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Category Archives: YA Fiction

The Problem with “Boy Books”

First, read this post by YA Author Justine Larbalestier: The Problem with Boy Books

I’ll wait.  It’s a very good post, and the parts I want to respond to are probably not the ones most would expect.

Unfortunately, comments on Justine’s post were closed, so I’m putting my response here on the Chimney.

I have a page here on the Chimney listing 200  YA/MG-ish books with male protagonists and/or authors.  For a variety of reasons, most of which aren’t made explicit on the page itself. For example, it makes the point that in fact there are many and even many good YA books with male protagonists and authors.

But to get to my thoughts on the whole “we need more YA books starring boys so boys will read” debate.  This argument, as Justine points out, makes several important assumptions, almost all of which are false.

  1. Boys don’t read.  Well, that’s obviously crap.  I read and I know many other folks of the male persuasion who do as well.   Not only now, but from back when many of us would have classified as YAs ourselves.
  2. Relatedly: we must solve this problem by getting boys to read YA.  Also crap.  Justine points  out that many boys do read, just not within the genre of YA.  The argument seems to be that YA books are for YAs, so if male YAs aren’t reading them, male YAs must not be reading.  Which is silly.  Although most YA lit focuses on YA (or lightly above) protagonists, sales data shows that the audience, whether intended target or not, is so much wider.  First, yes.  More female YAs read YA lit than male.  In fact, the readership appears to be drastically weighted towards females in all age categories.  So despite that settings and characters–and the blunt category label–I don’t think we can say that YA is lit for YAs, thus undermining the argument at issue here.
  3. A third assumption, which some might disagree about the truth of, is the assumption that we need boys to read more. Do we?  That depends on what value we believe/claim reading to have.  Is there some positive influence unavailable elsewhere that reading provides?  I certainly don’t claim to be able to prove either possible answer there.  But even without the full answer, the partial response we can rely on is that reading does have value and does provide some benefits, at least to some people.

 

I do have to disagree with Justine on one point: books do not have gender, sure.  But they have a target audience.  Just looking at the above-mentioned readership of YA, it’s clear that some books appeal more to certain people (and arguably groups) than others.  So in fact, there are “boy books” insomuch as marketing shows that  we can target our product and advertising towards specific groups we wish to cultivate as customers.  The underlying question is really whether there is cultural and individual to the reader value in such targeting. Most marketers and companies will naturally argue for the financial value to them.  Personally,as I suspect Justine does, I think there’s a great deal of value in having readers cross market category lines.  If we indirectly discourage boys from reading “girl books” by creating an opposing category of “boy books” and then hinting very strongly in our marketing that boys should read these in preference to girl books, we’re artificially preventing them from gaining the value of learning about different perspectives.

 

Now to address my points:

Boys do read.  They may not read YA, but as I say in point 2, that doesn’t mean they don’t read.  In fact, there’s a strong belief among the book-ish community that boys read a great number of Middle Grade books, and then generally mix in adult genre fiction over time as they age out of the middle grade category.  (It’s interesting to note that YA has a much wider practical audience compared to its supposed target audience than middle grade does, such that many readers never age out, or eve pick up the category later in life having not indulged when they were actually young adults.)  So there’s  no reason to artificially force some sort of supposed gender parity in YA publishing.  The fact that YA is less popular with boys does not as claimed equate to reading in general being less popular with boys.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy a broader array of male protagonists in YA, written by male authors or otherwise.  But keep in mind that I read over a hundred books a year, so it’s not that there’s necessarily a deficiency, but that I am an outlier, and further, no longer a young adult, thus somewhat disqualifying me from being a statistic at all.  (Though I read at the same pace when I was younger.)  Also, I had and have no trouble reading either female protagonists and authors or “girl” books, so again, still not an argument for forcing gender parity in main characters.

And speaking of consumption of alternate media, I don’t enjoy (fiction–or non-fiction, I suppose) books about sports.  But I love anime (and manga) that involves sports.  As Justine brings up early on, all boys are different.  Anecdotally, no amount of sports-themed boy-lead stories are going to automatically bring more males like me into reading YA.

 

I’m gonna now delve into the Go vs chess analogy in Justine’s post because as you probably know, I love both linguistics and AI.  It’s in some ways a brilliant analogy, since it captures the issue of ignorance on the part of the person criticizing YA as simplistic.  Although Go has far simpler tools and rules to play, it’s far more complex than chess in it’s play.  Words work similarly to games like Go and Chess in terms of the complexity of meaning that can be derived from very simple building blocks.  I took those stupid reading level tests in high school.  Scored too high to get any book recs.  As Justine points out, the complexity of stories come not from the quality of the words themselves, but  from how they are arranged.  Quality here being defined as conversational level words versus SAT words.  For example, I could have said  “verbiage” instead of words, but despite the fancy  vocab, the meaning is the same.  In fact, I could have given the same meaning with “Two-syllable words vs eight-syllable words.”  TL;DR: If your plot is simple, you can’t hide it beneath flowery prose.  So much more goes into a story than the grammar.

 

 

Finally, onto the third point.  Justine cites empathy as something that readers can gain from novels.  You’re more likely to get empathy from a competently written story about someone different from you than about someone much more similar to you. Similarity enforces rigidity in thinking, where as difference more often encourages flexibility.  So if we want boys to read more(they already read plenty accounting for non-gender-related factors!) because of what they gain from reading, then in fact forcing stereotypical gender parity is the opposite of the correct solution.  They might read more (they won’t!), but they’ll gain less.

 

*I’ve actually left out a few very interesting points Justine made in her own post, because I don’t currently have anything to add, and they are separate attacks on this myth from the ones I’ve chosen to address here.  But they are just as important!   Especially the point about general gender disparity in readership/charactergender/author gender  vs. YA specifically.

 

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Poetry, Language, and Artificial Intelligence

Poetry exemplifies how the meaning of a string of words depends not only upon the sum of the meaning of the words, or on the order in which they are placed, but also upon something we call “context”.  Context is essentially the concept that single word (or idea) has a different meaning depending on its surroundings.  These surroundings could be linguistic–the language we are assuming the word to belong to, for example, environmental–say it’s cold out and I say “It’s sooooooo hot.”, or in light of recent events: “The Mets suck” means something very different if they’ve just won a game than if they’ve just lost one.

Poetry is the art of manipulating the various possible contexts to get across a deeper or more complex meaning than the bare string of words itself could convey.  The layers of meaning are infinitely deep, and in fact in any form of creative  writing, it is demonstrably impossible for every single human to understand all of them.  I say poetry is the “art” of such manipulation because it is most often the least subtle about engaging in it.  All language acts manipulate context.  Just using a simple pronoun is manipulating context to express meaning.

And we don’t decode this manipulation separate from decoding the bare language.  It happens as a sort of infinite feedback loop, working on all the different layers of an utterance at once.  The ability to both manipulate concepts infinitely and understand our own infinite manipulations might be considered the litmus test for what is considered “intelligent” life.

 

Returning to the three words in our title, I’ve discussed everything but AI.  The difficulty in creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence lies in the fact that nature had millions or billions of years to sketch out and color in the complex organic machine that grants humans this power of manipulation.  Whereas humans have had maybe 100?  In a classic chicken and egg problem, it’s quite difficult to have either the concept web or the system that utilizes it without the other part.  If the system creates the web, how do you know how to code the system without knowing the structure of the web?  And if the web comes first, how can you manipulate it without the complete system?

You might have noticed a perfect example of how context affects meaning in that previous paragraph.  One that was not intentional, but that I noticed as I went along. “Chicken and egg problem”.  You  can’t possibly know what I meant by that phrase without having previously been exposed to the philosophical question of which came first, the chicken that laid the egg, or the egg the chicken hatched from.  But once you do know about the debate, it’s pretty easy to figure out what I meant by “chicken and egg problem”, even though in theory you have infinite possible meanings.

How in the world are you going to account for every single one of those situations when writing an AI program?  You can’t.  You have to have a system based on very general principles that can deduce that connection from first principles.

 

Although I am a speculative fiction blogger, I am still a fiction blogger.  So how do this post relate to fiction?  When  writing fiction you are engaging in the sort of context manipulation I’ve discussed above as such an intractable problem for AI programmers.  Because you are an intelligent being, you can instinctually engage in it when writing, but unless you are  a rare genius, you are more likely needing to engage in it explicitly.  Really powerful writing comes from knowing exactly what context an event is occurring in in the story and taking advantage of that for emotional impact.

The death of a main character is more moving because you have the context of the emotional investment in that character from the reader.  An unreliable narrator  is a useful tool in a story because the truth is more surprising either  when the character knew it and purposefully didn’t tell the reader, or neither of them knew it, but it was reasonable given the  information both had.  Whereas if the truth is staring the reader in the face but the character is clutching the idiot ball to advance the plot, a readers reaction is less likely to be shock or epiphany and more likely to be “well,duh, you idiot!”

Of course, context can always go a layer deeper.  If there are multiple perspectives in the story, the same situation can lead to a great deal of tension because the reader knows the truth, but also knows there was no way this particular character could.  But you can also fuck that up and be accused of artificially manipulating events for melodrama, like if a simple phone call could have cleared up the misunderstanding but you went to unbelievable lengths to prevent it even though both characters had cell phones and each others’ numbers.

If the only conceivable reason the call didn’t take place was because the author stuck their nose in to prevent it, you haven’t properly used or constructed  the context for the story.  On the other hand, perhaps there was an unavoidable reason one character lost their phone earlier in the story, which had sufficient connection to  other important plot events to be not  just an excuse to avoid the plot-killing phone-call.

The point being that as I said before, the  possible contexts for language or events are infinite.  The secret to good writing  lies in being able to judge which contexts are most relevant and making sure that your story functions reasonably within those contexts.  A really, super-out-of-the-way solution to a problem being ignored is obviously a lot more acceptable than ignoring the one staring you in the face.  Sure your character might be able to send a morse-code warning message by hacking the electrical grid and blinking the power to New York repeatedly.  But I suspect your readers would be more likely to call you out for solving the communication difficulty that way than for not solving it with the characters’ easily  reachable cell phone.

I mention the phone thing because currently, due to rapid technological progress, contexts are shifting far  more rapidly than they did in the past.  Plot structures honed for centuries based on a lack of easy long-range communication are much less serviceable as archetypes now that we have cell phones.  An author who grew up before the age of ubiquitous smart-phones for your seven-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble writing a believable contemporary YA romance than someone who is turning twenty-two in the next three months.  But even then, there’s a lack of context-verified, time-tested plot structures to base such a story on than a similar story set in the 50s.  Just imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would have been if they could have just sent a few quick texts.

In the past, the ability of the characters to communicate at all was a strong driver of plots.  These days, it’s far more likely that trustworthiness of communication will be a central plot point.  In the past, the possible speed of travel dictated the pacing of many events.  That’s  far less of an issue nowadays. More likely, it’s a question of if you missed your flight.  Although…  the increased speed of communication might make some plots more unlikely, but it does counteract to some extent the changes in travel speed.  It might be valuable for your own understanding and ability to manipulate context to look at some works in older settings and some works in newer ones and compare how the authors understanding of context increased or decreased the impact and suspension of disbelief for the story.

Everybody has some context for your 50s love story because they’ve been exposed to past media depicting it.  And a reader is less likely to criticize shoddy contextualizing in when they lack any firm context of their own.   Whereas of course an expert on horses is far more likely to find and be irritated by mistakes in your grooming and saddling scenes than a kid born 16 years ago is to criticize a baby-boomer’s portrayal of the 60s.

I’m going to end this post with a wish for more stories–both SpecFic and YA–more strongly contextualized in the world of the last 15 years.  There’s so little of it, if you’re gonna go by my high standards.

 

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Your Opinion Does Matter: On Privilege and Conversation

I read a very interesting blog post recently.  That post was “I’m Still Here” by over on YA Highway.  Daud makes a lot of good points in this post.  About the issues of using your privilege to take over a discussion, for example.

However, she makes a key point in the post which I have to disagree with.  Particularly: “But here’s the thing: your opinion doesn’t actually matter.”  Please do click the link and read the entire post before you jump to judgement, or even conclusion.  Context is important.

But, even with that context in mind, I don’t agree with this argument.  Your opinion does matter.  What you have to be careful of, though, is that, because of historical issues that Daud explains in depth, the opinion of someone on the privileged side of a privilege debate is often taken more seriously than the opinion of someone on the other side.  That is definitely something that should be avoided if possible.

One of the supporting points Daud makes in her post is the issue of how the same conversation happens over and over again, and how that is evidence of people not listening.  But that’s not an issue of listening, and it’s not specific to discussions of privilege.  Neither side of the debate is a cultural monolith.  New people are constantly entering the conversation on both sides.  Constantly.  The same way they are in any conversation.  They weren’t there the last time.  They may have read the transcripts, if such exist.

But there’s a reason small group discussion is so common in schools.  That’s how people think and learn, by talking it out.  Until we get to the point where diversity is the default, there will always be more people to convince.  So yes, maybe you have just clicked with something that others have been discussing for ages.  That’s not called privilege, or not listening, or over-eagerness.  That’s called being new to the discussion.  Perhaps even relatively new to the planet Earth and life itself.  There’s a common saying in the writing community that every story under the sun has been told and retold a thousand times.  There’s a reason we get that repetition.  I still agree with Daud that new voices, especially privileged ones, should not be engaging in hostile, or even relative peaceful, take-overs of the conversation.  But to say that those new voices don’t count at all?  I can’t go along with that.

The following paragraph, on only talking to the privileged groups who control the structure of, in this case, publishing makes some good points, but I don’t think the transition to that from “your voice doesn’t matter” is quite so smooth as implied by Daud’s post.  That aside, I absolutely agree with the conclusion of the entire post: that rather than children or helpless invalids, minorities in publishing (and all other spheres) should be thought of as equals who are in fact driving the conversation.

Rather than muddying up that discussion, the people who are privileged on this issue should be having their own private rooms for private discussion, always remembering that those are side conversations, and that the real discussion is being arbitrated by the groups who actually have to deal with the unfair treatment, consideration, and lack of representation.  Your voice and your opinion are important, but they should be adding to the discussion, not taking space away from minority and under-privileged voices.  As a privileged person in any discussion, that’s a responsibility you must always keep in mind.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2014 in atsiko, Publishing, YA Fiction

 

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Who Are We Blogging For?

I just finished reading a fantastic post on how the Internet is affecting YA literature.  It was written by the wonderful Hannah Moskowitz over on her blog “Invincible Summer”—which I have only read about two posts on.  And that has clearly been my mistake. 😉

The gist of the post is that we writers, or at least those of us with a significant investment in the authosphere, have moved away from writing for readers, and fallen into the trap of writing for writers.  As someone whose first significant strides in writing came from the poet’s perspective, I can tell you that one of the greatest criticisms I have ever heard about the poetry community is that poetry is no longer written for everyone, but only for other poets, who have the knowledge, background, and exposure to appreciate the currently popular poems.

We do not want this happening to fiction.  We do not want to become a community of people writing only for each other, having lost track of the true purpose of our craft.  It’s all good and well to learn and discuss trends, and clichés, and how “proper” books should  be written.   But we can’t lose site of who we’re writing these books for.

I’m going to ask you now to follow the above link, so that I don’t have to repeat everything Hannah has already so elegantly articulated…

Okay, here goes.  I completely agree with Hannah that the YA writing community has moved in the direction she describes.  It has not completely lost itself, but it hasn’t stayed completely true to its mission either.  And the horrible, terrible, throw up a little in your mouth truth is…  The entire authosphere, the entire online writing community, is falling into this trap.  I see signs of it everywhere.  Writers blog for other writers, sink their valuable writing time into maintaining their status among online peers.

Part of this can be laid at the feet of the aspiring writers who have infiltrated and conquered the author community.  Everywhere, we are encouraged to start blogging, to build platforms, to make connections on Facebook and Twitter, and other blogs.  But we haven’t published anything.  What can we say to readers, who haven’t read us because we’ve given them nothing to read?

And so we build a community amongst ourselves, aimed towards our goals.  We share info, support each other, and work to build up everyone’s careers.  And it’s wonderful!  But it doesn’t really have much to do with our initial reason for joining this community:  to create things for other to enjoy.  Others who do not write, do not know the difference between submitting to an agent or submitting to a publisher, may not be fast friends with every aspiring and published writer on the web.  They do not go to every writing con they can afford, or buy six copies of a book because they want to support their best friend who wrote it.  When we take advice, and suggestions, and encouragement from those just like us, we can easily forget who we’re trying to please. 

Readers matter.  Readers have a voice.  Readers may even use that voice.  In fact, there are innumerable readers taking part in the authosphere as a whole.  But many have neither access to nor interest in the authorial, writerly community with it’s focus on mechanics and mutual support.  They want to hear about new books, win ARCs, make recommendations, and read reviews.  To those of us who are unpublished, these are not relevant to our main goal.  And so we listen more to each other, and less to the readers.  And that’s a dangerous road to take.

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2010 in atsiko, Authors, Blogging, Books, Fans, Writing, YA Fiction

 

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Why I Will SPEAK Up When Someone Says That YA Isn’t “Real” Fiction

If you pay any attention to any literary blogs or newsites at all, you will probably have heard about the “controversy” that’s been raging over Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel SpeakI will not link to any of the other posts on the subject, except these two: Laurie Halse Anderson’s Post and a round-up by the wonderful Sierra Godfrey.  That should be plenty of info for folks still not clued in to understand the situation.  (I only came across is this morning, but that’s because I’m 410 posts behind according to my googlereader.)

Basically, some fellow in Republic, Missouri has tried to get three books banned from the districts curricula, including Speak, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler.  As a citizen of Missouri and a reader, I am extremely upset that this kind of crap still goes down in my home state.  I have only personally read the Vonnegut book, though the other two are now on my enormously long TBR list.  But that’s really irrelevant.  I’m only using this kerfluffle as an example.

I hear all the time that YA isn’t “real” fiction.  YA authors are often looked down upon, seen as inferior, treated as if they “couldn’t hack it” in adult fiction.  After all, they’re only writing for children.

Now, to be fair, it’s not all YA authors–or even necessarily a large majority of them–who have had personal experiences with this.  There’s an enormous amount of positive commentary on the internet.  Many YA authors are extremely popular, and some are even famous.  But I personally–while not being a YA author, or any other kind of author–have many times run across the afore-mentioned prejudice against YA fiction.  People I know, especially many who went straight from MG to AF, have made all sorts of comments on how YA is “fluffy”, or lame, or shallow, or just poorly executed.

Shenanigans.  90% of everything is crap, but there’ still that 10% sticking it out.  And books like Slaughterhouse Five and Speak stick like nothing else.  If you follow the links above, you’ll find an enormous number of writers and readers exlaining how fiction, and especially YA fiction can and has saved lives.  I’ve often been kept above water by the books I read, both in merely depressing and completely unbearable situations.

I’m not a YA reader.  I’m just a general reader.  But I count many YA books among my top favorites, and it isn’t because I read them when I wasn’t capable of understanding real world issues, or because I lacked the maturity to appreciate their irrelevance.  It’s because they were damn good books and still are.

So keep up the fight YA authors, and when shit like this rolls around, remember that you’re not the only voices ready to speak up for your stories.

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2010 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Uncategorized, YA Fiction

 

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