Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Women Getting in the Way or Getting Boys Reading?

Apparently “boys are being deterred from reading because the ‘gatekeepers’ to children’s literature are mostly women.”

At least, that's what a writer called Jonathan Emmett believes. Jonathan Emmett said so in a long piece in the Times all about Jonathan Emmett and what he believes. You can read a summary of what Jonathan Emmett believes here:

I wasn't going to comment on all this, mainly because I think it's beneath comment. But people keep talking about it and now I've been asked directly what I think. (Also, it turns out I'm not beneath commenting on things that should really be beneath comment. So here goes.)

I'm a boy. I've always been a boy. When I was a smaller boy I found it very hard to get into books. I pretty much gave up on books when I was 12. I wish I hadn't, but I did. I'm still a very impatient reader, and perhaps because of that I now write books that are used and marketed for getting boys to read - especially boys who, like I was, are impatient with books or don't think books are for them.

I won't bore you with how a reluctant reader becomes an author, but later in the week I'll do a more general piece about how to get boys reading. For now, does the fact that there are so many women in children's publishing have negative effects on boys' reading? Is Emmett right?

Well, I'm a boy and an impatient reader. Here's how I choose a book:

- I find a MAN. The most macho MAN I can find.
- I ask the MAN what he's reading.
- I do thorough research to check that book has been written, edited, designed, marketed, distributed, sold and reviewed by MEN.
- I beat my chest and read a MAN'S book.
- I raise a glass (of whisky or man-sweat or ox-blood) to Jonathan Emmett.

It's really tough for me, because of all these pesky women in publishing.

If only there were some books that do get boys to read. Oh, like mine. Brilliant. Well done me. So, my books must be the product of a very male environment, right? Well, that's true, I am really very macho. But the agent who first took me on and edited all of my books is a woman. My current agent is a woman. My first readers are my wife and my two sisters. My most helpful sounding board is my mum. My editor is a woman. My front covers are designed by a woman. The booksellers and librarians who know my books and get them into the hands of boys who otherwise wouldn't read are mostly women.

There you go - the team that brings you the Jimmy Coates books is incredibly male (plus all those pesky women).

I seek out expertise, not men. I trust someone's knowledge and experience, not their gender. If an editor wants to remove from a book elements that typically appeal to impatient readers - technical details, daring adventures, appropriate violence - then the editor is just wrong, not wrong because she's female.

Of course, it's more likely that the editor has noticed that stuffing those elements in without serving the story is more likely to switch readers off - male, female, old, young - than get them gripped. Books that grip impatient readers are not watered-down imitations of computer games. Books that grip impatient readers are great stories.

If there is a lack of understanding of what it's like to be an impatient reader and the elements that contribute to a boy being put off reading, that is the problem, not an over-abundance of women. To suggest otherwise is unhelpful, sexist and wrong.
After I gave up on books when I was 12, I rediscovered them when I was 17 thanks to my older sister. For years after that I only read a book she put in my hands. She could pick out books she knew I'd like because she knew me and she understood what stories would grip me. I'll stop short of pointing out that that level of empathy is a typically female trait. Pretend I didn't say that. Because my point is that gender is irrelevant. Understanding is everything.

The only reason I read anything at all now, let alone write, is thanks to the smart, persistent women in my family and a dad who read publicly, almost ostentatiously, with books and newspapers spread out in front of him, some held in place by special devices he invented so he could read more than one thing at a time. More about dads another time. For now, let me finish with a few words about logic:

At Last, A Few Words About Logic
If you see two facts that are vaguely similar in theme you can't assume one causes the other.

Fact A- boys read less than girls
Fact B- there are lost of women in children's publishing

Aha! Fact B must cause Fact A.

Except, the trouble is, Fact A could cause Fact B:

If boys read less than girls this is quite likely to lead to a publishing industry full of women. Because who wants to work in publishing? People who like books.

Or there could be a whole load of other factors involved, which I'll talk about in another post, very soon...

Meanwhile, for a theory about one aspect of boys' reading, here's something I wrote about cover art.


ShellyW said...

Excellent blog, straight to the heart of the matter. let's get beyond basic gender binary and into understanding. Good work that man.

Katherine Langrish said...

Go Joe! Well said, and I like your logic!

Nicola Morgan said...

Enormous sense. At last! Well said!

By the way, I think there are too many women commenting on this post.

Joe Craig said...

Thanks for the lovely comments, all. Keep up the great work!

catdownunder said...

Another female saying, "I like this too!"

Val Bloom said...

Hear! Hear! (Sorry, I'm female too)

Anonymous said...

It's not women that is the problem, but there are some very strange ideas in the children's publishing industry-- often heard on radio shows about children reading and mirrored the the books that are published. Adventure is great for boys, but they are good readers this gets really really gloomy, or even nasty as soon as we hit teen fiction (or kissy, that's no good either); fantasy is good but not plodding fantasy. The books which win prizes are very often written around a 'theme', moral or emotional bla bla; we don't want that! We want exciting, and funny! Where's the funny after you hit 12? My sons are maniac readers and finding the right stuff is a fascinating job; I'm a woman. also loved you post on play x