Things I’m Thinking About

And still don’t have an answer for.

So, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Mesle has an article YA Fiction and the End of Boys. I have conflicted feelings and thoughts about it; in part because Masle’s framing question is “I see, in the ongoing conversation about Bella and Katniss, our culture pondering whether YA novels support the strong daughters we all want to raise. But as we debate ad nauseam whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them?”

Now, first of all, my own point of view is that books fill many needs; primarily entertainment, but other needs are met. However, to say that books should or do offer role models, well, I tend to back away from that because, in my perspective, that removes the entertainment and enjoyment from books and turn them into something didactic. (Note: I’m not saying Mesle says any of this; I’m saying why I don’t agree with the framing question.) We don’t insist that the novels for adults have the right sort of role models; why must books for children and teens have this additional burden?

Even then, to the extent that the question arises, what about the boys, my answer tends to be what was stated in the recent article about Gender Balance in YA Award Winners: “because we expect to find male dominance everywhere, we treat a slight predominance of women as proof that women have now become dominant in a way that’s unnatural and needs to be fixed. What does it mean that we see a list where female authors are slightly ahead at 56% as evidence that there’s a crisis and that men are gravely underrepresented? Do we expect to find male dominance to such an extent that we see anything that deviates from it as a cause for alarm? The “reverse sexism” argument is also sometimes used in these cases, and feminists are accused of hypocrisy for being glad that a list has more women than men instead of demanding a 50/50 gender ratio absolutely everywhere. However, until gender equality has been achieved in the world at large, I’m not going to apologise for being happy to see women slightly ahead in some very limited spheres. Yes, gender equality is the ultimate goal, but there’s a long way to go until we reach it and in the meantime I’ll enjoy whatever respite I can find.”

And also from that article: “I accept that boys too have the right to want to see themselves represented in the literature they consume. However, it seems very disingenuous to make this comparison when we live in a world where the overwhelming majority of stories are still for, by, and about men. A quick browse through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media website will show you that this is the case. Even if (award winners aside, as we have just seen) the world of YA were to prove an exception, we can’t pretend the impact this has on boys is the same the impact that lack of representation in every single sphere of our culture has on marginalised groups.” (I wrote more about this fascinating article at the post Balance, Or How Much Is Too Much).

So, even going the question “where are the role models for boys in books,” my response is “the role models for boys are everywhere.” Just look at movies, at the heads of corporations, at sports, at politics. When the world is looked at in a whole, role models for boys outweigh role models for girls.

Sorry for the tangent. Back to Mesle’s article. One thing fascinating about it — in that it’s different from most articles about teen books — is that it also looks at boys/boyhood as a social construct as it’s been looked at in books (“these novels heralded the end of boyhood as a happy ending, the beginning of a triumphant journey into a powerful manhood“). I’d argue (and I actually would like to sit down with Mesle over coffee or wine, her choice, to discuss this in more detail than the Internet allows) that there is a societal fear of adulthood, period, not just for boys.  (I’ve deleted a half dozen tangents about people carrying adolescence into their late 20s as well as how the increasing gendering of toys and clothes). I also have a knee-jerk reaction of “but I don’t think that nineteenth century was as happy for women.” See, another tangent, and you can imagine how much I deleted from this post as I wandered down such other paths.

Anyway. Much food for thought, and for that I thank Mesle. Also, read the comments — pretty interesting range of responses.

Other people also were given food for thought, and I’ve linked to them below. It’s interesting: different people react to different points of the article. Mine (per my wordy mcwordy writing above) is a mixture of “books don’t have to be role models,” “the boys are going to be OK,” and then wanting to rise to the readers advisory challenge: finding books that would satisfy what Mesle is looking for. Has she read Finnikin of the Rock? Why not Finnikin as the type of role model (and his father as the type of role model) she looks for?

Mesle herself posts more about the topic at her personal blog in Race, Boys, Ends.

It’s Not the End of Boys, It’s the Beginning of New Men by Saundra Mitchell

YA and Boys and the Problem of Limited Historical Context by Phoebe North

YA Fiction and the Many Possibilities of Manhood by Malinda Lo

Should We Be Worried About the End of Boys? Probably Not… by Sara Allain

From ‘Little Men’ to ”The Hunger Games’: How To Make Young Adult Fiction Work For Young Boys by Alyssa Rosenberg

The Book Smugglers (part of a round up post of multiple topics, scroll down for it)


5 thoughts on “Things I’m Thinking About

  1. Is anyone taking up the point that teen boys don’t read as much fiction as do girls? I suppose you could make the argument that more teen boys would read more fiction if there was more fiction aimed at them, but I feel like that’s been tried several times during the thirty years I’ve been paying attention. As a boy, I sometimes get a little skeeved out by girl critics who think they know what’s best for me.


  2. Roger, that is a great point, and one of the things I wondered about is also the “type of fiction” being talked about. Let’s, oh, take a look at comic books — or science fiction — or adventure books — There are books that boys are reading (oh, and a nod to the role model possibilities in nonfiction books) so is this more about the boys and one segment of books?


  3. Both my sons are heavy readers. Both have just grown out of the YA demographic. But I sure never would have worried about either of them taking Edward or Jacob for a role model! Yes, they read a lot of YA novels. No, not Twilight.

    But I agree with you about the whole “role model” question. My older son loved the book Feed, by M. T. Anderson, but he was definitely smart enough not to take the narrator as a role model. I didn’t recommend books to them to give them role models. And they didn’t have any trouble finding books that suited them. I have a hard time getting worked up about this issue, because I also didn’t have a hard time finding books that suited me in the dark ages 40 years ago.


  4. Roger, I agree & dislike how often a “kids aren’t reading” argument becomes, instead, “kids aren’t reading and liking in the proper way this book/type of book.”

    Sondy, sometimes a valuable story is the one that allows the reader to either a, learn the lesson by seeing what happens to a fictional character or b, figure out on their own the mistakes made by a fictional character and deciding to do things differently. I think that is just as valuable a literary interaction.


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