Wednesday, August 15, 2012

One Last Time with NPR: Women writers, Presitge and Stuff

I had completely gotten over my issues with the NPR 100 Best Young Adult Novels list and was ready to come blog about something else when I spotted this article on Salon: A Prestige Free Zone.  So take a moment to read it and then come back and we'll discuss.



The reason why this article stuck out to me is because it was the second article in just as many days that I have read discussing the prominence of female authors on the NPR list.





So, let me clarify an important point right up front:

I don't care whether a book is written by a man or by a woman.  What I care about is whether or not it is written well, that it speaks in some way to the audience.

So let's address a specific points brought up in the article at Salon.

What is Young Adult (YA) Lit?

First, they define young adult literature as an "early teen" novel.  As those of us who work with YA literature know, this is a patently false definition.  If anything, it seems that the trend these days is to write for the older age of the YA spectrum.  I don't know about you, but I find it harder and harder to find books appropriate for the younger age of the YA spectrum.  But to be clear, most libraries define YA as any book encompassing the ages of 12 to 18, or for middle and high school students.

Does YA Lit Lack "Prestige"?

Then there is the issue of prestige.  Honestly, as someone who has worked with YA literature for 19 years now, the idea that it doesn't have prestige is really far outside of my personal thoughts and experience.  But, I spend my daily life immersed in YA lit. So, let's take a look at how prestige is defined.

Prestige (noun) : 1. Respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of their achievements or quality. 2) Denoting something that arouses such respect or admiration. (dictionary.com)

I look at the immense following and impact of writers like John Green and think, but of course YA lit has prestige.  Then you have people like Ellen Hopkins writing cutting edge literature in highly stylized formats, how can that not be prestigious?  And do we really want to claim that someone like J. K. Rowling doesn't have prestige?  Of course not, but she is probably considered an exception not the norm.  And yet I have YA and adult patrons that come in on day one and ask for the newest book titles by authors by name.  That seems to indicate a level of prestige to me.  But I guess Miller is not talking about readers, but among other authors.  I would like to think that authors look at the quality of books and not the market of books, but I'm not one so I can't speak on this topic.

Miller makes the claim in this piece that of course YA lit does have its own awards, but that people don't really know about them.  It would be hard for me to discuss the veracity of this statement because, again, I am so immersed in this culture that it seems to me incredible that no one knows about them.  I know that they are often announced on the morning shows and in the press.  I know that almost all school children will be forced at some point and time to choose and read a Newbery medal winner.  The Michael L. Pritnz award is, of course, a newer award.  But does prestige only come in the form of awards?  Miller makes the argument that prestige is inverse to popularity, which doesn't seem to always be true.  Again, I think we can look to authors like John Green, J K Rowling and Suzanne Collins to see examples of authors that have both prestige and popularity.

Men Vs. Women - Still?

But I guess the part of the article that really gets under my craw is the notion that it is somehow a problem that the list or the ya authorship is predominantly female.  Having lived my life where I can't help but notice that most of it seems to be predominantly male, I say good for them.  Are there more female YA writers?  A brief look at the books on my shelves would seem to indicate that yes, there are more women writing YA then men.  But I guess I fail to understand why that is a problem.  It would be a problem if there were no men writing YA, but that is certainly not the case.

I learned to change my views about what men and women read after working for a library director - a man - who loved to read romance novels and could name the entire Harlequin catalog by Title, Author and Number.  And as Stephanie Wilkes noted previously, her African American teen guys love to read Sarah Dessen.

The issue of female writers was brought up in a different way yesterday on the Yalsa-bk listserv when someone asked about female writers who wrote from a male character's point of view.  There are a great number of titles that illustrate that a woman can write effectively and meaningfully from the male point of view.  Just as there are a great number of titles that indicate that men can write from the female point of view.  (Did you not love Hazel when you read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green? I did.)  Or that anyone can write from an alien point of view.  Or from an animal's point of view.

Some amazing male writers who write YA: John Green, Walter Dean Myers, Scott Westerfeld, Jay Asher, Gary Paulsen, Robison Wells, Dan Wells, Michael Grant, Lex Thomas, Pete Hautman, John Corey Whaley, Daniel Handler, Rick Yancey, Adam Rapp, Markus Zusak, Daniel Kraus, Kenneth Oppel, Neal Shusterman, John Flanagan, Chris Lynch, Chris Crutcher, Jonathan Maberry, Gordon Korman, Darren Shan

There was a time when women pretended to be men to get their books published.  Where they put their initials on the covers to try to obscure the fact that they were women writers to increase their readership.  I am glad that we live in a time when women can write confidently the stories that come to them and know that if it is a good story, they can get it published under their own name and everything.  Heck, they may just show up on a Top 100 list with a bunch of their peers and the one thing that they have in common is not that they are women and not that they write YA, but that they write good books that have touched enough people that they choose to vote for them.  If that isn't prestige, well then I guess I don't know what prestige is.

So your goals for today (and always) is to remember this:
1) YA lit rocks
2) It is the quality of the book not the gender of the writer that matters
3) Can we please stop suggesting that women writers are somehow less than male writers?
4) Read!

More reading:

3 comments:

  1. I don't think the salon article's position is that it's "somehow a problem that the list or the ya authorship is predominantly female." I read it as postulating that women are capable of writing great fiction, but they often go unrecognized unless it's a field where men aren't competing. The article isn't maligning women--it's pointing out how unfair this is, and considering underlying issues that cause this "ghetto" for female acclaim. YA is great, but it shouldn't be the only place that women get recognized.

    And to a great extent, it is the only place women are *allowed* to dominate. Even though it's true when you say "...we live in a time when women can write confidently the stories that come to them and know that if it is a good story, they can get it published," it's also true that society is still so inherently misogynist that women rarely receive the acclaim that men do.

    I do think the Salon article is kind of muddy, and they could have made their point with more clarity. Perhaps I'm only interpreting it as taking a position I am familiar with and have seen before. But whether I'm right or not, I do think it's worth remembering that while women writers are just as capable as men, it's a fact that they win fewer prizes, which is generally the most visible measurement of "prestige." It means people aren't voting by quality, they're voting by societal pressure to elevate the narratives of men above those of women, in this case, literally.

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    1. Out of curiosity I went and looked and in terms of the Printz Award winners, there seems to be a fairly good representation of both male and female writers. Granted, I did not do actual math. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_L._Printz_Award

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  2. Zest Books pointed out on Twitter that YA books tend to make a large amount of money and we can certainly see how much the market is exploding - so that also seems to speak to a certain amount of prestige. An excellent point. https://twitter.com/ZestBooks/status/236228022171230209

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