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.
Posted: Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 @ 11:21 am
Categories: Chick Lit, books, contributions to society, cooties.
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