The OF Blog: Textual misreadings

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Textual misreadings

Texts are never static entities; they often inspire reader reactions of various sorts. Sometimes, the subject material can hit an emotional "trigger" and the reader, for whatever reason will not read on. Sometimes, the reader may question why he/she had such a reaction, but oftentimes the "blame" is placed fully on the text. Individual tastes are not a point of contention here, obviously, since they are an integral part of each of us. However, what about those times in which our "triggers" prevent us from seeing alternate readings of a text?

Recently, Dave Truesdale had a rather violent reaction to Margo Lanagan's "The Goosle," which appears in the recently-released original anthology, The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow. Near the end of a rather negative review of the anthology (I do not share his opinions on the other stories, as evidenced by my selection of this anthology as being one of the four best 2008 anthologies read to date), Truesdale begins ranting about Lanagan's story:

I really don't know where to begin in describing "The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan, except to say it is a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story. Lanagan turns this traditionally gruesome fairy tale into one of child porn (depending on your point of view) and repeated homosexual rape of a child (Hansel).

With several other stories in this collection aimed at juveniles or teenagers (the Ballingrud and the Cadigan), I find this story highly inappropriate. Would you want your young child to be introduced to science fiction or fantasy thinking a story like this represents, as the cover of the book entices, SF's "finest voices"? One rape scene is fairly graphic, and at one point young Hansel thinks he might even like what is being done to him -- over and over.

Given that there are many versions of this grim fairy tale, and gore and violence abound in the original(s), there must be lines drawn somewhere, folks. Depicting child rape, with the author having the child think he might like to be buggered in his "poink hole" (as the story euphemistically calls it) is where I draw my own line. Editor Datlow has co-edited some six collections of retold fairy tales, with tremendous and deserved success. Has the idea well run so dry, and are authors so bereft of true originality in these retellings that they must resort to shock value of the most depraved sort?

Freedom of artistic expression does not trump good common sense, and at least a perceived modicum of morality (whether divinely inspired or by human agreement and consensus), or an innate sense of fundamental ethical awareness. We're talking homosexual child rape for shock value here. If not for its gratuitous shock value, then this reader would like to know what this adds to the fairy tale canon of Hansel and Gretel. Especially in light of the fact that Hansel doesn't make his raper pay for his perverted behavior, for it is the "witch" who eventually devours him, who sets right the moral balance.

There are those in today's society who believe that anything goes, especially in the artistic community, where moral relativism would seem to be the philosophy of choice, and so the mantra goes something like this: Who is anyone to tell an artist what he or she can't "create," be it a work of fiction, a painting, a sculpture, or a song? They shout "censorship!" at the drop of a hat. I don't think censorship is the primary issue here, and neither is the issue of prudishness. If we don't at least question the act of homosexual child rape (where the child questions whether he likes being raped or not) which insertion into the story is for shock value only, then we have serious problems.

Del Rey ought to get a long, loud, wakeup call... and quick. If the author, editor, and publisher can nuance this story, massage it, spin it to where the objectionable inclusion of child rape for shock value alone is acceptable, then there are absolutely no boundaries, for any reason, anywhere -- and we can expect more of the same. This sets a precedent, if not challenged. And again, what audience were the editor and publisher expecting to hit here? Several stories seem written just for a younger crowd, so then what can be the reasoning behind also presenting a fairy tale retelling with repeated instances of child rape for shock value?

There are many comments that I could make here. I could question Truesdale's readings of the other stories he cites as being "YA" in nature, by noting how the use of young protagonists in those other tales were more likely designed to show the stories' angles from different vantage points. I obviously could raise my eyebrows at the final paragraph and wonder how it made it into the final edit. I could question all sorts of things, but I'd rather just show how, via my own reading of Lanagan's tale, that this anthology was one of the better ones that I've read this year.

Yes, Truesdale is correct in noting that "The Goosle" is an update of sorts on the Hansel and Gretal tale. Yes, he does note that the original fairy tale versions were quite gory and were intended for "adult audiences." However, there are two linchpins to his argument that I believe can be removed easily enough to collapse his argument.

First, if we take Datlow at her word (and based on what I've read in the anthology and on her LJ, I would do so), this anthology was collated with adults in mind. So Truesdale's left with arguing the "shock factor" of the story and its presumed "pornographic" elements of pedophilia override any artistic elements that the story might have. However, the depiction of events, cruel as they may be, does not constitute glorification of the acts, nor would they be titillating to the general audience. Here are a few quotes from the story, from the point of view of Hanny/Goosle/Hansel:

The first time Grinnan did me, I could imagine that it didn't happen. I thought, I had that big dump full of so much nervous earth and stones and some of them must have had sharp corners and cut me as I passed them, and the throbbing of the cuts gave me the dream, that the old man had done that to me. Because I was so fearful, you know, frightened of everything coming straight from the mudwife, and I put fear and pain together and made it up in my sleep. The first time I could trick myself, because it was so terrible and mortifying a thing, it could not be real. It could not.

I have watched Grinnan a long time now, in success and failure, in private and on show. At first I thought he was too smart for me, that I was trapped by his cleverness. And this is true. But I have seen others laugh at him, or walk away from his efforts easily, shaking their heads. Others are cleverer.

What he does to me, he waits till I am weak. Half asleep, he waits till. I never have much fight in me, but dozing off I have even less.

Then what he does - it's so simple I'm ashamed. He bares the flesh of my back. He strokes my back as if that is all he is going to do. He goes straight to the very oldest memory I have - which, me never having told him, how does he know it? - of being sickly, of my first mother bringing me through the night, singing and stroking my back, the oldest and safest piece of my mind, and he puts me there, so that I am sodden with sweetness and longing and nearly-being-back-to-a-baby.

And then he proceeds. It often hurts - it mostly hurts. I often weep. But there is a kind of bargain goes on between us, you see. I pay for the first part with the second. The price of the journey to that safe, sweet-sodden place is being spiked in the arse and dragged kicking and biting my blanket back to the real and dangerous one. (pp. 204-205)
Presumably, that is the "graphic" rape scene that Truesdale mentions. However, the focus of this scene is not on the act, but on the emotional effects. When read as a confused, hurt child's account of his longing for a long-lost past, the momentary joy of remembering "the oldest and safest piece of my mind," serves as a reminder of the horribleness of the violation that takes place, a violation not just of the body, but also of the mind. It is meant to be horrifying because it feels so true. Having worked and taught many students who were the victims of pre-adolescent and adolescent rape, what the Goosle describes hit home because it was so close to the brief tales that I heard from others. It isn't a titillating read, it is meant to be horrifying, to capture in a more direct form what was implied in the original versions of the Hansel and Gretal tale.

But what about Truesdale's claim that the boy seems to "like it?" Here is the likely passage he would cite, where the Goosle is listening to Grinnan and the mudwife:

Once I've eaten the mud I'm ready to sleep. I try dozing, but it's not comfortable among the roots there, and there is still noise from the cottage - now it is Grinnan working himself up, calling her all the things he calls me, all the insults. You love it,You filth, you filthy cunt. And she oh's below, not at all like me, but as if she really does love it. I lie quiet, thinking, Is it true, that she loves it? That I do? And if it's true, how is it that Grinnan knows, but I don't? She makes noise, she agrees with whatever he says. Harder, harder, she says. Bang me till I burst. Harder! On and on they go, until I give up waiting - they will never finish! (p. 209)
he says, with such deep disgust.
When I read and re-read this passage, I never once thought to read it as the boy liking the abuse, but rather it read as a rather realistic bit of confusion, as though he thought maybe, despite everything, he ought to like it because that was what the adult was saying, right? This passage contains latent guilt, the belief (hinted elsewhere throughout the story) that Hansel himself was somehow "at fault" for all this - his sister's death, the deaths of others, the abuse, etc. I read it with quite a bit of revulsion, not toward Lanagan, but rather because it evoked memories of the tales that I had to listen to from former students of mine, from those who had their trust violated in so many forms and fashions. "The Goosle" did not read as a Gor-like wish-fulfillment fantasy, but rather as a cautionary tale that captures so much of the original fairy tales' admonitions for our own generation to consider.

As such, Lanagan's story serves as the highlight to a very strong and diverse anthology. Since I never quite got around to talking about that anthology, her story, Jeffrey Ford's "Daltharee," and Elizabeth Bear's "Sonny Liston Takes the Fall" were but three highlights of a strong anthology which contains a diverse mix of styles and interpretations of "SF" and "Fantasy." While not every story had quite the emotional impact of Lanagan's "The Goosle," on the whole, this anthology features quite a few strong tales. So it was with some surprise and dismay that I read Truesdale's review. People are bound to disagree on the effectiveness of certain stories; it is more rare to read someone reading something "pornographic" into a cautionary tale. But as long as there are readers, so shall there be misreadings. Now to wonder which texts I have misread lately...


Anonymous said...

Well, for me the fragments in questions were not OMG CHILD RAPE!!! They are well written and it looks like we understood them the same. Confusion, not pleasure, hurt... not shock value, but trying to convey an emotion.

I'll probably never read the anthology, but I'll keep an eye out for this story.

Lsrry said...

The anthology is well-worth reading, if you ever find it in Bucharest, but Margo Lanagan herself has a third collection coming out soon. If you can find any of her works, I highly, highly recommend them to you, as she writes quality short fiction.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post.

jen...if you would like to read the anthology I might be able to mail you one (I received a few extras)...but you'll have to give me your mailing address--you can email it to me at

Lsrry said...

You're welcome, Ellen :D

SQT said...

Oh boy.

I don't agree with the assessment that claims that there is any glorification of child rape here. But I must admit, it's disturbing to read, which may be why he had such a reaction.

I'm kind of at a loss as to how to react to it. I don't think it's unusually graphic. I remember reading a book years ago, I forget by who, about a child that was a hermaphrodite and the rape in that book was far more graphic in my recollection. But I digress...

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that this is not a subject that has not been written about before. I think the passages you printed express the horror, the guilt and the shame that the child tends to feel. Not any kind of gratification. I think, perhaps, that Truesdale's discomfort colored his perceptions .

Lsrry said...

I think so as well, which is why I can understand the reaction, but not condone the comments that followed the reaction. It wasn't a pleasant, light read, but it was written as a horror tale and as such, it succeeds. Lanagan writes dark, twisted tales, but this is much darker than most of her previous work.

Gabe said...

After re-reading Truesdale's piece, I've been bit by the bug that leads to excoriating responses. There are so many things wrong with his piece that it's hard to restrain myself... though I have. Still, such ignorance and horrifying wrongheadedness as Truesdale (again) displays is astounding, and I applaud you for your restrained response, Larry.

Lsrry said...

Yeah, it was hard to resist the more biting comments, Gabe, but somehow I did. I guess waiting 24 hours before blogging about it helped.

Gabe said...

I admit... I had to eventually write something about this egregious "review".

Anonymous said...

Could I just wander by and say that, among all the scorn heaped on this review (and all of it completely justified, and more), I haven't seen anybody call out the repeated "homosexual child rape."

Because, you know, child rape is one thing... but HOMOSEXUAL child rape? That makes it so much worse. That's just beyond the pale!

I just... gah. Have to keep telling myself that this guy isn't worth my outrage. But seriously, how did that get past his editor?

Gabe said...


As a matter of fact, I absolutely *did* call him out on that. Here's one pertinent paragraph:

"An actual reviewer would have engaged with the story; would have examined the work in question and discussed whether the author has succeeded in tackling a delicate and important topic. A true reviewer would have known that rape of any kind is rarely a sexual act. Usually it is an act of power, of control over a particular person. It is an act of violence. To repeatedly and emphatically proclaim an act of violence as "homosexual" is outrageous in the extreme, and frankly etremely offensive."

I'll also point out that for SF Site, there is no "editor". Reviews are accepted as-is; I'm not sure they're even read before being posted.

Lsrry said...

I meant to say something about it, but I guess I thought at the time that all the comments in Datlow's post were sufficient. Sometimes, I just read things that are so idiotic that it's hard for me to justify such with even a putdown. Arguing with fools and so forth.

Gabe, I'll read yours in a moment. Been in and out the past few days and I still need to find the time to finish off a project that I wanted done days ago.

Anonymous said...

Mostly reactions like the one above miss the point and get people to look deeper and gain a better understanding of things.

I can't see anything 'shocking' in the passages above. Yes they might be distressing and uncomfortable but not there just for sake of it.

I think the reviewer may have more issues than not liking one short story! :D

Lsrry said...

Well, considering all the other rants he's had in the past, I'd have to agree on the "issues" part ;)

Anonymous said...

I am highly gratified to read this response to David Truesdale's wrongheaded, completely-missing-the-point diatribe about "The Goosle". It's something that we--both writers and readers--really need. But particularly writers.

Too often, textual misreadings in reviews (excellent term) go unchallenged. The writer can't respond--or rather, the writer really should not. Every time writers respond to a bad review of any kind, they look petulant and/or petty at best, as if it's only a matter of hurt feelings. And sometimes it is--but sometimes, it's frustration because the reviewer in question apparently just can't read. Or won't read, because something in the story has pushed a hot button.

In cases like these, it's up to thoughtful readers to say something. Well, OK, nobody's obligated, but it sure is wonderful when it happens.

For the record, I find "The Goosle" extremely unpleasant. I had to force myself to read it because my sensitive nature--chuckle--is compounded by the fact that I'm a mother. (Ever since I became a parent, I have a tough time reading certain material that didn't bother me as much before.)

Nonetheless, I still believe that you should read things that disturb you rather than keeping only to things that comfort you and confirm your personal beliefs. "The Goosle" is an outstanding piece of fiction in part because it doesn't flinch and because Margo Lanagan is a damn good writer. It didn't deserve the thwacking that David Truesdale gave it.

Lsrry said...


Thanks for stopping by! While I agree with what you're saying, I'll add that I'm one of those reviewer types who doesn't mind it when an author (or another reader) gives some constructive criticism on how I read certain stories. I've learned from past experiences that I have misread works, sometimes badly. I always cite my two polar opposite reactions at 17 and 23 to Moby Dick as an example. If I hadn't had a professor suggest that I approach it from a different vantage point, I might never have discovered how much there is in that story to love. But yet too often writers and critics are expected to keep their distance. Sometimes, that's necessary, but often, a bit more interaction and trying to understand the other would do wonders for perceptions of the books and of the reviews, I believe.

Anonymous said...

Late post, but in case someone stumbles by here... I read the anthology and The Goosle was my favorite.

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