Tuesday, July 7, 2009

An Apology and a Course Correction

I blame marketers. Marketers create a world, one that says that guys age 18-35 can think only about beer, explosions, expensive fast cars, and women with large boobs. And guys a bit younger (13-17) can think only about heavily caffeinated beverages,explosions, extreme sports, and, well, women with large boobs. Marketers create this reality, convincing the guys themselves and everyone around them of their particular interests, and then they treat it as if it's a reality that just occurs naturally. We don't really like it, they say, but that's just how it is.

Now, I've got nothing against any of those things. Not at all. I like caffeine as much as the next guy. I probably consume more caffeine than your average Red-Bull-addicted 15-year-old at the skate park (that's where you are, right? all the time? that's where the commercials say you are). But the reality--and I mean "real" reality, not the one invented by marketing companies--is far more complex and more subtle than that. There are, of course, many many more types of guys than are ever depicted by marketers. There are, for instance, guys who read books. If there weren't, I wouldn't be writing this right now, would I? And almost all those types of guys, but particularly the type who read books, can and do think differently about women than the marketers would have us believe.

What I want to say is I haven't given you, the GuysLitWire readers, the respect you deserve. I've imagined you too much the way they--the Madison Avenue types--have wanted me to imagine you. I've thought that guys wanted guy books and I figured guy books, particularly in fiction, included only stories about guys, stories that had guys, and never women or girls, as the main characters. So I've avoided recommending many good books that feature women or girls as the main characters, assuming, stupidly, that you wouldn't be interested. But of course you aren't Neanderthals.

I read somewhere that the reason Disney makes so many more "boy" movies than "girl" movies is that girls will go to see boy movies but boys won't go to see girl movies. "We don't like it. That's just the way it is," Disney executives say. But if you look at the girl movies that they make, it's no wonder guys aren't interested. They are nearly all about princesses. Even when the princesses are tough enough to disguise themselves as men and go into battle or ride alone into the dark woods to save dear old dad from a ten foot tall talking lion-bear hybrid thing and his army of tchotchkes, what the princesses really want is to put on a fancy dress and get married. It's not only guys who are put off by this. I'm sure there are plenty of girls who can't get into these movies either.

Fortunately, the world of literature is more varied than the world of Disney movies, and gives us many books with girls as the main characters, girls who are neither princesses nor fairies, nor, for that matter, the tormented little playthings of boy vampires. Here are some of those books, mostly fantasy and sci-fi, because that's what I know, but some non-fiction too, for good measure:

Sabriel, by Garth Nix--This is one of the coolest fantasy novels I've read in recent years. It's set in an alternative world where magic exists and is practiced, but only within a small area called the Old Kingdom. Outside of the Old Kingdom, things are pretty much as they are were here on Earth in the 1930s. All of the magic practiced in the old kingdom seems to have a bit of a dark edge to it and there are those who use magic to do the ultimate evil--raising and animating the dead. Sabriel's father's job is to guide these dead back to the land of the dead, where they belong. When her father is taken away to the land of the dead himself, Sabriel has to return from school to the Old Kingdom and take over the job without the proper training. Nix creates a strange and fully formed world with plenty of zombies, demons and ambulatory corpses, plus one seriously hard ass cat. Sabriel herself is thoughtful and cunning and tough. The novel is followed up by a two-part sequel: Lirael and Abhorsen. You can read my full review here.

His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass)by Phillip Pullman--Like Sabriel, this story is set in an alternate world, much like our own but different in important aspects. For one, people in this world have daemons, animal-like creatures which, while autonomous and separate, are linked to each person's soul. Lyra is an orphaned child who lives, with her daemon Pantalaimon, among academics at Oxford university. When she discovers who her father is and that he's experimenting with a substance called Dust which could allow him to open a gateway to another world, she finds herself in danger of being abducted by her father's enemies and escapes into a dazzlingly strange world full of witches, angels, and armored bears. A Google search will reveal how much has been written about these books. A number of organizations have recommended banning them. That should be reason enough to read them.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett--Tiffany Aching, it seems, would make a good witch, even though she comes from the Chalk, which isn't good land for growing witches. That's what a number of older and wiser witches seem to think, anyway, and they attempt to recruit her to their school. When her brother, Wendell, is abducted by an evil queen and carried off into Fairyland (which is quite a bit less pleasant than it sounds), she has no choice but to start her training early. Fortunately, she has the help of a host of tiny, badly-behaved blue men who amuse themselves by drinking heavily, stealing whatever they can, and picking fights with much larger creatures such as horses. These fellows need a lot of keeping in line, but are frightfully courageous and loyal. Tiffany is tough and as bull-headed as the Wee Free Men, but also considerate and generous. The book is one of the most hilarious I've ever read. Tiffany's story is continued in A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith. All of the books are part of the massive Discworld series, which will keep you reading for a long long time. From the Discworld series, I might also recommend Monstrous Regiment, about a girl who disguises herself as a man and joins the army (along with a troll, an "Igor," and a vampire) in order to find her brother who's been recruited but is far too sensitive to be a soldier. It's sort of like Mulan, only funnier and without the fancy dresses.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle--Meg Murray has a lot of problems at school. She has braces, can't manage her hair and people think she's strange and even stupid. But that's not the worst problem. Her father has disappeared. When she's offered, by three strange women--Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which, and Mrs Who--a chance to set off on a journey to rescue her father, she takes it, bringing along her little brother, Charles Wallace, and her popular but wounded friend Calvin. They travel through space, time, and multiple dimensions and are eventually forced to confront true evil. This book is a classic and as such, many schools at one point decided to make it mandatory reading. I don't know if they still do. I hope not. Even if it is required, read it as if it weren't. (Don't let them mess up your life.) A Wrinkle in Time is much better to read all on your own, without being confronted by study questions or pop quizzes. A Wrinkle in Time kicks off a series called The Wrinkle in Time Quintet.

Swimming to Antarctica, by Lynn Cox--I've dabbled in athletics all my life. I was on age group and high school swim teams, track teams, cross country teams. I even did some bike racing as a kid. As an adult I run road races and the occasional triathlon. My butt has been decisively kicked by more women than I could possibly count. Still, while I knew there were lots of women who could beat me at pretty much any sport, I did not know, until I read Swimming to Antarctica, that there had ever been a woman who dominated a sport, who was better at her sport than any man in the world. By the time she was fifteen years old, Lynn Cox was. She held numerous world records in open water swimming and channel swimming. She could swim in water so cold it would literally kill a normal human being. Swimming to Antarctica is her story. It's told with grace and humility. It shows what a beautiful sport long distance swimming can be and confronts much of the sexism that a woman athlete of her caliber was forced to face. If you are a male athlete, whether you think you're the shit or not, you should read this book and be humbled.


david elzey said...

Ah, but have you noticed how all the boy characters in these Disney movies all pine for or require the aid of girls? I think Disney is a HUGE ship and it takes them a while to change that ship's course. Much like the economy. Eventually they'll get steered back into the right.

Nice work pointing out solid books with female characters that boys will enjoy. I can't tell you how nervous I was initially about reviewing Philip Reeves Here Lies Arthur because, although about King Arthur it was narrated by a girl. Okay, so she was passing for a boy, but the reader knew that. And it was good.

Nice round-up.

Lindsey Carmichael said...

I work in the kids/teen department at a bookstore and the accuracy of the stereotype seems to vary with age. Boys in the 8-12 year range seem to be fairly firmly in the "girls have cooties" phase. The only 8-12 book with a female protag I've had consistent success selling to boys is Neil Gaiman's Coraline, I think because I usually describe it as a scary story. Even so, I've had a couple of boys refuse to buy it on the grounds that Coraline is a girl.

Teen guys in general seem more open to so-called girl books, but in my experience, tailoring the pitch is still important. For instance, when I'm selling Sabriel to a girl, I focus on the "girl kicks butt" aspect. For guys, it seems to help if I emphasize the zombies, while giving Touchstone a plug for some solid butt-kicking as well.

In addition to bookselling, I write for kids and teens, and it's interesting to note that the "boys won't read about girls" thing is still handed down as dogma on all sides of the industry. My feeling is that if the story is good enough, readers of both genders will appreciate it.

Long live the Nac Mac Feegle!

Ms. Yingling said...

It's always good to consider these things. I hadn't figured pegged boys as having QUITE the interests you mentioned. It is true to a certain extent that boys 11-14 don't want to read books about girls. This doesn't stop me from trying. The exception does tend to be boys who like to read, and who like to read fantasy, and they will read Sabriel, or Dealing with Dragons, etc. The one thing that did surprise me is how much girls like action and adventure. It was never something I liked as a reader, so I didn't recommend it much. When a book is good, it's worth recommending to any readers. My son loved I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You. Thanks for a thought provoking essay. We do need more preteen books set at skate parks, though!

mr chompchomp said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

David: One nice exception to the Disney rule is Lilo and Stitch. It has a female protagonist who is no princess and lo and behold, the movie has very broad appeal. Pixar is apparently a few movies away from it's first movie centered around a female, but it is about *sigh* a princess.

Lindsey: sounds like you are a great bookseller. Thanks for pushing the boys to extend their comfort zones. The more I write and read about publishing the more I am shocked at the dogma that informs it. Aren't editors and publishers supposed to be bright, thinking people? You would think they wouldn't need lean on such blunt, and so often wrong, rules. I kenna what you mean.

Thanks Ms. Yingling for broadening the young male library patron's reading experience. A few good novel set in skate parks could redeem their image, tarnished by endless insipid energy drink ads.

Philip O'Mara said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
david elzey said...

A warning: all links to www.eloquentbooks.com like that above may contain malicious software designed to mine data on your computer without your knowledge.

I don't know how GLW feels about authors pitching their books in the comments, but in this case the link is potentially dangerous to other readers, hence a warning.

mr chompchomp said...

Thanks for the warning, David. IMHO the book pitch is completely inappropriate in any case. As for malicious links, well, all I can think of are various forms to torture to inflict upon the poster.

I've removed the link and will work on getting the poster blocked. (I know they'll just use another account, but we can make it as difficult as we can.)

Lisa Jenn said...

Thanks for writing this post, Mr Chompchomp! I haven't read the Lynne Cox, but the four fantasy series you named are all some of my very favorites and I agree have great cross-gender appeal. And I think I've actually had better luck getting boys to take Sabriel than girls.

(But how I wish The Wee Free Men had a different cover... maybe even a different title. It takes a strong pitch to get most kids past the sheep and the word "wee.")

Jodie said...

Gender marketing is always annoying. Marketing campaigns bring gender into the stupidest of product campaigns (in the UK I can think of the campaign that Yorkies were not for girls and the idea that men had to be secret lemonade drinkers because not drinking beer all the time was unmanly right off the top of my head)and then this reinforces mens ideas of what they need to do to be manly.

In my opinion marketing is becoming lazier and lazier (and I can say that because I'm a marketeer but thankfully a business to business company that doesn't have to segment its product by gender) continuing to talk about how men only want 'manly things' without doing any substansive research into these assumptions. As they keep projecting this idea of manliness they make it really hard for guys to reach outside this circle of mans interests because of the chat they'll get from other male friends intimidated by the marketing campaigns and eager to laugh at those who go against the grain.

Relying on 'well known facts' about gender segmentation works out fine for the companies involved because they don't have to spend money diversifying their products, doing research or really trying to encourage the gender they feel will not buy their product to buy it.

So to get back on track yay to you for challenging those assumptions and looking into things properly.