Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Book Tribes

Wandering through the English language section of a Japanese bookstore a few years ago, I came across an English category marker labeled “chick lit.” I think it included half a dozen or so books, most of them with pictures of a high heel or a large pair of lips on the cover.

Long before that, I was in a bar with a guy and told him that I loved science fiction. He laughed and rolled his eyes. “Chicks don’t read real science fiction,” he said. I asked what the hell he meant. “You know, hard sci-fi,” he said. “The real stuff. With computers and robots.”

In a lot of Japanese bookstores, there’s still a section for “joryu sakka”–literature written by women. Said literature doesn’t necessarily stick to a particular theme or style, it just happens to be written by women, and therefor seems to deserves its own category.

On the subject of covers, NPR’s wonderful Pop Culture Happy Hour recently devoted a segment to the coded language of book covers, a language that’s kind of dying out in the age of e-readers. Author Maureen Johnson,  frustrated with the way that labels like “fluffy” or “insubstantial” are much more often assigned to books written by women, recently asked Twitter to do a gender-swap of famous book covers, and the results were illuminating.

I was thinking about all this–the strange way books and genres are categorised, the way that we categorize ourselves and other people based on what we read–in the wake of Ruth Graham’s article in Slate about how adults who read YA literature should be “ashamed of themselves.” I’m not going to pick that article apart–it was clearly meant to provoke (the author even tweeted that she was “working on something that will make a lot of people mad” right before it was published). Plenty of other people have come to the defense of YA literature and the people who read it, and the defense of everyone to read whatever the fuck they want and not feel ashamed.

What struck me about the article, though, was the way that we’re quick to label ourselves and others based on both what and why we read. YA, sci-fi, fantasy, romance–genres all seem to have their own tribes.

I seem to remember a time when “young adult” was not a cut-and-dried category. There were books with youthful protagonists and a lack of extreme sex or violence that nonetheless were not marketed as “YA,” even though they might have been popular selections in elementary and junior high school classrooms. I recall one of my favourite Maurice Sendak quotes, when Stephen Colbert asked him why he wrote for children: “I don’t write for children. I write…and people say ‘That’s for children.’” Jim Henson was similarly reluctant to label himself and his Muppets as children’s entertainment–he argued that good work can appeal to people of all ages. Personally, I tend to enjoy a lot of animation, film, and literature that might be designated “for children” simply because it’s beautifully designed and full of a sense of wonder.

These days there are still plenty of child-friendly entertainments that adults can thoroughly enjoy, though the description “fun for the whole family” still makes me cringe, conjuring as it does images of bland, saccharine, Disney channel fare–TV shows and films that kids watch because there’s nothing better on and that adults eye-rollingly tolerate. YA, however, is a publishing juggernaut that adheres to fairly strict standards of style, characterization, and plot. As Graham’s article indicates, plenty of adults read it, but it’s designed specifically with teens and pre-teens in mind. Where it seems easy to defend a love of creations like the Muppets and Fantasia, being an adult fan of YA fiction is a little different.

I’ve come into frequent contact with YA fiction for a lot of reasons. One, anything that gets young people reading gets me excited, even if it’s a book I really don’t care for (Twilight). Two, I’ve been a teacher of one kind or another for fifteen years, so I’m always looking for things to recommend to new readers, or things that I can use in my own classroom. Three, some YA books are just…books, and fairly good ones. Books that don’t immediately make me imagine a teen or pre-teen reader.

That said, I’ve found the bulk of the YA fiction recommended to me by friends and enthusiastic bloggers to be, well, boring. (I have a similar reaction to most romance novels–they’re not as hilariously bad as a lot of the jacket descriptions would have you believe, they just tend to put me to sleep.) With YA fiction, I struggle to stay engaged with a book when a) the writing style is overly simplistic, b) the world-building is thin, c) the characters don’t feel three-dimensional,  and d) the narrative flows along and eventually ends just a little too predictably and neatly.

This is not, though, to say that YA literature is BAD. It’s just written with a different audience in mind, one that generally comes to the page with a different set of expectations and experiences. And though they’re often dismissed as such, teen and pre-teen readers aren’t “dumb” or naive. They’re just young, and they read with young perspectives, and YA novels are written with that in mind.

There are, though, YA novels that cross over. I found Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books to be entertaining reads in their own right–a little simplistic, sure, but with rich world-building, complicated characters, and not-always-predictable plot twists. Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina was, at its heart, a painful story of a teenage girl’s struggle to live in a world that wanted her dead. It might have appealed to younger readers, but it had plenty of appeal for me as well. And then there’s Lois Lowry’s Giver trilogy, sort of the grandmother of YA dystopian fiction, with its sparse prose and refreshingly unsentimental plot lines. Re-reading those books recently, I realized another reason why some adults embrace YA fiction–to remember that wide-eyed sense of wonder that your teenage self had the first time you were genuinely moved or agitated by a book.

The question of what we read–non-fiction, genre fiction, fantasy, pulp, literature, YA, sci-fi–is of course linked to the question of WHY we read. Adults who read YA fiction tend to get lumped into the “reading for escape / nostalgia” tribe, definitely a notch below the “reading for intellectual enrichment” tribe. There’s also the “fiction is frivolous” tribe (people who read non-fiction almost exclusively). There’s the “fangirl / fanboy” tribe, people who read certain series and fixate on certain characters obsessively, which frequently overlaps with the “sci-fi” tribe, quick to distinguish itself from the “fantasy” tribe (boys read sci-fi, girls read fantasy, according to some boys who still believe in cooties).

A lot of this conversation also centers around authenticity–who’s reading “real” stuff and who’s just being a poser or a wannabe. “Soft” sci-fi (sci-fi sans robots / computers) often gets derided as watered-down when compared to “hard” sci-fi, which focuses more on the “science” aspect of science-fiction (yet again, the fake stuff is supposedly read by women and the “real” stuff by men). Readers of high literature may look down their nose at “genre fiction,” and any “literature” that makes it onto a bestseller list is immediately suspect.

Of course none of this matters to the voracious readers of YA, romance novels, sci-fi, fantasy, or any other genres that routinely get labeled as frivolous or shallow. With the popularity of e-readers, which have effectively made book covers (and the stigma that’s often attached to more “female” covers) obsolete, no one even has to feel self-conscious about reading Twilight or The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl.

There is, of course, a smug satisfaction that comes in being part of a certain, exclusive tribe, even (or especially) a maligned one. It’s one of the factors that drives huge attendance at events like Comic-Con and Anime Expo. But does the tribe-forming have to come at the expense of sneering at the outsiders? Can we still maintain the joy and integrity of our own little I-love-this-thing-and-you-love-this-thing groups without denigrating members of other groups?

Maybe not. Groups thrive on distinction, defined as much by what they’re NOT–what they’re cooler than, better than–as by what they are. At the very least, though, we can get to know the other groups before we write them off, actually READ a decent amount of manga / romance / YA before we decide that those particular genres aren’t our cup of tea. And thanks to e-readers and those lovely little paper covers that they give you in Japanese bookstores, we can all go on secretly  or publicly reading whatever the hell we want to read, whyever we want to read it, without feeling ashamed.

2 comments on “Book Tribes

  1. Kathryn
    June 25, 2014

    The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl

    I googled this and found, to my surprise, that it is a real thing. It even has a Kindle edition, with white people on the cover and everything! Oh wow.

    I agree with everything you’ve written, 100%, and the following is just a tangent inspired by your essay.

    On the topic of so-called fake geek girls, it’s always important to acknowledge that, even in our postmodern and presumably poststructuralist media ecology, certain readerships and fandoms are still strongly gendered. As you’ve pointed out, titles associated with female readerships and fandoms tend to be equated with “silly” and “frivolous,” while titled associated with male readerships are very serious business, because of course they are.

    Personally, I gravitate towards the presumption that even something as openly speculative as StarTalk Radio is indeed less silly and more serious than Welcome to Night Vale (which I love dearly). I’m not sure what the statistics for the Night Vale podcast are; but, judging from the names of donors listed at the beginning of each episode (back when they used to do that) and pictures of the audiences at their live shows, I’m guessing that the majority of the fans are female. Meanwhile, having taken a survey for StarTalk and then having been presented with the data gathered by the survey thus far, I learned that 80% of the show’s listeners identify as male (as opposed to “female” or “other”). I know that the results of an online survey may not provide the most accurate representation of who actually listens to the podcast, but even adjusting for a moderate margin of error, that’s a fairly strong gender bias. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether the gendered audiences of both podcasts have less to do with silliness vs. srs bzns and more to do with the lack or presence of barriers related to sexism. Namely, Nigh Vale is feminist and queer-friendly, while various people have made all manner of boob jokes on StarTalk, which is more or less a (very intelligent) sausage fest.

    When it comes to accusations of girls not liking a certain thing, or girls intruding on a relatively male-dominant fandom, it’s not enough to counter with assertions that girls *can* like that thing, or that girls *are* in that fandom, because, again, some readships/audiences/fandoms are indeed overwhelmingly male, no matter how many individual women may be involved. In that sense, generalizations like “girls don’t listen to podcasts about astrophysics” are in fact more correct than they are incorrect. Therefore, along with removing broad gendered stigma from “boy” media, I think it’s important to look at the media itself and ask what barriers are preventing women from becoming intellectually and emotionally invested in it.

    In terms of hard science fiction in particular, it may not be the detailed discussions of information technology and posthumanism that are putting women off, but rather the portrayal of information technology and posthumanism as tools to render women as even more abject and objectifiable for the benefit of a presumably male audience. For example, perhaps not so many women (relatively speaking) are into the two Ghost in the Shell movies not because women don’t like anime and/or are too dumb to appreciate philosophical discourse, but rather because many of us find the repeated spectacle of graphic violence performed on realistically portrayed naked female bodies somewhat more upsetting than a male viewer would.

    I wonder, then, what can be done about this. Is it enough to say that we don’t care if people are judging us and to then proceed carve out our own literary/media spaces? What might be an alternative? I keep thinking about this, but I haven’t been able to come up with a good answer yet…

  2. gradland
    June 30, 2014

    Kathryn, thanks very much for this! And I highly recommend Smart Bitches, Trashy Books’ review of The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl:

    Definitely agree that “What keeps women away from certain fandoms and genres?” is a more helpful starting point than “Women can like this stuff too.” Of course taste is a part of it, but I know that I personally tend to avoid online or real-world communities where I feel objectified, ignored, or condescended to, or just where there’s a bit of a teenage boy “(X character) is so f–kin’ HOTTT!” atmosphere. I also gravitate less toward books and films that focus more on things than people (which might include a lot of hard sci-fi).

    Like you said, there’s often this assumption that if women don’t like a certain genre it’s because they can’t understand it or don’t appreciate it, but maybe it’s just because they find it distasteful (or dull). And there’s an assumption that men don’t like certain genres because they’re more interested in stuff than people, or because they’re immature, but of course the reasons that men like the genres that they tend to like can be just as varied as the reasons that women like the genres that they tend to like.

    In the end we don’t all obviously have to love everything that everyone else loves. I’d just love to see a) a lack of shock or disbelief when a woman says she
    reads hard sci-fi, or when a man says he reads romance novels, b) a more welcoming atmosphere in fandoms for people of all genders / ages / sexual orientations, and c) a willingness to give any genre a chance, even if you ultimately decide that it’s not for you.

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Lindsay Nelson

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