Monday, March 13, 2006

One makes sense, the other doesn't.

Children's book people tend to get awfully prickly when non-specialists venture opinions on our field, whether it's Madonna thinking she's a writer, or Harold Bloom taking down Harry Potter. So my quills quivered when I saw that Naomi Wolf was writing about YA fiction in the Times Book Review, but, I have to say, the girl talks sense. Her critique of the Gossip Girl books and their ilk keeps the moral outrage in perspective and demonstrates how these books break faith with what makes YA literature valuable. Have a look.

I was much less convinced by a recent piece in Slate, "The Little Men Who Love Little House: Why Boys Like Girls [sic] Books" by Emily Bazelon. The first problem is that the article doesn't speak to its title; in fact, the case being made seems to be precisely the opposite of what is premised. Her sole evidence that boys like girls' books is that her six-year-old son likes some of the same books she does (but she never says what they are). She also claims that Nancy Drew outselling The Hardy Boys proves the same thing, but . . . no. Ultimately, Bazelon seems defeated by her own question, concluding that boys don't read because we aren't doing enough to publish and promote books they would like: boys' books.

30 comments:

Rosemary Graham said...

I agree that the girl makes some sense in as far as her analysis of the story lines goes. But as a YA writer, I'm very uncomfortable with the warning tone of the overall package--including the list of recommended titles. (And not just because mine aren't on them!) Wolfe's values-based complaint isn't, in the the end, all that different from the values-based complaints of right-wing religious zealots. Different values, yes. But the same (fallacious) assumption. She's assuming that the girls who read these books are going to be corrupted by them. Much like the anti-Harry Potter crusaders who comb the books for their violations of biblical dicta. Buying the books does not equal buying the values.

ann said...

I read Naomi Wolf's article and I think it's right on target. I've always been of the mind that as long as kids are actually reading for pleasure, I'm not going to be snobbish about what they actally read. But Wolf's take on the Gossip Girls and their imitators makes me consider digging a deep hole to hide those books from view. I guess we'll just have to work even harder to make sure kids ( girls especially) get their hands on much better books that address similar content, such as Cecil Castellucci's Boy Proof and Queen of Cool.

Kelly said...

I'm with you on both articles, Roger. (The Slate article didn't make any sense in the end, even though the author began with an interesting question.)

I'm not sure Wolf was making a value judgement, per se, but rather stating that these books reflect the same, empty, celebrity-obsessed society currently available to young people.

mwturner said...

I disagreed entirely with Naomi Wolf. I thought she vastly underrated the intelligence and sophistication of girl readers. No one thinks that if I watch sex in the city I am going to rush out and dedicate myself to the pursuit of cheap sexual fullfillment. Yet they think adoloescent girls will. I agree with Rosemary Graham that Wolf's comments are no different from those made when Where The Wild Things Are came out--when people insisted that it would encourage tantrums in little children. And Louise Fitzhugh was corrupting young girls with Harriet the Spy. I don't think it is an accident that the authors carefully construct characters in Gossip-like Books that have NO redeeming values. They are relentlessly shallow, vicious and small minded. I think adolescent read these books the way children used to watch ant farms. To think otherwise is to underrate today's teenagers. Not just older teens either, I think your average pre-teen gets the message,too: These are unpleasant people that it is fun to watch behaving badly.

Have you forgotten Sweet Valley High? Where pretty girls in angora sweaters faced tough questions like whether or not to have a drink underage? I think the moralizing patina only made the underlying theme--be pretty/get boyfriend--more insidious. Gossip-ites just admit that no one was reading those for the moral message. They were reading for the angora sweaters.

And is anyone else irked that the NYT selects a one-note list of books and labels it "What Girls Should Read?"
I wouldn't have minded if they'd called it a list of Girl Books. But their title made it seem as if it was supposed to be a comprehensive list of reading materials for girls. Speaking as a former girl: Ick.

Anonymous said...

Fear not, MWTurner, the girls who read these YA books do not scour the new york times book review for their new reading material.

mwturner said...

And a good thing, too. Because (like Graham's)
my books weren't on the list either! Honestly,
what's up with that? I am shocked. shocked.

Anonymous said...

As for Harold Bloom - what can you expect from someone who titles his book How to Read and Why without any apparent irony. I mean HAHAHAHAHAHA. Of course, he does have a legitimate complaint about the lack of sex in the first Harry Potter book, although I must point out that there was very little in Wind in the Willows either, all right, some, some suspicious behavior on Ratty's part, but, really, all things told, very little to speak of.

Anonymous said...

Boys don't read because they are hard wired not to sit still for that long. Anyone observing a field of horses with their quick flight response and sentinel horse will understand how the species survives only if someone is keeping watch and someone is nesting. Girls are hard wired to nest and boys have to stay on the move, the flight or fight always pulsing minutely below the surface. If their faces are buried in books, and their concentration is elsewhere, something can sneak up behind and GET them.

Susan said...

What struck me about Wolf's piece was in the first paragraph: "any parent — including me — might put them in the Barnes & Noble basket without a second glance." It's the “without a second glance that gets me,” as well as there being no mention of talking with your daughter about what she's reading. Granted I'm a book person so I find it impossible not to give a book a second glance, but I just find it odd that a parent who is buying something for their child wouldn't check it out, at least a little bit. Or then ask how she liked it.

I've always been a big believer in letting my daughter (almost 14) read anything she wants to, a policy that I sometimes find severely challenging, such as when she picked up Zadie Smith’s Beauty, which I’d left on the sofa after finishing it. But she was fascinated by it – she loved that Kiki was fat and still attractive, she related to Levi’s wanting to be someone he isn’t, and has been recommending it to everyone. But I talked to her constantly about it and about my initial reservations to her reading it. We don’t talk about every book, but we talk about a lot, just as we talk about the TV shows she loves (Veronica Mars is her favorite, which strikes me as a YA novel come to life) and about what’s going on in school. I guess as the mother of a teenager I often get annoyed at these kind of articles that present something, usually some new horror that the writer has discovered in the teen world, as happening in isolation. My daughter’s world and those of her friends, both girls and boys, have all sorts of connective tissues going on that balances things out for them. Or so I think, and hope.

Roger Sutton said...

Wolf is certainly expressing her moral abhorrence for these books, but I don't see where she's warning parents not to let their children read them--there's a difference between expressing outrage and calling for censorship. What I liked best about the piece was Wolf's recognition of just where and how these books part company from traditional YA in their lack of a moral compass. While I agree with Megan that girls read these books for the titillation factor, the lack of even a sop to the virtues of being good or of nonconformity (beyond a daring taste in shoes) and the unironic plugging of brand names (you might not want to BE a Gossip Girl but you sure do want to look like one) gives new meaning to the word superficial. Can't Wolf be allowed to point this out?

ann said...

Yes, I think she should be allowed to point that out. I've been reading some YA related blogs about Wolf's article and there seem to be a lot of teens (and adults) who are outraged that Wolf would try to dictate to them what they can and can't read. I think that's missing the point. As you pointed out, Roger, the important message of Wolf's article is how these books "break faith with what makes YA literature valuable." I don't think she's saying not to read them at all. But we should take note of what's going on. Attention must be given.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that the Slate piece was odd, there was a comment that made me pause: are books that appeal to boys (I'm thinking particulary of nonfiction) looked down on? What do you think, Roger?

Roger Sutton said...

Although I think that Bazelon unfairly sideswiped librarians in the Slate piece, I also think part of our problem with boys' reading is that while they do read, they don't necessarily read what we want them to, which is books, most particularly fiction. This is a generalization, obviously, but I think to understand the true nature and scope of boys' (or anyone's, really) reading, we need to take into account newspapers, websites, magazines, etc. That was one of the problems with the much-discussed NEA reading survey (see my editorial at http://www.hbook.com/publications/magazine/editorials/sep04.asp)--it focussed quite narrowly on what constituted reading: fiction, poetry, and drama.

Anonymous said...

Thank God someone finally called it what it is. It's trash. It's sensational crap to make a buck. While some may enjoy reading it, I find it revolting and my daughters won't go near that stuff, by their own choice. They would much rather read The Lovely Bones or White Oleander which have real value than read about a bunch of girls who think they're empowered but are really only slaves to their basest nature.

Jennie said...

Where I admit that such things as Gossip Girls etc. are certainly superficial, can I just point out that High School is superficial? In real life, the alpha mean girls never do get what's coming to them.

These are the books I would have read in high school-- something escapist and fun and naughty for my pleasure reading. I needed that to balance out all the Faulkner, Hemingway, Salinger and Shakespeare that I was reading for class.

And onto the Slate article, I think that anonymous had a point with the fact that nonfiction titles are looked down upon (especially by parents) as not "counting" as reading.

Anonymous said...

Oh where is Judith Kranz when we need her?

Rosemary Graham said...

Of course she's _allowed_ to point it out. And please, anon above, Wolf is not the first to "finally call it what it is . . . trash." Read through the Amazon reviews of Gossip Girls books. Many, many teenagers find them to be trash. Some celebrate the trash, some abhor and deride it. They are reading these books and many of them are thinking about what reading these books mean. And yes, Roger, there's a line between actual calls for censorship, like the Oklahoma statute, and warnings like Wolf's. But when you start drawing up lists of books you approve of because they adhere to or reflect an ideology, you're acting a lot like those folks who want to segregate books because of their content. In my own blog entry about the Wolf piece, I link to Christian rant about Harry Potter. The structure of the Christian rant is much the same as the structure of Wolf's. These are the ways in which HP violates our beliefs, here, try these books instead.

As a YA writer of books about teen girls, I HATE that I have to compete with Gossip Girls, Cliques, A-Lists, and Au Pairs. And I hate that publishers are flooding the marketplace with these books. But . . . I want girls to read my books because they find the books compelling, because the books speak to them. Not because it's a book Mommy will approve of.

Anonymous said...

Do boys get pushed into "boy books" and girls into "girl books?"

Roger Sutton said...

Rosemary--I think you need to separate Wolf's essay from the sidebarred list of books, which was compiled by somebody else. And I've read most of the books on that list and wouldn't say that they have any ideological coherence--for the most part it's a list of realistic, contemporary fiction about teen life. The only other thing they have in common is weightier themes and more nuanced writing than the books Wolf discusses.

Rosemary Graham said...

Apart from the list, Roger, I find the essay problematic. I'm not quibbling with her analyses of the individual novels, the characters, the story lines. I'm quibbling with the framework within which these analyses are presented. The essay presupposes that the popularity of these books is evidence of something gone horribly awry in the teenage population. A smart reading of a text isn't evidence of that text's effect on readers or in the world.

For example, she writes: "The narratives offer the perks of the adult world not as escapist fantasy, but in a creepily photorealistic way, just as the book jackets show real girls polished to an unreal gloss."

What is her evidence for declaring that the books are not "escapist fantasy"? The fact that von Ziegesar said her books were "aspirational"? How the books are "offered" is not evidence for how they are received. The teenagers I've talked to about these books say that they are escapist fantasy.

In her concluding paragraph, she declares, "It's sad if the point of reading for many girls now is no longer to take the adult world apart but to squeeze into it all the more compliantly."

That's a pretty big IF. But she writes as if it's established fact, again with no evidence of how these books are being read by the girls themselves. She is assuming that the popularity of these books means that the behaviors and beliefs of their FICTIONAL CHARACTERS are all the rage IRL (in real life).

Again, I'm not quibbling with the analysis of the books as self-contained entities. I'm questioning her assumptions about what their popularity means. (And the implication that parents ought to be alarmed.)

In the eighties, a scholar by the name of Janice Radway published a brilliant book called Reading the Romance. In it she explores the function that romance reading served in the lives of its devotees. She went into the project with all kinds of assumptions about how the stories were reinforcing patriarchal notions about womens' roles, romantic love, etc. Among her conclusions was the notion that it wasn't the content of the romance so much as the act of reading itself that was important to the romance readers. While they were reading their romances, they were not performing other domestic and social "duties." So while the stories may have seemed to reinforce notions of patriarchy, these readers felt they were to some extent engaged in rebellion by taking the time to read.

You cannot infer from the content of a book what the experience of reading that book is for the individual reader.

Anonymous said...

Another problem Naomi Wolf may encounter is that teenage girls are actively angry at feminists who make assumptions about them. They don't feel victimized and they don't appreciate being perceived that way. And, in fact, they are paddling their own canoes very nicely thank you, so go burn your bra somewhere else, is how I have noted their response to such things.

Andy Laties said...

I note that the Harold Bloom article on Harry Potter covers a mixed-gender school: Hogwarts. (He argues that Hogwarts is an updated Rugby -- which obviously was an all-boy school.) Mixed-gender British adventure books like E. Nesbit's, Arthur Ransome's and C.S. Lewis's are a genre. Both boys and girls like these books. The article you cited in Slate does not address the EXISTENCE of these mixed-gender books. It argues that there are "boy" books and "girl" books. But I remember loving those British books with their mixed casts, and my sisters loved them too. As far as Richard Scarry being a "boy-book" author, for that matter, my daughter liked his Counting Book (featuring a character named Lily I believe) just as much as my son did.

Anyway, both Bloom and Bazelon seem to miss the gen-der-al point.

Andy

Anonymous said...

Yes, but the price of freedom is eternal vigilance so maybe it's good there are Naomi Wolfs pointing out, something's happening here.

mwturner said...

If the point of the Bazelon is that boys like many of the same books that girls like, my response has to be, "well, duh."

If her point is that boys miss out on great books because no one suggests them because of preconceived notions of what boys read, that's bad.

I know that my boys are constantly solicited with drech. It's as if grown ups reach for the lowest common denominater when recommending books, hoping that something, no matter how puerile, will get them reading. In spite of the fact that they are already reading.

I understand why. When a kid asks an for advice on a book choice, it's an honor. When you fail to connect himwith a book, it's a drag. There's nothing that leaves me more glum than pitching The Eagle of the Ninth to a kid who says, "No thanks, I think I'll try those Animorph books."
How do we counteract the impulse to reach for the Animorphs right of the bat because they have a higher success rate?

Roger Sutton said...

Sure, these books are escapist fantasy. But fantasies of what? I also think Radway's book is brilliant, but while she did conclude that reading itself was liberating for the women she studied, she also noted that readers appreciated many things the books' content gave them: the window on other times and places, the way the heroine "tamed" the hero, etc. So content is not irrelevant. I don't think Wolf or anyone believes the Gossip Girls are read--or meant--as role models. So what is the appeal--beautiful people doing terrible things, a la Jackie Collins? My colleague Anne, who has an adolescent daughter, compares the appeal to that of Dallas and Dynasty, but even those shows gave us characters capable of eliciting empathy, which I'm not sure is true of GG. Has anyone asked any kids (and gotten beyond "they're fun")?

Rosemary Graham said...

Has anyone asked any kids (and gotten beyond "they're fun")?


Yes. Scott Westerfeld asked and got lots of articulate answers from real live teenage readers. http://scottwesterfeld.com/blog/?p=118

rindambyers said...

I'm with Roger's opinions about the Gossip Girls issue, but I don't think I would forbid a daughter, if I had one, to read them as long as she "allowed" me read them, too,and could feel totally comfortable in discusing them with me. That's what I would want, that she would feel comfortable enough with me to discuss them freely with me of her own choice, her OWN free choice, not because I forced her to do so.

I am totally AMAZED that no one has mentioned yet the one aspect of the Little House Books that I think might really appeal to boys--the character of Laura's father. Particularly so now that increasing numbers of small boys these days seem to have none or, worse, a bad one. I know a young boy who has a father in prison and a stepfather in prison...no wonder he makes every excuse he can to "hang out" with my husband who is willing to watch movies with him and TALK and LISTEN to him about the movies and anything else as well...

In all of this, we must sometimes listen more perhaps than we speak

Anonymous said...

Regarding the responses on Scott Westerfield's blog, perhaps a bit of preaching to the choir going on? I don't think we can take the teens who post on Westerfield's blog as an accurate representation of the audience for the books in question.

Rosemary Graham said...

"I don't think we can take the teens who post on Westerfeld's blog as an accurate representation of the audience for the books in question."

If they are reading the books then they are the audience, aren't they?

max said...

Hi,

I grew up as a reluctant reader. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for boys 8 and up, that kids hate to put down. My web site is at http://www.maxbooks.9k.com and my Books for Boys blog is at http://booksandboys.blogspot.com
Ranked by Accelerated Reader

Thank you,

Max Elliot Anderson