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A Book for Every Reader

I've been reading a lot about gender and books and who reads them and why that matters.

If you keep up on news, discussions, and general brouhahas in publishing, I'm guessing you have, too.

There was Shannon Hale told by a school she would present to girls only, since she had written "girl books."  Boys, head to they gym for the "other" activity.  Like when we watched the videos about getting our periods and they got the lecture about deodorant (or was that just my school?).

There was Andrew Smith answering a (pretty loaded) question about the lack of female engagement with his work and getting roundly slammed for his response.

There are fantastic overviews of the issues at hand.

I'm finding myself considering, not the context of society and sexism, but the context of my personal responsibility as a writer.  What audience, and what breadth of audience, am I as a writer obligated to write books for?

It's a personal question.  It's probably a question with as many answers as there are writers and readers and people with general opinions about words.  But I started thinking subtext when I thought about my responsibility as a writer.  There's a subtext to the Smith question--that his work *should* include more female characters and *should* appeal to female readers more.  That's a very different subtext than the Hale situation--that perhaps her books included elements that traditionally appeal to female readers, but male readers should not be barred from the experience.  In some responses, the sentiment seemed to veer even further--that they *should* read these books regardless of the outlook, correct or not, that they preferred books with a male POV.

In one, we seem to be asking an author to address how he writes.  In the other, we are asking an audience to change how they interact and encourage others to interact.

When it comes to gender representation (and other diversity aspects, frankly), which is the right approach?  Ask authors to create more inclusive work, or ask audiences to interact with books that are less inclusive of them?

I admit that the Smith situation was convicting to me, personally, in some ways.  Not that I write books that I think are exclusive of some groups--there are male and female, black and white, human and android characters, so I feel like I'm covering bases up to and including robots reading my work--but that *attempting* to be *as inclusive as possible* is not my goal.  I've written books that are more accessible to male readers--they include fewer fancy dresses and kisses stolen under moonlit arbors and more strategy and spaceships and saving the world.

Girls like that stuff, too. Maybe given the chance, boys would like stories about formal balls.  But I can't force that--I can write books.  I can write books that appeal to a broader audience--but do I cut out some audience in doing so?  I think we can accept the precept that some of the potential audience wants the traditionally "girly" romantic fantasy chockablock full of balls and beautiful gowns and told from a female POV.  Some of the potential audience wants action-driven books with male POVs and a focus on male camaraderie rather than male-female interaction, especially the interaction quite commonly known as "romance." ("Is this a kissing book?")  I'm reluctant to say that either desire is "wrong."

In fact, I'm reluctant to say that *any* preference in story-reading is "wrong."  I'm reluctant to say that authors must incorporate all potential audiences into their focus.  There is no single book that will draw every reader into its pages.  However, I am willing to say that authors should consider realms outside of their own experience to write from, including gender.  I won't demand that someone write both male and female POVs--but it seems to be just good craft to be able to incorporate believable and active characters of any gender identity.

Likewise, I won't demand that everyone read every book.  I won't ever expect the girl who loves princess stories to fall in love with space opera, and I won't demand that the boy who likes action-adventure settle in with The Princess Diaries, either.  But I do think it's time we stop telling kids what they *should* like.  Sending boys away while the girls talk about a "girly" book is as wrongheaded as demanding that the entire class like the "girly" book (note that "girly" is in moderately-sarcastic-quotes here).  And we have to acknowledge the power of the written word to not only reinforce and comfort--as turning to the books you love has a tendency to do--but to challenge and spark curiosity.  Boys, read the "girl" book.  Girls, read the "boy" book.  You might find something new to challenge your thinking.  You might find so much that's familiar that it challenges you even further.

So which is it, ask authors to change their writing, or ask audiences to change their reading?

Both, and neither.  Both should be considered, but neither enforced.  Write the book you want to write; read the book you want to read.  Don't stand in the way, overtly or in those quiet yet powerful messages, of letting others choose what they want to write and read.

Comments

  1. You tackled one difficult subject! And so well! I agree so so much with what you write, especially this:

    "Both, and neither. Both should be considered, but neither enforced."

    It captures so well the tension existing within the debate.

    No artist should be forced to create something, and no reader should be condemned for their preference; but both sides should strive to explore.

    I think this is why school plays such an important role, it broadens one's perspective and forces one to tread into foreign territory. The University Syllabus 'imposed' certain books on me, but I ended up discovering that I really REALLY enjoyed it. I didn't understand the importance of gender representation until I listened to lectures. It's unfortunate I didn't learn this earlier in high school (didn't have the best English teacher).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, June! Yes, to the importance of school reading lists and cultivating diversity there. I kinda wish we spent a little less time on the "classics" of each reading level (though there is lots of good stuff there) and threw a smorgasbord of more recent releases at kids, too, just because there is more there in terms of representing different genders, races, backgrounds, people.

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