Most educators are aware that our society has been experiencing a decline in the amount of reading being done by boys. It might be a slight exaggeration to call it a “crisis of literacy,” but the phenomenon in both real and troubling. As the parent of a 12-year old boy and a 13-year old girl, I’ve been following this rather carefully over the past few years. I’ve also acquired much greater familiarity than anyone my age should with what’s going on in the YA (young adult) literature category. So here are a few observations on the subject.
Women make up the majority of readers of fiction, but in the youth category they also make up the majority of (successful) authors. Not only is there a great deal of YA literature being written by women, featuring female protagonists, but much of it also reflects what might be referred to as a “female sensibility.” As a result, it is becoming difficult to find books that will capture the imagination of young boys. (Difficult, I say, not impossible. There has been a veritable explosion of literature in this category, so the volume of material out there is gigantic, and thus defeats easy generalization.) The two most prominent examples, The Hunger Games and the Twilight series, both feature not only a female protagonist, but are written from the first-person perspective. This is not a deal-breaker for boys, but it is a barrier to entry. (The most diplomatic approach, adopted in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, is to alternate between male and female protagonists.) To add to this, both Hunger Games and Twilight are governed by a “female sensibility” that is extremely retrograde and reinforces many negative gender stereotypes. As a result, even if boys are able to overcome the challenges involved in identifying with the female narrator, the books themselves go on to celebrate, and in some cases wallow in, many of the traits that they find most yucky and boring about girls.
The Harry Potter books, despite being superficially different, have many of the same issues. Although given the sales figures there must be some boys out there who liked them, I have never personally met any of them (certainly not my son or any of his friends). My son reads a lot, but he crapped out on Harry Potter somewhere around the third book. There are a variety of reasons why he lost interest, but one factor is that, despite the fact that the books have a male protagonist, he figured out pretty quickly that Harry is a loser, who despite being the “chosen one,” never does anything clever, never seems to learn anything, and wanders around confused most of the time. Hermione is obviously the star. (Saying that Harry was your favorite character in those books would be like saying that Jerry was your favorite character on Seinfeld.) In fact the books as a whole are a very long and fairly subtle exercise in Paper Bag Princess reverse sexism – which is fine, and great for all the girls out there, but for the boys it’s a bit like eating vegetables. (The ultimate plot reveal, involving the tragic love of Harry’s teacher for Harry’s mom, is one that no boy of my acquaintance has ever found even vaguely interesting, for understandable reasons.)
So when other parents see my son with his nose in a book and ask me what to give their boys to read, I often wind up recommending older books. (For instance, the English books they are given to read in school are, again, for the most part extremely female in their sensibility. The exception was Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens, which the boys all loved.) I’ve also made a habit, when I’m in a used bookstore, of picking up old classics that I read when I was young, particularly in the fantasy genre. For instance, Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber went over well. I also bought some of the old Conan the Barbarian books (esp. the ones with the Frazetta covers), largely for sentimental reasons. Most of these I just handed over to my son without looking inside. After all, these are books I had read when I was about his age, and I don’t recall there being anything wrong with them. One evening, however, feeling a bit bored, I picked up Conan the Buccaneer and began to read. This is how it starts out:
Two hours before midnight, the princess Chabela awoke. Drawing the filmy coverlet about her naked body, the buxom daughter of King Ferdrugo of Zingara lay tense and trembling. She stared into the darkness, while cold horror sent thrills of premonition through her quickening nerves…
Wow, that’s not how I remembered these books. Further down the page, having awoken from her nightmare, the princess decides to pray:
An impulse to seek supernatural guidance brought her to stand shivering on the tiles. Wrapping the lacy coverlet about her voluptuous, olive-hued body, she crossed the bedchamber to kneel before the idol. Her night-black torrent of hair poured down her back like a cataract of a liquid midnight… Horror filled her; a sob of loathing shook her rounded body. Her full young breasts, proud globes of pale tan under the lacy veils, rose and fell. She threw herself prone before the little altar, her black hair sliding in gleaming coils over the tiles. She prayed.
Setting aside the hysterical, Lovecraftian writing, I have to admit that, only two pages in, I began to feel a certain measure of curiosity about what the evil sorcerer Thoth-Amon might have in store for the princess. Whatever its literary merits, I think we can all agree that this book is one that has very low barriers to entry for boys. Compare this to the opening passage of Twilight:
My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt—sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.
This is also largely about women’s clothing, but somehow it fails to capture the male imagination in the same way. (Again, it does not hurt for boys to imaginatively enter the mind of someone who pays attention to such things as “eyelet lace,” or to recognize that women often think about their own clothing in utilitarian terms. The question is whether reading a book is like eating Doritos or eating vegetables.)
I was reminded of this a few days ago when I came across a column, written by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), called “Want teenage boys to read? Easy. Give them books about sex.” This seemed to me exactly right. If you look at contemporary contributions in the fantasy genre, such as the interminable novels of R. A. Salvatore, they are almost puritanically chaste. Sanderson writes like someone who does not want to lose the born-again Christian demographic, his characters never get much beyond cuddling before the veil of privacy descends. As for the Kingkiller Chronicles, the protagonist spends literally 1,400 pages stuck in the friendzone before things all of a sudden get (implausibly) raunchy. (On the French side, my son really liked Pierre-Olivier Lavoie’s Victor Pelham series, which has its own “you don’t mind sleeping on the couch, do you?” moments.)
This is not to say that there is no sex in contemporary YA literature. Far from it. If we turn to what the girls are reading – or what is being written by women and marketed to girls – some of it is actually a bit shocking. Consider Sarah J. Maas, who is currently huge in this genre. Here’s a little scene from A Court of Mist and Fury – again, female narrator, first-person perspective:
I leaned down and put my mouth on him. He jerked at the contact… and I laughed around him, even as I took him deeper into my mouth. His hands were now fisted in the sheets, white-knuckled as I slid my tongue over him, grazing slightly with my teeth. His groan was fire to my blood. Honestly, I was surprised he waited a full minute before interrupting me. Pouncing was a better word for what he did. One second, he was in my mouth, my tongue flicking over the broad head of him; the next, his hands were on my waist and I was being flipped onto my front. He nudged my legs apart with his knees, spreading me as he gripped my hips, tugging them up, up before he sheathed himself deep in me with a single stroke. I moaned into the pillow at every glorious inch of him, rising onto my forearms as my fingers grappled into the sheets. Rhys pulled out and plunged back in, eternity exploding around me in that instant, and I thought I might break apart from not being able to get enough of him.
It goes on this way for several pages. I have to admit that I was surprised to find this level of explicit sex in a novel that is being marketed to teens. (In fact, I can’t recall the last time I read an adult novel this explicit, although maybe my tastes are too highbrow.) In any case, there have obviously been some changes in our society when it comes to what is considered acceptable sexual content in a book aimed at young readers (or at least young women).
The other thing worth noting is that there is nothing “politically correct” about the sex in Court of Mist and Fury. It does not try to teach any edifying lessons about sexual diversity or gender fluidity; the scene is just basic, old-fashioned, heterosexual fucking. What makes it acceptable, I suspect, is precisely that it is told from the female point of view. I’m all for this, but I have considerable difficulty believing that the same sort of graphic sexual content, written from a heterosexual male perspective, could find its way into a mainstream YA novel. To the extent that there is any sex in contemporary work aimed at boys, it is politically correct sex. (In a peculiar reversal, frank portrayals of homosexuality are considered more acceptable, because they are thought to cultivate tolerance, or self-acceptance, as the case may be. It’s heterosexual male desire that makes everyone uncomfortable.)
This is where I think Handler goes wrong as well. He begins by describing how, when he was young, he satisfied his prurient interests by reading adult literature, like Milan Kundera and Anais Nin. This is fine, except he ignores the fact that, 30 years ago, a lot of lowbrow literature aimed at boys had a lot more sexual content in it. In any case, he declares his intention to correct this by writing a book that will have lots of sex in it. He describes it as portraying “a young boy’s emotional, heteroflexible sex life.” Again, this is nice, but I have to say, it still has a whiff of political correctness about it, a certain “eat your vegetables” quality, given that the overwhelming majority of boys are not, and never will be, particularly flexible when it comes to their erotic preferences. (Whether we think they should be is a separate issue… again, there’s that hectoring tone.)
To put this into perspective, it is worth keeping in mind that books have to compete with other forms of entertainment. Specifically, they have to compete with video games. In this context, it’s helpful to keep in mind what the competition has to offer, viz. plug suits, Asari scientists, loose buttons, minimalist kimonos…
(For those who do not follow these things, note that these are all in-game images, not concept art.) Granted, some of these are from M-rated games, which technically young boys are not supposed to be playing. For example, my son has never met Ciri there, because I don’t let him play the Witcher games – so he missed the bathhouse scene with the “press X to remove clothes” option, or the part where you can hire that elf prostitute. But as far as I can tell, I am the only parent in his class who exercises any veto (or who has the technical competence to enforce a veto) over what games he plays. Most parents seem to mentally classify video games as “juvenile,” and so treat the entire genre as though it were a YA category. They completely ignore the ratings, despite the extraordinarily mature, and in many cases disturbing, content in many of these games. (I veto based on realistic or excessive violence and anti-social behavior, not sexuality per se, so my kids have the distinction of being the only ones in their respective classes who have played the Mass Effect trilogy but are not allowed to play Call of Duty or GTA games.)
Obviously there’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about gender dynamics and diversity in video games. That’s a whole other story – there have been some really interesting hits (e.g. Overwatch) and misses (e.g. recent Bioware games) in the attempt to change this. The point is that, if you want to write books that boys will like, you need to know what boys like, and the easiest way to figure that out is to look at video games. And regardless of whether one likes what one finds there, it is important to recognize that, as far as books are concerned, this is the competition.