Male and Female Readers, YA Fiction and Maureen Johnson

A bit ago, I did an entry about the uproar concerning authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner’s awareness campaign against the New York Times where they used Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom to complain about inequalities in how male and female writers are treated by review and other media. (And Franzen — who gets to be an Oprah pick again — basically agreed with them.) I looked at how this was connected to the bigger path dependent, outdated commercial-literary marketing hoax, which includes the completely ridiculous belief in media that women can only rarely manage to write fiction of style and worth and the tendency to judge women written books often on their packaging, not their content, and the equally bogus claim that women seldom write in a socially meaningful, globally political way. (I.e.: Guys supposedly write about politics and war, even if it’s a love story, and women always write about romance and relationships, even if it’s a political war novel.)

Since then, there has been a lot of interesting stuff written about this issue, and I’ve found myself in a number of discussions where the assertion above continued to be asserted. Both women and men continue to cling to outdated gender rules (the younger ones somewhat less so,) especially if they happen to fit their own personal reading preferences. They determinedly interpret similar material in stories as being either in the romance camp or the politics camp on the basis of A) whether the writer is male or female; and B) if the writer is female, whether the protagonist whose inner thoughts you get is male or female. The theory is that most males will only read male writers writing preferably about boys and may read some women writers, but only if they write about boys and as much like a “man” as possible. And those are the important books, of course. The argument for all this is that it isn’t cultural, but genetic, can’t be helped. That this claim has been proven completely bogus again and again by male writers successfully masquerading as women and women writers successfully masquerading as men does not deter them. In their minds, the role of women writers is largely fixed.

This is a generational thing and it is changing, but recently it’s made more inroads in education, where they are desperate to recapture at least some of the boys who’ve gone off to computer games, sports and the Internet over reading novels. Quite a lot of female writers are capturing boys’ attention, but the female influence is of course thought to largely repel boys (with the pastel romance covers the publishers slap on female written works discounted as having nothing to do with it,) and that repellance, instead of being turned around because it’s a dead end strategy for attracting boys long term, is being catered to. There are numerous male writers doing YA and doing it well with bestsellers, but the claim is that they barely exist, that there must be more of them and they are the only ones who can reach boy readers. (Never mind that Suzanne Collins chick or J.K. Rowling.)

Maureen Johnson is not only a good YA writer, but she should really be writing some non-fiction books, because when she manages to do a blog entry, it’s usually terrific. She has weighed in on the subject, in particular to the YA market, and it’s a fun read. It is also, for all but the latest generation, remarkably true. Whether publishers will heed what she’s saying and start figuring out ways to market both male and female authors to boys is up in the air. But eventually, despite the insistence that boys (and men) are inflexible sexist creatures and will never change, that cultural shift is going to happen.

And yes, the Nicholas Sparks interview she links to is pretty funny, and shows again the confusion of packaging — the idea that a category market (romance) somehow is a separate kind of story from non-category stories of the same type (love stories).


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