In which I think about gender of authors and characters…

I spend a lot of time on my blog posts, especially the ones in which I wrestle with complicated ideas like gender.  They take time because I am working hard to express myself clearly, and honestly, and thoughtfully.  They take time because I realize that I don’t necessarily have the opportunity to immediately respond and clarify with a reader, the way I would in a conversation– and so I know that I need to explain myself as fully as possible, because I may only get one shot. They are hard because I think it’s important to sometimes reveal my own foibles, mistakes, and misconceptions, not to glorify or justify them, but to understand how (and hopefully why) an essentially nice person like myself sometimes still makes mistakes.  It seems far easier– and far safer– to examine an issue by calling out someone else’s behavior, rather than admitting my own potential missteps. And yet, I believe that it’s only through honesty that I am better able to examine the how’s and why’s of the way I think and to consider the influences around me.  Through examination will come moments of revelation in which I suddenly understand how I’ve reached certain conclusions.  And if I feel that those conclusions and those influences were incorrect, at that moment I can then begin consciously and actively locating and creating sources of influence that more accurately reflect my core beliefs.

I’ve been trying to follow this process with my examination of gender in libraries by admitting that I’ve sometimes used gender stereotypes (even in a well-meaning way) to bring simplicity to a complicated topic– or even to right a perceived wrong.  I think it’s important for me to admit this– and to examine where those ideas came from, and how I’m changing– because I can’t be the only person with these experiences.  And when I start to understand how I developed these ideas I can try to create alternate behaviors to help me avoid passing these flawed ideas onto others.

One common misconception that I think is important to actively reject is the notion that books can be written for either male or female audiences.  While that may seem silly to state, because it sounds so common sense, my previous blog posts have examined why I think we still need to work on actively rejecting this idea because so much of society still supports it.

This week I’ve been thinking about the topic from the perspective of male and female characters, because I think that many people (subconsciously or not) are still using character gender as a means of determining a book’s intended audience.  I always like to be transparent in where my ideas are coming from– whether they are a library event, a discussion with a colleague, or something I read.  In this case, it’s the latter– an article on Vice in which Hugh Ryan interviewed the author Andrew Smith. http://www.vice.com/read/failure-of-male-societies-869

If you’re active in the young adult lit world you may have heard about this interview, lots of people reacted pretty strongly to it. If you haven’t heard of it, gird yourself before exploring it, the discussions end up taking some pretty unpleasant turns, and much of the furor seems to have centered on Andrew Smith’s response to one of Hugh Ryan’s questions. In reading about the whole event (event= publication of interview and subsequent social media/blog responses) I went back to the original interview and was immediately struck by Hugh Ryan’s questions.  At one point he says to Mr. Smith: “You also don’t seem afraid to explore the sex lives of teen boys—everything from the confusion of being attracted to your gay best friend to the trauma of sexual assault during war.”  (To be honest I’m not sure what the question was, as this seems more of a statement from Mr. Ryan) but Mr. Smith responds: “There are an awful lot of things that people are, for whatever reason, timid to talk about, and sexuality in adolescence is one. Kids ask me about that all the time. Especially boys. They’ll quietly say things like “Wow, you wrote about this. How do you feel about that? How do your kids feel about this stuff?” They’re trying to feel out some kind of an answer, because they’re curious. I think these are natural experiences during adolescence. So I tell them I’m not afraid of words, of talking about anything that I think is real or pertinent.”  So far, so good, right?  Mr. Smith seems to want to validate a range of sexuality for his readers– exactly what we all want, right?

It’s Mr. Ryan’s next question where things get problematic for me.  Here it is: “On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?”  This question is problematic because, to me, it reverts back to a simple gender binary belief that to enter into a book (by which I assume Mr. Ryan means “engage with” a book) a reader must see someone of their own gender. Mr. Ryan’s question seems to suggest that what enables a female to connect with a character is not whether they share the same beliefs, attitudes, struggles, or experiences, but whether or not they both share the “vagina experience.”

Mr. Ryan’s question spells disaster for any female who ever believes she gained anything from reading William Golding’s chilling Lord of the Flies, a compelling exploration of human brutality which doesn’t happen to feature a single female character. Does my appreciation of that book signal that I’m secretly male?  Or is my appreciation inherently untrustworthy because I can’t truly connect with the male characters, and so I only mistakenly “believe” I understand it?

It would be easy, at this point, to decide that Mr. Ryan’s question is a reflection of a flawed attitude that puts female readers into an incredibly small box.  And that he himself is a sexist jerk for not giving female readers more credit. But as I read the entire article I feel like Mr. Ryan actually believes that the lack of female characters in Andrew Smith’s novels is a problem, and that his question is a misguided attempt “right a wrong” by goading Andrew Smith into writing “more” female characters. Though the question itself seems sexist, I’m willing to give Mr. Ryan the benefit of the doubt that he meant to somehow support women through the question. So where does this belief in a quota fulfillment as equality come from?  I don’t think our conversation starter, Mr. Ryan, is the one who created the idea of a quota solution (or that he is the only one who suggests it as a solution).

Many in the book world do talk about the need for readers to “see themselves” in books. But we don’t always specify what that means– so it can be easy to oversimplify. My sense is that it often translates to “We need more of X” with X being a: gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, setting, etc. And yes, because we do need books that represent the incredibly broad range of experiences that our readers have, we do need those things.  I myself have called (am still calling) for more realistic male protagonists.  But we need these diverse characters, settings, and experiences not just so readers can see books as a reflection of themselves, but also so they can see books which reflect unfamiliar experiences.  All my readers deserve to see realistic male protagonists, so my call for them should not be interpreted as being just for male readers.

While I agree that it’s important for a reader to at least sometimes see themselves in a novel, I don’t think that means they necessarily need to see someone who “looks” like them, or has a life exactly like their own.  There are plenty of times when I have seen “myself” in the struggles or triumphs of a main character who is male. In Melina Marchetta’s (@MMarchetta1) absolutely brilliant exploration of how family members can love and destroy each other simultaneously– Piper’s Son— I connected as much with twenty-something Tom as I did with his 40-something aunt.  I loved Gayle Forman’s (@gayleforman) If I Stay, and I loved the sequel, Where She Went, which focused on the boyfriend’s experience, even more.  I found Adam’s raging despair perfectly captured much of the emotional turmoil I experienced during a high school heartbreak. To me there is something truly powerful when an author is able to help me transcend the categories that society sometimes suggests are insurmountable (like gender) and understand that two people from different categories can share many experiences. To me, this is when the idea of “other” starts to break down, when I see that an “other’s” experience of a phenomenon isn’t really that much different than my own experience of that same event.

And even though we need diversity of character and experience in our novels, I don’t think that means that fulfilling a quota is the answer.  If we understand that sensitive and accurate depictions of characters and experiences are important to helping readers connect, we must be willing to allow authors to focus on crafting the experiences that they feel they can best best illustrate.  Whether these portrayals come from autobiographical experiences, or more traditional research methodologies, an author must be given the freedom to speak to the experiences they feel they can best represent.

Requiring all authors to cover all experiences doesn’t guarantee nuance, and it doesn’t guarantee sensitive coverage of anything. Requiring an author to include character X, or topic X, or setting X doesn’t mean that the author (no matter how much research they do) will feel qualified or comfortable representing X in their book.  And, after all, think of how quick people are to vilify an author who tries and gets it wrong.  Good luck to the author trying to recover from a cultural misstep.

So instead of seemingly suggesting that Andrew Smith needs “more” female characters, perhaps Mr. Ryan should explore what Andrew Smith does with the female characters in his books.  How the female “body count” may be low, but how Mr. Smith makes the female characters important through their actions.  Perhaps Mr. Ryan should ask Andrew Smith to explain why he doesn’t need “more” female characters in order to give his female readers a “way into” the novel because male characters can be that entryway.  And while I reject the notion that all females have an innate shared understanding and appreciation of each other due to the “vagina experience” it would be silly for me to pretend that there aren’t some experiences that are unique to women— childbirth and lower wages than equivalent male counterparts being two easy examples.  Perhaps Mr. Ryan should ask Andrew Smith, who suggests he is actively working to develop a greater understanding of what may be some uniquely female experiences, how he is gathering that knowledge.  After all, we could all benefit from exploring how we can learn to develop empathy and understanding for people with experiences that are different from our own (whether we’ll be writing a novel about them or not).

And when I say, “Mr. Ryan” I really mean all of us.  Perhaps we should all be asking these questions of not only our authors, but ourselves.  How do I attempt to understand some of the experiences my teens may be having that I never had?  The experience of poverty?  The experience of sexual abuse?  The experience of pressure to perform on standardized tests?  The potential pitfalls of living life in public social media forums?  I may not have experienced these things as a teen, but I know they are real now, though that doesn’t always immediately equate to insight.  I need to seek understanding, and seek to add books to my collection which reflect those experiences– and which understand that the lens of these experiences goes far beyond ideas of gender.  And if an author doesn’t feel comfortable with these topics, or many others which aren’t included in this list, we shouldn’t cry foul, that author likely has an equally important set of ideas and experiences to present to us.  Authors must be allowed to focus on the topics and ideas that contain personal meanings, that they feel passionate about examining in their work, and that they can feel proud of creating.  Solely focusing on what an author hasn’t given readers can mean we risk missing an awful lot of what they have.

PS This post made possible by the generosity of @charliehuette who mowed the entire, huge lawn (which was way too tall) while I wrote this afternoon.  Mwah!

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In which I hatch a plan involving nudity…

Several years ago I finally fulfilled a lifelong dream and got my basic scuba diving certification.  I don’t live in a place where I can see a whole lot of coral reefs up close and personal, so when a vacation gives me the opportunity I’m always a bundle of excited nerves. Excited because I know I love it.  Nerves because it’s usually 18-24 months between dives for me, so it never all becomes second nature. Getting into the wetsuit often involves lots of awkward contortions and sometimes even having friendly complete strangers on the dive boat tugging at various parts of my rented suit to (please god) get the zipper zipped.  This is shortly followed by putting on more heavy equipment, hoping my mask defogger works, and silently trying to remind myself that I’ve done this before, and that it must be like riding a bike and that once I’m weightless in the water I’ll feel less like a flailing flounder and more like the graceful mermaid I actually am.

And, sure enough, it takes about ten seconds of floating next to the boat, looking down through the clear water to the sand and reefs below, before the nerves are gone and I’m giddy about the prospective of getting to dive down and live in the deep for forty-five minutes. But each time I follow the anchor chain down, I get just a little disappointed. Because although there is lots of sand around, and sometimes seagrass, there aren’t always lots of fish. And my public broadcasting childhood science documentaries have taught me that being underwater equals FISH! And they are not there. Scuba diving– meh. But every single time this happens, just as I start to decide climate change really has destroyed everything, I look away from the sandy bottom, blink my eyes, and suddenly realize I’m surrounded by fish. I call this moment “getting my ocean eyes” and it never fails to blow my mind.  The fish were always there, but I literally couldn’t see them, but when I shift my focus my perception of my surroundings completely changes. I don’t know exactly what triggers ocean eyes, but I suspect that it’s related to the fact that my eyes tend to initially focus on the largest object I see- the sandy bottom– and I have to learn to look at the seemingly “empty” space between myself and the bottom to find what I’m interested in studying. The moment of getting ocean eyes is one of my favorite moments of every dive, and once I have them they last the entire time.  Complete bliss.

Lately it seems that gender issues in the library are my new ocean eyes moment.  I’ve known gender issues are surrounding me, but I’ve been looking past them, or through them.  And now, suddenly– because of a simple local public library program– I’m seeing the issues everywhere around me.  In conversations about tv ads, examinations of book covers, when considering buying new clothes for school and wondering about dressing professionally as a woman (vs as a man). I’m realizing gender expectations color large swaths of our world, becoming part of a crazy chicken-egg cycle in which it’s difficult for me to isolate which came first, the notions of gender identity or the practices that create it.  It means that examining how gender impacts my library is an octopus of a creature– and that writing about it leads me in lots of different directions.  Keeping a succinct focus when the issues are so interwoven has been complicated for me.

Case in point– I’ve been working on a post about cover art.  Here’s a simplified version of my thinking process (since I’m interested in process and transparency). Cover art is often gendered. Example: Heist Society by Ally Carter (@OfficiallyAlly), which is really fun caper story of teens robbing a famous London museum to right a social injustice. Does this cover suggest any of that?

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Art from http://allycarter.com/books/heist-society/synopsis/

Not to me, it doesn’t.  Nor does it to many of my teens.  Lots of my potential readers reporting thinking this is a “girly romance.” Not a kick-ass action book.  So my initial “solution” to this problem was that when a book like this has a cover that I (or my readers) deem too “gendered” I will just censor it and make a new cover.  Problem solved.  Does it work?  My informal studies show that yes, it does work.  Boys, in particular, are much more likely to check out Heist Society after a book talk when I agree to put an old Hunger Games dust jacket over the existing cover. One, in fact, was back the very next day for the sequel– which also got the Hunger Games dust jacket treatment.  I was thrilled because I had always known this book would work for any reader who loved snappy dialogue, disguises, hijinx, and suspense.

Another book which got a fake dust jacket, for similar reasons, is Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams (@gab_williams)– an absolutely fantastic book featuring alternating narration between two main characters with quirky and yet believable lives.  It has a romance storyline in it, but the two characters are individuals first, and as each tells his/her own story the potential romance becomes very secondary (though still important!). Here’s the romance-heavy American cover.

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Art from http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=beatle+meets+destiny

A fake cover (simple blue construction paper) boosted the book into our top 20 list of most circulated titles in a single year.  There could obviously be lots of confounding factors– especially student-to-student recommendations after the first few readers liked it– but I can’t help believing that a different cover made a difference too.

These two examples of fake covers seemed to support my hypothesis that cover art changes could change circulation statistics, so it became a more common practice. But returning to that dark secret of gendered librarian thoughts, I must admit that my cover art censorship usually ran along gender lines.  In this case “girly” covers tended to have pinks and reds, swirly fonts, and couples in loving poses. Neutral cover art tended to be abstract.  And “boyish” cover art featured darker colors, action scenes, weaponry, etc. (I’m cringing as I write this because it’s again painful for me to realize how my mental classifications fell into such stereotypes!)

It’s interesting that the majority of times when I censored a cover it was because the cover felt “too feminine.”  Because again, somehow, I had come to believe that while a girl would carry around a masculine looking book without fear, there was no way a boy would carry around a feminine looking book. And, to be honest, part of this comes from student feedback.  Many boys have said, “That looks too girly.”  Or, “That looks like it’s for girls” (see above examples) whereas few girls have said the equivalent to me about a cover like Shipbreaker by Paola Bacigalupi (@paolabacigalupi) or Graceling by Kristin Cashore (@kristincashore) (both of which happen to be perpetual favorites with male and female readers because of the world-building, amazing suspense, and fully-developed characters).

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http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/paolo-bacigalupi/ship-breaker/9780316056212/#desc

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http://kristincashore.blogspot.com/2008/02/my-books.html

So, because I want this blog to be about how I change my own practices, the solution seemed really simple.  Fake covers for gendered covers.  Problem solved.

But here’s the rub– in thinking more about this I’m realizing that even deeming a cover to be too girly perpetuates gender stereotypes.  By saying, “A boy won’t read a book with a couple kissing on it” am I not buying into the party line that boys don’t like romance?  And by buying into that am I not perpetuating it?  So is my very quest for gender neutral covers also totally laced with bias about what would make something have appeal to both genders?  Does defining certain objects as “neutral” validate that other items have appeal to only one gender? I think so, which makes a desire for neutrality a completely backwards– and even harmful– approach.

Now I’m forcing myself to delve deeper into the cover art dilemma.  Because, again, I’ve fallen into the trap of oversimplifying my male readers into a single category– “Males won’t get books with pink, red, swirly, kissing couples on the front.”  Not only does this lump all male readers together, it also suggests that cover art is only problematic for male readers.  Are teen guys really the only people in the world who judge a book by its cover?  No!  Stated like that the idea is absurd! Honestly, no one was checking out Heist Society or Beatle Meets Destiny.  Not only did the cover art not appeal to boys (who I thought would like the book) it also didn’t appeal to girls (who I thought would like the book!)  And yet, in my earlier thinking about the issue of cover art, I’ve admittedly worried much more about appeal to male readers than female readers.  Ugh, what does that say about me?  Do I really view girls as so much more open-minded than boys?  Or is it (more likely) just that I believe society overall is going to give girls more of a free pass for reading a greater variety of books than it gives to boys?  Maybe it seems that way, just because girls often seem willing to check out books with cover art and storylines that aren’t specifically targeted to them.  But that doesn’t mean that girls don’t also at times suffer consequences for reading outside of what is deemed their “gender” norm.  A.S. King (@AS_King) has a good anecdote about what her fellow teens concluded about her based on her reading preferences.  So it’s definitely not just a one-way street of possible ostracism or teasing– both genders can get shit from their peers based on their reading choices.  `

So thinking about cover art appeal just in terms of gender is an oversimplification.  I need to think about cover art beyond gender.

We all know how important cover art can be– heck, it’s even a criteria that some ALA/YALSA book committees consider when evaluating titles (and what criteria are they using?  Oh boy, that’s probably a can of worms!)  The saying “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” doesn’t come from nowhere– it’s born from the idea that appearance is influential during book selection.  Cover art is fraught with many problems beyond the slippery slope of gender. Sometimes the cover doesn’t seem related to the story, or sometimes the depiction of the character on the cover doesn’t match the description in the book, or sometimes the cover art is just dated. Or sometimes a cover is beautiful to one person, and hideous to another. Does me making a fake book cover solve any of these problems?  Not really- there are still bound to be potential readers who are equally likely to reject my fake cover for a different set of personal reasons.

So now I’m thinking that all cover art is potentially flawed.  Replacing one cover (for any reason) with a second cover still doesn’t guarantee broad readership.  So to solve the cover art issue I have a totally radical idea.  No cover art.  Period.

I had a lovely breakfast meeting with my talented librarian friend Kate McNair last week.  (Topics we discussed included the YALSA futures of library report.  For fun.  On our own time.  Because yes, we care about this stuff.  Isn’t it crazy?)  We got to talking about gender issues, and cover art, and I proposed my idea for coverless books.  (Dare I call them “nude” books?  Mah ha ha…)  Kate was initially surprised, but I tried to win her over by reminding her that in the “olden days” books didn’t necessarily always (ever) come with fancy dust jackets.  Like the diamond engagement ring, some of the current cover art frenzy is the brainchild of clever marketing teams who have us all believing that there’s no way a modern teen will pick up a book based on description alone. But is this true?  I mean, lots of libraries have “blind dates with books” type of displays in which the cover art is concealed– as well as the title, author, and book description– and they often report successful circulation (if Pinterest boards are to be believed).

I don’t want my students to have to choose completely blindly, but I am thinking to create a display of my favorites with all cover art and jacket flap copy covered.  Title and author will be listed, as well as a thirty word book teaser– just like I used to have to write for my book award committees.  Since I’m only in my second year at my school my circulation numbers for this year can’t necessarily be compared to last year because our collection has dramatically expanded in the last twelve months, and the number of book talks that I do this year should be increasing as well (fingers crossed).  But I’m planning to run a few circulation statistics before students arrive in mid-August just to get some idea of circulation patterns.  The stats also won’t tell me the gender of the readers, but it’s going to be fun to try and keep some informal records on that during the experiment to look for trends.  My hope is by taking the cover art (and it’s marketing) out of the equation I’ll get more proof that dispels the classification of “boy” and “girl” books that exist either consciously or subconsciously in so many of our minds.

I’m actually really excited about this, it feels like an important step forward in broadening the appeal of so many books!  I’m excited about taking back some ownership of books that I love, returning the focus to the author’s work instead of the illustrator’s brush. It makes me feel like a more active participant in marketing books to my readers.  I’m really curious what other librarians, people in publishing, and authors think about this.  Anyone had any experiences, want to make predictions, or share advice?

PS Many thanks to Kate McNair (@K8McNair) and Kevin Mays for getting me motivated to finish another post!!