No Smelly Yucky boyz Allowed in!
By Dave Freer (with a little help from Ms. Strident Rable)
“Sisters! I’ve just got a call to arms in the shape of these statistics! 75%* of all fiction sales by value go to MEN or women passing as men (vile traitors), with male lead characters. We have to rectify this situation. It’s blatant discrimination and exploitation. And it’s even worse if you leave the cooky Religious and Inspirational sector out. Why, then the miserable chauvinists rise to 83%** of the market. That’s just 17% for us. It’s an OUTRAGE!!! How are we supposed to find books that to stimulate reading among women…
What? What do you mean, the wrong way around…?
Well, um, nothing to see here. It’s a healthy situation! They can just adapt, and it serves them right. We had to put up with it for years, and we managed. The answer is clearly more feminism! That’s worked to stop this becoming a problem so well up now. And I’m not sorry ! Why should it matter? We deserve to be top of something. It’s not like reading affects education, or we’re not discriminated against there!
( er. Sorry Ms. It does affect education, and education shows a growing disparity: US parity to college by 1980, rising now to an extra 1/3 female intake every year – , Parity in Australia in 1978 , –UK – an extra third – I can’t find the other reference – but parity a good 20 years back.)
Oh. But men still get more money.
(than JK Rowlings and Stephanie Meyer)
( Such as?)
Oh look! There’s a monkey tap dancing. And he’s got lovely powder-blue whatchamacallits. How unfair! That’s plainly sexist discrimination because more male animals get mentioned than female ones in children’s fiction, even if it has been 21 years since male : female character parity was achieved…
What do you mean, ‘well, that about wraps it up for Bambi’?…”
Ms. Strident Rable, chairperson extra-ordinaire, Manhaters Ink.
ok. Snark mode off… 17% is a lot of books, and most of us cheerfully don’t care about the gender of the lead character or author. But for those who do care, who feel women are under-represented or under-supported in their little niche of fiction, the figures are an embarrassment. Make it very awkward to call for say more women hard sf authors, when that’ll shift 83% of fiction sales to 85% of fiction sales. It’s rather like women (fair enough) want more women in Engineering or Physics at College… where the ratio is already an overall 2/3 female and equal representation there would shift it to a worse situation. We know what is going on in Romance. So what is going on in YA?
The more I look at this issue, the more I think we’re trapped in a writers’ version of this story. A bar in a Texas town decided to vastly enlarge its premises. The local Baptist church campaigned against it, held prayer meetings about it… and lo, two days before the grand opening it was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. The church celebrated until the bar-owner sued. At which point they became vehement in their denial that they were responsible. And the judge, faced with this said “I don’t know what I’m going to decide here, but on one hand I have bar-owner who believes in the power of prayer, and church congregation who say they don’t.”
And we seem to have men who believe women are their equals or superiors – and women who believe they are, on one hand, and ‘feminist women’ who believe not only that men think they’re inferior, but also seem to think that they are inferior, and would fail in open competition, on the other. To someone like me, who has grown up with, and spent most of his life with women who not only were my mental equals or superiors, who couldn’t be a more solid supporter of equal work for equal pay, and equal access to opportunity, I find this bizarre.
It’s been said that the YA situation is a reflection of market demand. Now… Ms. Rable… you’re an atheist, but you believe in market forces dictating book trends (well, except we need more women on the TOC’s of sf collections. That’s DIFFERENT). Hmm. It’s strange that you should express blind faith in something that would be very easy to prove… if it existed. There’d be a neat linear relationship between the literate population times their disposable income (A) and the number of books sold (B). Only, as the various figures show, the increase in book sales hasn’t kept up with the literate population, let alone their disposable income. Oh, and it would go UP at times of recession. Except, for the last 20 years… it’s gone down every recession.
Let’s bite a reality bullet here. Tough surgery without anaesthetic time. There hasn’t been a real connection between demand and supply for upward of twenty years. The situation has become so skewed by marketing and distribution that we don’t really have a clue, besides the far outliers – Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowlings (and even there, there is reason to suspect manipulation in the original distribution and marketing) — they made it big, but there is very good chance that thousands of other possibly equally popular, or even more popular books, didn’t even get past the gate. What we’re seeing is guesses (cheated to make the answer ‘right’ to keep the acquiring editor in a job), based on other guesses (also cheated), biased by editorial preferences, and a bunch of very panicky people in a market that’s maybe 40% of what it should be, and declining fast, trying to 1)be safe, 2)keep their jobs 3) guess the next big thing by following a trend (which is as likely to be the result cheating, distribution and marketing and guesses).
Here’s the reality: all we know is males are 50-ish % of a possible market, and there is no intellectual reason why they shouldn’t read as much. Historically they read far more than they do now.
We do know that -especially among teens of both sexes, social peer pressure has a lot of effect. If you want boys – or girls – to read you’ll need it to be cool, or at least have won’t get you laughed out of the park covers. Try (if you can) to imagine a boy with one of Saundra become-a-feminist’s covers. It’s not going to happen. Not without boys becoming morlocks first, and starting the process over – maybe in 100 years… we’d arrive at her dream. Can you imagine the results in the meanwhile? Not pretty, is it?
We also know that, in reality, while teens may take books out of the library, a lot of the purchasing is done by… adults (and, duh, for the library too). Part of this is on demand, but part of this reflects the adults (parents, relations) own tastes. So no, it’s not just what the youth would like to read. It’s also, sadly, getting through to MEN who don’t buy books for their sons (because those the sons might read). That’s going to be a challenge.
It’s also not evidenced in any way that books which were aimed at attracting boys too (or boys instead) would threaten the existing YA sales. There seems to be this perception there, which would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad, that more ‘boy-attractive’ books would have their ‘girl’ audience desert the existing authors, and that would leave female writers with female lead characters without publishers. “We’re dominant now, we must hang onto it or else those wicked males will steal it!” It’s a sort of delusion that the pie is at its biggest, and they’d have to suffer some kind of ‘affirmative action’ to change the situation. Which is maybe how they felt, breaking in, but seeing as the male audience (which they don’t have) is what is being chased… I don’t get it. They should welcome the chance to grow a readership. I believe it is possible… unless Lois Bujold and Elizabeth Moon’s popularity with male readers is just an illusion, to say nothing of Anne McCaffery and Andre Norton. And oddly, all of those were bought by male editors, at least for parts of their careers. What we’re talking about is growing a part of the market that’s been shrinking for 20 years at least. Yes… some girls would prefer less girl-cooties with their stories. They were probably going to lose them anyway. But there is a chance to catch some boys in exchange. If the YA shelf becomes a just romance section for younger girls, those of us who delight in one of YA’s strengths (that it is not so categorized, so cross experimentation happens) will see that vanish completely.
Where editors choosing this stuff and the authors so gloating in their Schadenfreude fall short is having a false assumption – one proved false by the shrinking book sales over last two decades. “If there is nothing but what we want it to be, the conservative/male/flyover country/Christian (take your pick) scum will just have to suck it up. And that’ll teach them how they ought to behave. Educate them into the right way of thinking!” Which might work really well… if reading were a total addiction to all readers, and there was no other reading matter available. However, for a good 80% of literate people, it is at most a habit (and for some a chore), and there really are lots alternatives, so you have to make it attractive. They are not alcoholics who will pay for funny sweet drinks with fruit and umbrellas, or methylated spirits even, just for the ethanol, when they want a beer. If they want a beer… they actually want a beer.
Which leaves us facing a situation where we’re in danger of a pendulum situation. Honestly, if these so-called ‘feminists’ have something to fear and try and avoid, that should be it. Common sense says ‘let’s aim for a 50:50 ish situation, where everyone wins.’ Holding the pendulum back or pushing it further just means a more violent swing. And those who shouted loudly and cheered the current situation will find themselves facing ostracism along with the champions of Apartheid, who trumpeted how right that was.
With reading for 50% of the population affected (which – beside the loss of money to authors and to publishing, has vast ramifications to society in which we live) we’d be damned stupid to have a fingers in our ears and ‘la la la’ concert.
There is opportunity for all. There is a very poorly served large niche market, which can benefit adult and ‘female’ YA writers and readers. Only… it needs as much push as the other half got given, it needs careful work to establish what is actually popular (and not just in NY with the sons of NY editors). It needs thought about cover art. It needs to use Magna and computer gaming. And, probably most difficult, it needs to get dads to buy books for their sons.
*These figures are at best indicative, and taken by mashing 2009 Romance Writers figures the proportions for YA (which I assume weren’t listed) from here , taking 2/3 of those as female author female lead, and assuming that women authors and women lead characters were at least 40% of the rest — a figure which will probably be over for Westerns and hard SF, and under for literary and fantasy and murder mystery.
**I just took religious and inspirational (some of which isn’t fiction, strictly) out.
Edited to add: Thanks to Glenn Reynolds and everyone who has linked over after the instalanche!