Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why you should read Tender Morsels, even though the subject matter freaks you out

I was disappointed when Tender Morsels was voted out of Battle of the Books in favor of Chains. Judge Coe Booth ultimately made her decision based on the fact that she connected with Isabel in Chains, and while she thought Tender Morsels was great, she found the characters impossible to connect with. I thought this was interesting, because I could have written the exact same thing, reversing the two titles. I thought Isabel was a little cold and distant; she never seemed altogether real to me. On the other hand, several of the characters in Tender Morsels were so alive to me that I felt like I was breathing along with them. I had hopes for Tender Morsels to go further in the battle--and I really thought it would--but now that it’s not, I thought I’d give it some attention. I know there are still people out there who haven’t gotten past the book’s description.

Everyone knows about Tender Morsels, right? Incest. Forced abortion. Gang rape. Bestiality. People say it all the time: “How can this be a YA novel?” “Why would you want to read about something so horrifying?” And worst of all, “I wish she hadn’t made it quite so violent.”

On a blog somewhere--I’m sorry to say I have no idea what blog it might have been--the author of Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan, wrote some things about her book that totally validated what I’d already been thinking. It’s great to have an author agree that you’re thinking about her book in the way she intended. But it also means that my thoughts aren’t altogether unusual or original. But this IS what I’ve come up with on my own, and any misinterpretation of the book (or Lanagan’s thoughts in that post) is, of course, my own.

Let’s talk first about how horrifying it is. Yes, in bald facts, we know what happens in the book is bad, very bad. But in the book, it isn’t stated baldly at all. This isn’t a graphic book; it isn’t any part of the phenomenon described as “torture porn”. The book doesn’t dwell on the incidents. Most fiction that deals with incest does it to shock or titillate; it isn’t usually wholly necessary to the story--and even when it is, it’s because if you took out the incest, there wouldn’t be much of a story left. And it seems to me that many well-known books that deal with rape do one of two things: either describe it too graphically, or are extremely circumspect, so the reader could be left unsure about the gravity of the situation. Tender Morsels does neither. What happens is clear, but none of it is graphic.

Tender Morsels seems to disturb many readers (actually, most of them are non-readers--either they abandoned the book after a short time because they were shocked, or they never read it at all, citing the descriptions) because of the category it’s in: quality YA fiction. I can’t help thinking it would be different if this were non-fiction (to my great distress, I’ve heard that the execrable A Child Called It is used in schools), or written for adults (are you really horrified at the idea of teenagers reading The Color Purple?) or low-quality horror (Flowers in the Attic, anyone?). I’ve no idea why there’s a different standard for what adult books are acceptable for teenagers to read, and what subject matter is appropriate in a young adult novel written for the same teenagers.

Neither of the authors who judged Tender Morsels in Battle of the Books fell into the trap of dwelling on the subject matter, though they both mentioned it. Booth says both Chains and Tender Morsels are survivor stories; Meg Rosoff commented that the fairy tale format made it possible to explore the unexplorable.

As to the pleading “Did she have to make it so horrifying?”, my answer is… yes. I’ve discussed above how in a way, it isn’t really that “horrifying”, because of the way that it’s told. But for the book to work, what happens to Liga has to be the worst thing one can imagine. And then something else terrible has to happen. Ultimately, I promise, this book is wise and uplifting. It doesn’t leave the reader thinking “the world is a terrible place”; it leaves you knowing that the world is a place where terrible things sometimes happen, but people thrive.

Does anyone need to hear this message more than teenagers?

(And just a note on the “bestiality”: I can’t help thinking people throw that in only to add fuel to the fire. This isn’t exactly new stuff. Just what did people think Beauty was planning on when she agreed to marry the Beast? OOOH. Bestiality. How terribly, terribly shocking.)

ETA: a better review than mine.


LaurieA-B said...

Strange that you wrote this, because on Monday I read the first 23 pages of Tender Morsels, and then returned it to the library. Iris and I were reading at the library for a little while, so it was very easy to drop it in the book return when I decided I didn't want to read any more. If I'd brought it home, maybe I would have read further. After reading your post and the review you linked to, it seems like reading further until the father is out of the picture would be giving the book a better chance. (I thought, "What I really need is a Jellicoe Road-style kick from Wendy to keep reading." I guess this post is it.)

Ana S. said...

"It doesn’t leave the reader thinking “the world is a terrible place”; it leaves you knowing that the world is a place where terrible things sometimes happen, but people thrive."

I couldn't agree more. And thank you for the link to my post!