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Morally Complicated YA: How to Stick Your Foot In It

Last night, the hashtag  #MorallyComplicatedYA started trending on Twitter. For those of you just joining us, having a hashtag start trending means that a lot of people are suddenly tagging their posts with this combination of words. Being a writer with a lot of writer friends, it popped up on my screen, and I clicked, wondering what the conversation was about.

Hoo boy.

The article this hashtag references can be found on Publisher’s Weekly. If you don’t want to read it, the brief summary is that a debut indie (read: self published) author, Scott Bergstrom, just landed a six-figure deal for his book The Cruelty. It’s a young adult novel about a teenage girl who shapes up and kills a bunch of people in order to save her diplomat dad.

And, you know, if that was all it was, there wouldn’t be a hashtag for it. The problem lies here:

Bergstrom initially self-published the book because he thought it might meet resistance from traditional YA publishers. Gwendolyn faces “all sorts of morally ambiguous choices,” and often shoots first, asks questions later. “The morality of the book is more complicated than a lot of YA so I wanted to try doing it on my own,” Bergstrom said. “In a lot of YA, the conflict takes place inside a walled garden, set up by outside adult forces.[“]



Bergstrom apparently hasn’t read any YA. But he’s here to tell writers everywhere how to do it–by dissing the whole genre. Great.

I looked up his book, read the first chapter that’s posted online. It reads like a typical “teenage girl as imagined by adult guy” book. That is to say, it bears little to no resemblance to high school as experienced by myself or those I know, either psychologically or physically.

In fact, the heroine herself doesn’t make a lot of sense. She speaks five (!) languages fluently, so fluently that she accidentally replies to her teacher in French without realizing it. She’s bullied, supposedly often, but shoots off one-liners like, well, a middle aged man who got put back in high school. Which is what she is. Not a teenaged girl, certainly.

There’s a thousand books that do this, there’s a thousand authors that got it wrong, and this is just one more. And still, why is it a problem?

Because this book was acquired by the publishers for six figures, that’s why. This is the book that mainstream publishers truly and deeply believe teenagers (and the adults who adore YA as well) want to read. And even if you don’t want to read it, they will market it and push it and shout it until you pick it up just to see what all the fuss is about. Six figures means the publisher needs to earn a lot of money off this one book. It will be front and center in bookstores across the country, it will be shoved down the throats of the public.

That’s the problem.

Bergstrom gave another interview, this one for The Pen and Muse, a site dedicated to book reviews. When asked “How do you create your characters?” he replied:

I knew I wanted to create a strong heroine for The Cruelty, the opposite of the cheerleader-prom queen. She starts as a lonely, introverted girl, bullied by her prettier, richer classmates. After her father is kidnapped she transforms herself into a cunning, strong warrior. This transformation is critical to The Cruelty, and readers have told me it’s what makes this book stand out from other thrillers.

The physical appearance of Gwendolyn, the heroine of the story, is loosely based on a young homeless woman I met years ago in New York as she hustled a three-card monte game outside the Port Authority. She had short hair, dyed red, and wore an old army jacket, several sizes too large, as if it had once belonged to her dad or brother. There was this strength that emanated from her, a profound toughness that stuck with me all these years later.

I’m not sure why in that last paragraph he mentioned her physical appearance separately, as the first paragraph was literally about nothing but physical appearance. Wait, she’s “introverted,” that’s mental, right? No, that’s code for ugly–or at least, it is when used directly opposite the word “prettier.” Introverted and lonely kids aren’t pretty or rich. Got it.

Pardon while I roll my eyes so hard it hurts.

When I create a character, physical appearance comes last. What I know about them is how they feel. How they react. I don’t know if they’re chubby or myopic unless it comes up in the plot. Developing the character is all about how they think, how they interact with the world.

Unless, of course, inner stops at being “lonely” and “introverted.” Whatever the hell that means.

Let me tell you, I’ve been the lonely, introverted, bullied kid at school. It doesn’t look like chapter one of this book. The girl we see in chapter one is someone who’s used to being taken seriously, someone who’s wielded authority, someone who has never been institutionally and systematically put down.

In short, she’s a caricature created for the purposes of being “not like the other girls.”  You know, those lame girls. The rest of the gender. Fifty percent of the world.

This is a problem that’s not going to be felt by those creating and spreading this book: it’ll be a problem for those who read it. For those girls who pick up another book that tells them they can’t be anything until they lose weight, for girls who are actively bullied by people who want to hurt them, for those who really are caught between cultures and languages. They will pick this up and they will see that, once again, they are not good enough.

Their friends will read it, their enemies, the people who think, hey, if you’re weird, you deserve what you get, and the cycle continues. Because this is the book with the six-figure deal. This is the book with the marketing. Rather than empowering those it aims at, it puts them down.

There’s already a backlash against the hashtag. The words “bitter” and “jealous” are being thrown around a lot. Oh, these authors are simply angry because someone got six figures and that person wasn’t them. Duh.

Right. Or they’re pissed off because a book that disses the entirety of YA dystopia and its heroines in the first chapter got a big deal. They took exception that during an interview the author went on to dismiss a large portion of the genre, claiming to be doing new things when, in fact, they’re not new at all.

Maybe those who read the most are sick of seeing “strong heroines” defined as “violent.” Maybe we’d like to see real people reflected in the pages that will go on to coat bookstores across the nation. Maybe this all smacks of a little too much sexism to swallow whole, as this blog post by Ceilidhann points out.

Maybe we’d like to know that an author who’s cool with telling us his heroine is ugly and then sexualizing her in chapter one isn’t being rewarded for it.

Because he does that. A quote from the heroine in chapter one, referring to her classmates:

Myself, I score a zero in their rankings, or something just less than zero, with neither beauty nor money in any quantity worth measuring.

becomes, when exiting the subway:

Guys out on the sidewalk in front of the shops whistle after me. They love this—the school uniform, the flash of seventeen-year-old legs.

I start running and keep running. I bolt across a street and a yellow cab swerves and honks. I vault over a stack of boxes being unloaded from a truck.

Yeah, that’s what I do when I get cat-called. Think about how much they love my legs and then leap over a bunch of boxes while wearing a skirt so that probably my panties flash. That’s exactly what I do.

Or maybe it’s  just what I’d do if I’d never been a woman dealing with crap like that every single stupid time I go out.

Over on Twitter, a lot of commentators are using the hashtag to recommend morally complicated young adult fiction. I recommend checking it out, for both the books and the snark.

Will this book go on to be a best seller? Will it capture hearts and catapult up the charts, or die a quiet death to be pulled from the shelves after a couple lack-luster months? Who knows.

But I can tell you one thing for sure: there’s an army of marketers who will be pushing The Cruelty to stardom, and they’re not going to let a bad interview like this get in the way of the money to be made. After all, they’re already six figures deep into it. Gotta make sure those columns add up. That’s what it all comes down to.

3 thoughts on “Morally Complicated YA: How to Stick Your Foot In It

    1. True. And the author (and his agent and editor) have not engaged the shitstorm, so here’s to hoping they’re listening and learning. Of course, no apologies either, so who knows.

      Perhaps due to the outcry the book will go through a substantive edit. It’s not bad writing, it’s just bad, well, everything else. So indicative of the attitudes that pervade our culture.

      Liked by 1 person

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