Tender Morsels not for Feminists?

Tender Morsels

A couple of days ago, Bitch Media published their recommended list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader which — at the time — included Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. I’ve long admired Margo’s short fiction and was very impressed by Tender Morsels, her first novel, in which she retells the “Snow White, Rose Red” fairy tale cycle in a way that is distinctly Lanaganesque. So it was great to see it get a mention on a reading list aimed at people “looking to buy a book for your favorite teenage girl or just looking to cuddle up with a powerful story featuring teenage characters”. (The question of why you wouldn’t also consider buying these books for your favourite teenage boy, is one best left aside for now.)

This morning I discovered that Tender Morsels has been removed from the list, following concerns raised in the comments section of the original announcement, along with two other books. Here’s Bitch Media’s explanation of their decision:

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.

I have read neither Sisters Red nor Living Dead Girl so I won’t comment on those, except to say that while triggering issues are certainly valid reasons not to choose to read a book — and Tender Morsels would certainly face that problem as well — surely this is not grounds to remove an otherwise commendable book from a recommended reading list? Wouldn’t a notation beside the titles which might contain potential triggers be a more appropriate and inclusive approach? Sexual violence is a central issue in feminist discourse and ignoring works that depict such violence, rather than simply flagging them to allow for individual reader choice, does no one any favours in my opinion.

Which brings us to the reasons behind Tender Morsels being dropped. [Significant plot spoilers to follow; you have been warned.] The day after the original list was posted, the following comment was left by a reader:

You are actually recommending Tender Morsels? What is wrong with you people? I didn’t think Bitch was the kind of place that supported rape as vengeance. That book is absolute crap on every possible level and you should be ashamed for putting it on the same list as Speak.

The scene being referred to here is the gang-rapes (via use of vengeful magic) of five men who had themselves earlier raped and abused the novel’s protagonist, Liga. The magic is inadvertently wielded by her daughter, Urdda, who was herself conceived in the original assault. In a lengthier subsequent comment, the same reader went on to condemn the “moral ambiguity” of the novel and its failure to mention “guilt or accountability” or even acknowledge that “this was a bad thing that happened”:

There’s no mention of the men period; once that scene ends the victims disappear completely from the story. And of course there’s the complete 180 in presentation between the mother’s solemn first-person accounts of her own attack and the rape-homunculi’s joyful descriptions of their violence.

True, it’s a difficult and complicated scene. Tender Morsels is a difficult and complicated book. For the most part, you don’t “enjoy” reading it. Not the way you enjoy eating ice cream, or listening to your favourite music, or even riding a roller coaster. It’s not a safe book, but it is a rewarding book. Intelligent and thought-provoking and full of depth. It’s also a book about women and girls, about the social narratives that have defined and continue to define their lives, and about the power that is denied to them, wielded over them, claimed by them. In my opinion, it’s exactly the kind of book that should be on a feminist reading list. Because good literature is not safe. It questions default ideologies and paradigms, undermines the status quo, and makes you think about issues you might otherwise never have considered. Kind of like feminism itself, hey?

Also problematic is the fact that Tender Morsels made the list in the first place via “a recommendation to us from a few feminists” according to Bitch Media. And yet, it seems that it took only one public complaint from a reader to have it removed. This despite the fact that a second reader responded promptly with an interpretation in defense of the book, and that the original complaint came from someone who quite obviously disliked the book as a whole — describing it as “absolute crap on every possible level” — and not simply because of the rape scene at the end, the authorial politics of which they clearly understood:

Personally I don’t think the author is a supporter of eye-for-an-eye justice so much as a shoddy writer who can’t be bothered to keep track of a single measly theme. From the muddled plot to the bland tone, this is a really lousy book, but the absolute moral ambiguity has to be the worst.

Yes, everyone gets to have an opinion and hold a personal preference. But when compiling a recommended reading list of critically important books, surely the opinion of one reader who happens to dislike a particular novel should be outweighed by the views of multiple other people whose opinions Bitch Media must trust to recommend titles to them in the first place? Here’s a thought to keep in mind: this a list of books recommended for your consideration; it’s not compulsory to read and/or like everything on the list.

Bitch Media’s statement that Tender Morsels “validates characters who use rape as vengeance” by “failing to critique or discuss” the act seems to be missing the whole point of reader/text interaction. The scene in question is a little under four pages in length. The assaults committed against the five men are neither graphically nor explicitly described in physical terms, but much is made of the glee the rapists have in carrying out their vengeance by proxy — and it is most definitely vengeance they are about, rather than sexual satisfaction. They make jokes and congratulate each other on the suffering and humiliation they cause. This is “rape=power” writ large and unambiguously. And a strange thing happens when you read it.

While the base temptation is certainly there at the beginning to view the forthcoming events with a kind of schadenfreude, a morbid expectation that these men will be getting no more than what they deserve, and possibly less, this rapidly dissipates as the scene unfolds. Because the casual, unthinking delight with which the rapists commit their acts really is indecent. By the end, you are left feeling a little sullied for having read it — and somewhat complicit for having, however briefly, accepted the invitation to anticipate a measure of satisfaction in what was about to occur. There is certainly no victory to be had in this kind of vengeance and therefore, I would argue, absolutely no validation of it within the text. Liga, on whose behalf vengeance was enacted, finds no happy ending in its aftermath. There is no need for Lanagan to sit you down and provide an explicit critique of the preceding events — I’m not even sure how such a discussion could have been presented within the pages of Tender Morsels as a novel.

Perhaps the pages of a novel aren’t really the place for it. Discussions involving rape and the politics of sexual power, and whether vengeance can ever really equate to justice, are best teased out in other forums — including the comments section on a recommended reading list. But this does not mean that the complex and difficult books that inspire such discussions should be excluded from such lists in the first place, simply on the grounds that they offer no explicit and clearly flagged  internal critique of the subject matter they present. Let’s give some credit to readers, please.

We don’t all need our hands held, even when walking deep in the Black Forest.

ETA: It’s extremely heartening to see the comments that have flooded in over at the Bitch Media site since this became a lively conversation over on Twitter this morning (#bitchplease #speakloudly). Lots of very interesting, very intelligent and extremely cogent debate about books and feminism. It’s great. It’s thought-provoking. It’s taking up too much of my time today! But I do hope it’s seen for what it is by Bitch Media and other potential “tastemakers” — the issue is not that a particular book was or wasn’t included on a Recommended Reading List, but that a book was removed from such a list because it wasn’t deemed to reflect the “right” kind of feminism. It would be a great shame if potentially controversial books were omitted from such lists in the future for fear of provoking similar reactions.

17 thoughts on “Tender Morsels not for Feminists?

  1. It was a pretty preposterous circumstance, not helped by the fact that their own initial knee-jerk response was so panicky, most likely because they hadn’t, you know, read the book!

    I do think there is an interesting area of uncertainty regarding an author’s responsibility (or non-responsibility) to critique the subject matter they portray. To what extent is it up to the author to point the reader toward critique and to what extent is it their role simply to portray life and let the reader draw their own conclusions.

    I don’t think it’s a debate that is simplistic enough to be able to say a book is bad simply because the critique is subtle rather than blunt. After all, that’s part of what makes a good author, the ability to step outside one’s own beliefs in portraying the world created.

    In any case, in this instance there was no attempt ti engage in any depth of criticism or debate, just the panicked need to placate criticism. Which might have been less reactionary had they read the material before engaging.

    1. I agree, the line between mere presentation and explicit critique is a very fine one and difficult to tread. For the record, I think Margo pulls it off with aplomb. Personally, I don’t have a problem with narratives that merely offer a presentation and leave it up to readers to critique what is presented — although the argument can be made that it is almost impossible to do this. To be totally objective and matter-of-factual in your presentation, that is. What crosses a line for me would be the explicit glamorisation or eroticisation of sexual violence. Not that I would attempt to censor a book which did this, but I would find it distasteful and difficult to recommend.

      I find the initial posts by Ashley McAllister (who seems to be the spokesperson for Bitch on this issue) about Sisters Red to be very problematic:

      “I had only heard great reviews of Sister’s Red. I was excited to hear it reviewed as a feminist retelling of the sexist and scary Little Red Riding Hood story, and like Ana at The Book Smugglers said, I love a good fairytale retelling. While I read most of the books on this list, there were a few that I just researched, and it appears that my researching skills failed in this instance (kind of like the book failed over at The Book Smugglers — who sure know how to call out a book on perpetuating rape culture). Thanks for tuning me into this. I’m going to go ahead and remove Sister’s Red from the list and replace it with another book.”

      Which basically translates to: I didn’t read the book, but I was happy to put my name to the list it is on based on what someone else said. Now that I’ve heard a counter opinion, even though I still haven’t read the book, I’m going to remove it from the list. I won’t worry about investigating anything for myself firsthand and forming my own opinion about the book.

      Of course, later she later states that she and other (unnamed and unnumbered) staff members did read the books before taking them off the list, but it’s her initial reaction that I find telling. And extremely troubling.

      1. Yeah that quote you have pulled is a pretty good indicator of the lack of independent thought. Which I suppose it’s pretty hard to have, if you haven’t read the book 🙂

  2. I really appreciate this post, thanks so much! I read only the beginning of Tender Morsels and even having been spoiled I kind of want to finish it now. (at the time I felt it was a bit too fantasy for me, I’m not a big fantasy reader) It sounds like a book that would really make me think.

    I did read Living Dead Girl and reading the comments both for and against it were interesting. Sometimes I think it does come down to the fact that some readers are very literal while others are more inclined to read a layer below that. I thought LDG was very much about taking the power you have and it had a rather profound impact on me for its exploration of power and how we wield it over others.

  3. I agree that there wasn’t enough credit given to the readers which considering the source there should have been. Women can make decisions on what to read for themselves.

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