Tuesday, November 2, 2010

GUEST POST - Boys on Boys - Males Writing YA

(Our thanks to Ryan Sullivan for this thoughtful post!)

I’m in a strange place for a YA writer. I’m barely 21, so I myself am not that far out of my teens. I’m technically an adult by any standard, but at the same time, I still identify with, relate to, and feel a connection to teen culture. I grew up reading the books that are still current enough that they’re used to place my book in the market for submission. I read Looking for Alaska by John Green as a sophomore in high school, and Paper Towns my senior year, the week it came out. At the same time, I’m a writer on submission and I’m constantly immersing myself with the market and industry. So my views are shaped by this duality.

Men Writing YA

In the industry, there’s been huge debate of boys reading. One offshoot of this is that I’ve seen writers talk about the fact that boys aren’t reading male-POV books written by females. At first, I did think this was a bad thing. But, while talking about authorship in a discussion of a literary theory piece, I began to think about authorship and why boys might feel uncomfortable in this way. Children’s books have the distinct quality that they often provide a sort of counsel for adolescents who are confused about their world and what’s going on in it. Teens are constantly experiencing things for the first time, or that they aren’t very experienced with. The books they read have to reflect and capture that. But, a teen might feel like they wouldn’t get the type of counsel they would need from an author of a different gender.

Now, I don’t necessarily think the writer’s gender should matter, but I often can tell a writer’s gender through the details. An emotion may be the same across genders, but there are certain experiences a writer of a different gender just may not be able to do justice--experiences that teens need to see in at least a portion of the books they read. I, for example couldn’t (and wouldn’t) write about menstruation. I could look it up, or read about it, but I could never document that experience from a place of primary experience authenticity. “Boy” books written by women are no worse or better than those written by men, but they require a certain trust from a male teen reader--a trust that comes from reading books that they connect with (and often the books that they will seek out to connect with will be from writers of their own gender)--as well as coming with the expectation that certain things won’t be there. So, a boy might turn to a male author if they’re looking (consciously or subconsciously) for guidance. My hands-down favorite YA book is Ordinary Ghosts by Eireann Corrigan--a female writer who created a “boy” book that’s incredibly convincing and authentic. Boys definitely should be reading books written by females. But, to get there, they need to find books they can connect with, writers who document the experiences they deal with, and they will often look for those within the work of male writers.

Boys Reading YA

This is a strange concept to me--being a male writer of teen “boy” books. I’ve never been the most masculine person. I’m not into sports, cars, or any of those things. So being thought of as a male writer, writing for boys, with a male agent, who has many successful male writers, who write for boys, is a weird. But then again, it’s not. I may not fit the stereotype, but I can still speak from a place boys can connect with. I share their experience, regardless of our differences. Also, like many boys today, I was a reluctant reader. I was (and am) a slow reader. If you’d have told me five, or even three years ago that I would be a literature major, I would have laughed. But I found the right books. I found authors who I believed, authors who I respected and trusted. And now I feel that responsibility to uphold that tradition of honesty and authenticity that made me become a reader and a writer. But, regardless of authors’ genders, boys still aren’t reading.

One major problem in a tight market is that books begin to trend in a way that appeals to the broadest (and most profitable) audience. It makes sense--you can’t hold it against the publishers. And this isn’t to say they aren’t good quality, or that non-trend books aren’t being published--it’s just tighter. Unfortunately, the consequences of playing to a strength in the market is that we lose readers, most often the reluctant readers that need the most attention. Now, personally, I see boys buying books all the time. I don’t think the boys are doomed not to be readers. What I do think, though, is that YA literature has left them behind. The books we see becoming successful and the books we see turning into movies or TV shows are not books that boys are into. Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight--they’re just not books boys are reading. Because of this, they get altered perceptions of what’s out there, which isn’t appealing to them, so they stop reading.

The Future of Boys Reading YA

All that said, I think the market is moving in the right direction. I would predict that in the next decade, we’ll see an increase in male readership of YA. Here’s why:

First, middle grade boy books are amazing right now. The market for them seems strong, the writing is terrific and there’s still interest in publishing them. I have a ten year old nephew who reads a lot, so I’ve seen first hand how when a book pulls him in, he’ll read it lightening fast. With books like the Wimpy Kid series, MG boys are definitely finding outlets, books that they can understand and authors they feel understood them. This creates strong readers as they move into YA.

Second, older “cool” guys are starting to find their way into reading. I’m talking the 20’s frat guys. With the rising popularity and population of “fratire” like I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, guys in their 20’s and 30’s are going to find themselves pulled into reading more and more. Having “cool guy” writers like Tucker Max makes reading more acceptable amongst guys. I think this will have a top-down effect. As older guys start reading, younger boys will begin to see that it’s okay to read, that it doesn’t have to be something that affects your masculinity or take time away from “boy” things. And you can see where YA and fratire are intersecting--books like Spanking Shakespeare are teen versions of the genre. Now, I know that the genre of fratire has scores of issues surrounding sexism and objectification--and I’m certainly not rubber stamping it or condoning it--but that’s another discussion for another time.

But, this does mean that there will need to be YA boy books for them when they get there. And there will be. We already have great books from the male perspective. We have great writers right now like John Green, James Dashner, Frank Portman, Scott Westerfeld, Ben Esch, Ned Vizzini and Stephen Edmond--and hopefully many more in the future. What’s also important is that these authors are working within what’s “cool.” Frank Portman’s music references and modern wit will definitely appeal to a certain type of teen that might not be your typical boy reader. Stephen Edmond’s graphic-novel influence will also reach out to new readers. (And so on.) As the market expands it’s outreach, while other markets grow in strength, boys will read more.

A Final Word

It just takes one book to change somebody’s life. I was an accidental reader. I don’t remember how, but I found out about a new (at the time) imprint of scholastic books called PUSH. It was summer, and we were at a big Borders, and the only PUSH book I saw (because they have distinct and matching formatted covers) was You Remind Me of You by Eireann Corrigan. I bought it, because the promise of PUSH books being “just like life” appealed to me. Even though I have very little in common with an anorexic teenage girl, it was the first book that made me feel connected to the author. The emotional honesty that Eireann’s writing has transcends gender and experience--and that’s what we need, as YA writers. Beyond gender or experience, we need pure, authentic emotional honesty. It’s a trust. Teens trust us to be honest. We owe them that much.

I encourage everyone to promote literacy--not just among boys, but among all children. Non-profit organizations like 826, To Write Love on Her Arms, Write Now Poets and the many others out there are terrific ways to do so. Get involved, and take a stand. Kids will read, they just need to find the book that will change their life. And they may need a little help to do so.

For more information about boys reading, please check out guysread.com

Visit Ryan at  www.ryansullivanbooks.com .


Nicole said...

Amazing post! Very insightful.

Che Gilson said...

Interesting post! The great debate on boy readers rages on ;)

From what I have heard many a young man skips the YA section and goes traight to adult fiction which I think is also a perfectly valid option if they aren't getting what they want or need from YA.

But I'm wondering why most YA male aimed fiction is all contemporary? Waaay back when I was a girl the boys I knew in high school were reading Dragon Lance novels and Robert Jordon. So I wonder that there isn't much male-centric genre for YA boys.

Melanie said...

Beautifully articulated and very well thought out post, Ryan. I wouldn't expect anything less from you. I have followed your comments and various posts on AW because I'm always interested in what you have to say. Your perspective is fresh and encouraging and I hope you are right about the changing trends.

Ryan Sullivan said...

@ Nicole-Thanks!

@Che-I write and read contemporary, so that's where my perspective comes from primarily, but I would actually say there are quite a lot of genre books that suit YA boys. Dashner and Westerfeld are the ones that pop into my mind right away.

This may or may not be true, but in my observation, genre readers tend to read more and be a little less discriminating on what they read (perhaps because it's a made up world, not a world that is specifically supposed to be the one they know). I would say genre readers are more likely to break out of an age group--and I think this is confirmed by the fact that most cross-over books are not contemporary.

I would say that reluctant readers are the ones who tend to go for contemporary first. It tends to be shorter, more familiar and engage them in a slightly different way. From there, it's anyone's game.

@Melanie-Very flattering--thank you!

Leah said...

Amazing post, Ryan. Great insight.
For my NaNo project, I decided to give male PoV a try as a way to practice and progress as a writer, but I'm constantly worried about how true it is. It's definitely way out of my comfort zone to do first person male PoV.
Girl PoVs just come naturally, which isn't really a surprise.

LM Preston said...

As a female who writes books with male mc, I initially thought to do so to interest my teen son in reading and writing. He's one of my most helpful resources. To get him to read, I find books we read together outloud. Even though he's a teen, he enjoys it since we try to make it exciting with diction and some action. I hope things do turn around in the market regarding boys - if we can just get them off the video games.

Katie Ashley said...

Thanks so much for guest blogging and giving us a well needed "male" perspective about the YA world.

For me, I really enjoyed writing a male POV...actually, I did it twice, but once it was with a nice, sweet male angel....he didn't get to be like Noah, my smartass male MC in DHtP, lol.

Good luck on sub and keep on keeping it on with the writing game!

I would love to see more guys reading YA lit...crossover with girl and boy narratives.

Claire Dawn said...

Thanks Ryan!

My take: It's a chicken and egg

Boys don't read -> Publishers don't release many boy books -> Boys don't read...

Here's to the end of the cycle.