In Which We Are Thankful For The Legacy Of Others

Listen, so there’s some guy in YA who stepped in it — the long and short is, he came out of nowhere, sold a six-figure debut out of a self-published YA book, and then took some time to step up to the podium to maybe kinda sorta shit on young adult literature and bluster about female characters and — well, you know how it goes. This is not really new. If you want to follow the story back more completely, you’d do well by looking at the Twitter feed of someone like @bibliogato, who is unpacking some of this stuff right now and linking to other smart people. Go look. (And you can also check out the #MorallyComplicatedYA hashtag.) (Ooh, also, Victoria Aveyard has a good pulling-apart of the problem here at her Tumblr.)

I’d like to speak about this in a more general sense — and, quite likely, I’m going to be talking more implicitly to my fellow WHITE DUDES who are living up on HETERO WHITE DUDE MOUNTAIN, because while this problem is by no means exclusive to us it certainly seems to gather around us like a cloud of flies who are feasting upon our eye-watering ego-stink.

Privilege is a weird thing.

It teaches us by example that we own the house — the house metaphorically being, well, everything all around us. As such, we view all the things in the house as ours. We own this stuff, we think. We own these rooms. And so we move freely from room to room without hesitation. We muddy the carpets because they’re ours and we can dirty them all we want, goddamnit. We control what’s on the TV, we get to decide what everyone eats, we determine where to piss (toilet, toilet seat, potted plant, sink, the northeast corner of every room).

This is of course an illusion. A pretty gross one, though one that society often goes out of its way to maintain (in part because hey patriarchy and yes the patriarchy is real as it takes very little to see that men control a whole lot more than women and hey by the way, Scott Adams, you wonky Dilbert-fucker, the fact that women possess sexual consent and agency does not make our world some kind of dystopian lady-realm).  It also would seem to give us license to saunter boldly into a space that’s new to us and pretend like it’s new to everybody. We take a shit in it and pretend we’re planting a flag instead of, y’know, taking a giant shit where other people are already hanging out. “I claim this space in the name of me!” you scream, hauling up your drawers and leaving behind a steaming present while ignoring everyone else standing around gaping at the horror-struck literal shit-show you just performed.

You must unlearn what you have learned, Jedi.

This isn’t your manifest destiny. You’re entering into spaces that have already been built and shaped by people who aren’t you. You’re not colonizing it — except maybe only in the grossest ongoing historical sense, where you invade territory and overpower those who dwell there already. And you damn sure shouldn’t come into a space with the desire to “fix” it, either. I wrote a YA novel about a teen girl and crime-flavored moral complications. I was not the first to do it and I will not be the one to put the capstone on it. Neither will you, rando. I didn’t fix it. I didn’t make it better. I don’t own it. I’m sharing it. And I’m sharing it by the grace of those who came before me. (And I don’t shit on genre work, or teenagers, or Twilight or Hunger Games or any of it, because I don’t get to exist as I do without them.)

You do not honor or create your own success by ignoring or crapping on the successes of those who came before. That is gross and weird. Don’t do that. Be humble. Look back and point others to look that way. Look all around you at the present and look ahead, too. See that you are not alone — you are not the peak of this mountain and you are not the owner of this house nor its sole occupant.

It’s like borrowing a ladder from your neighbor and then pretending that you built it. Or worse, pretending that you invented the concept of the ladder, or that the mere act of you ascending its rungs has improved it in some incalculable, cosmic way. (Then you kick the ladder away to make sure nobody else ever climbs to the same height. Jerk.)

Don’t be crappy.

Give respect to others.

Admire and acknowledge their success.

Do not overtake their achievements and claim them for yourself.

Whoever you are, see yourself as part of a whole and not the sum of it.

You owe them. They don’t owe you.

Give them thanks, too — that in the spirit of tomorrow’s holiday, perhaps. (Though here I could probably get into the sick moral tangle of a holiday where colonizing pilgrims took over native lands and probably pretended like they invented turkey and corn and dinner, which is maybe altogether more apropos — but, ahem, that can be a conversation for another day.)

In fact, let’s take a moment below to give some thanks to some YA writers and books — in particular, if you care to uncover them, “morally complicated YA” novels, particularly YA novels by women. Pop ’em in the comments below, talk about what those books mean to you. 

102 comments

  • One of the best YA novels (hell, it’s one of the best books regardless of classification) I’ve read in a long time is Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older. I don’t finish a lot of the books I start because life is far too short and there are so many wonderful things to read. I rarely read a book more than once. This is a book I’ve read three times.

  • November 26, 2015 at 5:07 PM // Reply

    Awesome post. Hadn’t read the interview until now. Wow – paternalistic and very “unwriterly” (and, actually, just plain arseholey) to shit on your contemporaries. If you write, you know it’s hard, so no, just no, to being a nasty pants. To answer your question, I love all books from Australian YA writer Vikki Wakefield, but particularly Friday Brown (https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/friday-brown). Her characters are complex and beautiful, and I love them all. Ironically, she has a background in advertising, too. In every other way she’s polar opposite to Bergstrom.

  • My favorite YA books right now are Half Bad and Half Wild by Sally Green. Beautifully written (she uses second person in the first chapter and it actually works holy shit) and without a doubt morally complicated. The protagonists isn’t female, but there are plenty of kickass female characters, as well as one of the best portrayals of an LGBT romance I’ve ever seen in YA. Also shape-shifting and heart-eating and witches and crazy magic.

  • I already tweeted about this, but the first book I thought of when I read that #MorallyComplicatedYA article was HIT by Delilah S. Dawson. Sure, the main character doesn’t hang out with drug lords or whatever, but otherwise it sounds a lot like the amazing “new” six-figure deal.

  • That article in PW is written in the most obnoxious way possible, like it’s the biography of some great stampeding hero author. Most of the ignorant quotes re YA seem to be from PW or the people interviewed. The guy himself (author) seems to hardly have a word in there.

    … which all combined made me wonder: if he’d always come off as this much of a jack ass, or if the PW lit-journo might be partly to blame?

  • Ooo! BUMPED and THUMPED by Megan McCafferty. Summary: Only teenagers can get pregnant, and adults are paying teens for privilege of having sex in order to be knocked up.

  • It seems one publisher was eager to buy the manuscript because it was pitched as Girl With the Dragon Tattoo meets The Bourne Identity with a dash of Homeland. YA. Rrrighhhttt.

  • I had to go through all the comments to make sure, but I’m really surprised that no one mentioned “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir. An absolutely fantastic addition to the YA genre AND it’s by a non-white female. Easily gets my vote for one of the best novels of the year…

  • One of the most morally-complicated YA books I’ve read is How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon. Also extremely relevant just now, sadly. It’s about a black teen boy who is shot by a white man, and it gives the viewpoints of tons of many different members of the community who have very different understandings of what happened on the day of the shooting.

  • “Bergstrom’s heroine is 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. Her search takes her into Europe’s most dangerous slums, and into contact with gangsters, spies, and arms dealers.”

    Okay…well, okay. I know we’re trying not to hate here, but…this looks like something I’d have come up with in middle school. dyed fire-engine red? Did she transform or just dye it? Gwendolyn. Goes from “slightly overweight” to a “lean warrior”. Does anyone else see a very negative message in that? Especially with the age?

    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. If you think of those stories as a metaphor for high school, they start to make a lot more sense, but that was one thing I wanted to depart from.”

    Shoot first, ask questions later doesn’t seem like a morally ambiguous choice. It seems like she just shoots before deciding on a choice, before realizing “Okay, just shot someone. Now I’m conflicted. The choice wasn’t, because I didn’t make a choice. I’ve chosen to just shoot without thinking about a choice. But, you know, whatever”

    WHAT???

    Conflict inside a walled garden, set up by outside adult forces. Ummm….

    WHAT??????

    And yet all the popular books he bashes, excuse me, seem to be the opposite. Except, sorry, yes, I will bash on Twilight. That would be deserved. Bella is a horrible role model.

    “While other publishers had some concerns about the level of violence in The Cruelty, Bergstrom felt the Macmillan team completely understood his character’s motivation.”

    Without reading it, I’m wondering if this should be an adult novel. If they’re really worrying about blood after Hunger Games and such, well, hmmm…

    “She’s going to do whatever it takes to save her dad and that was good enough for me,” Adams said. “Kicking butt to save your dad is actually a lot easier for me to swallow than kids killing kids in The Hunger Games.”

    So…what about Katniss doing it for her little sister? Overthrowing a government that has held down an entire NATION? So, killing for one is easier to swallow than trying to survive, save your sister, stand up to a corrupt politicians, and actually thinking before shooting the majority of the time? So far, Hunger Games seems much more Morally ambiguous. :/

    I will not be reading this. Nope, not happening, this guy is already really rubbing me the wrong way.

    • Oh, and look. He made another interview.

      “As the father of two daughters, I became pretty appalled at the image of women they received from the culture. It was all princess-this, Barbie-that. It was almost a satire of femininity. My wife—a very strong, highly-motivated attorney—was appalled too. What century were we living in if the feminine ideal little girls learned about was still a woman in a pink dress and a nineteen inch waist? I decided to create a female heroine who was the opposite of all that—a young, strong female who discovers real heroism within herself.”

      Has he read YA lately? What the heck dude? I feel disgusted by your portrayal. To be strong, she has to be a skinny, redheaded badass? Can she not be a slightly chubby badass? What strength is needed to pull a trigger?

      I feel bad for his daughters.

      “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.”

      And, even though they asked about CHARACTERS, with an S, he goes on and on about the main? This is sounding like the common mary sue. Bullied by pretty, rich cheerleader kids. Her father is a politician, is she poor? And how does that make his book stand out? Really? I want to know here???

      “Espionage fiction, mainly. Alan Furst, Olen Steinhauer, and John Le Carre are favorites. But I spend a lot of time reading non-fiction, too.”

      Not reading any fantasy, YA, Sci-fi, how does this guy know about female leads within these genres again?

      “My friend Corrine put it best: if you’re not living in a state of constant nausea because of the risks you’re taking, you’re doing it wrong. Taking risks in one’s writing is very difficult. Getting outside one’s comfort zone takes a strong stomach. But then you have to put it out there and pray that the good taste you had to know that the book was good enough for public consumption was really accurate. Will you be called a bad writer? Will you be told to keep your day job? Maybe. That’s a very real risk. The trick is to forge ahead anyway.”

      Says the guy dissing everyone.

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