I find myself wanting to offer my congratulations to the writer of this piece in Atlantic – although I think they’d be as welcome as a pork chop at a Jewish wedding feast. ‘Boys don’t read enough’. For a start, I can think of few articles which so wonderfully epitomized the term ‘Atlantic’ – because it’s hard to imagine an article more entirely at sea. My sympathies, in a way, with the writer: She was trapped between ‘the devil’ and the deep blue sea, and as her audience are pretty deep blue, she had little choice.
The situation is pretty clear: ‘the devil’ (as she sees him anyway) was right. In all sorts of measures girls have overtaken boys – we’re looking at twenty to thirty years (depending on institution and place) since the measures were roughly equal, having shifted from being male dominated. Some of us (me for one) have said this was coming for just about that long. Some of us said that it was time to strive for balance, instead of tilting the table even more.
And lo… the devil, the wicked male patriarchy, was right. In fields – particularly the relevant one of writing books, and particularly children’s books, things are enormously skewed female. The ratios in sf/fantasy last time I looked at new entrants was more than 10:1 in trad publishing. It’s worse in YA and MG – by far. Unsurprisingly, this is reflected in the staffing at trad publishing houses (trad pub still do most of the MG and YA books. It’s their last stronghold). If you want to find a straight, white, conservative male among the new entrants to that industry, look elsewhere. Despite the fact that they make up a healthy part of the demographic, they do not exist in statistically visible numbers in publishing. Equally unsurprisingly male authors from this group are equally rare.
I do not see any of the big four surviving Trad publishers undoing this. Not in my lifetime, maybe not in theirs.
Now: contrary to perceived wisdom, that you have to ‘stay in your lane’ and only gay people can write gay characters, and only black people can write black characters etc. There is sufficient evidence that boys will cheerfully read books written by females. Ask Enid Blyton. Or JK Rowling. Not all boys, of course, but according to the deep blue of modern publishing and academia, those lanes are vital… and there is a soupcon of truth there: it takes skill, and observation, and putting aside one’s biases to write convincingly TO someone of a group you don’t belong to, about their group. It’s not hard for me to write convincing Zulus to non-Zulus. Writing (as a non-Zulu) for Zulus will be a much bigger challenge. You’re going to need a lot of research, skilled dispassionate observation, getting into the heads of the people of that group, and seeing the world as they see it, to do it. Moreover you’re going to need an editor or first reader who IS Zulu, if you want to sell to Zulus. If you don’t, of course, wish them to read and enjoy it, it’s a different matter.
That all makes sense, right? Even without the deep blue illogic of ‘I can write about your lane, but you can never write about mine’ level of insanity, there is something there: if you want to write FOR that audience you have to be able to do so well, in a way they like. That’s easier if you are one of them, and write from experience.
So: modern publishing. Substitute the word ‘boy’ (or as a nightmare for them, ‘normal, heterosexual teen boy’) for ‘Zulu’. Few of the current crop of MG or Teen authors have even ever been that. Their editors are worse. What’s makes it more difficult, their upbringing, cultural milieu, and education have spent the last forty years teaching them to regard those ‘boys’ (and males in general) with disdain. They’re deplorable, unpleasant, and barely human in their eyes. This is an attitude that is praised and encouraged… and now you want them to step inside the heads of boys and see the world as they see it? Not happening in most cases. And if they do it right, the editor will kill it. There are certainly female writers who could do it – but not in the group who sell to modern Traditional Publishing. It’s not comic books or non-fiction that will get the boys to read. It’s having books (and movies etc. too) that don’t disparage them every step of the way, to assert that people who are not like them are ALWAYS superior. Trust me on this: comics are on their way to the same place. They won’t rest until they do it non-fiction too.
I was… amused by the ‘brains are unisexual’ politically correct, currently fashionable statement. As a piece of fatty protein, indeed, they’re remarkably alike, no matter if you identify as male, female or ping-pong ball. That’s like saying all computers are alike. They might start that way (and even that is questionable) but humans are the end point (at the moment) of an evolutionary path in which… sexual dimorphism worked. Now, you can argue long and hard about why it worked, but you don’t get different outcomes for males and females without different selective pressures. We share most of our genes. We are alike (to aliens, anyway). Individuals from both sexes are often closer to the mean for the other sex in behavior, size, face-structure, whatever. BUT that mean exists, for each sex. And just like that computer parts of it get programmed from start-up, and maybe even built differently. A gaming computer is not a word-processor. If you’re going to have your genetic survival predicated on being able to react fast – odds are the mean of your group will be faster than a group that does not need this to survive. If your genetic survival is predicated on being able to function as part of a group, odds are the mean of your group will be more aware of relationships and thus able to work in groups earlier.
Now: there are still plenty of existent hunter-gatherer groups in existence, and well-documented extinct ones – right across the world in groups separated by up to 40 000 years. Hunting isn’t always solitary. But it is, often enough. Sometimes small groups, sometimes large… and often alone. It’s also overwhelmingly male. Gathering, on the other hand is almost always at least to some extent communal, even if it is just to help with childcare. If you couldn’t get on… odds are your genetic material died with you. I have to laugh at the PC all ‘brains are alike’ neuroscientist claiming boys are MORE vulnerable to peer pressure (but girls are more aware relationships?). Of course, both groups are vulnerable to peer pressure, and of course some of both sexes ignore it… but I’ll eat my hat, without sauce, if girls (who tend to try really hard to fit in, from whom the term ‘mean girls table’ stems) are LESS vulnerable. Let’s dig through the suicide stats, the anorexia/bulimia stats and see.
Also… if you think testosterone isn’t messing with boys heads and their competitiveness (and ‘competitive’ means someone has to lose, and someone has to win. The race, or the genetic probability of passing on your genes.) then I have a wonderful book on critical race theory to sell you. You’ll love it. It’s right up your alley. Action and physical doing appeal to a lot of boys. Relationships appeal to a lot of girls. Both have adherents from the other sex. Both like mixtures… but the means skew towards the different sexes.
I have actually had some sneering feminist proclaim that, well, what does it matter if boys don’t find anything to read, and their education and social status slip away. Women had to put up with that for millennia. It’s men’s (or the men of tomorrow’s) turn.
To this I have always had this to say: Those boys weren’t born when the situation was reversed. And before you say that’s punishment for their father and forefather’s sins… remember each of them is 50:50 child of that disadvantaged female line too. You’re not even punishing the genes of those male ancestors, without punishing the female ancestors – let alone any daughters they might father.
Secondly: sooner or later those girls reading more, going to college more… are going to want mates among their peers, so they too can have children… oh, I am sorry. Did I wound your sensibilities? – here, can I sell this book on CRT which will make you feel better. If you’re not the sort of idiot who would enjoy that book, well, that is biological and evolutionary reality. You need males and females, barring future parthenogenetic success, and once again the stats don’t lie, that’s the majority of both sexes who like it that way, and statistically have best outcomes raising those boys and girls. There are outliers. You may be one and do great job. Good for you. It happens, just as the 50:1 against horse wins the race occasionally. But usually the winner has much better odds. So: as status is big part of mate choice, and competition for scarce resources can be cruel and savage… even if you only care about girls, there’s a reason to see they don’t end up looking for male partner in 6:1 female to male ratio.
Boys need to read. I’ve done my personal best to write books they would, I hope, like. You can tell, because while readers have liked them, the deep blue sea hates them.
Eventually they’ll have to admit they need the likes of them. But for a generation, that may be too late.