The Intertubes have been on fire these past several weeks with intense and provocative discussions of gender and YA. There have been extensive ruminations on gendered book covers, gendered readership, the role of gender in creating a best-seller, the role of gender in critical appraisals…you get the idea.
These bomb-throwing exercises have been predictably fascinating, primarily because the folks leading the discussion are among the leading lights of the young adult world: Maureen Johnson, John Green, Leigh Bardugo, Marie Lu, and Professor Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
Barnes has a particularly interesting post up about the role of male privilege in literature more generally, but it certainly applies to YA more specifically. Barnes argues (quite convincingly) that a statistical analysis of book releases overall undermines the oft-cited proposition that the best selling writers are women, so there is no gender issue in the world of writing. But Barnes, while a welcome antidote to a facile reading of the best seller lists, doesn’t reach perhaps the most interesting issue in all of this: the identity of the reader.
There is little question in my mind, as a recovering literature major with a weakness for critical theory, that certain expectations are brought to the table when a cultural production like a book is sent out into the marketplace. In the YA market this is particularly vivid. Adolescent girls and adolescent boys are taught to adopt certain narratives by the larger culture, and the way that books are marketed to them reflects those choices. I have a thirteen year-old son, and (as a YA author myself) I speak to kids pretty regularly. I can tell you that peer pressure among boys not to read is intense and pervasive, and that even being seen as being interested in a “girl’s” book is verboten. Thus, women are often encouraged to use their initials (S.J. Kincaid, S.E. Hinton, J.K. Rowling, etc.) if they are explicitly writing a “boys” book, because that helps prevent boys from making gendered assumptions at the point of sale. Even books like the Hunger Games and Legend took a long time to crack into the boy market - older sisters may have been the secret weapon there.
Girls are free to read a wide variety of books, but are ironically not viewed as a “sophisticated” audience by the publishing industry itself. Girls are (based on the way that YA books are marketed to them) seen as superficial, interested only in romance, and suckered into purchase decisions by the presence of a girl in a long dress on the cover of a book.
When I first submitted an earlier version of my book The Secret Root to agents, one of the common responses I received was “I love the book, but boys don’t want to read about a girl protagonist, and girls don’t want to read hard science fiction, so you’ll have to add a male protagonist.” Now, ironically, this happened to make sense for my book - book 2 of the series was already going to feature a male protagonist prominently, so I merely had to shift things around and it did improve the narrative. But I was insulted and struck by the narrow-mindedness of the industry.
But another irony here is that the “critical establishment” functions from an entirely different point of view. To the critic, it would seem, only a book written by a man can be “universal.” While women write best-sellers, critical enthusiasm is almost inversely proportionate to popularity, and the rare instances of convergence always seem to involve a male writer. When the New York Times decided to put together their list of the best novels of the past 25 years, they chose “Beloved” by Toni Morrison as the winner, but the runners up included 25 books by men and only one other book by a woman (“Housekeeping” by Marianne Robinson). In the YA world, this is not quite as relevant on a day-to-day basis: the majority of YA book bloggers, best selling YA novelists, and YA readers are women, But, when a book escapes the YA jail and gets “literary” credit, the chance that the book was composed by a man increases disproportionately. NPR’s list of the best YA ever is headed by Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling, but 7 out of the top ten are by men.
So what have we learned? That facile presumptions about gender and YA are a bad idea? Well, of course. But I think the lesson here is that we all need to work exceptionally hard as writers, readers, editors, publishers and critics to ensure that our presumptions about writers and readers are not biasing our choices. There’s too much good stuff out there to allow us to judge a book by its cover (or its author). UPDATE: Tumblr somehow erased every link I had embedded in this post. In the spirit of laziness, I am not going to bother fixing it, because it is Sunday and I have work to do!
One of the basic, primal experiences for anyone who writes is the rejection letter. If you don’t receive rejections, you probably aren’t trying very hard, no matter how talented you might be at stringing words together into clever stories. But think about it from the point of view of the rejectors — why don’t they like your work? What is their rationale for the rejection that caused you to sit under the sink moping for 3 1/2 hours while eating M&Ms by the handful?
Neil Gaiman, one of the best sci-fi/fantasy/YA/graphic novel writers of the past two decades directs us to this blog post, which has a wonderful list describing how editors/agents/interns categorize submissions:
(At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)
(You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)
So think about it: Forget about whether your book is good or bad. Forget about the relative merits of your prose style. 95% of the things that agent, editor or intern reviewed all day were so bad that phrases like “neurochemical disorder” seemed appropriate to describe them. How exhuasted must they be? How cynical?
A few years back, I had an agent for an earlier version of the book that is the subject of this site. An editor at Dial Books for Young Readers really liked the book, and it went up to a mysterious committee. After an interminable wait, I received a bizarre rejection letter. It began with “I was at the edge of my seat the whole time I was reading it” and ended with “best luck finding it the right home.” It was a long letter, filled with details that could only come from a deep review of the material. I was devastated.
But then I began thinking about her comments, and I realized that she was kind of right to reject the book. Her comments about the plot holes were dead on, and her suggestions for changes were great. After all of the crap she had to read every day, my book was good enough that it merited a long, detailed analysis. I shouldn’t be mad, I should be thankful. It might not be the right book for her imprint, but she saw something there and wanted to tell me about it.
That letter was on May 18, 2007. I spent the next four years writing and re-writing that book. It is, without question, a far better book, and will now be available for all of you to read later this year. Would I have been happy if she had published the book all those years ago? Of course. Would the book have disappointed me today? Definitely.
Rejection can be your best friend, as long as you understand what to take from it. Oh, and as long as you don’t give up.