Thursday, April 5, 2012

Publishing Industry Thinks Women Are Not Adults

Okay, Reader. I didn't want to to do this. I didn't want to talk about this. Why? Because I am possibly lazy. Also I'm trying to finish my novel (oh! Now that sounds like a much better excuse) and finally, because I was never very good at writing persuasive papers. I tend to make these logical leaps without realizing it. Also I'm impatient.

In short, I'm about to embark on just such a paper and if I make any leaps that you don't follow, I really hope you comment here and let me know.

So, let's talk about women writers and the Young Adult genre. This is an uncomfortable topic for me, a woman writer, who is currently rewriting a novel to be YA after advice from an agent and an editor-friend. Maybe that's why it fascinates and troubles me so much.

Women writers dominate young adult literature and with them, women protagonists.

On the same token, women readers dominate the market and young adult in general is a major force in book sales for the publishing industry.

Huh. Interesting. Let's connect the dots: women like to read books about and by women. Not exclusively, of course, because otherwise the entire publishing industry would have collapsed ages ago. Women are far and away more willing to read a book with a male protagonist, than men are about reading about a woman. Why? Well for one, because men have a had a choice for so long, while women have not. And also, on a stickier note, male is the default gender. As in using "he" as the automatic pronoun when no gender is specified.

But I wonder, what are these publishing men thinking when they see that women are making some serious bank with their books? They might not like it. They might try to find a way to minimize the accomplishment, even if only to make themselves feel a little bit better.

This brings me to Joel Steins incendiary piece Adults Should Read Adult Books. Here are a couple choice quotes from the article:

"The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads."

"I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults."

"Let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry."

This article set off a firestorm of responses from YA authors and readers defending their genre. Here's one in the Huffington Post by Alison Flood, "Don't be fooled, Joel Stein: categorising books by age doesn't tell the full story." But the author only talks about genre, about why it's okay for adults to read about teens or children. So far I haven't seen anyone talking about what is really going on here.

Look at those pulled quotes again. Stein uses the male pronoun to describe the adult in question, the one who looks so idiotic reading The Hunger Games or Twilight or Harry Potter—all incredibly popular books by women and featuring female protagonists (okay, Hermione isn't the MAIN character, but still). Then he argues that he thinks we've got 3,000 years worth of quality fiction to get through first.

Huh, I wonder who was mostly getting their fiction published back then...Oh, that's right: men. And who were they writing about? Men. 

Finally, Stein condescendingly asks the reader to leave young adult books to the "tween girls."

You guys, this isn't about age, it's about GENDER. If you're an adult man, then you should read books written by and about men. If you read books about and by women, you're a child. Oh, excuse me, a tween. Let's leave the possibility of boobs in there at least.

Okay, I see I have to tone down my anger if I'm going to continue trying to express my point. Let me dredge up some examples to help. Why is it that The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is considered adult literature if it features a male teen protagonist who comes of age? Well for starters, it's written by and about a male character. The New York Times reviewed the book, lavishing praise on it, saying (bolded text is mine):

"But of course an awful lot of serious young-to-middle-aged novelists (All men: Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon) hang around there as well, lingering over the narratives that fed their childhood imaginations in order to infuse their ambitious, difficult stories with some of the allegorical pixie dust and epic grandiloquence the genres offer. In “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Díaz, the author of a book of sexy, diamond-sharp stories called “Drown,” shows impressive high-low dexterity, flashing his geek credentials, his street wisdom and his literary learning with equal panache. A short epigraph from the Fantastic Four is balanced by a longer one from male Derek Walcott; allusions to “Dune,” “The Matrix” and (especially) “The Lord of the Rings” rub up against references to male Melville and male García Márquez. Oscar’s nickname is a Spanglish pronunciation of male Oscar Wilde, whom he is said to resemble when dressed up in his Doctor Who costume for Halloween."

And while we're at it, what about J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye about a sixteen-year-old boy? William Golding's Lord of the Flies? Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange about a "juvenile delinquent" or even Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game?? 

These aren't considered young adult. Not really. You won't find them shelved next to Laini Taylor or Libba Bray in the young adult section. They are considered literary classics, with the exception of Ender's Game, which you'll find in the Science Fiction/ Fantasy section for adults. And they are all about teenage boys and written by men.

Name a novel written by a woman, about a teenage girl (non marrying age, so Austen is out) that is considered adult literature. Let's make it even harder: adult literary fiction. Good God, what if the book involves magic or magical realism as well or maybe a dystopian setting. Anyone? ANYONE?

I'm not talking about the quality of writing. I'm talking about the fact that if you are a woman and you want to write about a woman, in particular if you want to write about a girl, then you are going to be told that your work belongs in young adult. Unless that woman is looking for love, in which case it's probably chic lit or romance. Or unless she's a mother, in which case it's women's fiction.

What's that? You think it's a question of audience and who the author is writing for? Well I think that when the publishing industry is pushing women into young adult, then those women writers change their books to fit the audience they've been told is appropriate to them.

If you want to write about magic or teens while being taken seriously, you have to either be a man or at the very least write about men. 

Are there exceptions? Yes, of course. Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus comes to mind, which had the privilege of being reviewed in the New York Times as well. Of course I can qualify that too. I mean, there are two protagonists: a male and female, who share the spotlight.

But my real complaint is that more often than not, women writers are being shunted into young adult, whether their work fits there or not. And if you're an adult and you like to read those books—about women—then you should be ashamed of yourself, because you are, according to Joel Stein, reading like a child or a mentally challenged person. Or, you know, a woman.

Let's stop wasting time trying to convince the men out there that there's nothing wrong with reading books about teens. They already know that. They'll happily read a book about teens when it's written by a man and packaged by the publishing industry as an adult book.

Instead let's talk about how the male literary world has decided it's okay if women get published. It's okay if they are successful and make lots of money, just so long as they remember that they are writing for CHILDREN, not adults. And if you want to read those books, then you too must be a child or a woman, and the male literary world will make fun of you and they will not take you seriously.

Edit: There's a great read by Roxane Gay in The Rumpus called "Beyond the Measure of Men," just out today on this general topic. I highly recommend you read it here


  1. Let me get all sophisticated on your ass:

    You = AWESOME

    Joel Stein = ASS

    (BTW, was on a flight to LA with him once -- he was with his wife and child and the kid was running around freaking out and his wife was frantically trying to corral the kid while making sure all their boarding passes were ready and their stroller was folded up and he was standing around watching and occasionally looking at his iphone. It was like his wife had two children: a two year old and sulky teenager.)

  2. Haha thanks, Anna! It was a long post so I appreciate that you made it to the end!

    Joel Stein does sound like an idiot. His forthcoming book is some BS about masculinity. And yet he got the platform to shit on women and everyone thought he was talking about genre. Am I surprised? Not at all.