I’m not quite sure how news really spreads, but this debacle with Scott Bergstrom, whose self-published YA novel The Cruelty has been optioned by Jerry Bruckheimer, has been on my mind. There’s a lot of snark on the internet, and for a few years I’ve been delighted to feel like I’ve been adding to it. I have to say, though, that I really admire the positivity that seems to be coming out of #MorallyComplicatedYA, where amidst the criticism there’s people just promoting YA novels that prove Bergstrom dead wrong.
There was one post somebody made under the hashtag that got me thinking. It started with something like “So I could either be really mean about Scott Bergstrom – who I’m sure is a really nice guy in real life – or I could do something positive with my time”. And I thought: you know what? That’s probably true. Scott Bergstrom is probably not setting out to shit all over YA fans and creators; he’s probably not an MRA crusader looking to “redeem” the genre from its association with girls, women and femininity by bringing his manly perspective into the mix. He’s got an attitude that probably results from subtle misogyny, not aggressive misogyny. And that’s not beyond criticism, at all, but it also doesn’t mean he deserves to have people he’s never met talk shit about him.
Kind of like how YA fans and creators don’t deserve to have some random dude talk shit about something they’re deeply passionate about and invested in.
Like, yeah, his feelings might get hurt, and that sucks for anybody, but also he got his self-published book optioned by Jerry fucking Bruckheimer. If he’s getting Pirates of the Caribbean money and still has time to feel bad about being flavour of the minute on social media’s hit-list, maybe he needs to re-evaluate the moral complexity of his life.
But none of that is really the point of my rant today. Today, the point of my rant is that I realised that I had to cop to the fact that I am actually part of the problem here. I read YA. I read a fair bit of it. I started 2 years ago in a concerted effort to read more stuff written by writers who were not middle-aged white dudes, and to that end it worked, and I found some good stuff. And a lot of stuff I couldn’t stand as well.
One such thing I couldn’t stand was Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia and Maragaret Stohl. There is a lot to criticise in that book, so grotesquely fascinating that I read it all in one sitting, and I imagine it was kind of like how people who read My Immortal and didn’t immediately grasp that it was a troll-fic felt. It was so terrible that I had to read all of it. Like Bergstrom – if my generous assessment of his character is in fact accurate and not just generous – I don’t think Garcia and Stohl are malicious at heart. I don’t think they set out to write one of the most misogynistic, racist, body-shaming, all-around despicable pieces of writing I’ve ever borne witness to. But like Bergstrom, they did do something shitty, and they are responsible for that.
So I wrote a review. It was called “Beautiful Authenticity”, because I was all about exploring the notion of “authenticity” in books at the time, and it’s something I still want to follow through with because it’s an interesting topic. What did I criticise in this review? The deplorable girl-hate and the fact that the characters who were meant to be the bitchy high school Plastics were actually some of the only halfway decent characters in the entire book, because at least they had each other’s backs? The shameless use of the Mammy stereotype in the character of Amma, which Garcia and Stohl seemed self-conscious about in the way that their only other PoC character kept quoting MLK – in defence of the feelings of a white teenage girl aristocrat in the antebellum south who can fucking do magic, because that was MLK’s real dream – which only served to draw even more attention to how hideously racist the book was? The way Ethan Waite, our sensitive, good-mannered, gentlemanly hero, regarded every girl in his town who wasn’t Lena as a slut?
I did brush over that last one, but only because Ethan truly is a despicable character. The other things, though – no. I was concerned with something far more important.
I was concerned with the fact that Ethan didn’t read like an “authentic” straight, cisgender teenage boy.
And I went off. Even as I was writing it, I could feel that I was crossing a line that not only probably shouldn’t be crossed, but didn’t even need to be crossed. There is no need to criticise a book for having an “inauthentic” representation of a straight white cisgender able-bodied neurotypical middle-class English-speaking teenage boy; that doesn’t fucking help anyone. I tried to avoid gender essentialism, even though literally my entire fucking argument was gender essentialism; I tried to avoid being transphobic because, well, that’s shitty, but I was also writing a 10k-word post about how Ethan wasn’t an “authentically male” teenage boy, so you can probably guess how that turned out. I basically did what I’ve seen done on Goodreads one thousand too many times, and gave in to my urge to generate some cheap internet bile, without considering how it might affect anybody besides me who came across it.
And, of course, I went after Garcia and Stohl. I criticised them of not doing their research – into straight white teenage boys – I criticised them of writing badly, but rather than looking at the writing, I made it about them. And that’s the part that got me when I read that comment about Bergstrom probably being a nice guy in real life, because even if he isn’t, he might be. I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be so utterly shitty to him. And what got me about that was knowing that I’d already done it to Garcia and Stohl.
I am not under some pretension that any of those three writers have or will ever lay eyes on this blog. I write this for me, and I’m pretty sure that if this site counted views on your own blog, I would be my own most frequent visitor. I wrote “Beautiful Authenticity” for me, because I had a lot of pent-up, only semi-serious vitriol to spill, so I spilled it. It’s the internet, after all; that’s what it’s “for”.
But I wish it wasn’t. And so, “Beautiful Authenticity” has been taken down. It’s gone private – I don’t want to delete it until I can fish out what valid criticism is actually in that post, but at the same time, I don’t want to be contributing to the same kind of misogyny that Bergstrom, intentionally or not, is perpetuating. Especially not in YA. There are plenty of valid criticisms to be made of prevalent trends in YA, just as there are in any genre, yet YA is the one that seems to be singled out for abuse – and given that it is mainly read and written by women, I think we all know why that is.
It’s because the letters “Y” and “A” are geometrically designed to inspired hatred and disgust when combined in acronym form. Our primate brain responds to these patterns with primordial outrage and rails against them in a blind panic for survival; like runestones, these letters trigger an irresistible change deep within us that it’s misogyny, okay, it’s fucking misogyny, that is literally all it is, welcome to the real world where misogyny is in fact an actual thing.
And it’s a thing I want as little a part in as possible so – two years too late – if Garcia and Stohl ever did read that post, or anybody who identifies outside the traditional gender binary ever came across it: I am sorry. I was a petulant little shit spewing hateful, sexist, transphobic crap because I was bored and giddy and didn’t feel like thinking about my actions while I chased my snarky vision of the zeitgeist. I promise to never do it again. I don’t want the internet to have one more under-thought hate-dump because of me; I don’t want that to be my legacy or a habit that I embody, and I don’t want to make it anybody else’s problem. So for that fact that that’s exactly what I did with that post, I am truly, deeply sorry.
If I do return to Beautiful Creatures in the future, it will be to address the actual issues that I have with it. And while Ethan’s characterisation is one of those, I’ll need to get to grips with why it bothers me so much before I publish that opinion for other people to read. Much like Bergstrom probably should have considered why exactly he thought much of YA was not morally complex before deciding to not only insult an entire sub-culture of readers – of which I am a member – but to write a book in this genre he thinks so lowly of that sounds about as morally complex as The Fast and The Furious.
Anyway I have my own morally not-complex YA novel to attend to; including today I have 5 days to write somewhere between 15k and 25k words if I wanna win Nano, and I do, with a fierce and burning passion. Let’s get that badge.