nausea in me. It hurts me. It harms me. And I value it desperately.
Clive Barker’s Imajica also comes to mind. It is a book I’ve read a dozen times, but also once threw across the room because a private moment in it so reminded me of a private moment in my own life. It is a talisman to me, this story of a man who has forgotten who he is and a third-gendered creature whose true form can only be seen when observed desired by a third party. But, it’s also a book with a troublesome, at best, central Magical Negro trope (that one may or may not consider to be somewhat mitigated by the author’s personal life) and a pretty significant problem with women.
And then, of course, there’s Ender’s Game and everyone who grew up taking solace in it and then had to confront the reality of the beliefs of the man who created it.
Beautiful stories can be told by ugly people. Ugly stories can teach us beautiful things. And everyone’s mileage varies on everything, all the time. I’m someone who likes stories that jab their thumbs into my wounds; all readers certainly aren’t like that or don’t even necessarily have the luxiry of being like that.
But stories, from all sorts of sources and with all sorts of flaws, have saved my life. Sometimes by teaching me I was a fool. Sometimes by teaching me I was wrong. Sometimes by opening my wounds to get the shrapnel out. Sometimes by disappointing me. Or by shaming me. Sometimes, just by reminding me that I’m still here.
Stories that hurt us, and hurt our peers and groupings and compatriots, in ways that are not useful, in ways that are ignorant, cruel, exploitative, hateful, mean-spirited and just plain careless or lazy, are worth speaking out about, always. But I think it is so important that we remember not only that poison comes, unfortunately, in many forms, but also that some poisons have worth for some people in some circumstances precisely because they are poisonous; someone exactly like you may actually feel totally differently about a story you love or a story you hate or a story that caused you pain to no use or fairness.
This is a post, regrettably but necessarily, without a neat conclusion. It can’t have one, because this is not an argument about what Bitch Magazine should or should not have done or an act of advocating for some idea of what is and isn’t appropriate in either responding to art or in conducting social justice. It can’t be, because I am not only speaking solely for myself, but against the perils of orthodoxy.
Stories are complicated. So are people. Maybe that’s because they’re made up of each other.