This morning, I read what I thought was a great article in the New York Times, addressing the matter of boys and reading, and why there aren’t more guy readers. I liked the article. I shared it with a couple friends. I posted it on Facebook. The main argument of the article was this:
If we’re to counter this tendency and encourage reading among boys who may collectively resist it, boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers.
The complaint largely seemed to center around the idea that “the problem is not the books,” but rather, according to author Saundra Mitchell, this:
The problem that needs to be fixed is not kick all the girls out of YA, it’s teach boys that stories featuring female protagonists or written by female authors also apply to them. Boys fall in love. Boys want to be important. Boys have hopes and fears and dreams and ambitions. What boys also have is a sexist society in which they are belittled for “liking girl stuff.” Male is neutral, female is specific.
Let me just state for the record: I like Saundra. I’ve worked with her on a blog tour, she’s sent me fun swag for a giveaway, she critiqued my friend’s manuscript, she writes great books. And I agree that the problem is not the books. But I do have to disagree with her here, just a bit.
Because, for starters, I never got the impression from the NYT article that the proposed solution was to “kick all the girls out of YA.” But rather, that the solution is finding a way to approach boys with books they’ll want to read.
Saundra goes on to say this:
Here’s how we solve the OMG SO MANY GIRLS IN YA problem: quit treating women like secondary appendages. Quit treating women’s art like it’s a niche, novelty creation only for girls. Quit teaching boys to fear the feminine, quit insisting that it’s a hardship for men to have to relate to anything that doesn’t specifically cater to them.
Now, I do agree with Saundra and the other complainants to a degree. We should teach men and boys that it’s okay to read books with a primarily female protagonist.
But that can’t be the only solution.
Because let’s face facts: men can be a bit stubborn. Teenage boys, even more so. And in some ways, who can blame them? Teen guys (ALL teens, really) are largely preoccupied with what their peers will think of them. They are worried about being teased and mocked, and while it’s great to think they should be able to get over this, they’re not going to. Not that easily, at least. In the NYT article, the author makes this point:
It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.
Cliche, but true, yes. Also unfair, but still true. So is it really that bad to suggest we find other ways to get guys reading, too? Maybe change the way some books are marketed? Add a few more titles to the “new in YA” shelves with guy-centric themes?
Because I would rather have a book marketed differently to entice guy readers, then to not have guy readers at all. I would rather add MORE books to the YA shelves, then keep guys away altogether.
Should guys be okay with reading books about female protagonists, and be able to relate their own lives to these characters? Yes, they should be. But are they? For the large part, no, not really. And we can’t expect to change that over night. I’m not saying let’s roll over and just accept this. But I AM saying this can’t be a “one way or the other” solution.
And while teens’ fears and concerns may be largely universal between guys and girls, most don’t face these fears and concerns in the same way. So why not address them differently in literature?
Is this catering to the male market? Yes. But what’s wrong with that? Isn’t a large portion of the YA publishing industry catering to the female market? They’re giving us what we want, and that’s great. It’s great from a business perspective (because the market is hot, hot, hot) and it’s great from my perspective as a customer, because I have SO MUCH to choose from!
Many complainants to the NYT article have also pointed out that, historically, men dominated the publishing industry. For years, women have had to read books by men, largely with male protagonists. Yes. This is true. But does the exact opposite have to be true now? Can’t there be balance? There are plenty of fantastic books that have already been published with guy protagonists. But can’t there be new ones?
Here’s my main point: I love reading. I support reading. I want to promote literacy. I’ll do whatever it takes to get more people — guys & girls, alike — to read books. If that means catering a bit to the stubborn male reader, I am just fine with that. I have a “do whatever it takes” kind of attitude when it comes to getting more kids to read. So, yeah. If guys need a different approach to convince them that it’s okay to pick up a book, I’ll support that.