Interim: Twelve Planets Podcast at Embiggen Books

I’ve been very remiss in reporting back about the fabulous Continuum 8 last weekend, and I hope to rectify that very soon, but here’s a little podcast I wanted to get up ASAP. Because of the convention, a whole bunch of normally interstate folks were in Melbourne and so it was deemed an appropriate opportunity for most of the Twelve Planet authors to get together and record an interview. There were nine of us altogether, as well as our indomitable publisher, Alisa Krasnostein, and Ian Mond very kindly volunteered to host and ask questions. The podcast was recorded at Embiggen Books, which I am ashamed to say I had not previously visited, and which I am somewhat fearful to say I will now visit a little too often … It was great fun to catch up with everyone, if somewhat daunting to be in the same room as all these tremendously talented women!

Anyway, the podcast is now available for direct download and streaming from the website or via subscription from iTunes. Hope you enjoy it!

Here are the show notes:

In collaboration with Twelfth Planet Press and recorded live at the beautiful Embiggen Books in Melbourne, The Writer and the Critic is delighted to present a special podcast dedicated to the critically acclaimed Twelve Planets series of short story collections.

Twelfth Planet Press

Join host Ian Mond as he interviews Twelve Planet authors Deborah Biancotti, Narrelle M. Harris, Deborah Kalin, Margo Lanagan, Rosaleen Love, Kirstyn McDermott, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Lucy Sussex and Kaaron Warren, along with publisher Alisa Krasnostein. It’s a fun, informal conversation which — and this is how you know it’s not an official Writer and Critic episode — goes for less than 50 minutes! You’re welcome.

Twelve Planets at Embiggen Books

Photographs by Jason Nahrung

The Twelve Planets are twelve boutique collections by some of Australia’s finest short story writers. Varied across genre and style, each collection will offer four short stories and a unique glimpse into worlds fashioned by some of our favourite storytellers. Each author has taken the brief of 4 stories and up to 40 000 words in their own direction. Some are quartet suites of linked stories. Others are tasters of the range and style of the writer. Each release will bring something unexpected to our subscriber’s mailboxes.

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The Writer and the Critic: Episode 19

The latest episode of our podcast is now available for direct download and streaming from the website or via subscription from iTunes. Feedback is most welcome!

Here are the show notes:

This month on The Writer and the Critic, Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond spend some time discussing the results of the recently announced Aurealis Awards. Ian valiantly attempts to pry a little out-of-school talk from Kirstyn, who convened the Horror judging panel, but Kirstyn just as valiantly resists the spilling of any beans. Well, mostly. You know how persistent Mondy can be.

And from the Department of Filthy Lucre, Kirstyn and Ian are pleased to announce the opening of a brand spanking new Writer and Critic Zazzle Store from which their loyal listeners can purchase all kinds of yummy merch! Okay, there’s just one design available right now, but it’s very classy. Inspired by last episode’s conversation about stick figures, which was in turn inspired by listener feedback from Mark Webb, Kirstyn has designed a female stick figure logo which is now splashed across shirts, badges, stickers, mugs and a whole heap of other swag. Why is the stick figure female? The more important question is, why is it male? Go on, you know you want one.

Female Stick Figure

Around the 26:20 mark, discussion turns to the first of the two books for the podcast, Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti, which Ian recommended. Ishtar, an anthology from Gilgamesh Press which includes a novella by Deb, is tangentially mentioned and garners a bonus mini-review from Kirstyn. At 45:00 they switch over to Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (also known as The Brides of Rollrock Island outside of Australia), which was Kirstyn’s pick. Ian mentions this review of the book by Abigail Nussbaum and, for listeners wanting to know more about the writing of the novel, Kirstyn suggests watching this interview with Margo. Sea Hearts was expanded from a highly acclaimed novella of the same name, which can be found in the X6 anthology from Coeur de Lion Publishing.

Bad Power and Sea Hearts

If you’ve skipped ahead to avoid spoilers, please check back in at 1:25:10 for final remarks and some exciting — and exhausting! — announcements about future episodes. Kirstyn and Ian would also like to thank the wonderful Charles Tan for creating a Pinterest board of all the books they have review on the podcast so far. There’s really quite a lot of them!

Next month, The Writer and the Critic hits the road once more to record its second live podcast in front of an audience at the Continuum 8: the National Science Fiction convention in Melbourne. Their very, very special guests will be Alison Goodman and Kelly Link, who have recommended The Crystal Singer by Anne McCaffrey and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater respectively. (Ian and Kirstyn have wisely decided not to choose books of their own because, well, four people talking about four books in less than two hours would be a frantic kind of madness.) Read ahead and join in the fun!

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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.