Some thoughts about gender and literature.
Last weekend at Emerald City, I saw a sign that infuriated me. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. It was a big banner on the front of a self-published* author's booth, reading, "Finally, a book for BOYS that the GIRLS will enjoy reading, too!"
Oh. You mean unlike 90% of the well-regarded "classic" science fiction, fantasy, and young adult genre novels out there? And 98% of the horror? And 99% of the military science fiction? And, let's face it, the majority of anything that's not a romance, a story about princesses, or a horse book? As a girl who grew up reading Bradbury, King, Wyndham, Anthony, Asprin, Piper, Foster, Knight, Shakespeare, Poe, De Lint, Baum, superhero comics, and horror comics, I cry thee foul.
And no, this is not a case of me carefully editing out the female authors of my childhood. After wracking my brain, the only ones I could come up with who even managed to compete for my affections—who were writing stories with girls, rather than girl stories, and were thus worth reading in my twelve-year-old estimation—were McCaffrey, Kagan, Tiptree (who wrote as a man), Pini (whose writing still gets credited to her husband by about half the people I talk to), Jones, Duane, and McKinley.
I discovered more female authors as I got older. Emma Bull. Pamela Dean. Jody Lynn Nye. Women who were writing stories with girls, not girl stories; women who were building the foundations of a new genre, filled with interesting, clever, intuitive characters who yes, sometimes happened to have the same plumbing I did. And sometimes they didn't, and that was okay, too. But—and this is where we loop back to the beginning—it didn't matter. If I wanted to read, I needed to read books about boys. Books that were probably intended by their authors as being for boys. If I wanted to enjoy reading, I needed to enjoy books for boys.
If this has changed at all, that change has happened in the last eight to ten years, beginning with the publication of Twilight. People were writing books for girls before that, but there's always a trigger event, and Bella Swan making millions of dollars for her author (and publisher) was the trigger for a veritable flood of "girl books" hitting the shelves. These were books with female leads, with women on the covers, with a stronger romance subplot than had necessarily been required in YA before people figured out that hey, girls read, and maybe some of them will read more if you offer them female characters to read about.
Since then, the number of "girl books" has exploded, and while some of them are girl stories, some of them are also stories with girls. Some of these books are romances. Some of them are not. Some of them are medical thrillers, adventures, war stories, epic fantasies, distopian futures, cyberpunk, steampunk, mythpunk, modern day, anything you can think of. Because they are stories. And yet somehow, the fact that they have girls on the cover makes them not worth reading. The fact that the main characters have to squat when they pee makes them untenable to half the population. The fact that their authors grew up being told that real science fiction, fantasy, horror, and adventure starred men doing manly things in a manly way, and yet grew up to write books about women doing the same things, does not prove that literature can be a gender neutral experience where story matters more than anything else; it proves that we need more books for BOYS that GIRLS will enjoy, too. It means that the girls keep on coming second, that we keep being the deviation, and not the norm.
I do dislike the fact that right now, sexy girls pout at me from the covers of almost every book in the YA section, because I know that culturally, we discourage boys from reading those books, and damn, they are missing out. But I also dislike the fact that I'm expected to be totally a-okay with teenage girls reading books covered in muscular men with giant guns, while sneering at teenage boys reading books with thoughtful-looking women on the covers. We say "don't judge a book by its cover" like it's a Commandment, and then we turn around and tell boys not to read books with girls on them, or books with pink on them, or anything that doesn't look macho enough.
If I could read Little Fuzzy, you can read Partials. If I could read Myth Adventures, you can read The Chemical Garden. There will always be some stories that appeal to us more than others, but when we start saying "this book is for BOYS but don't worry, GIRLS can read it, too" vs. "icky GIRL BOOK is ICKY and NOT FOR BOYS," we create a division in our literature that doesn't need to be there, and frankly, upsets me.
Let's all just read the books we want to read, regardless of covers or the gender of the main characters, okay? Because otherwise, we're missing out on a lot of really great stories. And that would be a shame.
(*This is relevant only because it implies no editorial oversight. If I were to try using a slogan like this, my editors, and my agent, would politely make me stop.)