Gaslighting, Moral Complexity, and Reality: Musings on the Past Few Days

On Tuesday night, the Twittersphere (at least the bookish end of it) fairly exploded with indignation over a Publisher's Weekly announcement of a six-figure book and movie deal (unsure if it comes with dog and pony show; will report back) for a debut author.  It wasn't out of jealousy or pettiness.

The author of the book displayed an astonishing lack of regard, respect, and awareness for young adult literature when he explained, "The morality of the book is more complicated than a lot of YA so I wanted to try doing it on my own."

I beg your pardon?  The implication is that YA literature, which has scads of awesome, kick-butt female authors, is unable to produce a "morally complex" narrative.  By extension, the author wasn't just criticizing an age group (YA is not a genre), but those who write and consume it.  The unspoken, but crystal-clear implication, was that women are unable to generate, appreciate, or desire morally complex novels.

The ignorance and hurtfulness of that statement is really astounding.  I wanted to think that maybe he'd been taken out of context, or that it was a slip-up.  I mean, if I were talking about the overnight success of my debut, I'd be completely incoherent.  Possibly comatose.  I don't deal with surprises very well.

But a link to another interview given by the author, this one more than a year ago, clearly show that he finds current YA literature to be lacking and intends to ride in on a white horse, after having descended from the clouds, beatifically, and save YA by making it morally complex.  He also thinks that the Ukraine uprising was like Les Misérables and that pink things are a "satire of femininity."  Make way for the mansplain train.

To which, the majority of writers, readers, teachers, librarians, and bloggers responded with a resounding, "Nope."

Because by devaluing the amazing works of YA lit out there-the majority of them written by female authors-this new Man Author implies that they've never been able to write anything good.  he's gaslighting them, pure and simple.  And he's gaslighting readers of YA as well.

I read YA for many reasons, but one thing I have noticed consistently is that I am moved to tears by YA books because they've touched something deep inside of me.  I don't ever remember crying because of an "adult" novel.  YA writers are adept at manipulating prose, style, and format to create unforgettable books.

Remember, too, that shorter books often pack even more of an emotional punch than their doorstop counterparts (caveat: I have my share of favorite YA jumbo-sized books, like Illuminae, The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, The Diviners, and Seraphina, to name just a few).  I'm thinking specifically of the Hunger Games trilogy, not only because of the film that just came out, but because I read a review of Mockingjay (the book) this morning that angered me, because the reader had completely missed the point of the whole story.

*Warning: mild tangent approaching*

For better or for worse, I am a very empathetic person.  When bad things happen, I feel as though they have happened to me, and I wish that I could carry the pain of the sufferer instead.  I also have depression and severe anxiety issues.  All of these combine to create a very odd effect: I don't go see movies any more, because I am hypersensitive to every emotion expressed by the characters.  I generally leave the movie theater in tears because a movie in a theater is so in your face and seemingly inescapable.  There's no way to take a break from emotion, unless you get up and leave.  And it doesn't matter what the subject of the movie is: I left Jurassic World this summer and sobbed (the big, body-racking kind) for the forty-five minute drive home.  I have no idea why, exactly.

I had made plans with my best friend to go see Mockingjay Part 2.  As the date approached, I started to panic.  We were supposed to go on Thanksgiving night.  I've spent the greater part of today (the day before the holiday) in a maelstrom of anxiety.  I couldn't eat.  I shook.  I was terrified to tell her that movies, for some reason, terrify me.  But because she is an awesome person, she totally understood.  But I knew that in my current mental state, I could not handle the death and destruction that I would see there on the screen.  I could not do it.

*tangent leads back to actual narrative*

So sure, go ahead and tell me that Mockingjay isn't a "morally complex" book.  Moan about how "we don't see any of the action because Katniss is injured or grieving."  Excoriate her for not leading the revolution proudly--a revolution that takes innocent lives and one that she never wanted.  Katniss became the figurehead of the revolution, but never its leader.

After reading that review this morning, I reread Mockingjay for myself, to confirm my feelings.  My confidence that this was exactly the right ending only grew stronger as I read.  Because while yes, the first two books have page-turning action, particularly in the arena, and yes, Katniss kicks butt, that is not the point.

Collins condemns our media and our society for making death into entertainment*, for involving children in politics, and for humanity's inability to learn lessons from past mistakes.  All of the tributes are children.  They must kill each other for the entertainment of adults.  How can you think that this series will end with everyone riding off on rainbow unicorns?

When your society is that corrupt, vile, and callous, do you think that a revolution will fix things overnight?  Casting Katniss in the role of savior mislabels her completely.  She isn't a savior; she's a survivor.  She's no Career Tribute.  She takes no pleasure in killing, and neither does Peeta.  So after going through two of the Games, what do you think the mental state of this sixteen-year-old is like?  The horrors and atrocities she's seen and even committed tear her apart.  Retreating into the hidey-holes of District 13 isn't Collins "being lazy" and not describing the action--the author is showing us how the violence and manipulation breaks Katniss.  Blaming Katniss for having PTSD is the worst thing that a reader can do.  The spareness of Mockingjay reflects the distance Katniss must keep from reality in order to not completely lose her tenuous grasp on sanity.

I have a very good friend who was in the Vietnam War.  He rarely says anything about what happened, but I know it haunts him.  He just becomes very quiet and says it was terrible, that it still keeps him up at night.  So do you think Katniss, at the end, with her silence and detachment, is unrealistic?

So look at that, Man Author, and tell me that it's not morally complex.  Tell me to my face, without batting an eye, clearing your throat, or backpedaling.

He's not the only one at fault--his agent and publisher, in not correcting these statements, but instead, praising the novel for needing practically "no editing" and for being so edgy and ground-breaking, completely bury the accomplishments of all the female YA authors who have built an enduring, multifaceted area of literature.

The novel's main character (who, remember, is a heroine "who was the opposite of all that—a young, strong female who discovers real heroism within herself.") per PW, goes like this: "Gwendolyn Bloom, a Jewish, slightly overweight 17-year-old, who is transformed into a “lean warrior with hair dyed fire-engine red,” during her mission to rescue her father, a kidnapped diplomat,"  Okay.  So although pink is not good for girls, nor is Barbie, please remember that all heroines must conform to modern (unattainable) ideals of beauty, but also the male gaze.  Also, how can someone be "slightly overweight"?  Why does that even matter???

SPOILER: Your weight has no bearing on your character.  It is a number.  You do not need to lose weight in order to be awesome.  I've written extensively about the negative impact of numbers and body-shaming in stories before, so I'll just say to this: NOPE.  In fact, it merits the nopetopus:

Remember that gaslighting of authors (and especially WOC or non-cis writers)?  It's only gotten worse, because the media coverage has zoomed in on the male voices expressing their ire, and not Kelly Jensen (@catagator), who has retweeted so much pertinent information and has a fantastic article over here at SLJ about gender inequality in the YA publishing world.  Not Justina Ireland (@tehawesomersace), who consistently calls out privilege and who also retweeted loads of pertinent, thought-provoking information.  Not Kayla Whaley (@PunkinOnWheels) who created the hashtag to begin with!  Are you beginning to see the pervasive erasure of female voices here?

I hope that this author learns from this.  I know that people are already tsking about the social media reaction.  "Look at those hysterical females, piling on yet another innocent author!"  It's not a pile-on.  It's the frustrated reaction of people fighting for change, and yet who are painted as dangerous and villainous for having ambitions.

Panem Publishing wants to keep power and validation away from women.  Just remember: "If we burn, you burn with us."

*Yes, I realize by making films, that's totally hypocritical.  And part of why I couldn't go through with seeing the last part.


  1. That was an incredibly stupid thing for Mr. Bergstrom to say. I mean, being pretentious about one's own writing--and having a movie deal to back it up--is one thing; it's another thing to make comments about YA lit that reflect zero genuine understanding of YA lit. I mean, he's not really that stupid, is he?

    1. The first chapter is floating around online. I read it and the m/c not only wonders why everyone thinks she's pretentious for swearing in French (and as an aside, not even like, decent cussing. Wussy cussing.) because oh, she's already read The Stranger, you see, IN FRENCH. Whoop-de-do. Then she takes out what's obviously supposed to be The Hunger Games and dismisses it as fluff but she reads it anyway.

      As a public services worker, I can confidently say that there are, in fact, people who are that stupid. This guy just had a bigger platform. Unfortunately.

  2. I couldn't have put your thoughts any better, so well written!

  3. Don't you just love it when a debut author gets a film deal and thinks he's God? The YA world is full of them. Look, guys can write about girls, and goodness knows, women have to be able to write about boys, but to tell all the women in a female dominated industry that he does it better than them is not on. Unfortunately, males in charge in female dominated occupations is not restricted to writing. You'd know that, as a librarian, Pamela. (Mind you, when I was working in a tertiary library for a time, our head honcho was a sweetie, a gentle, mild mannered man who couldn't deal with tradesmen to save his life)

    Never mind about this guy. They'll make a fuss over him for a year or two(maybe three because there's a film in the works), then the next flavour of the month will come along.

    And no guarantee that the film will ever happen, anyway. There has been a Ranger's Apprentice film optioned for years now and I'd be surprised if it ever happens, and John Flanagan is hugely popular.

  4. I kind of hope they don't make a Ranger's Apprentice film, because most film versions of books tend to be really ... not good.

    The sad thing is that this whole man-savior thing just keeps happening. :/ I literally had not heard any buzz about this book before the article--not on any blogs or from any of my teens who frequently read self-pubbed titles. So, you know...

    1. You're certainly right about some movies of books. I'm thinking especially of that dreadful film supposedly based on Susan Cooper's classic The Dark Is Rising. I was furious at having wasted a whole morning watching it, not to mention the $17 I forked out for the ticket! And it wasn't just the fact that the casting was woeful, I could live with that. The entire story was rewritten, till I wondered why they bothered.

      But then again, there are the Harry Potter movies and the Tolkien ones. :-) Still, I don't think it's likely there will be a RA movie after all these years, unless the option runs out and is bought by someone else. Maybe Peter Jackson will do it...? ;/)


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