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SELL THE GIRLS

I live in New York City, and I spend a lot of time around writers/editors/agents/etc. My world is full of book people, and the talk I hear is mostly book talk. Days, nights, holidays, weekends, it’s book talk. And one of the things I have heard quite a lot recently is this: there is a crisis in boys’ reading. Specifically, I hear that there is a demand—nay, an urgent need!—for male authors and boy books. I read about this too, though I didn’t bother getting any links to articles about this because I am one hundred percent certain that people will provide them in the comments, and I am nothing if not agreeable to letting the internet do my work for me.

Whenever I hear this idea of a crisis in boys’ books, I grow a little woozy. Let me explain why.

When I was growing up, to have a semester, or even a year, of literature classes featuring all male authors was simply taking English class. Taking a semester-long (I never saw a year’s worth) class featuring only female writers was the highly specialized stuff of the Women’s Studies department, or a high-level elective in the English department, one that often counted toward core classes in the social sciences. (Because it wasn’t just literature—it was a specialized demographic.) I never took one. My college reading was 90% male. I would have said 95% male, but I had to read the Bible and many ancient myths, and to be fair, we don’t know who wrote those (but it was probably men).

In high school, I took four years of English, including advanced classes. I can only remember reading two works by women in all of high school, and they were both poems. One was by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) and the other by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). And I went to an all-girls school, where catering to the reading tastes and styles of boys wasn’t even an issue.

Later, my reading lists were full of people like Norman Mailer, Phillip Roth, David Mamet, and John Updike. Which is fine and good, I guess, but do you know how much I read about aging men and their penises and their lust for younger women and their hatred of their castrating wives? I read enough stories about male writing professors having midlife crises and lusting after young students to last me seven lifetimes. Can you imagine the reverse? Can you imagine classes in which guys read nothing but Germaine Greer, Eve Ensler, and Caryl Churchill? Can you imagine whole semesters of reading about vaginas? Again, I mean outside of a specialized class in women’s literature or anything about the human reproductive system. I seriously doubt you can.

Okay, I’m not telling you anything you haven’t heard before, right? Let me explain where I’m going with this.

For several millennia, women read the works of men. Millennia. That’s thousands of years for those of you who don’t speak French.* Every once in a while we see a burst of staggering genius in the person of, say, an Emily Dickinson. Or maybe a Jane Austen, who covered up her work as she wrote. Then we see a huge break in the early 20th century, a flux of brilliant women. Women start to climb into the bestseller charts, but not so much into the reading lists. The automatic response from many will be that for school people read a survey of literature from the ages, which, as we know, was predominately male . . . and current literature is still worming its way in, because things often need to develop a patina before people register them as Quality and Important . . . so obviously you’re going to find a lot of men in there. But that really doesn’t explain the last hundred years, which, considering that the concept of the novel itself is only three to four hundred years old—with much of the body of work being written in the last two hundred years.

So, we’re thinking about boys and girls and what they read. The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle. Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate—as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us.

Largely because we have little choice in the matter.

When I was in college, I remember hearing the story of Dorothy Parker typing out the words, “Please god, let me write like a man.” Even if I didn’t know my own reading bias, I understood at once, instinctively. It was the way to legitimacy. Men wrote of Big Things that Mattered. Sure, some of them were endlessly introspective. Yes, the big things that mattered were often penises. Also, sex. Also sex with penises. Also, girls, and how difficult and incomprehensible and unattainable we are for some sex with penises. It was like the penis was literally the magical eleventh finger that allowed you to write, and if I could just GROW ONE SOMEHOW, or imagine it into being, I would gain the abilities I so desired.

Sometimes, it was actually that literal. No, really.

This does not, not even for one second, diminish the greatness of the male writers I love. Try to take my Robert Benchley, my Hunter S. Thompson, my Lester Bangs, my Wodehouse, my Fitzgerald, my Hemingway, my Patrick Dennis, my John Green or David Levithan, my George Orwell, my Joseph Mitchell, Stephen Fry, Scott Westerfeld, Edmund Wilson, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, and the hundreds of other men who inhabit my shelves . . .

. . . and I’ll hurt you. Seriously, I will.

All I would ask you to consider is the fact that as a female writer, I was raised on a steady and unvaried diet of male writers. I read about impotence** before I knew what menopause was. I saw the inner workings of boys’ schools/camps and their misery.*** Even when I read about women, I read it from a male hand. Occasionally I read about boys from a female hand (The Outsiders being a prime example). I was frequently appalled by the details of the gross boys when I was younger, but I made it through. I was frankly baffled by the various injuries to the male organ I read about, but I grew to understand over time. I did grow bored of the portrayals of women in the books. They had nothing to offer me in terms of case studies to emulate. (For example, my choices in my favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, were the cartoonish Daisy, the dangerous driver Jordan, and the red-lipped and dispensable mistress Myrtle. And in my beloved Hemingway, I mostly got women who drained the main character’s talent. There was a glimpse of hope in the character of Brett, but only in that she was just as nuts as the rest of the characters.) The narrators I loved, the heroes I admired . . . all men.

And let me make this clear as well: I am not a super-flexible superbeing. I was a fairly average teenager, pretty lazy. I preferred analyzing music lyrics and talking on the phone to almost all other activities. I did love to read, but I was more obsessive than voracious, reading the same books over and over. I read male books because they were put in front of me from the time I could read. These were the readings materials I—and every girl I went to school with—was marched through.

Here’s a simple test you can do at home. Go to your shelf now. Have a look. First, identify the books you had to read for school. (I know. A lot of men. Just do me a favor and do this anyway just so you can gauge your personal training. It can be an illuminating exercise.)

Now identify the books you consider your favorites. I don’t have a clue in the world what you will find, but when I did this for myself, I was stunned by the results. It was about 75% male, which is an astonishing amount, since I write YA, an area filled with women. I’m still cutting my teeth on male writers. I was surprised, and yet I don’t count this as a personal crisis, just something to think about.

Where were Edna Ferber, Diana Wynne Jones, Kate Chopin, Patricia Highsmith, Miles Franklin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson, Lillian Hellman, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Robinson, Lorrie Ann Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Grace Paley, Barbara Kingsolver, Mary McCarthy, Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Edwidge Danticat . . . that doesn’t even taken into account the women I know and love now in YA, the people I think of as my friends, and the many excellent women outside of YA. The women were there, but they didn’t have that pride of place. They weren’t of the shelf of things that made me, because I didn’t even know about them for years.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be working harder to improve boys’ literacy. Quite the opposite. I’m suggesting is that in doing so, consider the many female authors and readers of today, and think about how we grew up—and frankly, how female readers are still growing up. You can’t turn a blind eye to the basic reality that 50% (or more) of the school population is still getting a steady diet of male authors, even though an astounding variety of women are writing books of extraordinary quality. And it is certainly not the case that we are running out of male authors. That concept is demeaning to everyone.

I suggest that perhaps what we ought to consider is the presentation and the representation of the female author, because—and I speak from hard experience here—a female author is simply marketed and presented differently. From the color and tone of the cover, to the review coverage, to the placement, to the back cover copy, to the general perceptions of female issues. (Recently and famously highlighted by this astonishing interview with Nicholas Sparks, who practically breaks his spine in three places in his attempt not to be infected with the cooties of “romance,” a squishy genre much loved by women.) Maybe this idea that there aren’t enough boy stories gives credit to absolutely no one, especially not the boys who will happily read stories by women, about women. Maybe the problem in getting boys to read has much less to do with “boy stories” than a general shift in culture and technology.

Perhaps we still need to consider the fact that female stories are consistently undervalued, labeled as “commercial,” “light,” “fluffy,” and “breezy,” even if they are about the very same topics that a man might write about. If we sell more, it is simply because we produce candy—and who doesn’t like candy? We’re the high fructose corn syrup of literature, even when our products are the same. It’s okay to sell the girls as long as we have some men to provide protein.

I have exhausted the nutritional metaphor.

I’ve benefited from some of these strange misapprehensions, even if they drive me insane. I’m not claiming I’m starving. I’m awfully lucky to make a living doing what I do. But as a lover of books and someone who supports readers and writers of both sexes, I object to the idea that there is a crisis in terms of boy books. And maybe we should do boys the favor we girls received—a reading diet featuring books by and about the opposite sex. Clearly, it must work.

* a joke lol

** The Sun Also Rises

*** The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Bless the Beasts and Children, several others I have blocked from my memory.

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Posted: Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 @ 11:21 am
Categories: Chick Lit, books, contributions to society, cooties.
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188 Responses to “SELL THE GIRLS”

  1. Elle Says:

    It makes me so happy/nerdy feeling that I am the first person to read this.

  2. Mia Says:

    You put words to all the feelings I have on this subject, Maureen.

    THANK YOU.

  3. Tiana Smith Says:

    Hear hear! I’ve always disagreed with the notion that men are considered “literary” while women are “commercial” (almost every time, and the fact that we can name the exceptions means that it’s pretty accurate).

    Getting a literary degree meant that I had to read hundreds of books written by men. In my ONE class on female literature, there was ONE male student. We all thought it was quite funny, but now, looking back, I find it pathetically sad. Why are we so quick to cater to the men instead of letting the women shine?

  4. janspach Says:

    Such a great argument MJ…
    Case in point – book covers – which I know we’ve all discussed before, but it is such concrete evidence of the difference between female and male literature. No matter what we say/know, we are visual people and covers do a lot to change your perception of what is inside.
    Confession – Before I existed in a MJ jar I almost didn’t buy 1 or 2 of your books because I felt dumb buying covers designed for 12 year old girls (I’m 29).

    If I felt weird buying a book because of the cover, no 13 year old boy would! He’d be torn apart by his peers.

  5. Aline Says:

    That was a very interseting (and as always entertaining) read, you make an excellent point. I can’t help but notice that in Europe, too, books with a mostly female audience are given the mark “girl book” while books with a male audience are just “books”.

    I second Mia: THANK YOU.

  6. Liz Czukas Says:

    Amen, hallelujah, pass the beer nuts.

    I, too, went to an all-girls school where I studied English under 1 lovely woman and 2 lovely men who are brilliant and underappreciated to this day. They were a fairly enlightened crew, putting a few choice works into the cirriculum like The Bell Jar, but overall it was men, men, men. And yes, penises, castration and evil women.

    Thank you for standing up for girls and women writers. We STILL need champions like you, and your wonderful poorly-packaged works. *grumbles* pink, cotton candy mismatched nonsense

    - Liz

  7. Maddison Says:

    amazing post – so very true!! thankyou!

  8. Jess Says:

    THIS.

    I remember thinking something similar vaguely when I started seeing the articles about the dearth of boys reading.

    I’ve long thought that we could improve everyone’s attitude toward reading by providing more choice in required reading and moving away from the (predominantly male, which even the boys don’t like) classics.

  9. Kat Says:

    Read it. Loved it. Retweeted it!

  10. Andrea Says:

    Hear, hear! I love the comment about the penis being the magic eleventh finger, as well. Sometimes it does feel like that.

    Because I am an author and I have a blog where I talk about (gasp!) vintage clothing as well as writing, some men automatically assume that I am a) stupid b) ridiculously girly and c) incapable of writing anything more intellectual than cat poetry. Because I’m a GIRL. In DRESSES. It drives me crazy.

  11. Madelineclaire Says:

    THANK YOU. This entry is so good.

    I wonder if things would change if we were given more great female authors to read in school, at least an equal amount as male?

  12. Amanda Says:

    I agree with you whole-heartedly.

    It’s not just marketing, it’s the whole attitude of society towards female authors. Only one of my brothers (out of four) will actually read a book written by a female author or even written from a female character’s perspective.

    But women themselves are also responsible for perpetuating the myth that fiction written for women by women is somehow less respectable than “normal” fiction. One of my relatives won’t borrow certain books of mine, even after I suggested that she only read it locked in the bedroom at home while her hubby takes care of her kids, because she’s too embarassed to read them.

    I have personally faced a lot of criticism from friends, especially English majors, and even cashiers at major booksellers, for the books I read – everything ranging from paranormal young adult novels by LJ Smith and Cate Tiernan to your basic Harlequin romance novel to mysteries by Catherine Coulter and Iris Johansen.

    It would be fantastic if boys would get over their preconceptions of female authors and realize that the story can stand by itself. However, I don’t see a good way to do that without teachers and professors stepping up and creating lesson plans and suggested reading lists that include an adequate percentage of female authors. And we all know how unlikely that is to happen.

  13. NotACat Says:

    I don’t know about “male authors and boy books” but I do know that here in the UK we’re getting worked up about boys simply not reading. There’s actually a current TV programme with a popular presenter (a Choir Master named Gareth Malone with whom my wife is at least slightly in love ;-) who is attempting to persuade a bunch of boys at a state-run school to read books.

    I haven’t seen enough to know what kind of books he using, but if my own reading habits were to be taken as an example (for the record I’m about 3 or four times as old as some of these lads ;-) they’d be reading ridiculous quantities of female authors because that’s who writes about vampires, werewolves and supernatural stuff with at least a tinge of romance and HEA lumped in. (I have a bag of books ready to return to the Library right next to me, and the only reason half of them are written by a bloke is because I scored a run of Kely McCullough in one hit ;-)

    I don’t recall much of what I read at school—First World War poetry was particularly dire and Shakespeare was…bracing—but I do recall being publically humiliated by my primary school English teacher—a monumentally-dull minimally-inspirational twit—for reading a “girls’ book” which IIRC might have been a “Chalet School” book I nicked off my dad’s teetering tower of bookshelves. There’s a huge legacy of idiots like that to overcome, let’s hope they can manage it.

    I hope I’m not coming off too stupid, and there might well be a huge difference between the US and the UK, but what we desperately need is books that boys will read…and if they happen to be written by a girl I for one care not a jot if the little blighters will actually put eye to paper and get down to it.

  14. Bethany Says:

    J.K. Rowling. Oh? She’s a GIRL? had people been aware of this at first would the harry potter series have been “Chick Lit”? Luckily the covers of the books were also lacking in the color pink or purple or sky blue.
    sigh.

  15. Lacy Says:

    I think many people think the the divide between genders is a thing of the past. Surely, in a society as modern as ours, inequality between the sexes doesn’t exist! But it does, everywhere we look, and the sooner more people open their eyes to the fact, the sooner we can work toward being truly equal in every aspect of life, including literature.

  16. Elise Says:

    Thank you for writing this, Maureen. I can’t go check my bookshelves right now, but just from memory, the books I recall reading in high school that were written by women were Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Awakening (which I love love love).
    And when I thought of my favorite books, you’re right, most of them were written by men. I agree with you, that’s not a bad thing, but it definitely shows a certain lack of exposure to women writers, I think.
    (Also, I don’t know if this was a conscious omission or not, but JK Rowling has become one of the world’s most influential and best-selling authors, with a book series that appeals to both sexes and all ages to boot!)

  17. Andrea Cremer Says:

    Fantastic post, Maureen.

  18. kathleen duey Says:

    So true. And I did the shelf check. Wow…!

    It seems to be an odd and complex problem, getting boys to read. I am not sure why. And yes, girl books are marketd in a really demeaning and silly way sometimes. I have had publishers insist on using my using my initials to “minimize” awareness of my gender (not lately, but once upon a time). It pissed me off. I do want literate men, but yeah. They will not be harmed by knowing that some, or even most, of the books they love were written by women.

  19. JohnO Says:

    Good post. I remember uni and grad school as being a parade of male writers, but every so often a clever prof would smuggle Christina Rossetti or Leslie Marmon Silko onto the reading list. I wish it had happened more often.

  20. jennifer in sf Says:

    YES. The packaging of “Chick Lit” and ‘girls’ YA books drives me right up the gorram wall.

    Just becasue a book is written by a woman DOES NOT mean it needs to be wrapped in pink and sprinkled with sexy sex.

  21. Bev Katz Rosenbaum Says:

    Awesome post of awesomeness.

  22. T. H. Mafi Says:

    you will never understand just how much i love you right now.

    THANK YOU.

    THANK YOU FOR THIS POST.

  23. JENNIFER RAWLINGS Says:

    From a British perspective, I didn’t find this at all, it was pretty much 50-50, although the female authors were ALL British, apart from 1 short story we studied briefly (The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was American).

    But yes, our Shakespeare and Golding and Steinbeck and Orwell was nicely balanced out by Austen and Shelley and Bronte (and Bronte and Bronte) and a play by Charlotte Keatley, and numerous poems. I think there was also the option to study Virginia Woolf, and then I know another class studied the Awakening by Kate Chopin (American)

    I think factoring in all the poems we did as well, as well as the proportionally huge amount of time devoted to Shakespeare and (gulp) Chaucer (a term spent trying to figure out if I’d accidentally stumbled into German class), the male writers probably have an edge, but I don’t ever remember feeling like it was massively skewed either way.

  24. Chanelle Says:

    This was an amazing post, because I really believe in what you’ve said. Also, I commute for an hour and a half to and from work each day, and when I’m bored, I people watch.
    Men – as in over thirty – read newspapers. Sometimes, they will have a book. A crime book. Women, mostly, have books.
    Anyone under that age will have music, phones, or magazines as the majority.
    Now, this can either be said that men aren’t reading because there aren’t enough books for them (a complete lie), or that women have more of a demand for books than men. In which case, I don’t think we need more male authors writing ‘boy’ books. I don’t think it has anything to do with the supply of boy books keeping men from reading, but due to most mind frames thinking reading is a more feminine thing to do.

  25. Sarah Says:

    I love that you discussed this! This is something I’ve struggled with as a librarian-in-training. Somehow, it seems like only women are saying that saying that boys and girls should read various genders of authors with every gender of protagonist is somehow demeaning to boys.

    As for links:
    Tamora Pierce’s commentary on this issue: http://tammypierce.livejournal.com/40594.html

    Justine Larbalestier’s thoughts: http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2009/06/12/theyre-just-girl-books-who-cares/

    Hannah Moskowitz’s criticism of Girl-centric lit: http://hannahmosk.blogspot.com/2010/07/boy-problem.html

    And, of course, my own commentary: http://sarahkellywright.com/?p=202

  26. Claire Legrand Says:

    I adore you so incredibly a lot right now that I can hardly form sentences with words that are in my brain.

    I think I might have teared up a little.

    Thank you.

  27. Rebecca Says:

    Oooooh, I want to go home right now and do the shelf check. I am very curious. Though I expect I’m not typical of most people. I avoided as much of my high school required reading as possible, and of the books I did read, I liked very, very few of them. After having classic literature shoved down my throat for so many years, I developed a complete revulsion to it, even though I really had no idea what most of it was about. I’m only just now reading classics like Catcher in the Rye and the Outsiders (which I loved, and it’s also by a woman), and I haven’t managed to read one single book written for adults, whether it’s classified as literary or otherwise, of my own volition. So my guess is that most of my favorites are YA books by female writers. And the one assigned reading book from high school that I did truly love was The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. I’m pretty weird with my reading tastes, but god did I have a special dislike for those selfish geezers banging their students all the time. Smelly old men and their damn penises have never interested me much to begin with. ;)

  28. Mike Jung Says:

    An eye-opening post. I confess, I’m one of those people who think it’s important to get more boys reading, and that one of the ways to do that is to get more so-called “boy books” out there on the market. And I’ll take my seat in the choir of people who think books my female authors are marketed and talked about in absurd, diminishing ways. You’ve provided a degree of historical perspective that I haven’t been consciously thinking about, however, and I’m gonna have to rejigger my thinking about this, because I believe you’re right – it’s entirely possible for boys to love books by and about women.

  29. Steph Campbell Says:

    Word.

    Love this.

    Thank you for putting into words what so many were thinking.

  30. Charissa Weaks Says:

    WOW…Maybe this is the reason women understand men so much better than they understand us…We’ve been looking at the world through their eyes our whole lives…

  31. the rejectionist Says:

    STANDING ON TABLE CHEERING HURRAH HURRAH HURRAH

  32. Nancy Keim Comley Says:

    What a brilliant post.

  33. Jessica Lei Says:

    Cannot get me to get rid of my male authors either, but this is a great post. I think I should share it with some of my English professors and see what they’ve gotta say about it hmmmmmmmmm…

  34. Leigh Anne Says:

    Men may write of Big Things That Matter (and appeal to boys of all ages), but I can think of a great many women who write of even greater things that matter:
    Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
    Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
    Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (and who can forget The Storm?)
    Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery
    Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
    Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own
    Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

    All of these books (or short stories) I count among my favorites, and all were read during my high school or college career.

    My current favorite novels happen to be written by young adult authors. The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins (which seems to have an enormous male following, or so I’ve read), and Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta. Commercial, light, fluffy, and breezy? Not hardly! But if these same adjectives were used to describe these titles, I wouldn’t mind. Highbrow or not, I love what I love, without apology. That well-written literature is available for today’s young adult market (and adults such as myself, who also enjoy it!) is something I celebrate. At the risk of sounding like an aging Spice Girl I’m tempted to exclaim, “Girl power!”

    But I won’t. ‘Cause that would just be embarrassing.

    Do I need a male author to provide my protein? Kazuo Ishiquro’s Never Let Me Go was captivating and I marveled at the beauty of his writing. Yet Emma Donoghue’s Room left me haunted, slightly uncomfortable, and satisfied. There’s the protein–in the satisfaction of this reader!

    Is there a crisis in terms of boy books? I guess my head’s buried in the sand of female authors. But you’ve opened my eyes to an issue I was completely unaware of. Thanks for your thoughts on the matter. I’m sharing this post with scads of my friends!

  35. Susie Says:

    I often take for granted the fact that I attended a liberal arts all-women’s college but this blog has definitely reminded me how “different” my education was to those who did not. When you were listing all the amazing female authors that were left out of your schooling, I kept thinking “read that…read that…read that…” to the point where I have in fact read all but two or three of them. But I read ALL of them in college. I’d never realized how my high school reading was dominated by men but I actually can’t think of a single female author I was assigned in high school (though I’m sure there were some). I did read Pride and Prejudice in high school but it was during the summer and I picked it up because I was bored. It was never assigned. The same is true for Wuthering Heights. I’d heard it was a classic, I picked it up at the library, it looked interesting, so I took it home. Thank heavens I did, because I’m not certain I would have had nearly the same level of interest in literature as I do if I’d never become obsessed with the works of Jane Austen, on whom I did my senior thesis. We all did. It was required that year for the English majors. (Shocking and horrifying to anyone not attending a women’s college, I’m sure.)

    I WOULD like to point out that though we did read a great deal more women authors than a co-ed school probably would have, we did not read SOLELY women authors and I do have a well-rounded literature education. Melville, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Chestnutt, Ellison and MANY others were discussed and read with voracious enthusiasm.

    I realize it wouldn’t be at all feasible but I wish publishers would do an experiment where all book covers were black with white writing and no pictures just to see which ones readers took home more. I’m positive people would be very surprised, especially about which ones the boys picked up.

  36. Jen Wardrip Says:

    Loved the post, MJ, and agreed with just about all of it. I do, however, think there really IS a “need” in fiction aimed towards boys.

    Mostly, though, this isn’t because they’re not getting enough fiction written by men (although to be honest, 9 out of 10 of the books my son has been required to read since 4th grade – and he’s in 8th now – were written by females), but because of the actual TITLES they’re required to read.

    If someone would have forced me to read ACROSS FIVE APRILS (written by Irene Hunt) in fifth grade, I probably would have slit my wrists. And if, ESPECIALLY as a male, I was required to read THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND (by Elizabeth George Speare), I probably would have protested.

    I don’t think there’s a lack of good fiction for boys written today by male authors. What there’s a lack of is the inclusion of these titles in upper elementary, middle, and high school curriculums. For some reason, a majority of teachers (or maybe it’s the school system, not the teachers) seem to think that the only titles their male students should be reading are books published before 1980 – and they have to be historical.

    Case in point is my son, who has the added benefit (or disability, depending on how you look at it) of reading at a college level, having Asperger’s Syndrome, and hating to read. Giving him a historical fiction novel written in 1944 by a woman about a girl who does nothing that he cares about is NOT going to interest him in reading. Actually, even giving him HATCHET by Gary Paulsen is not going to interest him in reading. Giving him a CIRQUE DU FREAK graphic novel, now, THAT gets him interested and fired up about reading!

    So, yes, I think there’s a crisis in fiction for boys. But I don’t think it’s the crisis that everyone is yammering on about.

    And sorry for being so long-winded on this!

  37. Stephanella Says:

    I’ve just finished a PhD, I’ve had a supposedly vast literary upbringing and I cannot name one female author I investigated at depth without the monstrous ‘women’s studies’ aesthetic in mind. Oh wait, Anne Rice. And I had to defend her work on the basis that ’she writes like a man’. Riiiiiiiight. Girls’ books are for life, not just for Christmas.

  38. David Macinnis Gill Says:

    When I taught AP high school English, 95% of my students were female. When I taught remedial reading, 100% of my students were male. It didn’t matter which sex the authors were: the females read the books, and the males didn’t.

    There is no dearth of YA books by males for males (they’re just not on the shelves). The problem isn’t the lack of books. It’s that the YA males aren’t reading much of anything (and when they do it, it’s from the manga and scifi shelves, not the YA shelves.).

    Am I saying that male writers don’t dominate the high school canon? Nope. They do, and in disproportionate numbers. Dead people are also overrepresented in the cannon. Of course, there are far more female English teachers than male English teachers. It was not uncommon for me to be the only male in department meetings, just as it’s not unusual for me to be the only male when YA writers come together or when I have dinner with my publisher. Unless I’m mistaken, I’m the first male to comment here, as well. Does this bother me? Nope. Do I like answering my own questions? Kinda. ‘Cause I know the right answers.

    Sadly, I don’t know the right answers about the problem of males not reading and females being subliminally told that male writers are superior.

    Maybe I’m just not asking myself the right questions?

  39. Tess Says:

    Brilliant post. I spent all of college reading Shakespeare, because he was what I minored in. But now that I look back, all of my college lit classes were full of male authors. The only time we read predominately women were in my women’s studies classes. That’s totally lame. I feel the need to read some Virgina Woolf after reading this fabulous post.

    Also: did Nicholas Sparks seriously compare his books to Romeo and Juliet in that article? Because that offends the Shakespeare scholar in me. Majorly. He’s in the romance novel section of my bookstore. I’m sure he’d be deeply offended.

  40. Kelly Says:

    When I was a teenager (I’m 59 now) my English teacher in high school, whose opinion I still respect, asked me why I was wasting my time reading “that science fiction crap.” I was reading The Lord of the Rings. That was when I had the revelation that the establishment idea of what was quality literary fiction did not correspond with my own. More than forty years later, I still mentally sneer at the best seller and awards lists and read what I damn well please. Since the late 80’s that has included more and more YA fiction including especially Tamora Pierce, J.K. Rowling, Justine Larbalestier and Terry Pratchett. Young adult girls like to read; young adult boys don’t. Young adult girls buy books; young adult boys don’t. Publishers know this, teachers, in my opinion, don’t. I think that male-oriented YA fiction is a non-problem. If a young adult boy wants to read, there are plenty of books for him to choose from that he will enjoy completely. I’m a boy so I ought to know.

  41. Liz Says:

    I have to take a step back from this and sigh, because I absolutely get where you’re coming from both as a female author and someone who only studied male writers in school. I agree that we need to step up the inclusion of female-written books in school curicculum, but as I understand it, that isn’t what the boy book crisis is about.

    The boy book crisis is about pulling in reluctant readers–the boys who hate Twain, loathe Dickens, would cheefully throw away about 90% of what they are fed in English class. Giving books to boys on current subjects that matter, with protaganists that they can identify with, written by authors they can emulate and understand.

    The gender divide in English literature is an entirely seperate issue from the boy book crisis and it’s doing both issues a disservise to try and lump them together as though one is more important than the other. I applaud you for bringing up this point, but as a librarian, my experiance is that it is much harder getting YA books in the hands of teen boys than with their female counterparts. I can throw books at my girls who will devour them with gusto, but I have to coax and make deals with boys to even step foot in a library. Some of them are seeing the pull of graphic novels and books written specifically for them, but the word has yet to spread and if someone out there in YA Author Land is leading the charge to get these guys interested in books, I’ll let my very capable girls watch themselves and each other for a while while I crusade for my lost boys.

  42. Christopher J Garcia Says:

    You know it’s funny. Of all the books I had to read for school. I can only think of three MALE authors that we had to read: August Wilson, Shakespeare and Vonnegut. I can name a dozen of the female authors we read: Plathe, Shelley, LeGuin, Wolfe, Wilhelm, O’Conner, Harper Lee (or maybe it was Truman Capote…), Bishop, Munro, Dove, Atwood, Angelou and Allende.

    I know I’m probably missing a few male authors (we must have read some Hemmingway, Tolstoy and Heinlein; where else would I have acquired my distaste for them?) but when I think back on my years in High School English, I can barely come up with three male authors we read.

    Maybe it was the fact that I never had a male English teacher.
    Chris

  43. Tristin Says:

    I had a professor who insisted we read/buy the Longman Anthology of English Lit instead of the classic Norton because the Longman featured female authors along with the tried-and-true male ones. Sadly, that professor always got labeled as ‘crazy feminist’ for doing so and for mentioning similar items addressed in your post. I always thought that this was messed up, and that it was unfair for people to judge her because she spoke out regarding the lack of female writers in the literary Canon.

    That was when I was in community college… Now that I’m at Berkeley it’s a little bit better (could just be the more liberal attitude… or the fact that I have more female professors).

  44. Alex Flinn Says:

    I’m of two minds about this. I definitely see your point that, in the grand scheme of things, when one looks at centuries, or even the last century, of literature, the vast majority is written by men. Looked at that way, it definitely seems that the world doesn’t need any more boy books. And I do think that women should be honored and respected to the same degree as male writers, which I agree doesn’t always happen. But I wonder if the large number of (presumably children’s) editors and agents were really bemoaning the fact that young boys can’t find enough Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, or even Jonathan Franzen to satisfy their reading needs. I suspect not. I suspect that, rather, they were examining the YA shelves of their local Barnes and Noble, which are filled almost entirely with female-centered paranormal romances (including a couple by me). In this environment, it would indeed seem that there is little for boys to read, and assuming they’d prefer to read a book written in THIS century, that is relevant. Not all boys are in honors English, and thus, not all of them are up to the titles mentioned above. What do boys in reading classes read, for example? I know what they read five years ago, but what will they read five years hence?

    Of course, the dearth of boy books in chain bookstores might not be a problem if the blanks were filled with boy-centered books in the school and library market. However, I’m wondering if such a market even exists anymore. I wrote boy books for much of my admittedly short career, and although reading teachers loved them, I have heard it expressed many times that boys’ books are not really where the sales are. Only once did I flatly hear, “Boys don’t read as much as girls, so who really cares about that market?” but I’ve heard variations on it, such as the sentiment that only girl-centered genres will be in bookstores. So the question is, really, are publishers interested in books that will sell mostly in paperback, mostly to schools, or do they prefer to publish the books that will sell in larger quantities, in hardcover at chain bookstores? Looking at some recent catalogs will show the answer. Many authors of boy-centered books are either reinventing themselves or finding that they no longer have a career. I wonder if all these editors and agents are REALLY wishing for more boys’ books or if they are wishing for boys books which will sell like Rick Riordan’s. These are few and far-between precisely because girls read more.

    Of course, publishing isn’t a charity business. They are having hard times now, and it does seem true that girls are more likely than boys to run to the bookstore and get a book by their favorite author on the first day. Girls are readers — yay! But the fact is, if publishers are unwilling to continue publishing at least SOME boy-centered books (which don’t necessarily, imo, have to be by male authors) even though they may not make as much money as girls’ books, we are likely to have a generation of young men who are poor readers. As someone who wrote a few books that are remedial reading favorites and who has, on many occasions, heard from jubilant young men who had not previously been readers, that does concern me.

  45. Bryan Bliss Says:

    I wonder if the same holds true when you narrow the focus down specifically to YA? I, personally, ready more female writers than male, only because when I go to the bookstore – that’s what I see the most. Also, I wonder if part of the so-called “crisis” of boy books isn’t as much about the actual books as it is about the marketing. One of my favorite recent books was HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT. When I saw the cover, I was amazed. Everything about the book’s design made me drool, wishing I’d be so lucky to get something similar someday. But… is that a book a boy would pick up? With it’s awesomely pink cover? Would they carry it around school all proud-like, saying, “Yeah, this is a GREAT book!” Probably not. And maybe that’s just an indictment of our overall culture.

    So, I agree. But I kinda disagree. Okay, nevermind.

  46. Jen Says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    The idea that men are underrepresented in fiction almost made me sick. I hope you’re sharing your opinion on this with whichever idiots are spouting this nonsense.

  47. Bryan Bliss Says:

    Oh, by the way… The Eleventh Finger is the title of my next novel. FTW.

  48. Jeremy West Says:

    Awesome post, Maureeen! I totally agree with you. Also YA needs to see more male authors as there are so few of them. Thanks for writing this! I loved reading it!

  49. Steven Says:

    Girls who read stories by men about men? They don’t get called dykes for doing it.

    The boy who would, on his own, “happily read stories by women, about women” knows that having anyone in his peer group witness it is social suicide. And unless he’s remarkably strong-minded, he’ll have internalized that peer value system, and he’s going to throw the book aside. Going ahead and reading it is a challenge to his masculinity and heterosexuality.

    Changing the cover and the marketing isn’t going to change the contents, and it isn’t going to change the social environment in our schools, so it isn’t going to change the willingness of that boy to read it.

    If the book was recommended to him by an adult, that adult just destroyed her (or his) credibility with that boy. If the book was assigned as reading by a teacher, the boy is going to be expected by his peer group to denounce it as a “stupid chick book”.

    Unless you’ve got a plan that will change the opinions of the boys on the football team about reading books by women about women, you’re not addressing the issues behind the calls “for male authors and boy books”. You’re just dismissing them.

  50. James Says:

    Growing up in Britain, i started reading with Beatrix Potter, moving onto Enid Blyton, Diana Wynne Jones, Roald Dahl, Tolkien and Sue Townsend as i got older. Starting with those authors no matter what was inflicted upon me during English class, i arrived unscathed by the bizarre notion that gender matters when it comes either reader or writer. What matters is the quality of the book. So i read anything and everything even books with bright pink covers.

  51. Jon Skovron Says:

    First, I totally agree with you. Bring on the Age of Literary Ladies!

    But let me say, the statement about the crisis of boy books has nothing to do with the number of books written by boys or about boys, or concerning boy issues. It’s the very real, very troubling fact that it is not socially acceptable for boys to read in most subcultures in the US. It is taken as a matter of course that those who do must either hide it or face at least teasing, and frequently much more. I recall several instances of getting my ass kicked in middle school for reading Anne Rice. From what I hear from boy readers now, things haven’t changes much in the last twenty years.

  52. Susie Says:

    To the people saying they probably read more “girl books” because they had female teachers…

    I obviously can’t speak for everyone but I had some FANTASTIC male teachers, especially in the English department, and one professor in particular. I took several classes with him but my favorite was African American literature, where we read Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid, bell hooks, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Lorraine Hansberry, Joyce Carol Thomas, and MANY others.

  53. Karl G. Siewert Says:

    Maureen, I enjoy following you on Twitter because I admire your world-class silliness. To my shame, I forget what a marvelous writer and thinker you are. Thank you for writing this.

  54. Amanda Mae Says:

    This is fantastic. Thank you!

    I work at a bookstore, and I have noticed that it is SUPER hard to get boys to read. Thank heavens for Diary of a Wimpy Kid (though I very much dislike the content), Harry Potter, and Goosebumps for getting boys of a certain age to read. When teenage boys come in looking for something to read, I ALWAYS point out John Green (!!), but nearly everything else in the YA section is paranormal romance, or pink and sparkly. Boys don’t want to read that, no matter how much I recommend it. And if I take them over to the “adult” fiction section, and try to push some classics on them, they clam up, and ask where the Halo or Star Wars books are (not saying those are inherently bad, but a steady diet is not the best). It is very rough. And the parents are desperate, too! They want their sons to read, but when I walk them to the YA section, they are crestfallen.

  55. Nathan Says:

    Maureen, I am proud to say I play sports and read Maureen Johnson, heck almost all of my favorite YA authors are chicks. A book is a book no matter who it is written by.

  56. Katie Says:

    So. True.

    But, might I add JK Rowling? I adore her!
    And you. Thanks for this! =D

  57. Tasha Says:

    I think this is a good post, especially the bit about how books are presented. I recommended Stargirl to one of my guy friends who reads a lot (which is by Jerry Spinelli so perhaps this isn’t the most perfect example), and he wouldn’t read it. Why? Because of the cover. My copy at least is presented as a girl book and is bright pink, which put him off, no matter how much I said it was great. It ANNOYED me. But having said that I understand why he might not want to walk around reading it. I didn’t press him too hard about it; due to the nature of the boys at my school I might not have got it back intact.

  58. Clarissa Says:

    Hm, this is odd/interesting. I am aware of the (by now) decade-old debate about the literary canon being primarily white and male.

    But my experience studying was a lot more varied – despite avoiding any “feminism” classes like the plague.

    I read Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Jane Smiley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing… I could keep going.

    This was both at school and at uni (which was admittedly a pretty left liberal one). And both with female and male tutors.

    So yay for Sussex Uni I guess :)

  59. Allison Says:

    MJ, this is one of the most serious blogs I’ve ever seen from you! I mean, there wasn’t a single black-and-white picture or ABBA reference. Which really spoke volumes about how seriously YOU take this topic. Thank you so much for putting your thoughts into this post. I think I’ll bookmark this and keep it in my “things I can use in the classroom” folder for when I start teaching, because a lot of the time I think boys are largely unaware of the facts that 1) we girls grew up with predominately male-influenced literature and 2) this is a problem. I mean, I didn’t even RECOGNIZE most of the female authors you mentioned, but you can bet I’ve heard of and read many of the male authors.

    HOWEVER, I love that you pointed out the fact that this should not diminish the importance of those awesome male authors we all read and love. We just need to realize that they are not the ONLY awesome authors out there. So, yeah. Thanks for this, Maureen.

  60. Julie Polk Says:

    HUZZAH FOR THIS SHINING PIECE OF BRILLIANCE!!!

  61. david e Says:

    the crisis with boys is literacy.

    the problem is alternately defined either as a lack of interest in reading or a lack of interest in the content of what they are asked to read or both. it has nothing to do with the gender of the authors and often nothing to do with the gender of the protagonists.

    if we removed the names of the authors of the books we presented to boys, or obscured their gender through initials or pseudonyms, would the crisis still exist? yes. a boy uninterested in herman melville will likely take no interest in jane austin. gender doesn’t enter into it, except…

    we recognize the biological fact that boys mature at a different rate than girls but heaven help the scientist who suggests there might be physical, cognitive differences in the way boys read from the way girls do.

    what if everything we “know” is wrong?

    if, as some early studies seem to indicate, there are gender-based differences in which hemispheres of the brain are operative during reading, surely this needs to be better understood before we can really address the problem at hand.

    i will not argue that at the teen and college level the books marked literature are heavily and lop-sidedly male. and there’s no dearth of male writers for children and young adults. but there is a problem with boy literacy, it is measurable and it is difficult to diagnose a solution.

    unless, of course, someone’s identified an alternative to aristotlean story structure that we can test. then we might be onto something.

  62. Ann Marie Says:

    Huzzah on the post and huzzah to the commenters who’ve pointed out the difference between Serious Literature Written by Men and the issue of reluctant readers.

    I have two boys: a 13-yr-old who is a voracious, above-grade-level reader–but who feels dissed by school programs, which demand that he read “award” books and exclude the fantasy that he loves.

    I have a 9-yr-old who struggled to get to grade-level reading ability. He likes adventure and graphic novels. He doesn’t want to read anything that’s “pink”–but he means that entirely literally–the packaging is a big identifier for him (perhaps it’s much more heavily weighted for a reluctant reader, eh?). I read him some blurbs from Levine’s princess books, though, and he was interested.

    For the kids in his class, why they pick up a book is much more about topics than it is about whether the protagonist or the author is male or female. But in a world where boys’ clothes are all hunter green and navy blue, and girls’ clothes are turquoise and fuschia, the book covers are also segregated and segregating.

  63. Jasmine P. Says:

    This was very interesting and true to read, a professor of mine spoke on some of the ideas of women writers not being respected. It was a lit theory class and she was a feminist, but she also addressed all (literature) minorities, women, races, sexual orientations and so on.

    I see what you mean when I think about books I’ve read and what I continue to buy and read now. It’s still pretty damn difficult being interested in comics, such a niche area of literature, and trying to find more women authors. Hope Larson and Raina Telgemeier are two whom I enjoy. I hope the right sort of people keep making the right sort of decisions and more schools have more non-white, non-male authors on the reading list as equal billing as the white, male, authors.

  64. Jen Says:

    According to a friend who’s a children’s librarian, the real crisis in boy’s books is at easy reader and middle grade levels. There actually are more options for girls in this area, because today’s boys do not want to read The Wind in the Willows. And whenever she asks for suggestions from people in children’s publishing, they tell her to try The Wind in the Willows. LOL.

    Rest of your post is spot-on, though the vast majority of my favorite authors are women.

  65. Carolyn Says:

    Brilliant post, Maureen. Loved it.
    I think one of the most obvious problems with “female literature” is the packaging, which you touched on. I am guilty of going to the beach or any other public place and taking two books, one considered “intellectual” and one I just deem a good book. Last time I brought “Catcher in the Rye” and “Leap Day” by Wendy Mass. Once I tired of “Catcher” I got out my other choice, stealthily glanced around the beach, and slid off the jacket cover, lest anyone think I was reading “fluff” (which it absolutely was not. It was awesome.)
    I shouldn’t have to do that. It’s just not fair.
    I also agree with the point that girls are able to read much more diverse books than boys. I have no problem picking up a book with a male narrator and reading it all the way through. Boys can’t do that. In my American Lit class last year we read one book by a female author- “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. It was, of course, the one the boys hated the most.
    One way to solve the so-called “crisis” in boys reading is to tell them to suck it up and get used to it; they can’t read books by just males forever.

  66. Harriet Smart Says:

    Speaking from the UK, I would echo what the earlier Brit commentator said – that there did not seem to be so much of a bias against women writers. I think we are lucky in the UK in having the nineteenth century canon absolutely clogged up with great women writers – Austen, the Brontes, Eliot and Mrs Gaskell. Not to mention, topping and tailing that, Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf.

    I think these redoutable names have influenced the general public view that women’s writing is valuable, and here we do continue to value our female authors. Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge all spring to mind as being valued as proper literary novelists without any unpleasant gender connotations.

  67. Shaun Hutchinson Says:

    Hurray for you. You make some awesome, awesome point about the validity of women writers and the need for the world to take women seriously as writers. Because they are serious. And awesome. Many of my favorite writers growing up were women. Susan Cooper, Madeline L’engle, Judy Blume, Mercedes Lackey. Women have amazing things to say and boys need to be taught to listen.

    But the crisis isn’t that boys are undervaluing female authors, it’s that YA isn’t necessarily a safe haven for boys. When I sold my book, I asked my publisher to make me a cover that my 14 y/o self wouldn’t have been embarrassed to be seen reading. They did so. Not because I didn’t want girls to read it but because the reality is that boys are cruel. Boys who read are often the subject of ridicule. Boys who read books with dreamy-eyed guys on the cover are doomed. Does that suck? Yeah. But it’s reality. Boys are less likely to read books that appeal to girls than the reverse situation. Is that a shame? Yes. Those are problems that should be addressed, but while we’re addressing them, we’re not actually DOING anything to get more boys to read.

    What are the solutions? Well, the long term solutions would be to change the culture where boys are looked down on for reading. But we’re slow to change. There have to be short term solutions too. How would it hurt to create multiple covers for books that might be cross-over? Or to create completely gender neutral covers? Or even create a section in the YA dept had books that boys might be interested in.

    I feel as though the backlash, while possibly justified, hurts boys instead of helping them. It’s fine for people to say, “Hey, there are TONS of great books for boys,” but you’re not with them in class when some bully rips the book out of their hand and calls them a sissy for reading something that hints at being something other than what is considered manly.

    I just rambled on your blog. Sorry. :)

  68. Colleen Says:

    It seems like you are conflating two different things here – boys reading in general and assigned reading in school. Yes, everyone would agree there are a lot more dead white males represented in the classroom then dead women. Or anyone of color. But that doesn’t mean teenage boys are thrilled to pieces with their assigned choices. (Just as many boys are bored by Shakespeare as girls, for example.)

    In terms of contemporary teen lit, I have to say from my experience (and I get around 1,000 books a year on my doorstep from publishers) the number of books with female protagonists far outweighs those with male. Add to that the number of books with male protags or shared storylines (between male & female) that have female-centric covers (meaning they are marketed to girls and boys won’t pick them up) and it gets even worse. I am constantly searching for books with boy protags for my column. And it is not easy.

    I’m not saying at all that there should be fewer female protags. I’m saying there should be more mysteries for teens, more SF, more fantasy that is less about loving a vampire then killing one, etc. I don’t see it, and I look for it every day.

    I dearly wish we had more female authors assigned when I was in high school. But honestly I would have been just as delighted to read men who were still alive, or had anything at all to do with my own experiences or perspective.

  69. Lady L. Says:

    I don’t know. I think men have done very well for themselves all of these years without being voracious readers of fiction. (And this argument generally centers around fiction.)

  70. Andrea Says:

    Some have already said what I wanted to.

    So I will just repeat some of the shorter ones:

    Hear hear!

    Amen, hallelujah, pass the beer nuts.

    and THANK YOU.

  71. LA Knight Says:

    I can’t really agree with this. The push for boy books is mostly in juvenile and YA fiction, which is flooded with “chick lit.” I can only think of a few major bestselling boy book series off the top of my head (Percy Jacson, Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter and Alex Rider) but there are tons of girl books (American Girl, Judy Moody, the Twilight Saga, the House of Night, pretty much any book by Tamora Pierce, all of the teen paranormal romance out there).

    Instead of “boy books” or “girl books,” why not gender neutral books, such as James Patterson’s Maximum Ride Series, or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games? The Valdemar Series by Mercedes Lackey, which is liberally sprinkled with heroes and heroines?

    Regarding literature, gender-quotas or whatever are silly. When it comes to getting a reluctant young man to read, they don’t want to read girl books. What 11-year-old boy would want to read the Protector of the Small quartet, for example, which deals with such “girl” details as periods, getting breasts, and falling in love?

    For a long time, there weren’t any books aimed specifically at girls. Now, there are thousands, and not enough aimed at boys. If you don’t care that the majority of the nation’s youth are illiterate, then fine. But if you want to respark a love of reading, there needs to be something to draw in reluctant male readers.

  72. Lady L. Says:

    LA Knight, see there you go, assuming that one must read fiction in order to be literate. There’s plenty of non-fiction out there that is, as you say, “gender neutral.”

  73. Sarah Albee Says:

    I sent this to every English teacher I know. GREAT post.

  74. David Alan Brantford Says:

    Thank you for taking a perspective and communicating it so well. I remember having to read the Bronte sisters in HS and not getting they were British! I don’t remember reading works by American women authors in HS. In grade school however, I was introduced to many women of color who were writers. Phyllis Wheatly was the first published AfrAm writer period. Today we have Toni Morrison and other women of color who are adding such life to the literary environ. As an African American male, I an concerned about the quality of literature presented to the boys who then become men. There’s room for all of us in the literary universe!

  75. Fiammetta Says:

    I both agree and disagree. I’ll start with why I disagree.

    I think people spend too much time obsessing over things like gender. Race, too, but this is about gender, and it comes up most with gender, so I’ll stick to gender.

    True, for most of history, the fields of… almost everything, have been male-dominated. I’m not going to argue that. What I am going to argue is the thought that making them female-dominated is a solution. How about nothing dominant? How about neutral? How about we stop acting like we can’t relate to a character because of their gender? Because if you really can’t, you’re not trying.
    Also, all the stuff about penis-focused books and not understanding women… that’s not an inherent part of being male, that’s the writer (or the character) being sexist. Which was seen much more often than not up to the past three or four decades, so that’s why it shows up in so much English-class lit.
    And then there’s the people saying there needs to be more “boy-books”. I disagree with them, too. It’s clear what they are; conservative parents who don’t want their sons to understand girls too well, because they think it’ll make their sons gay and they don’t want that. Honestly, I’ll support almost anything that gets in their way, but really…
    I just think people need to shut up and stop worrying about things like gender either way, stop thinking it’s impossible to relate to those of the opposite sex. Of course, no one will actually stop and realize that people of the opposite sex are still the same species until all of society stops being so gender-segregated. Just stop worrying, stop forcing your children into stereotypes of “femininity” or “masculinity”, and you’ll see it shouldn’t matter.

  76. Kristi Says:

    Well, this is obviously complicated, but I also think that the problem isn’t with the books but with the culture. Boys do not want to be linked to anything feminine for fear of being socially ostracized. That is a problem, and a shame. I don’t know how to fix it.

    It’s telling that girls names continually get more masculine, (Alex and Ryan raise your hands.) But if a name gets usurped by the women, few little boys are named that name any more. Hey (Shannon, Leslie, and Ashley, where did you go?)

    I even saw a show where they did a social experiment, giving a girl a microscope/science set, and a boy an ez bake oven for their birthdays. The girl was cool, the boy couldn’t get away from that thing fast enough, going so far as to shove it in his sister’s lap.

    Girl=Do not touch it, stay away.

    It’s really twisted if you think about it. And yes, we do it with literature too.

    That said, as the sister of a boy who liked to read and suffered greatly for it due to ruthless, vicious, and horrifying harassment. The solution to boys reading has to come from men.

    And not men authors. Men readers. Fathers have to decide they want their sons to read and read with them. It’s something my brother is now doing with his sons so they have a safe place to read without fear of ridicule. Let’s start that campaign. Fathers, read with your boys.

    We have to fight a culture that assigns the designations geek and nerd to any male fiction readers, and instead celebrates sports heroes that can barely put a cohesive sentence together on television.

    Or worse.

    It’s safe for girls to read. That’s not so for boys, unfortunately. Let’s change that. Then we can focus on whether there’s enough out there to keep them entertained.

  77. Olivia Says:

    Dear Maureen,

    I love you.

    Here’s my interpretation of this post: Girls know how to read stuff by boys and for boys. Boys need to learn how to read stuff by girls for girls. Because it’s good too.

  78. Rohan Says:

    I would agree that there’s an overabundance of men in capital-L Literature, but I think the landscape is getting a LOT better. In high school the English department made sure to include texts written by women (for example, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Looking for Alibrandi’) and my studies in literature at university was the same. There were still more men than women, but we talked about why that was and the gender bias that exists in the publishing industry.

    My most favourite book of all time, ‘The Thirteen-and-a-Half Lives of Captain Bluebear’ was written by a man, Walter Moers, but two of my most favourite series – Harry Potter and the Hunger Games – were both written by women. I work in a book store and have seen dozens of boys passionately reading these books written by women, or stories written by men but with strong female protagonists (for example, ‘Tomorrow When the War Began’ by John Marsden).

    So I think there are encouraging signs that the world of books will soon become much more equal than it has been in the past. You’re right that the problem exists not so much with the boys, but with the publishers. I’d like to think that this will become less of an issue as time goes on.

  79. Heelbiter Says:

    This was *fabulous*. Thank you so much for writing this. I’d like to force most of our children’s/teen department at my public-library job to read it over and over again until they internalize it, but alas, that is not to be. It’s still awesome, though.

  80. Forgetmenot Says:

    Nice commentation! I truly adoored your metaphor on candy and protein

  81. David Says:

    Yeah, save me from penis-prone teaching/reading lists. During time of “Montreal Massacre” vividly remember three devastated, 17-year-old girls rushing into class and declaring: “They’re killing us in Montreal.” Felt like I helped pull the trigger. Teaching Mists of Avalon and Handmaid’s Tale that semester was the hardest and best thing I did. Never forgotten it.

  82. Zara Says:

    What an excellent commentary! Thank you so much for writing this.

  83. Shannon Dittemore Says:

    Why have I not seen your books?! I’m new to your blog having clicked on the link via someone’s twitter update, but I’ll tell ya, I appreciate your response to the issue. It’s not catty and yet there’s a truth that rings loud and clear.

    Thank you for sharing. I’ll be searching the shelves at my local B&N for your books.

  84. Caroline Says:

    I currently attend an all girls school and I am happy to report that our reading lists have been updated to include many a lady author. Over the years, I have studied novels by Lisa See, Sue Monk Kidd and Nadine Gordimer and sampled writing from numerous women poets. Still, I realize that my school is an exception and that much work is still to be done.

  85. Kat Says:

    Yeah… I have maybe books from ten male authors on my shelves (which there are only a few such a David Gemmell, T.A. Baron, Gareth Nix and such that I really really like)* and at least three times as many my female authors. My mother taught me well. It, of course, helps that I have two shelves dedicated to Mercedes Lackey and about another to Marian Zimmer Bradley.

    *I suppose I should count Madeline Brent, who is after all, a man writing under a woman’s name

  86. Katie Says:

    Fantastic post! Thank you so much.

  87. kt literary » Blog Archive » The Brilliant MJ Strikes Again Says:

    [...] brilliant, BRILLIANT post by Maureen Johnson that you must read, if you haven’t already. And when you’ve done [...]

  88. Lisa Says:

    What also doesn’t get talked about is the fact that women have always dominated the best seller charts, but for whatever reason (usually the term “sentimental fiction” which is a technical term but also a slight) those books still don’t make cannon. The very first “bestselling” novel written in the US was The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster in 1797, and prior to that the first worldwide bestseller (in English) was Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, which held the record until Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (funny, also female). Of course, their spectacular commercial success was, even then, blamed on the fact that women apparently had more time to read, and not for any hope of quality…

  89. Girls v. boys: the gender debate continues | CMIS Evaluation Fiction Focus Says:

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  90. RosieB Says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I am printing it out, so that when I come across the worst of these attitudes I can just say ‘read that, I can wait’.

    I can vouch for the fact that it’s even worse in the younger age ranges. The received wisdom that we all work from nowadays is that girls will read ‘boy books’, with boy protagonists, with male-focused covers, but if you have a girl protagonist or a slightly girly cover, boys won’t go near it.

    Perhaps this does have a grain of truth in it, but the REASON they won’t is that they’re told it is an acceptable choice, rather than a whopping great bit of sexism, and they have their choices reinforced by publishers scrabbling to publish books that cater to them without any of that icky girl stuff.

    (Potentially even more depressing is the number of times I’ve come across people not even wanting to publish adventure books starring girls because they think the marketing waters are too muddied and girls won’t pick up a book unless you can make the cover pink and sparkly…)

    I’ve seen the Gareth Malone show someone referenced by the way, and it’s pretty depressing viewing, not because the teaching is bad as such, but because it completely doesn’t question the idea that boys are fundamentally different to girls and not being catered to enough in the classroom, and need to be allowed to climb trees in school time in order to learn to read. Obviously something has happened to these boys to make them fail in literacy, but I sincerely doubt it was a dearth of tree-climbing.

  91. Elaine Says:

    Very true!
    In my class of eleven-year-olds, last year six boys read Twilight and four made it to the end of all four books. Then went back to Darren Shan.

  92. Ang Says:

    A YA writer friend sent me the link to this, and I wholeheartedly agree with you.

    Lionel Shriver wrote about the lack of respect for female writers recently, mentioning that when she wrote one of her trademark complex, ‘nasty’ books, her publishers wanted an irrelevant girly cover on it:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/sep/02/publishers-ghettoise-women-writers-and-readers

    I was very struck by the idea that the same subject matter is viewed through very different lenses depending on the sex of a writer. A woman writing about family dynamics is writing women’s fiction, small, provincial and insignificant; whereas a man writing about a family is being terribly clever by using it as a metaphor for society and will get coverlines like ‘A searing indictment of our times’…

  93. Ms. Yingling Says:

    I think that this is a very valid position for adult literature, and why I have been struggling with my concentration on literature for teen boys, but I do think that children’s and YA lit has been somewhat girl centered for the last thirty years or so. It’s a fine line– getting boys and girls to read, and providing them both with quality books that interest them.

  94. Tansy Rayner Roberts Says:

    This is a fantastic essay addressing a topic that regularly makes me want to beat my head against any available wall.

  95. Chris C Says:

    As a male from the UK, born in 1956, I grew up reading Beatrix Potter and Enid Blyton, then progressed to Zenna Henderson, Georgette Heyer, Andre Norton and Ursula LeGuin, along with around an equal number of male writers. Not for school, admittedly, there it was mostly Dead White Males (Tolkien, Shakespere, Dickens, Hardy; Jane Austen was I think the only exception in our ‘required’ books), but I found that school ‘required’ reading caused most pupils to dislike the authors concerned. For some reason they seemed to pick the most depressing books or ones inappropriate to the age (my sister got “The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner” at 13!).

    However, being a boy who read books because he liked it was a definite social mistake. Voluntarily reading books AT ALL (let alone those by women or about girls) branded a boy a ’sissy’ and “not a real man”, and I made very sure not to read books obviously by female authors where other boys could see me. This wasn’t a matter of a lack of books by women, it is a social problem where reading for pleasure (and music and dance (real dancing) and art) are seen as not activities fit for Real Men(tm). That is the real problem. Most men read only when they have to (apart from the ’sports’ pages of tabloids), and they set that example to boys. How many men do you see reading fiction for fun on TV? If they read at all it is likely to be a car manual, something they can claim is ‘work’.

    As for my shelves these days, the only authors there who I read for school are Tolkien and Shakespere. Of the rest, at least half are female. And looking at my lists of books read in the last few years the overwhelming number of books I’ve read for the first time have been by women (Liz Williams, Kelley Armstrong, Seanan McGuire, Elizabeth Moon, Janet Warner, Catherine Asaro, Diane Duane, Diana Wynne Jones, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some), among those I’ve re-read the number is probably about even (because I have a large collection of older SF from when the field was indeed male-dominated).

    (Here via Elizabeth Moons’s Twitter feed…)

  96. Sue Harrison Says:

    Awesome post. Thank you for having the brains and the guts to post this.

  97. Martha Wells Says:

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  98. Margaret Lion Says:

    AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  99. Jamie Says:

    As a male growing up in the UK, I have read and enjoyed many books written by women, e.g. (in no particular order) Trudy Canavan, Anne McCaffrey, Jill Murphy, Robin Hobb, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Jan Pieńkowski (that’s going back a bit), Elizabeth Moon, Ursula Moray Williams, Diane Duane, Barbara Hambly, Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter and J K Rowling.

    That was off the top of my head, there are certainly more. All that matters to me is the content, not the credentials.

  100. Megan Frazer Says:

    This is so perfect and awesome! The next question is, what do we do about it? I don’t think we can just demand that we be called the equivalent of “corn sugar” rather than “high fructose corn syrup.”

  101. Kaethe Says:

    You’re brilliant, and you made that so clear. The advice to actually go to the shelves is wise, because whenever people start thinking about books for/about/by boys they tend to suffer from a bad case of confirmation bias. There isn’t any kind of shortage of these boy books, just that frequent problem that whenever the male to female ratio in anything approaches parity, everyone seems to feel that it’s gone all girly.

    It’s all just one more way of saying that straight white male equals human, and everything else is Other. And, of course, the Other carries cooties, and the cootie shot hasn’t been properly tested and may not provide the protection required.

  102. Suniverse Says:

    Thanks for this. It’s always appalling to me how little credit women writers get in any genre. I’m glad you so succinctly put into words what I’ve long thought about the canon and YA literature.

  103. Patricia Says:

    When I was little, I didn’t even want to BE a girl, because they never did anything interesting in the books I read (like Treasure Island) or the shows I watched. My most vivid memory of my preschool years is my being upset over the fact that my friends wanted to make me be April when I really wanted to be a Ninja Turtle just because I was a girl. My mother told me I could be anything I wanted to be, so I chose not to be a girl. This stuff starts really young, you guys.

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  106. Leslie Healey Says:

    Thank you, thank you. I still count Jane Eyre as one of my favorite books of all time, because I FELT the book, I knew it was different. It spoke to me, of me. Before Jane Eyre, all I had was Annie Oakley or Queen Elizabeth. Really. That was it. I teach high school English now, and thankfully I can find lots of stuff for boys to read–mostly because I had to read all that “guy” stuff as a girl. Won’t it be great when the gender of the author will not be considered a negative by either girls or boys?

  107. Jennifer Joseph Says:

    Epic. Thank you.

  108. Sarah Milan Says:

    I am currently a senior in high school and out of my prior three years of high school, I’ve only had to read three novels written by women (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Bell Jar, and The Fountainhead).

  109. Bangalow Accommodation Says:

    Love this post. And retweeted. Thanks so much Maureen – you make some deeply valid and moving points – as always :)

  110. Leela Says:

    I understand the argument, but I’d also argue the current selection of romance-oriented girl books does not represent girl readers, either. I was a girl Trekkie growing up who was not into romance at all, and the YA bookshelves now look remarkably like a younger version of the paranormal romance section/ the section formerly known as chick-lit. That’s why guys don’t read, too, I’d bet. They are as tired as romance-oriented stories as I am.

  111. Obsessed Librarian Says:

    Maureen,
    This post made my soul soar. I am teen services librarian and a teacher, and I can usually stay pretty calm in the face of rampant sexism or other general stupidity while I explain, explain, explain. Only twice have I come unglued because of these things. The first time was a defense of Pullman to a “concern” parent who was so “concerned” about Pullman’s “devout atheism” that she didn’t bother to read his books before she led a boycott of them. The second time involved a local English teacher; you were the catalyst, congratulations.
    I had been recommending books to this man for months, and he had always liked what I gave him. When I tried 13 Little Blue Envelopes, he looked at the book and said, “I don’t mean to be offensive but this isn’t a girlie book, is it?” This link is a copy of an e-mail I sent to him after I calmed down. I included a list of books with strong female characters written by both men and women. Please excuse the grammatical errors, as I was in a terrible rage.
    http://obsessedlibrarians.blogspot.com/2010/08/significant-others.html

  112. Jo Says:

    I have NEVER had to read a book written by a woman for my English lit. class. Not once. Evelyn Waugh, Barry Hines, H.G. Wells and John Steinbeck all spring to mind. No females.

    I don’t understand why girls are allowed to leave their pink stereotype long enough to read ‘boy’ books but boys cant do the same. As for books written by women being fluffy, has anyone heard of The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins? Get with it, people.

    But well over half of my favourite authors are female.

  113. Blanche Says:

    OK. I’m with you, Maureen Johnson. Your writing is great.

    But for me, a former English major, I hated the Jane Austen AND the John Updike. (So what I really love about this essay is how you tear into the 11th finger.)

    I don’t want to read the grueling details of personal relationships and neuroses. I know that’s nearly impossible for some people to understand. (Whereas this post was very interesting to me.) So I ended up leaving literature, and just read the social sciences. (You should hear how hard that is for people to relate to. They’re always trying to “cure” me with their female-affirming true crime and magical realism novels.)

    I would like to say something to the wounded egos of your readers-commentators. I’m sorry the publishers puts humiliating covers on them, but even without the covers: Not everybody can affirm romance/domestic drama novels. Don’t take it so personally when people reject the books you give them (Are you listening, my mother-in-law?). We all can’t force books and music and art on everyone we’re close to and then get all petulant when they run away.

    Having said that to the commentators, I take every opportunity to read girls’ literature to my son. He’s only kindergarten-aged, so he still listens and enjoys it. But as a social scientist I know at some point, unless he has mad social skills and he’s athletic, he’ll get the life kicked out of him by other boys if he enjoys anything identified as feminine. It’s a big, big project to change boys’/men’s socialization.

  114. Jack Heath Says:

    I’m male, I’m a YA fiction writer, and a disproportionate number of my favourite authors are men. I’m currently spending a year reading only books by women to tilt this balance.

    I recently acquired a Kobo eReader, which comes preloaded with 100 classic novels, only 13 of which are female-authored. So I take your point about historical bias.

    Having said all that, I finished high school in 2004. In my 20th Century Novels class, the set texts were The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter. In previous English classes I’d been assigned Beloved by Toni Morrison, People Might Hear You by Robin Klein, and Killing Aurora by Helen Barnes (courtesy of which I discovered what “menstruation” was, long before I learned anything about the corresponding male biology.)

    This saturation of female authored books wasn’t limited to my studies – in our leisure time, my classmates and I were reading Harry Potter. Before that, we were obsessed with Animorphs (KA Applegate) and Teen Power Inc. (Emily Rodda).

    I know I’m just one guy, but it seems to me that things have changed. You say that “50% or more of the school population is still getting a steady diet of male authors” – if that’s true, are you sure it isn’t just students are forced to study so much Shakespeare?

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  116. Tafadhali Says:

    What a wonderful post! I agree with some earlier commenters that you seem to be conflating the issues of boys reading YA and boys reading assigned texts here, but I think you make some excellent points about the latter. My brother graduated from an all-boys school two years ago, and I’m not sure if he was assigned a single book by a female author in his time there.

    At my all-girls secondary school and very liberal college, where I spent my first two years thinking I was going to concentrate on feminist and post-colonial literature before switching to Theatre and Drama, I had a much more diverse reading list. But even so, of the 118 books I can remember reading on assignment between sixth grade and college graduation, only 29% were by women (haha, yes, I’m an obsessive spreadsheet maker, what of it), while a few more than that had female protagonists.

    (To be fair, I’m about to pursue a Master’s in Shakespeare Studies, and his plays made up a whopping 12% of my assigned reading, not counting the plays I was assigned more than once. Which does throw off my stats a skosh.)

  117. Dianna Says:

    (I haven’t had a chance to read all the comments, so I apologize if this is repetitive).

    I agree with you for the most part – an eleventh finger does not grant some magical ability to become an author and what we teach in schools reflects an unfair bias. I think, however, contemporary lit is beginning to balance this out. I’m looking at my bookshelf right now at the section of books from my graduate course in Contemporary American Lit, and the overwhelming majority are female – Annie Proulx, Joyce Carol Oates, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, to name a few (we read 13 novels that semester, and 6 or 7 of those 13 were female authors). If we could get a reading list like that class into lit classes in high schools, we not only would spark more interest in reading for both genders, but we would also balance out the gender inequality.

    Though this is a complex and complicated issue, I don’t think it’s so easily defined as solely a gender divide. I think there’s, as you give brief mention, a bias against contemporary literature in education as well. I read nothing later than 1940 for my classes until I was in graduate school (discounting Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird). So not only are we reading almost exclusively male, we are also read almost exclusively OLD. If we could somehow get over the idea that books written after 1950 are somehow less legitimate for study as books written in the 17th century, we’d be able to introduce a lot more female authors into the curriculum. As you state yourself, the 20th century sees an explosion of female literature, and so the bias we see against contemporary is also, by proxy, a bias against female literature.

    Having done my MA thesis on a contemporary, female author who appeals to both genders (JKR, FTW!), I will probably always be the first to cry “More contemporary literature! It’s just as teachable, if not more!” I mean, c’mon, reading Cormac McCarthy during graduate school taught me to love literature again (a hard thing to do in the midst of grad school), and he’s about as literary and contemporary as you can get (unless you count Jonathan Franzen, who I have not read yet).

    And for the record, I did go through my library and count, and out of 140 books, 110 are male-authored, 28 are female, and two are anthologies on philosophy/history co-authored by male and female, and contain writings from both.

  118. Charmaine Clancy Says:

    Brilliant :-)

  119. Leah Says:

    I was definitely required to read a large amount of fiction written by men. My mum’s an English teacher in Melbourne, and she said that the booklist for year 12 English is designed for boys and agrees with you completely.

  120. Kathleen Says:

    Thank you for writing this post!

    If boys aren’t reading sufficiently, it has nothing to do with an absence of “boy books.” There are enough books in the Hardy Boy series alone to take a boy almost from basic reader status right the way to age 14. Add on books like lord of the rings, most of science fiction and fantasy that’s been published, most of Roald Dahl, any of the thousands of pirate or space flight adventure books that came out of the 60s and 70s in the US, Harry Potter (which although written by a women features significantly more heroes than it does heroines), many of the new young adult novels, and even more adult books like the Wheel of Time series, and you have an endless stream of exciting stories featuring heroes, many of which were written by men.

    My personal opinion is that the difference in boys literacy stems from cultural attitudes about what is both “normal” and “acceptable” “boy” behavior. All the people out there who perpetuate gender stereotypes like “boys would rather play rough and tumble” or “boys just enjoy video games more” or even “boys will be boys” are doing boys a huge disservice by making them so one dimensional. If we instead collectively started going on about how “boys can be great readers” (along side a similar “girls can be great readers), and stuck to that, we’d see more boys reading.

  121. Darsa Says:

    It’s early and I’m rambly from no coffee… but I’ll comment anyway:

    I used to teach at an all-boys school, and I now have three boys of my own. “Boys and reading” has pretty much been my focus for the past few years since 1) my two oldest are coming of reading age 2) developing into an avid reader is, in my experience and research, the number one factor in being successful in school and beyond 3) I enjoy reading beyond all activities and I would perish if my boys didn’t become readers. My experience as a teacher and so far as a mother has led me to believe that reading to children aloud is essential in helping them develop into readers. If boys are lagging in this area, isn’t it KEY that parents/teachers/care-givers of boys be urged at every turn to read aloud to their boys? Two recent articles, HOW TO RAISE BOYS WHO READ and HOW TO ACCELERATE A READER, both neglected to include reading aloud as a recommendation. (Both responded to me, when I pointed this out, that there was a specific reason they didn’t include this, it didn’t fit within the scope of their article… But, if it is so crucial (and it is), it should at least be mentioned in a HOW TO article, in my opinion.)

    My husband and I read aloud to our children at least once a day and always at bedtime. I have always found books written by female authors, by and large, to be most appealing, so most of what we have around the house consists of books written by female authors. My boys have been raised on a steady diet of Maud Hart Lovelace, Elizabeth Enright, Beverly Cleary, Eleanor Estes, JK Rowling… they have even loved Trixie Belden mysteries and Meg mysteries that I’ve hoarded since childhood. Already, though, and my oldest is only 9 and goes to about the most liberal, progressive school imaginable, he is reluctant to “book talk” books that very obviously feature a female as the protagonist. So far, though, he doesn’t seem to mind if the author is female or not. I wish society were different. I don’t know how to change it.

    I agree with others that stated these are somewhat different topics… but the answer to at least one of them to me is clear: READ ALOUD TO YOUR BOYS! READ TO THEM BOOKS ABOUT BOYS, GIRLS, ANIMALS, WHATEVER… when they are old enough to choose on their own, if you’ve really done your job and they are truly lifelong readers, they’ll be able to find books that appeal to them.

  122. Joe K Says:

    Firsly I would like to make the point that there are some boys who will never enjoy reading, no matter what you do them, they are just that kind of person.

    I would like to address why boys so often don’t read books by female authors. Packaging obviously plays its role, however the content is a massive decider.

    I do read books by women, however the majority of the books I read by choice are by men. I shall take the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins to explain this. Upon reading the first book i was pleasently suprised that the female main character was so competant and best of all the author was not always on about the characters emotions. Emotions did play a part, however they did not make up the entire book. Without emotions a book is boring, or a histroy book!

    However by book 3 i was upset to find that the book was almost all about the character been stuck underground been insane. I appriciate that she the character would probably be insane after what she had been through, but having 2/3s of the book about this makes for terrible reading.

    That is why I limit my reading of female authors (especially in the YA section ), becuase i for one cant stand solid emotions for the majority of a book, whereas male authors in my experience strike a happy balance between action, emotion and dialogue.

  123. Robynn Says:

    I seem to have been lucky to escape having such a male-dominated literary diet at school. And my shelves are dominated by female authors (Kate Atkinson, Sheri Tepper, AS Byatt, Margaret Atwood…). But it really annoys me that (1) I feel a little guilty about that, as if it’s the soft choice (not so much that I think these are lesser writers; more that I think I should be able to take more interest in men’s writing – but as you point out, nobody would be at all surprised in a man’s bookshelf carrying mostly books by men. And (2) – well, the mere existence of “women’s fiction” shelves in any bookshop is an outrage. But to see such authors as the above on that shelf, alongside Confessions of a Shopaholic? Ridiculous.

  124. Lori Says:

    Wow. When I was an English major in undergrad in the early 80’s, and EVERY PROFESSOR I had was MALE, I was subconsciously perturbed by the endless variety I was fed of Hemingway, Heller, Shakespeare, Orwell…I could go on, but you get the gist. Consciously, I made the decision to go to law school instead of becoming an English professor, which led me into an even more male-dominated enclave, but…I digress. Great POST. Every word is true. And by the way… I have a 10 year old boy, that I have no trouble finding books for! You just need to get off your couch and go to a non-big box bookstore or good library.

  125. Marie Phillips Says:

    Maureen, I agree fervently with all of this. I often get men telling me how “surprised” they are to have enjoyed my work. I am glad that they like it, but I think it’s a shame they assumed they wouldn’t, just because I’m a female writer.

    Apologies if this seems bold or aggressive but I can’t help but notice how feminine-looking your blog is. The pink colouring, the rounded font which evokes female handwriting. The look of it implies that the blog is for female readers only, which I’m sure can’t be at all what you intend. Perhaps you should take your own advice and market your writing to everyone?

  126. Stella H. Says:

    Thanks, Darsa, for your great response to a great article. i agree, read aloud to your boys and buy them audio books galore! an audio book is completely anonymous on an Ipod, no book covers to hide. my kids, 2 girls and a boy all got read to every day and are voracious readers even now in their twenties. Also, an english major, I looked at my shelves and true, many male authors, but my favorite author is a woman- Elizabeth Goudge (mid-century British). Also many mysteries have women writers, like pd james,louise penney etc… and they are in abundance on my reading lists/shelves. i always hated the roth and irving type writers, give me jm Barrie (his grown-up stuff) and terry pratchett any day over those male authors. will the women in publishing try to change the “girl cover” debacle, please?

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  128. Margaret Michelle Says:

    Thank you for this article. I’m always shocked— or rather, maybe I’m disappointed that I’m NOT shocked— when I realize how male-dominated my own reading lists/shelves are. Or the local bookstores’.

    And then I feel vaguely guilty when I try to re-balance with women authors, because I’m ignoring “the canon”!

    (I cannot believe that Nicholas Sparks interview, by the way. You’re right, I think he almost broke his spine. Some impressive contortionist moves.)

  129. A Says:

    Nicely done.

    The female authors that come to mind in the literary vs. commercial argument are Annie Proulx and Colleen McCullough. I want to see a man write something as f’ing graphic and epic as The Thorn Birds, which I read at the age of 12 (voracious young egghead, yes) and from which I learned everything I know about sex. And Proulx isn’t afraid of anything; she may actually HAVE that eleventh finger. (She lives in my home state of Wyoming, her disparaging depiction of which pisses me off, but hey, she’s good, and probably right.)

    Didn’t read Jane Austen until my 20s, which I bitterly regret, but at least now I get to make up for lost time.

  130. N. D. Smith Says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article (and thanks to my daughter for forwarding it to me). I’m impressed by the quality of responses following the article – civil, erudite, diverse in perspective. Reading them has been like spending an afternoon with friends.

    My two cents – as a middle school girl, I was fortunate to stumble upon a rack of interesting-looking paper back books at the library. I didn’t really understand everything in The Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451 and so on, but found them impossible to forget. Thank heavens no one told me they were “classics”or I would have been frightened off. What chance does a boy have to discover such books if even being seen entering a library is uncool?

    Before I got to those books I had to be hooked on reading in the first place. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and Black Stallion books had to come first – engaging stories that made me want to turn pages.. My daughters had better options to start their reading addictions with Madeleine L’Engle and Robin Mckinley and Andre Norton. Why does Sci/Fi get such a bad rap anyway? (Doesnt 1984 fit into that category?).

    Huzzah for Harry Potter. The popularity of that series was not started by adults force-feeding reading like vegetables at dinner time. The books went viral, kid to kid. Peers, not literature teachers, influence taste.

    I’m fortunate to have a husband who reads Elizabeth Moon as readily as Terry Prachett. But he still won’t touch my favorite book ever, Jane Eyre. (It is interesting that one of the first things that happens in that book is that the bully male cousin grabs away the book Jane is looking at, claims he owns it, and hits her in the face with it.)

    The reality is that today’s culture deems that all things that smell of intellectualism stink. (Chess anyone? Science experiments in the garage?) Add to that the macho attitude that if a girl likes something a boy must not – which shows up in any area, just look what happened when women were, because of the shortage of men during the civil war, forced to take up the slack in teaching, nursing, secretarial work. The flute used to be an all-male instrument. Is it a coincidence that once women got liberated from endless domestic/farm work and started reading in greater numbers that it began to be suspect for boys to read?

  131. Maryn Says:

    I agree with you to a certain extent, being an current (female) English Master’s student I could go on and on about the books I have been educated in.

    However, I do see a major flaw. I currently have a younger brother who, like most teenagers his age (whether male or female) do not want to pick up a “classic” novel. I grew reading a tonne of novels and series with female heroines and protagonists I could look up to. Trying to find the same material for a younger boy, without reverting to the “classic” material, is not so easy. Walking into a bookstore nowadays and trying to find a boy-oriented fiction novel or series is practically impossible. All I see is Twilight, Gossip Girl, etc etc. Harry Potter, Eragon, and Percy Jackson only go so far. Having a greater selection of current and interesting literature, and that perhaps leaves discussions of impotence and lust out of 12-year-old boy reading material would be amazing.

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  133. Laira Says:

    Dear Maryn–I don’t know what kind of bookstore you’re looking in! I just bought two new books today in series that feature young men about that age: Leven Thumps, by Obert Skye, and Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer. Not quite as recent, but very good is Terry Pratchett’s “Nation” – a great book on the expectations surrounding young men.

    The vast majority of young adult fiction that I’ve read features male protagonists, even when written by females like Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper. Fortunately it seems it’s getting a little trendier to include both a brother and a sister in YA fiction, ala the Young Wizards…but seriously. Take another look. I think you’ll be surprised.

  134. Liz Says:

    I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with this article. I loved Faulkner but equally loved Bronte (Emily).

    I’ve noticed from the books on my 25 year old brother’s shelf, he prefers non-fiction. He raved about Machievelli’s The Prince and loved Ayn Rand. Ask him to read Dickens and he won’t do it. I find my father’s taste is similar, whereas my mother and I will read just about any book you put in front of us. Sometimes twice.

    This makes me wonder if the gender difference in books is not necessarily the gender of the author but the subject matter entirely. If maybe, gasp, boys like books about how things work and girls prefer books about people. I don’t necessarily think it’s the end of the world if it turns out we have different tastes in books.

    I’d also like to note that as a female who attended law school, YA books saved my sanity. Being able to read something, no matter how crappy some of those books might have been, was a welcome respite from hundred year old case law.

    And (at least here) educators are slowly but surely adding graphic novels into the curriculum as acceptable books for boys.

  135. your neighborhood librarian Says:

    I think you are right on about college reading. Maybe even high school reading. But if I read the word “boys” as referring you, you know, KIDS… the majority of what they’re doing as class reads in elementary school are written by women.

    Nowadays the thoughtful middle grade chapter books, the books a class can discuss, are mostly written by women. Barbara O’Connor, Rebecca Stead, Linda Sue Park, Loreen Look, Lois Lowry, Laurel Snyder, Jacqueline Woodson, Geraldine McCaughrean… and Jerry Spinelli, but Jerry Spinelli’s most recent chapter books are Stargirl and Love, Stargirl – boys say, “Aaaghh!” (and then they read Stargirl and they like it, everyone should read Stargirl).

    Books written by men for boys right now are funny/silly books and adventure novels. Books written by men for teenagers right now are sports novels, plus a VERY few fantasy series.

    I am actually ok with this state of affairs. I’m a librarian, and I have adventure and humor and fantasy to give to any kid, and relationship books to give to girls, but some kids ONLY read the books they’re assigned for school, and those boys may be getting the impression that books are written by women.

  136. andrea (book-scout) Says:

    dude. this post is like mother’s milk to me. last month i spent an entire week blathering on about gender issues on ye olde blog, and was kind of amazed by the responses. i’m a children’s book-seller, a book-blogger, and a female to boot, and i’m still baffled by the number of people (women, particularly) who firmly believe in the “boy book crisis,” without seeing the underlying issues.

    one awesome reader said that her 13 year old son (who will, hallelujah, happily read both “girl books” and “boy books”) responded to the idea of people freaking out about how to get boys to read more, with this: “that reminds me of the saying – the beatings will commence until morale improves.”

    i love that kid.

    (you can read the whole response toward the end of the comments here: http://scoutandjem.typepad.com/bookscout/2010/08/girl-issues.html )

    thanks for this. it made my morning. and made me want to use the phrase “sex with penises” at least once in a sentence today.

  137. jessa Says:

    Maureen, as a YA librarian and poet, thank you for writing this piece. I didn’t see a crisis in boys’ reading at my last library; if anything, I saw many adults failing to notice that boys were (gasp!) reading, and were (double gasp!) reading books by and about girls! Apparently, for a variety of reasons, some boys find some girls interesting. Who knew?

    Back in the faraway days of undergrad, I majored in poetry writing. Every time an instructor used the phrase “woman poet,” I was seized with the urge to fling my notebook at them. The implicit message that poet = dudeman left me feeling that being a woman would keep me from ever fully becoming a poet. I’m still fighting to reject that teaching. Thank you for showing me that I’m not alone.

  138. AP Says:

    I was just sitting around with a group of friends talking about this very issue. I’m a college senior with a lifelong love of reading, and I recently drew up a list of Book I Haven’t Read, But I Should. I was a little surprised to notice only one female author on the list, which led me to poll friends on their favorite women writers. Women in writing seem to be pushed to the side; a quick search of “novels by women” yielded mostly romance novels (which I have also read for years, but are not what I’m looking for right now). Middle school and high school was a steady diet of Boy Books and Boy Topics, and I especially remember being forced through Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet” twice. After asking around I have found many female authors that hold a place of distinction in the hearts of their readers, but their names are generally not those that pop up on the list of “100 Greatest Books”. So, thank you for writing this article: it’s our job as readers, men and women, to spread the word of great writers.

  139. Lara Says:

    I never noticed this before. I always thought I read an equal amount of male and female writers. So I looked at the last books I’ve read recently:

    White Oleander by Janet Fitch
    A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
    A Secret History by Donna Tartt
    The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson Mcullers

    Oh, look! Its mostly women.
    but it doesn’t actually bother me anyway.

  140. sema4 Says:

    Oh yes, such a good post , thank you so much Maureen. The pity is that the necessity is still there. My UK schooling in the 60’s was very good but hugely male dominated author-wise. Coming to second wave feminism the 70’s left me with lasting sense of having been cheated out of all ( well lots of anyway) the wonderful women authors of the past . To this day I read male authors only when reviewed or recommended by soemone I trust.

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  143. Linda Urban Says:

    Love this post. Thank you.

    Want to add that the marketing is an issue.
    To reach bookstore customers, my book A Crooked Kind of Perfect, features stripey toe-socks on the cover. Very girl. And very smart marketing.

    When I go to schools, I hear from boys who liked the book just as much as the girls did, and who identified with the main character’s best friend who is a boy. Many of those boys who bring me hardcover copies of their books to sign, however, do so with the book jacket removed.

  144. Kaitlyn Says:

    Not to gloat, but I consider myself fairly fortunate to have avoided this issue by the simple fact that I’m Canadian. Our literary canon is much more heavily skewed towards female writers, in terms of sales, curriculum representation, and prize-winners.

  145. teeloncar Says:

    Bravo! Superlative! Thank you for your illuminating commentary.

    As an unapologetic bibliophile and former English major (I’m still in recovery), I don’t need to visualize my bookshelf to quote Sherwood Anderson, Hawthorne, Poe, Faulkner, Hemingway, etc…and that’s just the American authors. I seethe when I read dismissive comments about women’s fiction, YA and romance (seriously when did the romance genre become the blight on literary humanity even though it drives a large chunk of mass market sales for publishers?)

    As a parent of a reading-obsessed daughter, I can add that the US public school reading list has not improved from when I was in school. My daughter, who has devored books from Madeline L’Engle and Meg Cabot like potato chips, has to struggle to hold her attention to Bud Not Buddy, Old Yeller, Johnny Tremain, Holes, etc. Why not A Wrinkle in Time or the Little House books?

  146. Max Rockbin Says:

    I know it’s not making up for the gap in publishing, but almost half the blogs I read are written by women (more if you discount technical material where the bias is huge). It’s something. Womens’ voices are out there…

  147. Jenine Says:

    I was pointed here by the Fug girls. Your point about the marketing of female writers’ books reminded me of an Ursula K. LeGuin paperback (Searoad) I bought about 12 years ago. It was in pastels with the title in a swoopy font. There were no figures on the cover but the colors and layout reminded me of a bodice ripper crossed with a box of tampax.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I takes perspective to realize how one sided literature has been.

  148. Nadia Says:

    80% male.

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  150. e.lee Says:

    Unfortunately this sort of bias in marketing exists in the creative industry, for example new female singers and artistes are considered difficult to package, plus the attendant ageism and lookism that doesn’t seem to apply to the men.

    Of course just because its widespread it doesn’t mean its acceptable…keep charging and getting in the ring!

  151. Stace Says:

    This post was an eye-opener for me.

    I was educated in New Zealand, and can honestly say that the balance of male/female authors we read in school was about even. If we pretend for a minute that Shakespeare is just Shakespeare (and not particularly blokey) then I’d say the balance even tips slightly more heavily towards female authors (and poets, and directors).

    I happened to be taught by a heavily gay/lesbian English department. Do you think my teachers may have been more gender aware than usual?

    Hmmm. You’ve got me thinking.

  152. frostbite Says:

    My favorite teacher in college, at Fordham, taught a course on Jane Austen and had us read Emily Bronte, Toni Morrison, Emily Dickinson and Maya Angelou in my English 101 class. Thank God for teachers like her!

  153. Margaret Says:

    I’ve read 40 works of (longer) literature in their entirety this year. 12 of them were written by women, only three of which I read for school (Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Virginia Woolf). The rest were written by women within the last 20 years or so.

  154. Kit Says:

    I completely agree with you – and disagree at the same time. My sons are in that age range 6-10 where it is SO important that their reading improve but where they have ALSO not entirely learned how to still their bodies for any length of time – so books that do not grab their attention and superglue it to the chair are useless. Books that are too easy cannot hold them, books that are too hard lose them and books that are “Boring” find their way under the couch. When they are older and have found a way to control their bodies with their minds I am all for adding Toni Morrison and Ayn Rand to their reading list but UNTIL then, serve up Stevenson and Twain and anything clever enough to cement their love of reading and expand their vocabulary.

  155. Nikki Says:

    Actually, probably about 90% of the books I read are by women. I read mostly YA, and almost all of my favorite books (minus John Green and a few other books) are by women as well. For me, it really depends on the book more than the author, but it just so happens that many of my favorite books are written by women. (You, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, etc.)

  156. Cass Says:

    I’m a little in love with the fact that you know about F1 cars. :)

    I graduated from high school in 2004, and while we did a little more reading of women than you did, the list is a) short and b) often optional. Bless ‘em, my teachers tried; Harper Lee, Kate Chopin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman did indeed make our reading lists, though not in the same year, and we weren’t supposed to read Atwood until some special, optional senior-year course. Bah. (Says the girl who read her anyway at fourteen.)

    “Reader, I snored” might well sum up most of my high school English class reading.

  157. BookSnob Says:

    Hey Maureen, this has nothing to do with the AWESOME post above, but, I just wanted to say I really really loved your third in Let it Snow. It rocked!! Easily my favorite of the three (although I have nothing against John and Lauren, they were awesome too.) I haven’t laughed so much since… reading your twitter. 0.0

  158. Tabs Says:

    I once had an awesome roommate we managed to have 11 bookshelves between the two of us. We noticed really quickly that, though we had a lot in common, the vast majority of her books were written by men and the vast majority of mine were written by women. She got a new appreciation for romance and YA and I got a new appreciation for sc-fi/fantasy. Fun times were had by all.

  159. Elise Logan Says:

    Wow. Over 150 comments and only a single throw-away mention of possibly the most read female author on the “canon” lists. Not to mention she wrote my absolute, hands down, favorite book ever. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen it dismissed as “chick” lit. Of course, if I heard someone do that, someone would bleed. But I’m harsh like that.

    Okay, so I did the little test. Mainly female authors, though there’s a mix. I read a lot of sci-fi and romance, so the romance tips heavily into female authors and the sci-fi is pretty balanced. Poetry is pretty balanced, the non-fiction tips male, but there are a number of female authors (I tend to read a lot of science-y non-fiction, so Stephen Hawking, Kary Mullis, that kind of thing, but mixed with histories by Antonia Fraser and so forth). The only genres in my library that were clearly male bastions were thrillers (a la Ludlum) and military fiction (a la WEB Griffin). But the preponderance of romance more than made up for it.

    You did say I wasn’t supposed to count the stuff required for school, right? Because I did history and political science. Do you have any idea how few of my texts had women authors? It’s pathetic.

  160. Katie V Says:

    Books I had to read in Highschool and the gender of the author, By Katie V

    No Signature- William Bell- Stinky
    The Chrysalids- John Wyndam-Stinky
    Lord of the Flies- William Golding -meh
    To Kill a Mockinbird- Harper Lee- good
    Frankenstein-Mary Shelley- Love
    Death of a salesman- Arthur Miller- ok
    The Great Gatsby-F. Scott Fitzgerald- Good
    Heart of Darkness-Joseph Conrad- Teacher knew it stank so gave us a link to the audio book/gave us lots of the answers
    Handmaids tale-Margaret Atwood- good
    The Crucible-Arthur miller- ok
    The Shipping news-Annie Proulx- Hated it. Hated it even more that I lost my copy the school gave me, had to buy one to replace it and then found my copy so I now own one

    Romeo and Julliet, 12th night, Hamlet, Macbeth- Shakespeare- Good

    11/15 male
    8/15 enjoyed

    Authors I enjoy

    Tamora Pierce
    Meg Cabot
    JK Rowling
    MJ
    Jasper Fforde
    Libba Bray
    Shana Swendson
    Kyra Davis
    John Green
    Lesley Livingston

    70% women. huh.

    I agree with books written by women being marketed differently. I don’t think there is as desperate need for male writers and there apparently is. BUT I do feel that there is a need for more books that while not aimed at younger boys are books that these younger boys will find interesting. For the past few years, I have volunteered at a school library (which is not that expansive in selection, since the yearly budget for the library from the school board is without a word of a lie, $0) and I have noticed that the little boys have no problems finding books. But once you get to the middle grades, it starts to get a little harder for them to find a book they want to read. And once they hit the 7th or 8th grade? forget it. There is nothing to found that they would want to read. This has definately been improving (percy jackson, harry potter) but it is still not really there. I cannot count how many times the boys head straight for the computer lab and the girls are the ones picking out books. At 20, I have friends who have told me the gave up trying to read when they hit the 9th grade because there just wasn’t any books to be found in the school library that tickled their fancy.

    Its seems that there is very little room for universal books. Its either a girls book or a boys book and promoted as such. I think it needs to be realized that there are universal books, and they are written by both men and women alike. Just because the writer has different equipment than you does not mean that you will not like what they wrote

    Just sayin

  161. Snarkapuss Says:

    Your article is a perfect illustration of why reading in school is compulsory. If we let children/teens read only what they wanted to read, my entire seventh-grade class would have been divided as such: all the girls reading “Sweet Valley High” books, a few of boys reading comics, one or two sneakily reading Stephen King and the rest just pissing off. Our kids SHOULD be reading a wide variety of writing styles, traditions, etc., “classic” or not, because they cannot love anything if they don’t know what it is. This is the only way to cut through the idea of what an author’s writing might be like based on cultural perceptions of him/her, and let kids judge the authors based on THE WORK.

  162. Sky Says:

    After studying my bookshelves for a moment, I found out that most of the books I’ve read in last 12 months are written by women.
    Exceptions are: Jay Asher, John Green, Markus Zusak, James Patterson, Lemony Snicket, Friedrich Duerenmatt and Daniel Keyes.
    Since I’ve read over 100 books in those months, I must have met at least 50 female authors.

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  164. Cyn Says:

    I caught a bit of Oprah yesterday and she was interviewing JK Rowling. She said that her publisher did not want readers to know she was a woman which is why she had the initials JK. The books were being marketed mainly to boys so it was supposed to be assumed she was a man.

  165. Julia Says:

    Maybe if the covers of those books you have posted as, I assume, suggested reading didn’t all look trite and trifling, literature by women would be taken more seriously. I’m sure this is a problem with the agents and publishing industry itself, and I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but COME ON, who but a twit picks up a pink book with a cupcake on the cover looking for fine literature??

  166. J Says:

    I have a 10-year-old boy, who likes to read (although not as voraciously as the girl readers I know) and has no problem with female protagonists. In fact, some of his favorite books feature girls and he doesn’t seem to make any distinction as long as he likes the story.

    But it is hard to get him interested in something outside of his comfort area. He likes realistic fiction, biography, and non-fiction. (Which, I’ve noticed, is what most adult males I know who are readers tend to go for.) He really dislikes high fantasy (he has a 400-page fantasy book to read for English this month, which he is trudging through dutifully.)

    I don’t know why boys don’t like to read, but I’ve heard that it drops off at about the age my son is now (as they enter middle school), so I’m paying attention. I suspect part of it is the books that are selected for the kids in school, and the fact that they don’t have more options to select books for themselves (for class assignments.)

    Also, I think there’s a continuing bias against certain types of books that appeal to boys. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for example – very good stuff. Well-written, well-executed. I liked the Percy Jackson books (which of course my kid dislikes – the fantasy thing) but I did not think they were the best of their class. Wimpy Kid is at least as good but won’t end up on 3rd grade teachers’ reading lists. Neither will Bone, another tween boy favorite.

    Thanks for opening up this conversation! Great post, and great points.

  167. A Cuban In London Says:

    Brilliant article. Good that the millennia bit was a “LOL” moment. :-)

    However, I somehow disagree slightly with you in that I think that children should be exposed to all literature. Good and bad. By men and women. Positive discrimination in favour of female authors might work in the short-term but not in the mid-, long-term. For one, we men are slowly going back in the cave after a the metrosexual spell that lasted a decade. Saying that, the curriculum could accommodate works by Atwood, Winterson, Adichie and Allende, to name but a few female authors who could give boys a wider range of perspectives.

    Great post.

    Have a nice day.

  168. Howard Sherman Says:

    My theory is that there IS an urgent need for male authors and boy books because males of every stripe (especially boys) seem to be reading less and less as time passes.

    My first-hand experience on this subject back in July is here:

    http://howardsherman.net/post/872330208/how-to-get-teenage-dudes-to-want-to-read

  169. Brad Ausrotas Says:

    Hey, Maureen. Thanks a lot for posting this. Thanks even more to all the commenters for the valuable discussion taking place.

    As an 18 year old male, I think I can add a bit of valuable perspective here on the whole young-male-issue.

    As far as my reading for SCHOOL goes, it was split down the middle. Still is, in English for university. I’m Canadian so maybe that’s why, but we’ve done To Kill a Mockingbird, Tuck Everlasting, Frankenstein, in gradeschool books like Tuck Everlasting and The Outsiders, and now more classic literature like Jane Eyre, The Magic Toyshop, Christina Rossetti, etc.

    It’s been really well-balanced. I definitely don’t see a bias toward male authors on reading lists.

    As for my own personal library? Yes, there are more male authors than female. This is true. But my favourite author of all-time is Joanne Rowling, and I read female authors completely without discrimination. If it’s good, give it to me, I’ll read it. I sadly haven’t quite gotten around to your books yet, Maureen, but that’s only because my university schedule has my reading list backed up a bit.

    See, I’m special, in a way. As a child, my mom would read aloud to me every night. It was usually R.L Stines Goosebumps books (at least, I remember those the most), but eventually it got into other things, until, by the time I was 8, I picked up Harry Potter and started reading it myself, and then things just went from there.

    But a commenter above tried to point out the importance of reading aloud to your kids to get them hooked on reading and I CANNOT stress this enough. They’re absolutely right. Especially for boys.

    As a kid, I picked up books without discrimination. I’d read Judy Blume, and I’d read R.L Stine. Some books starred girls, and some boys. As long as they were enjoyable, I had no qualms about it.

    Growing older, I’ve stuck by this. I’m currently reading Empress by Karen Miller, and as you can probably guess, it’s written by a female about a female. It’s a great book, really enjoying it.

    But to the issue at hand. This so-called ‘crisis’. The crisis is not centred around the lack of male authors and books for young males. As a young male, I NEVER had any shortage of reading material, whether it was age-appropriate series’ like Artemis Fowl, or more adult works like Michael Crichton. There was always something, new or old, that suited my taste. Always.

    That’s not the problem. The problem here, as has been pointed out, is that young males are ostracized for enjoying reading. For almost as long as I can remember, loving to read has made me DIFFERENT from other kids, girls and boys. Especially boys. Young boys don’t like to read, in fact a lot of my friends actively avoid it, and I’ve taken quite a lot of grief for reading at school or in front of my friends. It’s somehow become against the grain to enjoy reading and have a penis.

    THIS is where the crisis is. Reading is not socially acceptable for guys anymore. I don’t know why. I don’t know how to fix it. There are those of us who just don’t give a damn about what’s socially acceptable or not, and thus read anyway, male or female. But I’m going to tell you honestly, Maureen, if I showed up in the cafeteria with one of your books, people wouldn’t sit with me. I’m fortunate that I could care less what people think of me because I read, or because of the things I read, but not all boys are like that. Most boys cave to the social curve and dismiss reading early on, and thus blend in with their peers better.

    Contrast this with girls. For girls, it isn’t against the grain to read. Some do, some don’t, but by and large I think it’s definitely not something (especially now since Twilight has pretty much assured that every girl has picked up a book of their own free will at least once) that they get judged about. It’s pretty normal for girls to like reading, and it’s not seen as ‘manly’ for them to read male-centered books, any more than it is to watch movies starring men.

    It’s not like that for guys, and thus that’s the problem. I don’t know how we’re going to make reading ‘cool’ or at least socially acceptable again for males, but that’s what needs to happen in order to correct this ‘crisis’. Because honestly, if it continues on this way, young males are going to grow up illiterate. Already I see it happening. My friends that don’t read have noticeably worse spelling and grammar than those that do. They struggle reading aloud. And this is at 18 – 19 years old. Far past the point when these things should’ve been mastered. And it’s only going to get worse.

    I’ve learned more from reading for my own pleasure than I ever have in course-selected materials, though I am eternally grateful to my teachers for opening my up to some classics, since I normally avoid capital-L Literature like the plague. It really saddens me that others aren’t taking these opportunities because it’s somehow not appropriate for them to.

    It needs to stop.

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  171. Anna Says:

    Just read the Nicholas Sparks interview. Excuse my French, but seriously: what a douche. If I ever heard the comparison of one of his books to Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Hemmingway, Socrates…I think I might projectile vomit.

    But besides my bias, I love what you’ve done with this post, Maureen. :)

  172. Danny Says:

    As a teenage boy, I honestly feel like your argument here is outdated.

    For one thing, the ‘crisis’ in boy’s literature is, at least from my point of view, about the social unacceptability of young guys who want to read anything that’s not Maxim. Even beyond that, on a deeper, personal level, a lot of my friends just don’t even feel like books are -supposed- to be read by them. For instance, the Young Adult aisle should obviously be the most accessible for teens (ALL teens). Yet a stroll down any of these aisles in the bookstore shows shelves plastered with covers of girls in poofy dresses on orange and pink paisley backgrounds. And even if the back blurb sounds awesome, the thought of bringing that book to the counter to buy it is absolutely emasculating. Call it ridiculous, but the male adolescent years are marked by hypersensitivity, just like with females, and egos are at their highest because we’re still trying to find out who “we are.” It’s how it has always been, and that’s how it will always be.

    Moreover, English classes have changed since your time, Maureen. My International Baccalaureate English class is centered on female empowerment and gender roles – two whole, non-elective years reading novels and plays such as Like Water for Chocolate, The House of the Spirits, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and A Doll’s House. I’m not complaining about this, mind you, just noting that the distinct lack of respect for female-wrought literature is being rectified.

    And yet, as academia consciously balances this out, the gap for young male reading grows wider. A lot of people have tried to tell me that this is fair, that female literary dominance will somehow balance with the years wherein feminine literature was overlooked. But that’s not true at all, and I think both men and women will suffer if this issue isn’t properly addressed – preferably without jaded blog posts like this one.

  173. A token is really only useful when you have a lot and can exchange them for goods | My Illustrative Life Says:

    [...] being sensitive and dislike reading stories with female protagonists? And all the other stuff in this badass essay by Maureen [...]

  174. Bissy Says:

    I love this post so much. I’d never clued into that before, that girls and women are expected to identify with male narrators but it’s seldom that the reverse is true. What a great point!

  175. Backdated Motivation | Solelyfictional Says:

    [...] Maureen Johnson talks about the irony of calling for books for boys when there’s so little by …. Courtney Milan objects to a new anti-piracy website (and so do I!) that infringes privacy [...]

  176. Nom de plume: YA Lit and Marketing - Be The Change Says:

    [...] Johnson, a published YA author who is infinitely more expert on these issues than I am, has commented on the dearth of respectability for female authors time and again. She writes, on the recent “crisis” of boys not reading books, that the answer is not to [...]

  177. Gender Balance in Children’s Literature | Lynley Stace Says:

    [...] Sell The Girls: The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle. Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate—as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us. [...]

  178. Elizabeth Says:

    As a lifelong book addict, I can relate to some of this. Yes, we had to read lots of male authors in school as required reading. But I read everything else I could get my hands on, and many of those other books were female authors like Ferber. As the mother of two teenage boys, I can see it from the other side as well. They want different things in their stories than teenage girls sometimes want. Romance? Forget it. Action? Absolutely. My two want nothing to do with ‘girl stories’, and honestly, I can see their point. When I discovered romances shortly after high school, you couldn’t have paid me to read a thriller with a male lead. I wanted to be swept away with the romance–Victoria Holt, anyone? My two used to read a lot when they were younger and the variety of books was better (weird how that works, jumping from middle grade to young adult reading, isn’t it?). Now, however, the shelves in the bookstore are full of female characters pining after the boy in the background. Not so much what my boys want to pick up.

  179. spencer Says:

    That Danny kid is a hero.

  180. Rachel Says:

    I have to say I agree with you Maureen. I grew up actively searching for female authors and role models and I still had a steady diet of men. And I got sooooo tire if reading about men having their midlife crises. Oy!

  181. She’s Cold, Calculating, and Can’t Make A Decision | Just(inE)xorable Says:

    [...] about whether or not this is a situation which needs to be corrected (I love this post by Maureen Johnson, but choose a female YA author with a blog and you shall find commentary). With these female [...]

  182. Ask Your Booksellers « Scattered Pages Says:

    [...] Maureen Johnson – who really is an amazing person, and if you don’t follow her on twitter you should (the passionate defenses of reading are balanced by sheer insanity, it’s lovely)- pulled out a post from her blog archives that answered that beautifully. It speaks to the way we’re educated, the overwhelming mindset that forms the way we view books and reading and gender. [...]

  183. I Reserve The Right To Call You A Lazy Idiot Says:

    [...] book argument’ much more eloquently than me. Check them out below:Aja blogging at The Mary SueMaureen JohnsonRenay at Subverting The TextLady Business//LinkWithinCodeStart var linkwithin_site_id = 778903; var [...]

  184. Return of the “Boy Books” « lisa jenn bigelow Says:

    [...] today Abby (the) Librarian linked to this related post by popular YA author Maureen Johnson: “Sell the Girls. It’s a long essay but worth the time to read it. Like Moskowitz, Johnson starts with the [...]

  185. books for girls, and why I love kids today | scatterbeams Says:

    [...] I hope they choose a majority of women writers – they will have plenty of exposure throughout their education to the world of men’s ideas. [...]

  186. Reading the Girls « Time's Flow Stemmed Says:

    [...] [...]

  187. Canadian Dollar Value Says:

    Canadian Dollar Value…

    [...]Maureen Johnson Books » Blog Archive » SELL THE GIRLS[...]…

  188. book industry: boyz r oppressed in da literaturz « peculiar light Says:

    [...] analyzes boy-vs-girl book covers The Rejectionist looks at the value of the adolescent experience This is almost a year old, but Maureen Johnson’s take bears repeating DiggEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tags: book industry happenings, boyz can [...]

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