all things imperfect and poisonous

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.

15 thoughts on “all things imperfect and poisonous”

  1. I know someone who was upset by the list but was also upset by the fact that the books were just removed entirely. Things that are upsetting should not be hid under the carpeting. However, they should have trigger warnings on them. It is kind of saddening that the idea of trigger warnings appears to be a problem when it’s just some people saying please don’t make us chose between avoiding everything or walking into very hurtful things blindly.

    1. Yeah, I definitely would not have felt the need to make this post if they had just placed content-related information on those particular items or on each and every item as appropriate.

      1. I made the mistake of reading the comments on the link you posted. It’s disheartening how so many people were disgusted and dismissed trigger warnings, claiming that it took away someone’s right to decide to read/watch/interact with something. Most of them were backed up with, ‘well I read something and it forced me to work through my problem; people who are triggered should stfu and deal’.

        I am sorry, but I do not read or watch something that I know will make me sick or paranoid. I can not watch CSI or other legal/medical shows because they trigger massive, massive paranoia. It kind of hurts to see people say that I should just watch them anyway to ‘get over it’ or ‘it will help me work through it’. I enjoy these shows and find them interesting; I make the choice to not watch them despite the enjoyment because of my reaction. I am not coddling myself, nor am I being over-protective. For a bunch of people complaining about complaining about not being allowed to make their own decisions, it sounds like they are trying to take decisions out of my hands.

        Death, rape, torture, abuse: these and other trigger warnings simply gives you a heads up and gives you the tools to make your own decision. Some of these books have the information on the back of the book. Some of them do not. And many people will read a book without reading up on said book because it was recommended. So yes, extra information on a list would be helpful.

        To have a list without even researching the topic is rather ridiculous. But it looks like what will be taken away is not ‘research is good’ but instead ‘trigger warnings = censorship and thus = bad’.

    2. I so agree with this… the list should stand WITH trigger warnings. It’d be real crappy to pick up a book that came recommended and find out that it was seriously triggering; but that doesn’t mean that *no-one* is going to like that book, or find it valuable.

      I’m disgusted by the people who are complaining about this by starting with “triggers, LOL, what a stupid concept” but also annoyed by the people who appear to think that anything triggering to them should never be allowed. Triggering things should be labelled, to the best of the labellers ability; so that individuals can have the information that they need to decide whether this is a thing they are going to be able to cope with.

  2. The question in my mind is if they would have handled this differently if the audience in question (YA) was over 18? The cry, “Protect the children!” has a lot of power in our society.

    The thing about stuff labeled YA is that much of it is suitable for adults. I’ve been reading Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials Trilogy which is labeled YA but it’s really more complex than that. And I’m familiar with Howl’s Moving Castle from Miyazaki’s movie adaptation and it’s wonderful.

    Interestingly, when my daughter started menstruating, a couple of my female friends celebrated by giving her books that were important for them at that age. “A Wrinkle In Time” was one of those books.

    Music and books have been important in my life as well, Jane Eyre and The Zero Stone by Andre Norton being the most memorable from my adolescence. And, I taught myself to swim by reading a book. I think I must have been six or seven when I was given a book about children swimming and they described the strokes well enough that I decided to imitate them when in the pool and I remember my mom asking me where I learned the swimming strokes and telling her.

  3. I thought it was interesting that one of the first couple comments it just sounds to me like the whole lot of them got sucked into the OTT mentality of the LiveJournal Internet Social Justice crowd. Because that is exactly what I thought. This weird poisonous mentality of language policing and discussion policing that really doesn’t contribute anything but satisfaction about telling people how they are Doing it Wrong. UGH.

  4. “Beautiful stories can be told by ugly people.” That’s history in a nutshell, right there. That’s a line I need to remember whenever I think I should be ashamed to like something. Thank you.

  5. I have a lot of trouble believing that a non-profit feminist publication who works hard at the idea that women are strong, capable beings who should be trusted to make decisions about their lives and bodies can have a full-on, backpedaling wig-out over three books that SOMEONE vetted in the first place.

    The credibility factor is low right now. And that makes me angry/sick, because as publications go I generally dig Bitch and their mission, even if I don’t read them much anymore because the material isn’t really aimed at me. (Then again, neither is Out, and I still read it. Then again, I only get Out because it comes with The Advocate, or vice-versa…)

    Just…argh. Argh.

    The thing about poison and difficulty in books is that it’s reflective of the world around us. You can’t write a story without conflict, and you can’t write a credible world without bad people and bad things in it. Otherwise, there’s really nothing there. It’s just a white plate, pristine and static.

    One needs irritants to make pearls.

  6. This isn’t a direct response to this post exactly, but OMG Cyteen and how that book has shaped me in complicated (good, I think) ways. I just wrote a really long post about my apprenticeship as a writer that I’m not sure I’ll be able to post (need to make sure Obvious Person is okay with it), and, yeah. It’s really interesting to think about the Ari I -> Ari II dynamic as a model for female mentorship.

  7. I’m curious: what is it about Young Adult fiction that you don’t like? (It’s definitely okay that you don’t; I’m just one of those pesky “BUT WHY” people. If you don’t feel like answering, no problem.)

    Aside from that, Bitch Media definitely sound like they had an unprofessional moment. Not only did they recommend something they hadn’t even read, but they couldn’t even stand behind it the moment they received backlash for making the recommendation. Sounds all too much like many of our politicians: “I’m so-and-so and I endorse this bill. …Wait, what? Did I read it? Oh, no. No. Um, I’ll get back to you on that.” [Reads bill, gasps in horror at the thought of the negative PR, and rushes back to the podium] “And for the record, I never supported that bill. What’s my opinion? My opinion is something only halfway related, just sit back and relax while I lull you into a state of complacency with a long string of platitudes.”

  8. Oh, Cyteen is fabulous.

    I’m surprised that the whole discussion about the YA books which were removed has centred on triggering: one of them was removed for containing victim-blaming, and another for implicitly validating rape. I think those are pretty fair reasons for not putting books on a blanket ‘100 Best’ (as they say, they might recommend them in specific circumstances: I mean, you’re so right about 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, but I think that high-risk, poisonous books, are probably not best suited to a 100 Best list, precisely because a 100 Best is supposed to be generic, and poisonous books – I am loving this metaphor! – are sort of kill-or-cure).

    I also always like people who change their mind in public, so all this talk about Bitch ‘caving’ and being ‘intimidated’ strikes me as just straightforwardly macho bullshit, like you should never admit when you’re wrong! Because that makes you WEAK!

    So, in conclusion, I completely and utterly agree with every word of your post, but yet still I think Bitch did okay there. Yet another story that can be read multiple ways…

    1. The thing about the victim blaming issue is that people really do that in life all the time. If it happens in a book as part of the obstacles the obstacles someone faces, that seems like a reasonable literary choice to me, even if it’s not the right book choice for everyone. Did the book have to make the list because of that? No. Did it even have to stay on the list? No. (Although I do agree with commenters who said that removing a book from a list sends a stronger message about its non-worth than just not including it in the first place).

      I’m okay with Bitch changing its mind in public, and I’m not going to go too far down the road of defending a book I haven’t read either. But I think Bitch set up the list poorly to begin with (this could have all been solved with content notices up front and regardless of what one things of YA book or trigger warnings, it seems like books for a YA audience are a pretty reasonable place to include content notices) and then should have talked more about (and may yet still) its mind-changing in public than it did.

      As usual, large swathes of the comment thread over there, like on most of the Internet, appalls me and there’s a big case of “women can do no right” here being enforced by other women, for sure. I’m hoping not to be playing a part in that, but I sure do acknowledge that I may well be, even if that’s not my intent.

      And yay Cyteen. I have the sequel sitting by my bed, but I’m not going to get to it until March — I’ve too many deadlines. Although I know some people who thought it was an unnecessary addition to the first work.

      1. this could have all been solved with content notices up front

        I didn’t think so, actually, except in the case of the trigger warning which is a different issue: I thought the point with the other two is that the book does the victim-blaming and the implicit legitimation of rape as revenge, not that they ‘contain scenes of victim-blaming and rape-as-revenge’. Which of course means you’re having to determine the ‘message’ a book carries, but if you don’t do that to some extent I don’t see how you can determine whether a book is feminist or not.

        The point about how removing a book carries a stronger message is a good one, though.

        (Sorry for having this conversation in super-slow-motion, btw. RL is, well, RL-y.)

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