In which I remember the importance of precision…

One of the quirks of visiting my parents’ house is that there are sketches of plans for building boat docks, designing outdoor concrete stairs, potential modifications to lawnmowers to increase their safety, and more, scattered in unexpected places. My dad, who is one smart cookie, has the incredible ability to look at something which already exists and see within it, and beyond it, to imagine how it might exist in a better form. He doesn’t seem to get stuck on the parameters of how it already exists. And he has an equally amazing talent of conjuring beautiful and practical ideas seemingly from thin air. I love that he’s always thinking, always brainstorming, always seeing the world as full of possibilities for improvement. And I REALLY love that his sketches can be found all over the place– not in an official notebook– but on subscription insert flyers from magazines, in the margins of newspapers, on the back of his checkbook. I’m so envious that he can think this way, and then pick up a pencil and draw what he’s considering. There’s something so immediate about it, that he grabs whatever paper happens to be close, and gets right down to the business of problem solving. I’m not mechanically inclined, I’m not a designer, and I’m certainly not an artist. But these last few days of blundering through the creation of the blog I’ve realized that I have inherited something from my dad. Looking around our house right now there are notes scrawled on the bathroom mirror, revisions of an idea jotted down in purple Sharpie on our gas bill, and even a sentence scrawled on the lid of my laptop. Just like my dad, it turns out that when I’m working on a problem, I like to write down my ideas to capture them, to assess their worth, and to return to them later. What a supremely cool thing to realize I share with my dad.


So, back to what all my scrawled, fragmenty, half-thought notes are all about– gender and (my) library practices.


So I admitted in my last blog post that there have been times when I’ve thought about a book as a boy book, or a girl book. And I didn’t think I was being sexist. Or harmful. I certainly didn’t mean that said book was ONLY for that gender, simply that I thought it had particular appeal for that gender. Don’t worry, I’m a member of the enlightened now, and my poor, addled rat brain knows it was wrong, and that it isn’t allowed to do that anymore. But I have to admit it, not only to maintain my integrity and the honesty of this conversation, but to understand what I meant by that, and why I thought it was OK.


Remember, as you read on, that I’m not defending myself here.  I’m just trying to understand what led me to believe that these types of secret thoughts were OK. And I think there are some forces which contributed to this way of thinking, and I think it’s important to acknowledge what they are (or might?) be.


First of all, what did I mean by “boy” book? Well, to understand that it’s probably easier to examine what I meant by “girl” book. I think we all know what that is– speaking in totally oversimplified terms, of course.  It’s a book featuring a largely female cast of characters who are focused on the romantic aspects of their lives. It often has a happily-ever-after ending. And lots of times as a character’s romantic entanglements improve, so do other aspects of her life. It may be realistic, or it may involve sparkly vampires, or it may involve solving a mystery. But a lot of the book’s conflict really involves solving the mystery of L-O-V-E. So that’s a basic “girl” book.  In fact, I think the use of the term “chic lit” to describe such a book is proof that these books are widely considered, and accepted, as having a gendered appeal. And boy books are not those books.  And the weird thing is that while I’m never surprised when a girl wants a non-romance (AKA boy book) I am surprised when a boy wants a “girl” book. I’m not sure why the crossover acceptability formula only goes one way. (Did I just coin a new phrase?) An analogy seems to me to be clothing.  Once upon a time, in the bad old days, pants were for men, and skirts were for women. Then luckily things changed, and it became acceptable for women to wear “men’s” pants. But it never became acceptable for men to wear women’s skirts. Weird. And so our society still largely maintains that items of clothing have a gender, and that’s perfectly acceptable. So isn’t it pretty easy for people to believe that it’s acceptable for other items to have genders as well?  Cars?  Colors? Professions…. Books?


Am I the only jerky librarian in the world who has thought this way about books?  I’m going to say that the answer is no.  Today’s bit of evidence: ALA book committees. Which requires a (not so) brief explanation of my experiences serving on various committees. Disclaimer: these are my experiences, they are by no means gospel, my talented fellow committee members may have entirely different takes on their experiences!


On some book committees the discussion about nominated titles is private. I think this has several benefits. It keeps authors whose books were considered but ultimately not selected from having their hopes raised and dashed and from having hurt feelings or feeling inferior (I don’t know if they’d feel that way, really, they probably have thick skins.  But let’s face it, if it happened to me I might be sad.) It also allows the committee to have super critical conversations about the books, and to discuss quibbles with the construction of even the books that win. It’s nice to keep things like this private because the committee members have to be REALLY HARD on books in order to select so few from such a large publication field. But the committee isn’t designed to point out flaws in books, it is designed to celebrate their strengths.  So when the battle is over, the poor destroyed book’s wounds have been stitched up, and the committee members’ blood pressures are back to normal, the announcement of the winner becomes a celebration of the author’s achievements, not a list of potential issues that even the most wonderful book might raise for some readers.


But other book award committees have open discussion when members of the public can watch the debate happening. These discussions are often quite different from private committee discussions– at least for me. For me, during open discussions, I am acutely aware of the fact that authors and publishers may be sitting in the audience listening to the discussion. That doesn’t mean I’m going to offer false praise for a book, that’s not helpful. And I assume they are there because they want honest feedback. But I am more likely (or at least I try) to make my critical comments precise and free of hyperbole.  I get really annoyed when a committee member says something like, “Of all the books we had to read this year, this is the one that I could barely force myself to read because it was so boring.” Or, “I had to throw this book across the room” (and not because they were so sad when it was over.) Those types of comments just don’t feel very nice to me. I’d rather say something more measured, like, “The pacing was off for me. Some of the long descriptive passages of the setting slowed the plot down too much for me [insert example from pg #…] and distracted from the conflict.” To me I’m saying the same thing as the angry sounding comment, but I’m also offering anyone listening in the audience a specific example of what I mean. I’m also providing specific info for my committee members so they can formulate counter-arguments if they’d like.  [If you haven’t ever attended one of these discussions, they are pretty amazing. But probably more fun if you’ve read the books being discussed. The committee discussion agenda, with times, is usually available so you can plan to pop in and observe specific titles if you’d like. And it will be a big boost to committee members who devote a lot of time from their lives to do this, and who would love to feel like people are interested in the process.  Bonus- audience members can also offer their own opinions for up to two minutes!]


And after several long days of incredibly emotionally draining and intellectually exhausting (but SO rewarding) conversation, members vote on whether or not each book should make the final list. Different committees have different rules of how many yes votes a book needs to make the final list. Theoretically it is each book for itself, with no consideration for the content of the final list, as a whole. By that I mean, there are no genre quotas.  If it’s a year when fantasy romance is a big part of the publishing industry, there could theoretically be nothing but fantasy romance on the list if there were lots of really great ones published. I like this system, and I think it makes the list reflect the publishing trends of the year, while recognizing the very best regardless of genre.


But here’s the thing. Committee members read upwards of 75,000 pages a year (yes, not a typo, seventy-five-THOUSAND-pages). And they sometimes get to talk about a book “at the table” for only 4 minutes– total. For fifteen committee members. That’s 16 seconds per person, if it was divided equally.  If you are reading my blog you can imagine that I’m just getting started at the 16-second mark. So the dirty little secret (but it’s kind of fun too) is that my best committee experiences have come from a set of talented librarians who, like me, need way more time to rave about what they love, or express concerns about what they don’t love as much. We want to talk, and debate, and swear (at least I do), and be incredibly passionate about the weighty responsibility of creating a list that many librarians will use as an important part of their collection development. These conversations are some of the most fun, ever. They’re addictive. They keep me coming back to committee work even when I don’t really have the money to spend going to conferences twice a year. And there are times when these discussions lead to questions of whether or not the final list should be “balanced.” Which means a lot of different things– books from different genres, reading levels, age appeal. But it can also mean “balanced by gender.” I’ve heard committee members, who are smart, and want nothing more than to create legions of readers, worry that there aren’t enough “boy” books. And I’ve certainly had people complain to me (do I just have one of those faces, or what?) that “my” Best Fiction for Young Adults list lacked enough “boy” books.


A benefit of being on a committee is that publishers send books to your house. One year I got nearly 1000 titles– basically like having a birthday box of books almost every single day for a year. Librarian heaven. It makes for a crazy mess of an office, and committee members reach their creative apexes in designing systems that make it possible to locate a particular title in a storage space that offers none of the conveniences of a modern library.  Namely, never enough shelf space, no spine labels, and books which don’t always even fit in a single room.  My particular system involved rough genre classification. This was when fantasy romance was really taking off. And by the end of the year the section of my office which contained fantasy romance was huge!!!! By comparison, the portion of my office which was devoted to realistic fiction featuring a male narrator was tiny. This always bothered me– and it matched the concerns being shared by the teen readers on the “get guys to read” YALSA panel– guys want to see themselves as characters in books.  And my office, a microcosm of what publishers wanted me to consider for a best books list, contained a comparatively low number of these books. So, in my head, these became the “boy books.”


So this is where I finally get to my point about the importance of being precise with language. I never for a second thought that these books would only appeal to boys, or that every single boy would like all of these books no matter what. But instead of worrying that the publishing industry wasn’t sending me enough books for “readers looking for realistic fiction that features a male perspective” I just way oversimplified it (without even thinking, really. Because laziness can be dangerous). And then, when I heard my super-smart friends, or super-smart colleagues, or perfect strangers who seemed nice, referencing “boy books” or lamenting the lack of “boy books” I just automatically assumed they meant what I meant, and we were all using shorthand.  I felt comfortable having the conversation, because I felt my concerns, that an entire category of book was too small, and thereby a reader population was underserved, were being validated and that the conversations were an attempt to problem-solve. But what they might have been doing, instead, was inadvertently moving the conversation away from what a very specific set of readers might have been seeking. Instead of defining the problem in terms of books being published, “Man, I don’t feel like enough books are being published that feature male narrators or a male perspective in realistic situations***” I defined the problem in terms of a super generic, reader population.  Because I had heard from panelists that guys want to “see themselves” and because I’d heard specific students making similar sorts of requests. What my concern failed to do was to recognize that yes, these books are important for students who are looking to “see themselves” but they are equally important for any reader of any genre who want to see a realistic guy in a book.


People always think that because I’m such a prolific reader I must want to become an author of fiction. I don’t. Among other reasons I spend so much time admiring the craft of authors I love that I am too intimidated to believe I would ever be able to match their ability to paint with words. Doing so requires precision. Not all synonyms have the exact same shades of meaning– and that’s why picking just the right one is so important. By allowing myself to think and speak in a lazy shorthand (boy books), I fell prey to potentially having conversations with people in which I intended to express one idea, but may have expressed something entirely different.  So here’s my vow, to become more precise. Instead of using sloppy shorthand I’m going to attempt to think and say what I really mean. Here’s my first start. Instead of lamenting the lack of boy books I’m going to say what I mean, “I wish I would see more books being published that feature male narrators, or a male perspective, in realistic situations.  I think lots of readers (NOT JUST GUYS!!!) would like to see more of these.”

I’m personally adding the ***realistic situations*** clarifier because I feel like male perspective is more found more in fantasy and scifi books, which is great, obviously.  Not to say we couldn’t use more, but my book shelving experience made me most aware of the seeming lack of male perspective in realistic books. And I have lots of readers– myself included– who are always hunting for realistic books with male perspectives as well.  (Feel free to argue though, this could be a misperception on my part too! And isn’t this blog all about me becoming more sensitive and self-aware?)

And that’s it.  For today. Anyone else have suggestions on other ways we might modify the way we talk about gender in the library? And/or how we can help others talk about it as well?  Danika Ellis has a great blog post in which she writes about how it’s not just teachers, publishers, and librarians that see books as having genders. The book buying public does as well.


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