Always should be something you really love.









Last Saturday at the SF Weekender I had a delightful chat with a very lovely lady who asked if The City’s Son was a ‘boy book’ because she was looking for something her son could read. So, I figured I’d jot down a few thoughts on the whole “boy book vs girl book thing”.

None of these ideas are original to me. I’ve seen them in various places around the interweb, and very eloquently put. I’m summarizing here because if you stand somewhere on a political issue then it’s good practice to let people know where, and because I’ve started thinking about this in a broader context around technology and politics and thought it was interesting.

So here’s the proposition: there are sorts of books that are/should be of interest to girls and sorts that are should/be of interest to boys and these are mutually exclusive categories, and the way to get boys to read more is to print more of the latter. This idea is a) divisive b)sexist, c) exclusionary d) counterproductive and e) incredibly persistent. I.e. It’s toxic.

It’s divisive because it creates and reinforces an idea that we want girls and boys to be interested in different things, to do different things and therefore to be different things. And what’s more, to lack the basic empathy to be interested enough in an other gender to want to read book about them.

It’s sexist because the content that we tend to put into books (and other media) for either gender tends to reinforce the gendered power imbalance we have. All too often, girls learn that they ought to be fulfilled by making house and having babies, while boys learn that they need to become comfortable with domination and violence. This is both toxic in its own right, and in the message it sends to those readers (and watchers and players) whose instincts run counter to those norms, that there’s something wrong with them.

Its exclusionary because it frames the debate in terms of a binary that’s not a true reflection of the world. There aren’t only two genders, and not all kids are sure of their gender identity, and the question ‘is this a girl book or a boy book’ shuts those kids out and makes them invisible, when quite frankly, they’ve got more than enough shit to deal with already.

And finally, it’s counter productive because once you’ve set up a divide like this, it just eats things. It’s like a fucking sarlacc, basically, a yawning chasm that actively drags things into it. Human beings taxonomise mercilessly, especially if we feel affiliated to one of the categories All manner of things become subject to the distinction, including sport, science and reading itself. The act of picking up a book and getting lost in the story becomes something that only a specific subset of the human race ought to do, which is both bonkers and ironic if your aim is to get people reading.

Like I said, none of this is new, but all of it is, I think, true.

Here’s the broader context I was talking about: Nick Harkaway, in his book The Blind Giant, tells us ‘We have to code the change we want to see in the world.’ In a world increasingly conditioned by technology, we have to consciously and actively choose the technology that will make it easier for the world to become the way we want it to be. For some people that means actually designing it, for everyone else that means buying it, because in a Capitalist society, paying=voting. Nick applies this insight to various internet technologies, including amazon’s ability to yank books off your kindle without your permission and I think he’s absolutely right, but it’s not a new phenomenon.

‘Code the change you want to see in the world’ has always been good advice. It’s easy to forget when you’re talking about things that have been around for millennia, but language and books are both technologies, mature, yes, but still evolving through their use. They’re tools we created to shape the world in a certain way, and as we choose the tools we want for the future, we have to think about the future we want. The phrases ‘boy book’ and ‘girl book’? Not tools on my list.

I, along with everyone else I know, would love a future where boys read as much as girls do. But more than that, I want a future where boys have enough basic human empathy that they can relate to Lizzy Bennet or Katniss Everdeen as a human being like them, rather than a ‘girl’ who’s nothing like them. Because if they can’t do that with a character in a book, why should we assume they’ll do it with the real thing? Anyone who’s seen any recent statistics on domestic violence think that’s not important?

(In the reverse scenario, Girls are supposed to be rather better at empathising with boy characters, a couple thousand years of masculine normativity doing what it does.)

I, along with everyone else I know, want to live in a world where any kid has the entire field of human endeavour open to them, because that’s what equality means: not that all girls and boys need to be the same, but that their differences are an expression of their individuality rather than defined by what society thinks the bits they were born with ought to mean.

If that’s the future we want, then we have to code it. We have to choose the tools, the books and the words.

9 thoughts on “Always should be something you really love.

  1. I’d agree that it’s fundamentally sexist to see books in terms of being for boy or girls, but out here in the trenches (I work in a big library system) it’s clear that boys are, for the most part, not interested in reading, largely because so many YA and teen titles seem aimed at girls. I think that as long as boys put on the path to becoming regular and enthusiastic readers, even if that means feeding them “boy” books, so be it. Once someone’s interested in reading I think they’ll soon read any kind of book, no matter which sex it’s “supposed” to be for. My son grew up on boy books, but by the time he was 20 he was reading Proust. Interestingly, a lot of boys at our library system borrow the Hunger Games books and I think that’s because the cover art doesn’t proclaim it to be about or for girls. The boys know that books are about a female protagonist, but they seem thankful that the publisher isn’t rubbing their noses in it. I wrote a piece on this subject a while ago. I think you’ll disagree with me, but you might find it interesting. Good piece, by the way.

    1. @Cary Thanks! And thanks for stopping by too.

      Really good post from you, thoughtful and well argued.

      I am, as you might expect, totally with you on the covers and marketing, and I actually think THG is a really interesting example of it done right: it’s not pushed as a gendered book, but as an action adventure. (It helps of course, that the text is tremendously well balanced)

      Where I think we might diverge is the idea that we should be (and forgive me if this misrepresenting you) exclusively giving teen boys near lethal doses of testosterone. There’s nothing wrong with an action packed book, but I feel like targeting and only them purely at boys isn’t going to get us anywhere we’d want to be. Again, I think balance is the key, and i hope it’d be a lot easier to get the audience to accept that balance if the marketing were less gendered.

  2. I agree completely that there should be no such distinction as girlbooks/boybooks, and that well meaning parents reinforce unneccessary stereotypes by requesting these. however, after 30 years working in public libraries, I have learned that while most women will read whatever catches their interest, regardless of the authors or characters gender, a scarey proportion of men only ever choose books by and about men. Granted, we have moved on from the situation where up until maybe mid 1970s, male authors openly assumed that they were only addressing other men, and often showed frightening level s of casual misogeny. Perhaps all of us (parents,librarians, teachers, writers etc. ) should put more effoert into showing little boys that girls and women are full independant human beings rather than supporting cast. then we can all look foeward to a truely open minded and moere widely empathetic geeration of readers.

  3. I actually think there is a basic, basic misconception here. The Hunger Games *is* a boy’s book — and a girl’s book. The gender of the protagonist has nothing to do with it, a fact that should perhaps be demonstrated to adventure-loving boys who might think otherwise, by handing them the book and getting them to try the couple pages.

    But a romantic sappy book full of relationships and angst is not a boy’s book; ie, it is not going to appeal to the majority of boys, and if you want boys (and girls) to read, it is legitimate to point them at books they might actually like rather than try to force them to like all books equally.

    Which is not to say that no boys are going to like romantic books. But if a woman says her son wants a boy’s book, why not assume that her son is not one of those and point him toward a book he might enjoy? For example, The Hunger Games, Graceling, Eon/Eona …

    1. Hi Rachel,

      I feel like there are two issues here. The first is how to get boys to read, the second (related) is how to get boys to stop seeing stuff they think of as ‘girly’ as nothing to do with them.

      If we could crack the second, I feel like the first would get a hell of a lot easier, but in any case it’s gotta be worth shooting for on its own merits right?

      To that end – the terminology, ‘Girl’ books and ‘boy’ books. The gendered marketing and covers that Cary mentioned, they a play a role, and designing away from them will help.

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