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So have you heard? There’s a crisis happening. Boys aren’t reading young adult fiction (a genuine concern), but the real centre of the crisis is that it’s women who are keeping them from finding novels that interest them. According to some people, the fact (does anyone have supporting data I can see) that women occupy many positions of power in the young adult book industry means that their unconscious biases are prejudicing them to produce a disproportionate amount of books that serve the needs of young women, rather than young men. Women are creating this reading crisis.

Uhuh. Full disclosure: I’d be more inclined to be patient with this argument if I hadn’t heard quite so many discussions about how women are bringing literature to its knees. It seems there are a lot of things that women do, from reading romance to writing in such a domestic way which lead to an impoverished literary market. Now that women have taken powerful positions in the young adult book industry they’re being accused of destroying boys reading enjoyment by privileging girls reading enjoyment. It’s hard to listen to such an argument with an open heart when you’ve seen men stand against women in so many other areas of literature.

Let me be clear, I do wish that boys were reading more fiction, because I’m a reader and in my ideal world everyone would enjoy novels. Of course I think boys being able to read is so important. I’m also not denying that boys need to see themselves represented in current fiction, just like any other cultural group. What I’m objecting to is the way in which arguments about boys not reading and about the way girls read, in contrast to the way boys read, are framed in sexist ways that often make use of double standards, or seek to draw a direct comparison between how women in power might be prejudiced and why men in power are often biased.

Today I begin a series of connected posts that should help us dig into the logic arguments used to describe the fact that boys are not reading young adult fiction. I'll be looking at:

1.) How women gaining positions of power within the YA industry is being interrogated by commentators
2.) Girls as omni-readers
3.) How we would react to the way we describe boys reading if we were talking about girls reading
4.) What kind of book suits a girls needs
5.) Why many women do not feel receptive to arguments about the problem of boys reading 

Juicy ideas begin below: 

Describing women in positions of power within the YA industry

This first post is in direct response to a post from YA author Brendan Halpin over at 'Girl in a Cage'. One of the big arguments I’m seeing around the discussion of boys not reading, an argument that Halpin agrees with, is that because women are in positions of power in the YA publishing industry they are now producing many more books that suit girl’s needs# than books that suit boys needs (Halpin describes the books being produced as 'friendlier towards that group than to other groups').

When Halpin talks about women in positions of power in YA publishing producing more books that are ‘friendly’ to female culture he makes the assumption that these women’s gender groups them in a very particular way. It is implicit in his argument that women in positions of power in YA publishing all operate as a monolithic cultural group * and that everyone in that group is either feminist, or pro-girl by virtue of being a woman.

Let’s get this out of the way, not all women are feminist and (as I recognise that just because you don’t identify as a feminist, that doesn’t mean that you’re not pro-women) not all women are pro-female. There are women who aren’t pro-women, they exist. Being a feminist, or pro-women does not guarantee you a top job in young adult publishing, it is not a question they put on the application form. There is always the possibility that women in the top jobs in young adult publishing are not feminist women, or even women who like other women very much.

Halpin also tosses out the idea that women, by virtue of being women, see the world through their female lens, which leads them to be unconsciously biased towards producing books that suit girl’s needs. Here he uses arguments about the way privileged majority groups' unconscious prejudices affect what they think the whole world is, or should be interested in. The problem is he is using these arguments to describe a less privileged group who have recently gained power in one small section of culture, not a group that has always held/holds power and privilege in the majority of culture. The argument that majority power leads to inherent bias does not necessarily work in the same way for women working YA as it does for men working in other areas because

a.) women gaining power in YA are coming from within a male dominated culture which constantly reinforces its view of what should be privileged (the male) and women have absorbed these feelings

b.) these women continue to exist in this culture that reinforces how superior male dominated culture is, even as they work in powerful positions in YA publishing

c.) as a result of this many women’s unconscious biases tend to be towards male culture and conscious efforts have to be made by many women to combat these biases and embrace female literary culture(I base this statement on my own lived experience and on anecdotal evidence I’ve heard from other female readers)

Imagine for a minute that Halpin were using the argument of privilege, against any other typically under represented group whose members had recently gained majority power in one area. Would there be a great deal of support for this position then?

Please note, I am not saying that specific women in young adult publishing are anti-women. I’m also not saying that all women in publishing are unconsciously privileging male culture either in their working life, or in their personal life. I am not proposing a reality where anti-women female publishers sit down with their coffee and think about how great men’s things are. And I’m more than happy to say that there could in the realms of possibility be a coalition of all feminist female publishers who have developed conscious biases (not unconscious biases) towards young adult fiction that will be 'friendlier' to girls needs as a reaction to their previous unconscious biases towards such an overwhelmingly male centred cultural society. I find this rather unlikely, but it is a possible permutation.

What I am pointing out about arguments, like 'because there are women in power in young adult publishing, girls are more likely to get books that are friendly towards girls' or 'women are unconsciously biased towards female culture' is that these rhetorical arguments are sloppy and for convenience sake, ignore the reality of the culture that women exist within. Halpin is taking the framework of an argument from a group that is generally less privileged (women), removing that framework from the context in which it operates (a very deep knowledge and much proof throughout the ages that the majority of men will unconsciously or consciously privilege traditional masculine culture over traditional female culture). He then uses this hollow framework to create an alarmist link between women in power and boys who don’t read young adult fiction.

What especially bothers me about this argument is the immediate bad faith it demonstrates towards women in YA publishing. Women, being a group who have only been able to gain positions of power in the workplace relatively recently, do not have a vast cultural history of discriminating against men when they gain a majority share of power. In contrast to this there are vast amounts of historical proof that having taken positions so that they control the majority of power in one area men will unconsciously and consciously discriminate against women. What does Halpin decide seeing both women in power in YA and boys who don’t enjoy reading YA fiction? He goes straight to the idea that women must be (unconsciously) biased towards girls and are creating a culture that devalues boys reading experience, without exploring other options. Women and other groups that have historically been oppressed have these huge amounts of data that suggest links between dominant cultural groups (white, straight, male, cisgendered) taking power and their groups culture not being catered for. That’s part of what makes the arguments of privilege work, the fact that these groups can look back and note a sustained correlation. Just because two things appear in the one, small, same environment, doesn't necessarily mean there’s a correlation – you need more data and context to determine the link.

I'm aware that Halpin has posted apologising for making his post, saying that the way he put his point across was 'dickish'. To be honest, while I find that post moving it doesn't specifically address any of the sex, or gender issues that his first post set banging around in my head, issues that seem to come up over and over on the internet and in offline media sources. Ladybusiness was created so that we could all mouth off about culture together so on I go.

# Let me set aside the examination of what this statement means until later, but right now I’ll tell you I think it’s pretty empty.

* And I’d just like to acknowledge that although a lot of these posts will focus on traditional femininity in opposition to traditional masculinity that within the gender group of women there are many other groups with totally different experiences from the white, straight, cisgendered one – I am making plans for posts that involve these cultures later

Next Wednesday: Girls as omni-readers

Date: 2011-03-24 01:00 am (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
The URL reference to that image is here, Jodie, if you need it. :)

Date: 2011-03-24 03:37 am (UTC)
beth_shulman: (Default)
From: [personal profile] beth_shulman
I think people might have different ideas as to what constitutes a "girl's book" vs. a "boy's book". I feel like there are generalizations that exist based on common tropes in literature but that as more unique sorts of books are published, the definition of girls' and boys' books change.

I don't know if I'm being very clear, but that's where I get stuck. I mean, there's Judy Blume, and there's Twilight, and there's Tamora Pierce, and then there's Kiki Strike, and The Hunger Games. So is it female protagonists, or violence vs. romance, or something I'm missing?

(Also, hi! I'm not sure how I found this comm, but I'm glad I did.)

Date: 2011-03-24 09:15 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
That comment explicitly states what is implicit to many arguments made in these conversations, and I know I don't need to tell you again how crazy it drives me. Love your point about this relying on the assumption that women are a monocultural group. Also, how is it even possible to fail to perceive that this reeks of "SOMETHING'S WRONG HERE! But men in overwhelming numbers in positions of power, now THAT'S alright." I'm honestly curious as to how people explain this discrepancy to themselves. Do they think that men in positions of power pretty much everywhere DO alienate girls, but they don't care, or do they see all the arguments they use to explain why women do this to boys as not applying with men, because masculinity is supposedly universal and neutral? Someone explain this to me because I just don't get it :|

Date: 2011-03-24 11:37 am (UTC)
renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
do they see all the arguments they use to explain why women do this to boys as not applying with men, because masculinity is supposedly universal and neutral?

You pretty much nailed it right here. MALE IS DEFAULT.

Thanks

Date: 2011-03-24 12:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] 6p00d8341cae6453ef [typepad.com]
I appreciate your responding to my post in a measured way that it probably didn't deserve. I have a couple of things to add.

I don't think we're going to be able to agree about whether women are able to have unconscious biases privileging their own experience, so I'm not going to argue that point. I think the things I've observed can be put down to marketplace pressures rather than unconscious bias.

To wit: My YA novel How Ya Like Me Now was rejected by several publishers before finding a nice home at FSG. (With a female editor, Janine O'Malley, who has done tons of largely thankless work to get the best possible work out of me). The reason they all gave was that the protagonists are male, and boys don't read. This seemed like a kind of cyclical argument to me.
I've been asked several times to tone down what seemed like authentic portrayals of my teenage male characters' sexuality because revealing those thoughts "makes them unappealing to female readers." (Though this could also be part of YA's self-censorship problem, something I wrote thoughtfully, calmly, and non-provocatively about and most of the internet roundly ignored. http://www.brendanhalpin.com/girlinacage/2011/02/glee-scars-and-yas-censorship-problem.html)


As I said, this can totally be explained by market concerns, but it does seem to reflect an environment in which publishers are convinced boys don't read and therefore tailor their product to meet their perceived audience.

Finally, after most of my books have failed to gain any traction in the YA blogosphere, the one with the pink cover with the heart on it is getting tons of review coverage (sadly, it's not gathering the universal adulation that we writers hope for, but oh well).

It's also possible that I'm generalizing from my experience, I suppose. Certainly publishing is not to blame for this whole phenomenon. But it does seem to me that it's contributing to the problem.

Re: Thanks

Date: 2011-03-24 06:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] 6p00d8341cae6453ef [typepad.com]
You raise a lot of interesting points, and I agree with most of them. I framed my point in the most provocative/offensive way possible because I was grumpy, and I do think it's probably more sensible to look at market forces. Also agree that my not being a dick in some posts doesn't negate my being a dick in that one. (Though I would say it provides a more nuanced picture of me than a lot of people have seen.)

I just want to respond to a couple of things. Huge, huge agreement about female sexuality in YA fiction. Honestly, it seems to be the thing that publishing is most afraid of. While I'm glad that there is fiction that deals with the real and pernicious problem of sexual assault, it seems from my reading that sexual assaults are far more common in YA fiction that loving (or at least tender) sexual encounters that girls enjoy. This is really sex-negative and screwed up. Wonder why the idea of women enjoying sex is still so scary in this day and age.

I know that there is nothing inherently gendered about the color pink. Our culture has assigned that meaning to it. I don't know why, but book bloggers have given more attention to the book with the pink cover than to the other love story I co-wrote with the same author last year. I concede that there could be any number of reasons for this. But I'm not willing to rule out the possibility that the pink cover may be a factor. I don't think girls are inherently drawn to pink, but it is a pretty strong cultural signal that people who live in this culture may respond to positively or negatively.

Or maybe it's just a better book.

Anyway, I appreciate the opportunity to have a conversation rather than an argument.

Date: 2011-03-24 04:27 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I also think it's silly, because society tell boys that they can't read if it involves girls. Why are girls supposed to except that they sometimes read about boys? Why can't we make the opposite true? It's like we tell people, it's ok to read and understand and accept men in the world, but women are worthless, therefore only women should read and understand and accept women. Definitely a double standard.

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