The Black Witch, Or, Damnit, Now I Can’t Read Tamora Pierce!?

A woman named Laurie Forest wrote a book so now I can’t read Tamora Pierce anymore.

Let me back up.

In case you’ve missed the uproar over The Black Witch, here’s some background on it. Since I have not read the book, I strongly encourage you to visit reviews like this one for more details including direct quotes.

The Black Witch is a very long book that takes place in a fantasy world which is filled with every kind of bigotry – racism against the various fantasy races, sexism, homophobia, ableism, you name it. The main character embodies and embraces all of these bigotries and doesn’t even start to rethink things until a good 350 pages in, and apparently, even in the last 100 pages, she’s still not totally convinced that it’s bad to be a raging bigot.

Now, even if the various subjects of these bigotries weren’t already tired of being bit players in a white protagonist’s redemption arc, even if the whole fantasy-racism-as-allegory-for-real-world-racism wasn’t used in basically every fantasy book already, and even if the whole “bigot gets woke” storyline wasn’t already very, very, VERY trite, this book would still be problematic.

Because even if the concept of a bigoted character realizing that they’re an asshole was a BRAND NEW IDEA… who wants to read 350 pages of assholery first? I mean, if you are content to just sit back and discover this amazing fantasy world where people are bigots, wow how original, and it doesn’t bother you to read hundreds of thousands of words containing repeated hatred and vitriol… then I feel like maybe it’s because you still need to read this kind of story line because you still kind of identify with bigots.

I mean, I wrote Stella Blunt so I’m all for unlikeable heroines.

Stella is angry, sweary, has intimacy issues, and let’s face it – she’s a little ableist. But jeez, it’s stated in, like, the second paragraph of my book that her behaviour is seen as inappropriate and in need of adjustment. And considering that there are people who have closed my book in the first chapter just because the MC swears in the presence of her parents, I am impressed that people can read 350 pages of bigotry and not get sick of it and throw that book in the DNF pile.

Aside: it’s also interesting to me that reviews of my book often call out Stella’s foul language, but so far no one has called out her ableism. And by interesting, I mean a little depressing. But maybe that’s because Chemistry doesn’t really address her ableism, which is the casual ableism of the average seventeen-year-old girl who calls everything crazy and insane. That lesson is coming up in History. Anyway, I digress…

What, you’re all wondering, does this have to do with Tamora Pierce? 

Oh, let me tell you.

So.

People are leaving one star reviews on The Black Witch, warning people about the over-done story line featuring hundreds and hundreds of pages filled with bigotry, all of which are somehow excused by the trite “but it turns out that’s bad!” message of the book.

One of the reviews was from someone who hadn’t read the book herself, but wanted to warn her followers off of the book, based off of very detailed reviews (including photos of pages from the book) such as the one I linked to above.

Tamora Pierce, THE Tamora Pierce, commented on this review. She criticized the reviewer for reviewing a book she hadn’t read, and then said “before I say a word about this book, I’m going to read it myself.”

Now, let’s set aside the fact that you shouldn’t have to suffer through an incredibly long book just to be entitled to say whether you like books featuring all kinds of slurs, bigoted protagonists and hackneyed redemption arcs, and that the whole “bigotry is bad” lesson is a lesson that we really shouldn’t need or get excited over any more. Never mind that reviewers are perfectly well allowed to say that based on the content of a book, they plan to give it a miss.

The REALLY big question mark over Pierce’s lecture comes from the cover of The Black Witch. Here’s a photo of it.

Now here’s a closer up picture.

 

Closer…

…So… She’s going to read The Black Witch before she pronounces an opinion, but her opinion is already written right on the cover of the book??

This was swiftly pointed out to her, and she responded with basically, “oh yeah, I did read it, I forgot. My bad.”

More specifically, she said:

When I re-read the book, I will post a complete review (I read it to gift it a quote some time ago and obviously forgot that I had done so, but I thought highly of it to give it a quote).

Uh… you absolutely loved it but you somehow forgot that you read it? And now you need to re-read it before you can decide whether 350 pages of racist/homophobic/ableist slurs before the redemption arc even starts is good or not?

And while we’re on that, what makes it a “whole new, thrilling approach to fantasy”?

I’d ask Tamora Pierce, but obviously she can’t remember.

I mean, if she thinks that using fantasy races to teach allegorical lessons in bigotry is a new idea, then what rock has Tamora Pierce, a celebrated fantasy author, been under?

*cough*Narnia*cough*Middle Earth*cough*Harry Potter*cough*basically every fantasy book ever written*cough**sneeze**vomit*

I mean, The Black Witch sounds like Wicked all over again, except the protagonist is the racist bigot instead of the victim of the institutionalized bigotry of the world.

I don’t see how anyone could possibly respect Tamora Pierce after that little exchange. No matter which way I try to look at it, she comes off as either a liar or a bigot (or at least the kind of person who is sympathetic to bigotry and thinks that we still need long books about it and why it’s bad), or both.

And this sucks, because I really like some of Tamora Pierce’s books. I’m not a raving fan. I’ve read her Song of the Lioness series twice, I can only remember a few key scenes, and while I adore and read and re-read Terrier and Bloodhound, Mastiff made me want to throw things and kind of ruined the first two books for me a bit. But Tamora Pierce writes nice strong fantasy heroines, and especially in her later books, her world building is very enjoyable.

So all of this sucks.

And no, I’m  not going to read The Black Witch. Sorry, Tamora Pierce.

Posted in Stereotypes and Tropes and tagged , , , .

8 Comments

  1. Jules I am totally against bullying and 100% against authors receiving death threats etc. However, reviews which are not personal attacks against the author and simply address the content of the book don’t bother me.

    More importantly, it seems Tamora Pierce wrote a review of the book without really reading it, generating a glowing review that the publisher could use for sales purposes. Is that okay?

    • Such reviews do not bother me either as long as the reviewer in question has actually read the book and isn’t basing their opinion and rating on someone else’s review. It is troubling that several reviewers have felt the need to remove their previous positive reviews and re-rate the book based on messages sent to them by those who have reviewed it negatively. The underlying message there seems to be that if you as a reader do not agree with the masses then your position as a POC ally is under question at best or you are a supporter of racism at worst. People feeling pressured into changing their reviews or opinions is very troubling and is a form of censorship, which never leads anywhere good.

      If Tamora Pierce really did not read the book but provided a strap line to praise it then no that’s not okay at all. That’s just as wrong as someone who hasn’t read the book rating it one star. But she says she has read it (and in fairness to those who found her gaffe inexcusable, cannot apparently remember it very well ) so at this point I’m inclined to take her word for it. I don’t always agree with Pierce but her political and personal views when aired have always struck me as no nonsense and honest. Of course we all have to make up our own minds about whether someone we don’t know (or in fact someone we do know) is being genuine and truthful, so we are in the realms of opinion on that once more.

      As an aside, I am having trouble recalling Stella being ableist. It might have been that I was just enjoying the story so much I missed it. Or perhaps I am less clued up on what ableism is than I thought (totally prepared to admit I may have gaps in my understanding.) Or it may be that I (even as someone who is effectively disabled and also suffers chronic pain) just have a different POV on what constitutes ableism. This is no commentary on you as a writer or anything btw, it’s just interesting to consider that within those groups who might potentially be offended by books such as The Black Witch, that there is a huge variety of view point and reaction. Which I guess is why it disturbs me when a small contingent of very vocal voices drown out or influence all others. I want to hear what they’ve got to say, whether I personally agree or not, but I want to at least hear what everyone else has to say too. I’m afraid I am a terminal fence-sitter.

      • I like engaging with my readers on thoughtful topics and I am happy to hear your thoughts.

        As an author, I feel that I should get no opinion on the practice of leaving reviews for books that haven’t been read by the reviewer. Obviously, I would be upset if people started leaving one-star reviews for Chemistry based on what a friend told them. But for just that reason, I cannot express an opinion because my opinion is biased. I would suffer financially from such a practice, so obviously I would be against it. I recognize this and therefore stay out of that debate. I also think Tamora Pierce should not have engaged with that reviewer for this reason. She is not neutral to this practice – she has a financial conflict of interest.

        I also hold that unless Pierce is losing her memory, she should not have forgotten a book which she described so glowingly. If I ever describe a book with terms like that, you can betcha I won’t forget that I have even read it unless the Alzheimer’s has started to kick in. But who knows. Maybe that’s what happened.

        When it comes to hearing all voices, I’m all for that. But I try to remember that all voices were not created equal. Some voices have had their say for far too long. Some voices come with a dominant culture behind them, while others have voices that get told to shut up and sit down. Some voices need to be handed megaphones because no one can hear them. So if one voice gets handed a megaphone and I take it away claiming that it’s unfair to the other voices, I need to think hard about whether that is true.

        POCs have been telling the publishing industry for a long time that they are sick of stories like these. They keep on explaining why it hurts them, why it offends them, why it makes them sad and angry. And the publishing industry keeps publishing more books like it. I don’t blame them for getting vocal. I don’t blame them for starting to do their best to impact the companies in their one vulnerable spot – their sales. I feel bad for the author caught in the crossfire, but POCs have been raising their voices for a long time, and it seems like no one in the publishing industry is willing to listen. So they’re getting louder. And we’re telling them to keep it down, this is a library!

        Re: ableism – I should probably do a whole post on it, so it’ll be out and acknowledged before the wrong person reads my book and goes “hey….” but in summary, Stella uses a lot of ableist terms like “crazy” and “insane” and she spends half the book trying to decide whether to date someone who has a chronic illness. It’s casual ableism. Stella is (and in History, you’ll see it in action) the kind of person to stand up for a disabled kid being picked on. But she does use ableist terms in the unthinking way that most of us do from time to time, and she is prone to thinking that Howie can just, like, overcome his illness with sheer will.

        She’ll learn in History that illness doesn’t work that way…

  2. Hmm I think it’s okay to say you find a review practice unhelpful or dishonest or whatever even if you are an author but I admire your integrity in wanting to stay out of it for the reasons you’ve stated. Where I think authors do need to be careful is that even those so humble as myself, are influencers – be it of 3 people or 1000s. As authors we have more power than we’re often aware of and certainly more power than we’ve earned or deserve. I guess I’m all for responsible use of that power. So I concede your point, Pierce really shouldn’t have weighed in on someone else’s review – if she wanted to throw support in, then a review of her own or a comment in her own review section would have been far more appropriate. Obviously I am not privy to her thoughts but I can see how a lot of this controversy has resulted in some severe bullying. Perhaps she is also the sort of person who sticks up for the under dog? In this case, a debut author who appears to have tried to do something to deconstruct prejudice, might have miscalculated but really doesn’t deserve the hate that’s being flung her way.

    I am all for giving marginalised voices a megaphone. I am all for shutting up and listening to a point of view informed by life experiences I haven’t had. If you want to talk equity over equality, I’m with you there. As yet, the more I dig into this specific example, the more herd mentality and reviews based on just two non POC bloggers reviews I’m finding. It’s not that those opinions aren’t valid, it’s just that they are opinions. Add to that the fact that people are boycotting (and it’s their right to do so) or one starring based on those opinions and it’s not a consensus of opinion on the book – it’s the same two opinions reflected over and over again. There’s obviously a wide range of different opinions in the POC community about this too. All the POC I have talked to about this have either enjoyed the book – one person even said it was nice to see a book that represented a racist society that didn’t pull its punches on the sheet nastiness of the institution and that it was in line with her experiences – or have felt that it wasn’t racist in itself but it dealt with racism. Once again I can’t comment not having read it yet.

    Anyway I really appreciate you talking with me. I’m afraid I got sidetracked here and feel I’ve unwittingly taken over the comment section of your blog, so apologies for that.

    Keep on being awesome and if it’s not too weird to say so off the back of a serious discussion, I’m really looking forward to ‘History’. 🙂

  3. It is soo clear that you haven’t even read the book. This is so unfair to the author for you to criticise and write terrible things about her and her book that you haven’t even read. It is not just about a racist bigot that kind of becomes better. It is about a girl that grows up in a society where women are basically pets. They are married off at thirteen and have no choice in it. If they break their marriage vows they are tortured and outcast. Women must be covered ankle to neck in black.

    She gradually learns freedom and learns that everything she was taught was a lie. She always questions herself because she has to accept the fact that her family members are murderers and that she may even have to fight against them.

    It is actually the first fantasy book I’ve read that expressed these deep issues such as racism and homophobia. It was amazing to have a book that showed and explained so much. It really made you reflect on our society.

    If this book were written in modern times it would be about a muslim girl born with almost no rights that discovers that western world and embraces the freedoms of religion, sex and race.

    I think that it is terrible for you to have just generalised the whole book on what you heard from others. You even want to stop reading Tamora Pierce because of a review of a book that you’ve never read???? You are being extremely unfair to the authors. READ a book, then I might care about your opinion.

    • What a strange response. I feel like it is soooo clear you didn’t read my post. My post was not about the book itself. It doesn’t matter if I have read the book, you know why? Because I am white. As a white person, I have no ability to say what is or is not racist, what is or is not an overdone plot line, what is or is not offensive or tiresome to people of colour – because I am not a person of colour.

      So my opinion, whether or not I had read the book, is irrelevant. This post was about an author who either:

      A) wrote a fake blurb at the request of her publisher, thus endorsing a book she hadn’t read,
      Or
      B) Endorsed a book that she did read, but found utterly forgettable.

      Then she jumped to the defense of the author and engaged with reviewers on Goodreads, something no author should ever do.

  4. A most interesting post.

    I’ve been in the bookselling business a long time, long enough to remember the controversy that ruled them all, the Satanic Verses furore back in 1988. I was an employee at an independent store that has long since closed its doors. My boss at the time was a canny chap and ordered nearly a thousand copies, which was a staggering number, relatively speaking.

    We ran through them in less than a week. A lot of other bookstores had either failed to anticipate the demand or had declined to sell the book entirely, owing to security concerns. People who would never have gone near literary fiction in their lives were buying the book on impulse. I’m convinced that 90% of the copies I sold were never read. They literally walked out the door. To this day, it is the biggest grossing work that Viking has ever published.

    We never had any trouble, even though it was a pretty charged atmosphere at the time. In fact the only pushback I ever encountered in relation to the book was over twelve years later, in a chain bookstore where we had one copy on the shelves along with most of Rushdie’s other works. A lady, who bore no obvious sign of being Muslim, related how shocked and upset she was to see the book on the shelf. She spoke very quietly and intently and seemed on the verge of tears. I was as gentle as I could be, but obviously I couldn’t offer her the validation she wanted. She left with a terribly morbid and depressed expression on her face, I’ll never forget it.

    Anyway, I doubt that this furore will hurt sales, quite the opposite. I don’t have much say in the YA side of things at work, but I will certainly have a chat with the appropriate person to make sure that we have sufficient copies of the Black Witch.

    I myself did read The Satanic Verses, and immensely liked it. I didnt perceive much in the way of anti-Muslim bigotry, although I suppose as a non-Muslim my opinion wouldnt count for much. The point is that a great many works, including just about anything by Tom Clancy, for instance, would contain far more anti-Muslim sentiment, but that seems neither here nor there. I suppose what I am saying is, the way in which some works seem to attract this controversy and not others has always seemed to me to be a very curious thing.

    • Thank you for saying that as a non-Muslim your opinion regarding bigotry wouldn’t count for much! It baffles me how incensed white people tend to get when other people feel marginalized. Like, if I can’t see it but they can, that probably means I need to open my eyes, not that they are wrong about their own feelings!

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