[SPOILER ALERT: this blog post contains spoilers for The Chocolate War, Leviathan, and The Forest of Hands and Teeth. That's all.]
[RANT ALERT: I pay too much attention to Goodreads reviews. I am not without sin, but check out my rock collection!]
I recently finished The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier and loved it. The various perspectives, moral shades of gray, suspicions playing out in private and in public, and the tight dialog all made the book a joy to read. But when I looked at the Goodreads users’ reactions, a couple of negative comments stuck out:
This first is from Ashley: this book portrays women as nothing but sex-objects (only briefly bringing women or girls into the picture for this purpose), and depicts self-pleasure as normal for teen-age boys, as if they couldn’t possibly resist sexual urges. I would say that at least a contrast between those that have self-control and those that don’t would have made it more realistic to me. If I had read this as a teenage girl, I probably would have felt very degraded and offended (I felt some of that as an adult female reading it actually).
Having read the book, I can testify that there are a few brief mentions of self-pleasure in the book. The book does not portray self-pleasure as something afflicting all of the boys that robs them all of self-control. There is a boy blackmailed with a photo supposedly taken of him when he thought he was alone in a school bathroom, though. So there is a character who lacks self-control but not a sense of privacy.
On to the degrading depiction of women: Ashley’s reaction is fair. There are no girls’ perspectives in the book, only objects leered at by teenage boys. I think that girls who read the book can be shocked by the depiction of girls as objects, and boys as objectifiers. On the other hand the book is about a private school for teenage boys, and boys are girl-crazy enough in regular schools, so an all-boys environment will render them especially appreciative of women’s bodies. As a guy, I appreciated that the book didn’t pretend that high school boys aren’t horny as hell. Have you ever met a teenager? There’s this thing called puberty…
Jeanette also has some bashing to do: I did not care for the theme of the book or most of the action of the book. Much of it was obscene and lacked any good morals what so ever. After reading this cynical and dark story I need to go find something light, fun and easy to read just so I can wash this book out of my brain.
There seems to be a mistake of logic here where Jeanette sees one of morals: a book can have an unhappy ending and still deliver a moral lesson. Portrayals of bad decisions and motives allow people to live vicariously through those characters and see how disastrous those characters’ actions become. Characters in The Chocolate War acknowledge their role in events and what they could have done differently. I agree, though, that the last act in particular is dark to the point of wanting to get away from cynical material for a while. The end note of the book more or less says, “so evil won today and nobody will be punished, thanks for reading!”
Okay. That covers a couple of negative reviews that wanted to see less sex and more morality.
Now I will quote some negative reviews for Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, which I think deftly crosses between the paired perspectives of its male and female protagonists, Alek and Deryn.
Here’s some gender commentary by Jen: I don’t really buy the fact that a girl dressed as a boy could really fool EVERYBODY. I mean yes, she may fool some people’s eyes but there are other senses. Not mention if she was really 15 she should be way more boy crazy than she is here. Yeah it’s WWI and not modern day but come on she still should have been more noticing of boys. The same goes for Alex despite the grief.
Whenever I see this comment about a YA novel, that the teenage characters should have been lusting after each other more often, I ask, “Where would you put that scene?” Books two and three of the Leviathan trilogy address the blooming relationship that forms between Alek and Deryn, but where in book one would that scene fit? Being a work of fiction, Westerfeld’s book is free to depict his characters’ personalities in service of the story. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t stop every few pages for Gandalf to take a dump.
Reviewer Mrs N gives us a piece of her mind with which I empathize: I am quite tired of historical fiction (usually YA) in which the heroine absolutely hates being female and being forced to wear skirts and corsets and she is simply dying to run around in pants and swear and be a boy and a sailor/soldier/insert physically intense and usually dangerous male role here. I strongly believe that is anachronistic in almost every case. Modern authors think, “How dreadful to be polite and wear a corset! She must want to be a boy!” That is sexist and frankly more than a little Freudian. Apparently authors are the only people still alive who believe that each woman desires a unit of her very own. For heaven’s sake. I think it is lazy writing and a misplaced desire to have a female main character at any cost. Westerfeld, next time just make the main characters both male and spare me the anti-feminine crap.
I know, I know, sexism has dominated world culture for the past forever and dictated the acceptable actions of women in every era and country. But I can definitely see the other shoe dropping and YA lit readers like Mrs N getting bored of every female protagonist being a spitfire, one-of-the-boys type. On the other hand, I think YA lit has plenty of female characters to fit many desired roles, including helpless damsels and debonair socialites, so Mrs N’s commentary, while funny to me as a counter-counter-response to gender roles, is also too broad to stick.
The winning entry for taking Leviathan too seriously goes to Niles Stanley: One of their weapons involves feeding metal spikes to bats, and then guiding the bats over the top of a Clanker target, and then shooting a much more effective, realistic weapon solely to scare the bats, who are trained to all shit at the same time when the sound in heard, and they poop out the spikes onto the target.
I slammed the book shut in frustration when this maneuver was used to WIN an aerial battle against the team that uses armor, engines, and bullets.
What kind of teenager would enjoy the idea of bats shitting spikes into steampunk machines? Ugh, how immature! Teen boys would rather fire bullets into each other’s faces before boning (or holding hands with, depending on how moral physical contact is) their delicate, corseted maidens. A fun, ahistorical adventure with inventive weaponry and a lack of gender stereotyping is just beneath teens!
Before I sign off on a post that takes easy aim at public critics, let me put myself in the bullseye: one of my problems with The Forest of Hands and Teeth was a portion of the book where the teenaged, lusty love interests are stuck in a house together for a number of days and nothing happens between them. The whole period of time is written away in a few paragraphs. I was not expecting a graphic description of teenage sex, nor was I expecting a day-by-day breakdown of the inactive plot. But something had to fill that time! The two characters spend the whole book up to that point pining for each other, and we’re supposed to believe they sit on their hands for over 48 hours as the zombie apocalypse rages outside?
And yet I can forgive that lapse in detail and characterization because the zombie outbreak and bits of the romance were well done. 3/5 stars in my Goodreads review. Oh, well. Everyone’s a critic.