Back in 2010, my publisher organised a multiple author event at an all-boys primary school. The oldest students were twelve or so, and though children from other, co-ed schools were brought in for the day, the audience was still primarily male. Most of the other authors present wrote middle-grade or children’s books, making me just about the only one there whose books were aimed at older teens. This being my first school event, I was nervous and feeling rather glum. On the long walk from the train station to the school, I privately resigned myself to making the best of an awkward situation: no one there would have heard of me, my books were for the wrong age-group, and in any case, my protagonist was a girl – surely the worst possible combination for the situation at hand.
Being one of the first to arrive, I helped the publisher set up, which involved lots of back-and-forth trips between two different buildings on opposite sides of the main quad. While we were ferrying chairs and goody-bags across this route, students began to appear: some in teacher-supervised groups, others alone, but all of them clearly destined for participation in the event. And then a strange thing happened: I heard one of them whisper my name. At first, I thought it must have been a mistake, but then I heard another boy say, louder, ‘That’s Foz Meadows.’ Then I remembered the programmes, which contained our names and author photos, and which several of the students were holding. That must be it, I thought, and carried on moving chairs.
Only, no, that wasn’t it. The school library carried Solace & Grief, their wonderful and dedicated librarian had promoted it to her students, and I had fans. A number of them, as it turned out. They’d known who I was before the event, and had recognised me, not from the photo in the programme, but because they’d looked me up on the internet. (The librarian told me that they’d known I was young “Because she has a blog and a Twitter and stuff”.) Throughout the day, one group of boys in particular kept me company. They waved to me during the event, talked about how much they loved to read, and told me what they wanted to be when they grew up. One boy was particularly specific about his ambitions: he wanted to be a army sniper, so he could learn how to do all the maths about cross-winds and distance and line of sight necessary to calculate and execute a shot. It was a brilliant day: every copy of my book was sold, I spoke to some awesome students – and I was presented with definitive proof that boys can and will read books with female protagonists written by female authors.
I didn’t write Solace & Grief for teenage girls. I wrote it for the sort of person who likes that sort of story, regardless of how old they are or what gender they happen to have. And yet part of me was still startled to find that I had young, male fans – not because I hadn’t meant for such people to read it, but because our culture so rigidly enforces the idea that anything dubbed Female isn’t for men. And the thing is, even though all the boys I met were bright and engaged and interested, their exposure to and enjoyment of the book didn’t happen in a vacuum: it happened because they had an awesome librarian who, above and beyond caring about her students, understood that stories are genderless, and that there was no good reason why curating the library for an all boys’ school meant she shouldn’t stock and promote a YA vampire novel with a female protagonist.
As has been pointed out by Saundra Mitchell, Seanan McGuire and Maureen Johnson, the current panic about the so-called dearth of books for boys is both hypocritical and deeply problematic: hypocritical, in that it ignores the fact that up until quite recently, the vast majority of all literature was written by and for men, with women just being expected to cope with it; and deeply problematic, in that it hinges on the idea that it’s both impossible and unreasonable to expect boys to read books that are aimed at girls (which, see above, re: hypocrisy). Let me just say it flat out: if you think there’s something inherently wrong with boys reading about romance, empathising with female characters or enjoying books aimed primarily at girls, your outlook on gender is skewed beyond the ability of a single blog to correct it. If you think there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but that we still need more boy-friendly books: no. For centuries, no one was concerned that books weren’t girl-friendly, because no one really cared if girls read; but even so, we persisted for long enough that literature has slowly come to accommodate us. Modern boys, by contrast, are not trying to read in a culture of opposition. Nobody is telling them reading doesn’t matter, that boys don’t need to read and that actually, no prospective wife looks for literacy in a husband. Quite the opposite! Male literary culture thrives, both teachers and parents are throwing books at their sons, and the fact that the books aren’t sticking isn’t, as the nature of the complaint makes clear, because boys don’t like reading – no. The accusation is that boys don’t like reading about girls, which is a totally different matter.
Because constantly, consistently, our supposedly equal society penalises boys who express an interest in anything feminine. The only time boys are discouraged from books all together is in contexts where, for whatever reason, they’ve been given the message that reading itself is girly – which is a wider extrapolation of the same problem. Thanks to the advent of feminism, certain previously male-dominated activities have become gender neutral; but offhand, I cannot think of a single traditionally female pastime to have achieved the same status (except, possibly, for cooking, and even then only on the domestic scale, male chefs and waiters having a longstanding and frequently sexist tradition of their own). And as women have integrated themselves into literature and education, we’ve seen a subtle shift in perspective happen. The majority of primary school teachers are now women, and have been for some time; at high school, the stereotypical English/humanities teacher has become female; and then, of course, there’s the recent explosion of YA novels written by and for women to consider.
The fact that these changes have paralleled the decline of teenage males’ interest in reading isn’t a coincidence. However, this is not, as certain people would have it, because women have feminised literature with our magical vaginabooks and therefore made reading inherently unpalatable to the masculine half of the population. No: it’s because everything in our culture tells men and boys to avoid any interest, activity or community dominated by women – and when article after article insists that boys are reading less than girls; when the pop cultural discourse shies away from portraying boys as readers, or closely associates male reading with male unpopularity and outcastness; when the humanities is widely touted as being the feminine alternative to the masculine sciences; when finally, after centuries of exclusion, girls are actually getting a break at something, the consequence is that boys are keeping away in droves.
Let me tell you a story. On annual camp in primary school, I became amazingly good at a game called box hockey, an activity I’ve never encountered before or since, which none of us kids at the time had otherwise experienced, and which we therefore came to completely free of gender expectations. All of us tried it out at first, but as the boys soon proved their dominion, the majority of girls drifted away to do other things. I, however, loved it, and played at every opportunity – and I got good. So good, in fact, that soon I was the best player at camp. And do you know, internets, what happened when this became known?
The boys stopped playing. Because my repeated victories had demonstrated, not that I was a skilled player, but that box hockey itself was so easy that even a girl could win at it, and was therefore unworthy of further effort. I was, quite literally, left with no one to play with. Feeling this to be rather unfair but still wanting to play sport during the lunch break, I decided to join in at cricket instead. Unlike box hockey, cricket was well-established as a masculine domain. None of the boys wanted me to play, because I was a girl and would therefore clearly be terrible, a hindrance to whichever team was lumped with me. But even though they came from a different school to me, the boys finally, grudgingly and after great conference agreed to give me a go. They sent me to the farthest reaches of the outfield, where I could do as little damage as possible. But luck was with me. One of the batsmen made a fantastic shot to where I was – and I caught it, because I was good at fielding. The nature of the catch was such that they had to recognise my skills. I was allowed to bowl, and to bat, and by the end of the day, having proved that I was just as good at anyone at all those activities, I was declared one of the boys. Unlike box hockey, cricket was too noble a game to be sullied by female success: my prowess here made me exceptional rather than ruining the sport, and so while no other girls were allowed to play, whenever some new boy questioned my right to be there, every boy who’d seen me make that first catch vigorously defended me. I was OK, they said. I was one of the boys.
I learned two things from this experience: that if a girl was good at something boys had no history with, they would promptly declare it uninteresting and force me to quit from lack of acknowledgement; but succeeding at something they loved meant I could transcend being called a girl, which was clearly a sort of insult, and therefore reap benefits denied to other females. At the age of ten, I had been successfully indoctrinated in the fallacy of Equality Means Acting Like A Man by a group of children who’d never heard of sexism, feminism or gender politics, but whose use of the former and rejection of the latter had nonetheless been encouraged their entire lives by a culture that said Girl Things Are Bad And Girls Are Bad Too, Unless They’re Willing To Act Like Boys.
And, as we’re now seeing when it comes to books, this bias is a sword that cuts both ways. Having been raised to exclude girls from manly pursuits, boys are also reluctant to pursue female ones. If that means reading – and in some cases, sadly, it does, reading and other sedentary or indoor hobbies being viewed as the antithesis of sports, and therefore by extension the enemy of all things masculine – then writing more boy-centric books won’t help. (Unless, of course, your ultimate long-term plan is to take reading away from girls and return it to boys, in which case, you fail everything.) If, on the other hand, you want boys and girls to be reading with equal passion and in equal numbers, then a very clear alternative presents itself: teach your boys that there’s nothing wrong with girls, or girl things, period. Take away the stigma, and let everyone read without judgement. Stories are genderless, no matter who writes or stars in them. And if we can’t bear to teach our teenagers that, then we need to seriously rethink our sstatus as an equal and fair society.
(Side point, while we’re on the topic: I’m so sick of hearing about how it’s unfair to expect boys to read Austen or Bronte because of how ladybooks don’t appeal to teenage boys, and really it’s better to set them Golding or Fitzgerald. Here’s a thought: how about finding some literature written during their lifetimes? I’m sorry to have to point this out, but regardless of gender, the vast majority of teenagers aren’t yet interested in the classics, not because they’re all badly written or unworthy or irrelevant (although some of them probably are), but because they’re almost always an acquired taste, and school is quite possibly the single worst environment in which to try and convey their worth. OK? I know that school is meant to teach teenagers about things they might not otherwise encounter, but if you’re presented with a choice between instilling in students a lifelong love of reading or making sure they’ve read Hemmingway, I’m going to vote the former every time. Almost universally, I hated every single book I was forced to read for school, because their content represented the exact opposite of what I found interesting, and in the rare instances when that wasn’t the case, being forced to analyze them in class made me want to put out my eyes with a fork. Thanks to high school, I cannot so much as contemplate David Mamet, P. D. James, Tim Winton, Tim Flannery, Peter Goldsworthy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Stoppard or Ruth Park without experiencing a strong desire to set fire to something. Which isn’t to say I’ve never revisited anything I read in school – it’s just that, even with the few books I actually liked, it still manages to feel like a form of literary Stockholm syndrome.)