Guest Post: The Problem Is Not The Books

When we read Saundra Mitchell’s blog post “The Problem Is Not the Books,” we heard the beautiful sound of a slate shattering somewhere off in the distance. Saundra has graciously allowed us to re-post this piece from her blog. And now, with great pleasure, we bring you Saundra’s delightful smackdown on this NYT article.

“The Problem Is Not the Books”

The NYT bleats the alarm, omfg, what about all the boys who don’t have books to read?!

And I quote Michael Cart from said article:

“We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or ­offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become.”

To which I reply, those books already exist. Women have for centuries managed to read material written by men, about men, and still walk away being able to figure out how those stories apply to them. To be fair, we had to, and in many cases, continue to have to.

News flash: the only markets in which women dominate literature are romance and YA. All the rest of it is predominately male and male-oriented. Somehow, though, James Patterson and John Grisham still manage to be bestsellers– because women are reading their novels.

The problem that needs to be fixed is not kick all the girls out of YA, it’s teach boys that stories featuring female protagonists or written by female authors also apply to them. Boys fall in love. Boys want to be important. Boys have hopes and fears and dreams and ambitions. What boys also have is a sexist society in which they are belittled for “liking girl stuff.” Male is neutral, female is specific.

I heard someone mention that Sarah Rees Brennan’s THE DEMON’S LEXICON would be great for boys, but they’d never read it with that cover. Friends, then the problem is NOT with the book. It’s with the society that’s raising that boy. It’s with the community who inculcated that boy with the idea that he can’t read a book with an attractive guy on the cover.

Here’s how we solve the OMG SO MANY GIRLS IN YA problem: quit treating women like secondary appendages. Quit treating women’s art like it’s a niche, novelty creation only for girls. Quit teaching boys to fear the feminine, quit insisting that it’s a hardship for men to have to relate to anything that doesn’t specifically cater to them.

Because if I can watch Raiders of the Lost Ark and want to grow up to be an archaeologist, there’s no reason at all that a boy shouldn’t be able to read THE DEMON’S LEXICON with its cover on. My friends, sexism doesn’t just hurt women, and our young men’s abysmal rate of attraction to literacy is the proof of it.

If you want to fix the male literary crisis, here’s your solution:

Become a feminist.

Originally posted at Making Stuff Up for a Living by Saundra Mitchell.

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22 Responses to Guest Post: The Problem Is Not The Books

  1. AVH says:

    Finally got around to reading the NYTimes piece, and can I just say, blech! The only good thing about it is that it has prompted a thoughtful discussion of why articles like this are problematic.

    One thing that stands out while reading Lipsyte’s essay is his (unabashedly self-promoting) comment about the “reluctant” readers who responded to his book by talking about “how [they] could be kept in line by the fear of being called a girl or gay. …Would this conversation ever have taken place without a literary impetus?”

    If anything, this speaks for the need to upturn the “male is neutral, female is specific” paradigm that you note as prevalent. Maybe then boys would not only be more comfortable reading books written by women about women, but also be better equipped to think about why “girl” and “gay” are the taunts that keep them in line.

    • Brianna says:

      Yes yes yes! The last bit of your comment, especially. As someone who is frequently working/teaching in the classroom, I’m trying to work in ways that can, as you say, upturn the paradigm with my own students.

  2. Deb V. says:

    This post just made my day. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention. Slate: BROKEN.

  3. Army Amy says:

    Wow! I couldn’t agree more! I have male students who read books with female protagonists (Hunger Games, anyone?) but I do think that the fear of reading something girly = being girly does scare boys away from great books. Excellent post!*

    • Brianna says:

      Yes, I think the Hunger Games is a good example. Have you noticed your male students reading other books with female protagonists that they enjoy? And, whenever someone brings up this argument, I think about all of the texts in school that I had to read (and the ones that I chose to read for pleasure) that had male protagonists, and no one uttered a peep about that! We were thrilled that Saundra Mitchell let us re-post her work.

      • AVH says:

        Another great response to this article, from Rejectionist: – which I bring up because, aside from breaking all kinds of slates, she specifically mentions the prevalence of male-dominated literature in school curriculums:

        “[Y]oung men persecuted by their peers is a sorely underexplored topic in the annals of fiction. It’s not like Lord of the Flies gets taught to every American high school student ever in the history of time or anything.”

        What would be the “female” equivalent? The Scarlett Letter, which I liked, but is nevertheless preoccupied with female promiscuity and the supposedly negative effects thereof? And even that was written by a man.

        I’m having a tough time thinking of any major work of woman-authored fiction that I was assigned to read pre-college…

  4. Sarah says:

    I think talking about what we read in school curricula is a really important point. There was a piece in the New Yorker last year about how the three “perfect books” that speak to “every reader and condition” are Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, and how those are the three imperative works of lit that every kid needs to read. It goes back to that issue of universal – we assume that something has to be about white dudes for it to be really “for everybody” and the biggest way we see this play out is in classrooms, when teachers are fighting with school boards and there’s an expectation of what the Important Books Are.

    I didn’t read much by or about women in most of the classes I took before college either, but wouldn’t you love to see The Bluest Eye or The Awakening or House of Mirth be included in American Lit classes?

    • Brianna says:

      You know, my senior College Prep English teacher assigned Beloved. Which was admirable. Although that ONE book didn’t cancel out the years of: The Catcher in the Rye, Julius Caesar, The Red Badge of Courage, Lord of the Flies, etc., etc.

      • AVH says:

        Now that you mention it, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, was one of the assigned texts for my Junior year Honors English class. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper were, as well. The latter are two of my favorite pieces of feminist literature.

        However, I think it’s worth noting relative length: The Yellow Wallpaper is essentially a short story, possibly a novella. The Awakening and Herland are each very short novels or very long novellas. None have the heft of, for example, Huckleberry Finn.

        Also, Sarah, if you have it, I’d love to get a link to the piece from The New Yorker. It sounds like a worthwhile read.

  5. Sarah says:

    The New Yorker piece was actually Adam Gopnik’s Eulogy for JD Salinger – linked here: This is the quote that irked me: “In American writing, there are three perfect books, which seem to speak to every reader and condition: “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”

    Because yes, of course three books about young white men are the ultimate in universality.

    There’s a nice counterpoint article here: which includes this fantastic quote: “The apparent belief that a young Maya Angelou would read Catcher in the Rye and think “My god, it’s like he’s known me all my life” is pretty depressing.”

    I’d love to see some kind of study happening tracking demographics of authors and characters in classrooms. Do you think it’s better or worse at the middle grade level? I wonder how many female protagonists or people of color make an appearance in those curricula…

  6. Kathleen says:

    Great post! I had this exact argument about “women’s” movies with my dad a couple nights ago. Sending this article to him!

  7. Mark says:

    This Saundra Mitchell post is great. Because, wow, that New York Times piece was weak. It’d be one thing if Robert Lipsyte were actually interested in exploring strategies to get students of all genders (or boys specifically) to read quality fiction. But that line about “female editors…female librarians…and female teachers” really gave away the game. This is ax-grinding, with some silly notion of female-dominated publishing and education fields ruining contemporary boys. Come on, the New York Times! Blaming women is not innovative and provocative like you think it is! It’s idiotic and reactionary!

    Also, the counterpoint to that New Yorker piece is outstanding. That blog is basically a fantastic/hilarious quote machine, and the Maya Angelou line is particularly choice.

    • Brianna says:

      Yes, after reading Lipsyte’s article I was curious as to the actual numbers of male/female working in the publishing industry.

  8. Tracy Poff says:

    That NYT article is just stunning. A lack of books for teenage boys? In what world?

    Honestly, I’m not at all sure that the premise that boys won’t read books targeted at girls is really true. The opposite manifestly is not.

    When I was in elementary school, I know that I read both The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew with equal enthusiasm, and later on I never noticed any lack of books for and about boys–both YA and ordinary adult novels.

    Truly, Mitchell has it right–the problem is not the books. It’s a silly as printing special ‘adult’ versions of the Harry Potter books without the beautiful cover art, though I think much more damaging. It seems to me that Lipsyte needs to read some of the ‘female’ YA he decries, and see if it’s really impossible for a boy to relate to, or if the problem is simply prejudice.

    Regarding the discussion in the comments of books assigned in schools: when I was in high school (I graduated in 2004, so my experience is only slightly out of date), we were assigned a few books by female authors. We read The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, and possibly one or two others. I guess that’s close to a quarter of the books we were assigned, in total, which isn’t really too bad, given the preponderance of classics. In middle school, I recall reading The Giver and My Side of the Mountain.

    I’d really like to see a year-by-year listing of the top fifty (or whatever) books assigned in middle school and high school (separately, that is). It’s bound to be interesting to see how the selections change, over the years.

    • Brianna says:

      I think your survey idea is fantastic – I wonder if something like that already exists? It would make a fascinating research study. It sounds as if your high school teachers were open to including some excellent, slatebreaking selections on their reading lists.


  10. We need to raise our boys without instilling a phobia of all things “girly.” The iron mask of masculinity, that punishes any sign of empathy with shame and violence, must be broken.

    One way to do that is to provide books that offer models of masculinity that don’t amount to telling boys to “man up.”

    Yes, there are many, many books out there by male authors with male protagonists and most of them do absolutely nothing to address this problem.

  11. nobilisreed says:

    “They talked about not trusting coaches who, they said, send you in hurt, and lie about your playing time and play you off against your friends. They felt trapped — they loved the fellowship, the physical contact, the prestige of the game. They even talked, gingerly, about playing because Dad wants you to and how you could be kept in line by the fear of being called a girl or gay. This was hard-core boy talk, but it was also book talk — the fictional characters we were discussing allowed us the freedom to express feelings the way girls do. Would this conversation ever have taken place without a literary impetus?”

    If you’re not addressing this paragraph, you’re not addressing the point of this article.

  12. Pingback: Sunday Salon: A Round-Up of Online Reading 4/20/14 | the dirigible plum

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