In which I consider my own gendered library practices…

Yesterday’s blog post explained the lead-up to the incident in which an audience member at an author event told me that I had been an inappropriate choice to interview author Andrew Smith because of my gender.  Yes, this happened for real. From a stranger. Whom I had a very brief interaction with because I would imagine when my immediate, fearsomely curt responses offered a clear difference of opinion he probably didn’t have a lot of desire to prolong the conversation. We parted without exchanging fisticuffs, but also without “hugging it out.”

By the time my husband and I (who’d had an even longer interaction with this guy before I stumbled into the conversation) made it to the car my confusion was clearing and quickly being replaced with righteous indignation. I began re-enacting the parts of the conversation that I could recall, in an attempt to clarify what I believed had just happened.  Charlie confirmed that yes, Mr. Audience had indeed offered commentary that could be summed up as “males writing for males should be read and interviewed by males.” Oh boy.  Like a lot of the world, I had immediate gut reactions to this. And yes, Mr. Audience did at one point suggest that only males should be allowed to read Mr. Smith’s work.  My face must have been priceless. To be fair, he may have backed away from this assertion a bit later in the conversation, I’m not entirely sure. It all gets a bit muddled.

I’m reaching the point now of deciding that the particulars of our conversation aren’t really as important as just the fact that he felt comfortable suggesting, out loud, in public, that an author’s work can only be properly appreciated by members of the same gender. And yes, this is so patently, ridiculously offensive that’s it’s easy to dismiss the whole interaction entirely.  But here’s the thing, I don’t think he believed his statements were inflammatory, insensitive, or inappropriate. Honestly, there were multiple points at which he expressed a passionate concern about the fact that too few teen males, in his opinion, are readers. So, let’s shift our attention away from some of the inflammatory nature of Mr. Audience’s remarks, and zero in on what may be the more sympathetic part of his thought process– his apparently genuine concern about a perceived dearth of teen male readers. It’s after making this shift that my examination of Mr. Audience and his motivations becomes surreal, because I too have found myself worrying that too few male teens are use reading as a tool- for entertainment, information, or a delightful combination of both.

So let’s shift our lens of scrutiny to me.  I fear it won’t always be a soft, forgiving, instagram filter sort of lens, either. This is where writing this post gets intimidating. This is where I start to wonder and worry whether my good intentions, and my concerns, haven’t perhaps accidentally taken me closer to a path of conveniently (and unfairly) lumping all male readers together.  Probably more than I meant them to, and what might be the consequences of such a lumping? I am confident that no one would EVER be able to find me jumping to the same sort of unpleasant conclusions Mr. Audience reached, and in fact I’m also quite sure that given the opportunity I will always expressly reject the negative stereotypes I associate with his ideas. But I also have to ask, as long as I’m being honest, whether or not some of my own well-meaning ways of thinking about gendered reading in the library haven’t been accidentally perpetuating some of the very stereotypes that I hope to destroy. Do I secretly, in my little rat brain, occasionally think of a book as a “boy” or “girl” book?  Does some weird idea about gender balance impact that books I select for class booktalks? Or book displays? Am I trying to appeal to some imagined male reluctant reader– obviously with the aim of luring him like a rare bird to the library– falling into stereotypical ideas about what this male reader “likes” or “needs” and therefore providing him with just more of the same old stereotypical choices? How much of what I do to meet this particular imagined patron’s needs might be reinforcing his feelings of otherness? This is where I start to wonder about where I might be getting these ideas of these male reluctant readers, who else might accidentally be operating under the same sorts of ideas, and whether or not a conscious, radical shift in thinking is required (on my part at least) when considering gender in the library.

Whew, let’s pause for a second. Maybe I need a brief break before plunging the rest of the way into the icy waters, because yes, I fear I’m only ankle-deep right now.  Introspection isn’t always easy, and realizing that I may inadvertently be contributing to a problem isn’t fun. Let’s move forward with me under the microscope trying to remind ourselves that my intentions are always good.

So yes, I’ve worried about “male teen readers.” And no, deep breath, I didn’t always assign a whole lot of nuance to the group. It seems to often vaguely consist of the teen boys that I see in the hallways, in my classroom, in my library angry about being forced to check out a book.  They include the teen boys that I hear teachers lamenting about because they “won’t” read. The teen sons I hear parents sighing over because the sons “refuse” to read. From books aimed at school librarians to help us develop our collections for “these” sorts of readers. My school experiences give me a lot of feedback that “teen boys” don’t read, so it’s easy to see why I might believe that.

Except I have B–, and E–, and T–, all boys with radically different reading interests who devour books.  Boys who read so much I know their student ID numbers by heart because I type them into the circulation system so often. Boys like C–, who come and demand the sequel to Enclave because, it turns out, he read it and he liked it. Who show up to the library angry when a character dies and determined to talk about it right then. Boys who admit to crying in Perks of Being a Wallflower. Boys who care about whether or not Katniss ends up with Gale or Peeta. Boys who couldn’t give a shit about Gale and Peeta and just want to know how the violent Hunger Games will end. Boys who open up and display an incredible depth of uniqueness during my readers’ advisory moments with them. In short, I have male readers who demonstrate all the EXACT SAME reactions to books that my female readers do. Yet, to be brutally honest, while I worry about members of this vague, homogenous “non reading male teens” group, rarely do I express the same concern about an equivalent “female” group of non-readers.

Is this because my experiences with female students demonstrate that there are no reluctant female readers?  Far from it.  In fact, my observations lead me to conclude that many teen girls in my school are just as unlikely to read anything (class novel or assigned independent “free” reading novel) as their male counterparts. So it isn’t as if I haven’t noticed that girls aren’t always readers either.  But somehow, even though I worry about a class of “reluctant teen readers” in my mind there has always also been a subcategory of “male reluctant reader” which lacks a female equivalent.  Ugh.  Why do only the guys get lumped together into this strange amorphous mass? Am I an insensitive jerk?  Maybe unintentionally. But listening to the conversations of the teachers, parents, and probably even the students around me, reveals that I’m not alone in my sins. Are we educators perpetuating this idea to ourselves? It’s possible that we can excuse those people who unfortunately don’t have personal experiences that contradict the stereotypical chatter. But I do have experiences which should force me to reject one-sized-fits-all mentalities!!!  So why did it take this strangely unpleasant interaction at an author event to make me start to think hard and recognize that I haven’t been completely immune to falling victim to what seems to be (at least at times) a grossly oversimplified mass think? [Sidenote: At about this point in my worried insomnia I finally gave up all premise of trying to sleep and got out of bed to continue trying to muddle my way through this quagmire. My husband found notes scrawled on the bathroom mirror this morning from when I was brushing my teeth very early in the morning before returning to bed. Please keep your comparisons to A Beautiful Mind to yourself!]

So now I’m wondering if there aren’t more places giving me messages that are powerful enough to override my own personal experiences which negate the generic male teen non-reader stereotype.  I’m starting to wonder if some of the well-intentioned members of the library and publishing community aren’t accidentally falling victim to the same sort of mass hysteria that indicates that male non-readers are more of a serious problem than female non-readers. And that, as such, they require a special sort of intervention.  I attended a very moving panel discussion at the ALA/YALSA Young Adult Literature Symposium in St. Louis a few years ago on the subject of reaching male teens. The authors (who happened to include Andrew Smith) and an absolutely incredibly articulate panel of male teens, spoke passionately and eloquently about how they came to embrace reading, its influence on their lives, and why they believe it’s so important. It made me cry like a baby in the audience. They spoke of the importance of choice, of seeing themselves in books, and of feeling valued as readers by their teachers and librarians.  Hallelujah!  But these principles actually apply to ALL readers– not just guys.  Now that I’m really thinking about it I’m wondering why I (and seemingly the audience around me) were so willing to accept these ideas as appropriate for “guys.” By singling out males, and putting them in a petri dish, without an equivalent program on an equally vague group of reluctant female readers, or reluctant twelve-year-old readers, or reluctant LGBTQ readers, are we in the library and publishing world– well intentioned or not– perpetuating the idea that these males are somehow “other”? [And might they be made even more generic because it makes it easier for us to think about them, address them, and design interventions for them that way?]

And if these programs, and publications focusing on this rather generic population of male teen non-readers, combined with educational assumptions that are inclined to reinforce some of these ideas, can convince me to ignore the nuances and potential pitfalls of this type of thinking, couldn’t they easily be doing the same thing to Mr. Audience?  Yes, his ultimate conclusions were disturbingly flawed, but is it possible he is trying to solve the same oversimplified problem we’ve served up to him (and ourselves)? Have we accidentally made these male teens into a group who seem to require a special sort of handling– and by turn suggested they are somehow inherently different from their female counterparts? Have we unwittingly taught Mr. Audience to think of books in terms of a binary appeal such that when something appeals to him, as a male, it’s difficult for him to entertain the notion that the appeal can also reach beyond the male gender? And, by extension, when we embrace terms like “chic lit” are we also suggesting that an entire class of books is written expressly for a shockingly homogenous female audience and that no self-respecting male would ever (or should ever) read such titles? Are we creating the monster that somehow turns into greater gender stereotypes?

I’ve reached no conclusions.  I’m honestly not serving out dishes of recrimination. I’m asking the questions, I’m wondering what people think. It’s easy to go astray, or to become unconsciously unbalanced.  While I’m unequivocally rejecting all of Mr. Audience’s conclusions, I’m also worried some of our practices may have inadvertently helped him reach those conclusions. Working alone in a school library can sometimes be an isolating experience.  I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
I’ve got some additional scattered ideas on this topic, which I’m obviously still trying to wrap my mind around right now.  I hope I’m making the right decision to invite discussion on the topic. I may post again soon on possible gender inequalities I see in young adult publications, gender and marketing (book covers!) what it means when we classify something as a “boy” book or “chic lit”– even when we only do it in our minds!  As always, conversation welcomed, thanks for reading!

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5 thoughts on “In which I consider my own gendered library practices…

  1. This is a brave post! I do think that we can at times create a self-fulfilling prophecy loop. Quite honestly I haven’t looked for recent research backing up the “reluctant reader as mostly boy” hypothesis. I am hesitant to mention but can’t seem to stop myself – gender is such a hot button issue for people.

    Not that I believe that they are similar or related, but some of the recent gender issues out there: the library that wouldn’t allow girls to sign up for robotics classes, the Reddit CEO resignation, the move toward transgender acceptance, even the call for ToysRUs to stop having gender specific toy sections. The world is having a hard time sorting it out.

    Dare I say that I have always had a bit of a concern over Boys Read. And yet I have a son who at the ripe of old age of seven announced that he wouldn’t be reading any more. He believed that he had already read all of the books that would ever interest him – so Boys Read was one of my first resources. That’s how I got into librarianship in the first place.

    Thank you for the discussion. And to Andrew Smith for pointing me in your direction 🙂

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  2. At one point in my life, I know I have qualified books as “girl books” or ‘boy books”. Having children changed that a lot. They are simply books, a collection of words that can entertain and teach. Do I try to push books onto the kids? Yes. There have been times I put a book into my son’s hands only to have him tell me he doesn’t like to read books I recommend because I’m eager for him to talk about it. I handed my daughter one John Green book and she’s arguing with me that she needs to read all of them regardless of whether or not I think she needs to read them (she’s only 9). I’ve watched my son walk out of a library with a pink and flowery covered book by a female author and love every moment of the book. I’ve heard my daughter screaming at an action type book because her favorite character was in trouble. I’ve often wondered if books should be cover art-less. That without the flowers or the blood, would a kid choose a different book?

    We are all guilty of genderizng books but watching the librarian put a section of “Perfect Books for Boys to Read” and not recognizing the reluctant female readers, annoys me. A book does not know the gender of the person holding it, it only has a story to tell to whoever will take the time to read.

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  3. What insightful posts (even though you said you have reached no conclusions).
    What you are describing I’ve experienced as well as high school teacher and class librarian… Really eerily similar actually.

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  4. It is interesting that I grew up in a much more chauvinistic time. Yet back then, back in the prehistoric, pre-feminist days of my youth, books were just books. I’d go to the library and there were no divisions of YA, MG and picture books. There was just a big ADULTS on one side of the room, and KIDS on the other. And other than Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys I never once gave a thought to gender in books. I just read whatever I could get my hands on. And the boys who were my friends also did.

    I am acutely aware we must categorize every book now, but somehow my unenlightened youth has helped me. Books are books with no gender assigned to them in my world. I hadn’t realized what a gift I grew up with until I read this post.

    And the reason I read this post, is because Andrew Smith recommended it.

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  5. “Books don’t have genders,” is one of my library mantras. As a middle school librarian, I find myself saying it far too often, usually in response to a student’s question about if some title is a “boy book.” Joyously, I have heard students use that line as well. I teach in a school with at least one transgender student currently, and we always have a handful of students who defy gender norms. If my kids don’t fall neatly into two categories, why should I allow my collection to be binary?

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