Let’s get guys reading: no matter what, okay?

Posted August 20, 2011 by Sara 11 Comments


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.

Then, a short time later, I logged on to Twitter and saw a flurry of outraged responses from several authors and a few other bloggers. I was, well, surprised, to say the least.

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.

For a great, on-going conversation about the subject of reluctant boy readers, I’ll point you to this site: Boys Don’t Read. Check it out. They’re great. Guys Read is also pretty cool, too.

Sara
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11 responses to “Let’s get guys reading: no matter what, okay?

  1. Great post! I agree that for whatever reason, a lot of boys simply aren’t interested in reading things with female lead characters. Sure, it’s great if we can get them interested in those books – but one of the best ways to do that will be to hook them on reading in the first place, so books with brilliant male characters will be highly helpful.

    I think I feel a blog post of my own coming on…

  2. I really don’t think that the problem is there aren’t many YA books for boys to read, I think it’s more of the problem that boys nowadays don’t seem to like to read in the first place. The guys I know who actually like to read will read what is out there and like it just as much as the female readers. Then there are the boys who won’t read books because ‘I can just watch the movie’ instead. I think if books start aiming more towards guys, it won’t help much at all.

    • I agree with Must Love Books. Sometimes I’m embarassed of the covers, and I’m female. It’s not about the marketing, surely. I just take those embarassing jackets off, you know?
      The crux of the problem is whether or not boys see other “male rolemodels” reading–including their dads. Literacy begins in the home, and the community. We have to make reading worth it for everyone.
      Saundra Mitchell’s reaction to the article is perfectly valid. It might not be everyone’s opinion. Just like this post is well thought-out and valid. Let’s always discuss things, and not lose respect for each other.

  3. YES, this —> “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?”

    I think it’s also important to remember that reading isn’t everyone’s thing, and that’s okay, too. It takes all kinds. I mean, I don’t care how you package it, market it, etc., no one is going to get me to like math. Does that mean you should take math out of schools? Of course not. There’s room for everyone.

  4. Bryan B.

    Here’s the truth: leading with a “girl” book will never win over a boy reader. Lead with something by Matt de la Pena, or Walter Dean Meyers, or Kurtis Scalleta – get them involved in THOSE stories. And then you can hand them Sara Zarr or Courtney Summers or any of the other amazing “girl” books that are on the shelves.

    I won’t lie: I was disappointed and shocked by the response to that post.

  5. Alisha

    I don’t think aiming more books at boys is going to solve the problem – or even help that much. The fact is, there are PLENTY of books out there for boys, but boys are simply not seeking those books out. Children, both boys and girls, need to become readers way before they get to the age of reading YA. That is what will get them reading in middle school and beyond.

    And frankly – and I know the conversation is more nuanced than this, but still – I have trouble mustering up much sympathy for “the poor boys.” Of course it would be nice to have greater variety in YA, but it’s one of the only literary genres that is dominated by women and girls, and I just don’t have a problem with that. Lipsyte’s article sounds awfully self-pitying to me. I’d be much more open to the argument if it were written by an actual teenage boy who cared about this, rather than a grousing author.

  6. I agree with sarawedgbrow, boys need to see more male role models reading. Parents also need to foster a love a reading when children are young. I think there’s a miss in this area with boys in a lot of cases, because boys tend to be more active than girls in the very young years. It can hard to sit down and read with little boys who would much rather be running around playing trucks or dinosaurs. The trick is to get books about dinosaurs and trucks (or whatever that little boy is interested in) and encourage them to interact and be active with the books.

    I also have no problem asking reluctant male readers what topics they are interested in and pointing them to the graphic novel section. Books in that area have exploded, and even include non-fiction topics. I think it’s also important to recognize that it’s OK to point kids in the non-fiction direction if they are interested in space, math, science, etc. Reading doesn’t need to mean “fiction.”

  7. I guess I’ll be a bit of a devil’s advocate, but I don’t think there are nearly enough YA books targeted at male readers, especially reluctant male readers. My brother in law always asks for YA book recommendations, and I have a hard time coming up with titles that would appeal to him, or aren’t too girly, or young/Middle Grade-ish, and are well written. He’s newer to reading (in his 30’s, but better late than never) so I try to suggest things that are good, entertaining, and popular enough that he can get them from his library/store.
    But I have no shortage of books to recommend to his wife.

  8. Joel

    First off, great article; I found it to be as informative as it was beautifully poignant. I’m a male YA author, and about two years ago, I set out to tackle this perceived problem with my debut novel, Shrouded Secrets. In that span of time, I have collected over a hundred rejection letters from literary agents, so I guess it’s my default new hobby, though not of choice.

    After a while, I decided to self-publish, and the reviews from my mostly female audience has been outstanding on Goodreads and Amazon, which brings me to my point, I can’t reach my male audience because the of gate keepers, they’ve proved to be more of a shrouded secret than even the title of my book could begin to divulge. It seems to me, that they are either uninterested in having a YA male author, or they actually don’t want to market to an audience that they believe isn’t profitable, or worth engaging at all. However, it is worth noting, that many in my young female audience have personally contacted me to relate how refreshing it was to have a YA male author these days.

    For those who think that I’m being paranoid, or potential sexist myself, I’m not because I’m a male nurse. There is a 95% to 5% ratio in my career field, and I don’t believe that I have to tell you which way the genders are shifted. I’ve been a nurse for eight years now, and I’ve gotten jobs and opportunities in that time that my female counterparts have not. I’m not condoning it, or saying that I even realized what was going on until after my wife, and some of friends pointed it out to me. That being said, I was naive because people do notice gender in all of their boardroom meetings with their bars and graphs, and market research. I have one major publisher that is currently reading my entire manuscript, and even now, when I tell the literary agents this in my query letters now, the answer is still a form rejection beginning with the flattering words, “Dear Author.” After all of this, I’m left asking myself, if I simply added a Y to the end of my name on the query letter, and made it Joely instead of Joel, would it matter to them then if I said that I might be on the verge of getting a publishing deal.

    In the end, I don’t blame the boys, or the girls, nor do I say that there are too many female authors out there. Nevertheless, I do blame the literary industry for creating the divides in the first place. It was wrong when it was male dominated before, and it is equally as wrong now. I know that they are running a business, but not all cost, especially when that cost is a generation of literary alienation.

  9. While I applaud your desire to get boys to read no matter what, I think part of Saundra’s issue was that there ARE plenty of books out there for guys. LOTS of them.

    But they often stay mid-listed, which may make them more difficult to find in a bookstore (bookstore? What’s that?). Is this part of a vicious cycle because guys don’t read as much as girls? Because books that speak to them aren’t shoved down their throats the way they feel the pink-covered girlie YA books are? Possibly. So is it any wonder that publishing houses are putting more money behind the books that they expect a larger market for?

    It’s a trend, and trends swing both ways. After all, it is only the YA industry (and romance) where female authors are the majority. Middle Grade and adult bestselling authors have traditionally skewed toward the male demographic. Yet females often make up the majority of their readership. Go figure.

    If guys really wanted to read, they’d search out books like girls do, trolling book blogs and reading amazon lists to find books that speak to them. And if they searched them out, they’d find them. Even ones written by men:

    Shipbreaker, Ashfall, WillGrayson/WillGrayson, Bronxwood, Maze Runner, Leviathan, Diary of a Part Time Indian… And those are just the ones I can recall offhand.

    If more boys bought more books, then they’d see marketing campaigns directed at them. And then everything would be fair. Right? 😛

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