On November 24, Publisher’s Weekly posted an article on Scott Bergstrom and The Cruelty. The article highlighted the monetary success of Bergstrom – who landed a six-figure deal with Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends imprint after selling in 16 foreign territories; the movie rights to The Cruelty also sold to Paramount, with Jerry Bruckheimer attached to the film – and subtlety nudged at the idea that Bergstrom and The Cruelty would be the next big thing.
Initially self-published in 2014, The Cruelty follows Gwendolyn Bloom, who sets off to rescue her kidnapped diplomat father. With the U.S. refusing to help, she follows the name of a Palestinian informer living in France and discovers that, to save her father, she must become as cruel as the men who took him.
But the article in Publisher’s Weekly highlighted not the descent of teenage girl into a creature as cruel as her enemies, but the transformation of a “slightly overweight 17-year-old” into, in a quote from Bergstrom, a “lean warrior with hair dyed fire-engine red.”
The choice to self-publish wasn’t described by Bergstrom – who writes not under Scott, but under S. Bergstrom, claiming to face the “precisely the same” problems that J.K. Rowling and S.E. Hinton did when they chose to use initials – as an excuse for creative control, but a way to avoid being confined by the “walled garden” of YA publishing. While YA publishes books that look at the moral complexities of killing and murders (The Hunger Games, Violent Ends, This Is Where It Ends), of the choices teenage girls face in their day-to-day lives (a topic Nova Ren Suma and Courtney Summers cover in all of their works), Bergstrom felt that his heroine was “more complicated than a lot of YA,” dismissing the category he was writing in – and the teenagers he was writing for – as doing no more than trying to escape places “set up by outside adult forces” in a story that acted as “a metaphor for high school.”
But the opening chapter, available to read online for free, showcases that Bergstrom fell into his own trap. It begins with his protagonist Gwendolyn in her high school, that “walled garden” “set up by outside adult forces” he dismissed in other stories – a high school Gwendolyn eventually abandons to go rescue her father.
All, of course, while becoming a “lean warrior” stereotype of modern beauty ideals while rescuing her father – not that she didn’t get attention from men at the beginning of the book, and not that she wasn’t initially pretty, if “poor as a church mouse.”
“I’m … a little chubby,” thinks Gwendolyn in the opening chapter, adding “My dad and my doctor say I’m not really that overweight – that it’s mostly muscle from my years of gymnastics – and that everyone’s built differently, so don’t accept anyone else’s definition of beauty. But then again, it’s their job to say that.”
Bergstrom also writes, in his opening chapter, that “guys out on the sidewalk in front of the shops whistle after [his protagonist]. They love this – the school uniform, the flash of seventeen-year-old legs.”
His protagonist sees nothing wrong with this, makes no further comment about how it bothers her or how it’s wrong to catcall after women. Instead, the protagonist sees the behavior as almost romantic, the unwanted attention of men’s eyes on her as something to be desired. It is, as Tristina Wright described, a subtle form of grooming behavior. It is something that a man would want a woman – want a seventeen-year-old-girl – to think of his behavior.
In the same opening chapter, Bergstrom’s character attempts to read a “novel with a teenage heroine set in a dystopian future” on the subway. “Which novel in particular,” wrote Bergstrom, in an uncanny reflection of his own quote to Publisher’s Weekly, “doesn’t matter because they’re all the same. Poor teenage heroine, having to go to war when all you really want is to write in your diary about how you’re in love with two different guys and can’t decide between them. These novels are cheesy, I know, and I suck them down as easily as milk.”
Subtle jabs at books like Red Queen and The Hunger Games and Divergent – dystopian fiction that features teenage girls who deal with the emotional realities of relationships and the emotional realities of war simultaneously, things that resonate with teenage girls in high school – weren’t saved for Bergstrom or for the Publisher’s Weekly article.
“Kicking butt to save your dad is actually a lot easier for me to swallow than kids killing kids in The Hunger Games,” said Bergstrom’s agent Tracey Adams to Publisher’s Weekly – missing, of course, that The Hunger Games doesn’t kill for sport or gratuity, but to highlight the actual atrocities of kids killing kids and the powerful bond between Katniss Everdeen and her sister Primrose.
And Bergstrom has made jabs at genre fiction before; in an interview with The Pen and Muse, he wrote that “what troubles [him]about so much of today’s fiction aimed at young adults is that it is set in an imaginary time and place… you’ll see that dystopian future is really the dystopian present,” as if unwilling to acknowledge that fictionalizing ongoing problems can give readers another way to digest the issues at hand.
“This is a very welcoming community, as I’ve learned firsthand during the last year, and Mr. Bergstrom basically walked in the door and sneered at us,” wrote Red Queen author Victoria Aveyard in a blog post.
In his interview at The Pen and Muse, Bergstrom also discussed the appearance of his protagonist and the appearance of women in media. “As the father of two daughters, I became pretty appalled at the image of women they received from the culture,” Bergstrom told The Pen and Muse. “It was all princess-this, Barbie-that. It was almost a satire of femininity. … 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?”
As if there is something inherently wrong with pink dresses.
As if there is something wrong with Barbie, who has had careers in every field and inspires young girls around the world.
As if Bergstrom’s protagonist did not transform from a “slightly chubby” girl to a “lean warrior,” reinforcing that a feminine ideal – even for a warrior – was a skinny, toned girl, with maybe a slightly wider waistline than Barbie’s nineteen-inches.
The Cruelty features a chubby girl who becomes a “lean warrior,” who has no problem with men catcalling her, and who dismisses the category of fiction meant for teens; whose author is blissfully oblivious to YA as a whole, who dismisses it as lacking moral complications and who sneers at genre fiction, and who sees no problem in slimming down his leading lady while making derisive comments about Barbie.
This is what Feiwel and Friends paid six figures for; this is what Paramount wants to make a movie out of.
This is “the next big thing” in YA.
If you don’t see a problem with that, you won’t like the rest of this article.