Tag Archives: Reading

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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Meeting Your Goals for Magic

Meeting Your Goals for Magic

Last time I talked about the purpose of magic in fantasy. I covered wonder/coolness, conflict, and solutions. Now I am going to talk about how magic can be used to meet these goals.

There are two basic types of magic common in fantasy. The “scientific magic system”, and the way Tolkien did it. The latter has fallen into disuse as a pure system, but there are bastard systems significantly influenced by it. First, let’s talk Tolkienian:

Magic that is left mysterious gets top score in one specific category: awe and wonder. We are naturally more impressed by things we don’t understand. Lightning; auroras; that girl down the hall who can play anything on the piano. (Not that I have any particular experience with that last, nope I do not.) Just wow. Well, it’s the same with magic. The less we understand about how it works, the more we are amazed by it. After all, you know stage magicians are fakes, but that doesn’t make the disappearing space shuttle any less awesome, does it? It’s not about the effect; it’s about the cleverness behind it.

Mysterious magic also allows the author to create conflict. Ha! You thought Mr. Protagonist was safe, did you? Too bad you didn’t know that “every magical action has an equal and opposite disproportionately large magical reaction”. Surprise! This is Atsiko’s Third Law of Magic. And it’s also purpose number two. So far, so good.

But the problem with un-explained magic arises when an author uses it to address a story conflict without. As readers, we don’t mind the first kind of surprise. It’s not piling on the pain that we have a problem with, it’s snapping your fingers and making it vanish… as opposed to, you know, actually making the characters work for their victories. This can result in us readers feeling cheated. The author ratcheted up the tension and threw this character into a difficult spot. We didn’t know how the character was going to get out of it. Great, we love that. We want to discover how the character gets out of it. But if the answer is just to throw magic at the problem—magic you didn’t tell us about, or even hint that the character could apply to this situation—that big balloon of tension and suspense is immediately deflated. It wasn’t the character that solved the problem, it was the author. This is called “deus ex machina”, a Greek term which means “the author is a lazy ass”.

The excitement that comes from stage magic in our world revolves around the magician doing something they shouldn’t be able to do, even though we know there’s a logical reason behind it. It’s supposed to make no sense. The fun is in making sense of it. But in fantasy, where real world rules don’t always apply, we don’t know there’s a logical reason behind it, and we won’t be able to make logical sense out of it—unless the author helps us. There’s more likely an arbitrary reason behind it, anyway: author fiat. Using fantasy magic doesn’t require an author to be clever–only autocratic.  But it helps if they are.

In the real world, there are rules and the world never deviates from them, even if we don’t know what they are. The system runs itself, and it can’t cop out when things aren’t going its way. But in a fantasy world, the author runs the system, and they can cheat whenever they want. In order for us to suspend disbelief as readers, we have to be convinced that the author is following her own rules, and the best way to do this is to establish them early, and have everything follow them. If the author wants to do something the current rules don’t allow, they must set up the proper conditions beforehand. Either they explain the new rule and how it fits into the old system before using it, or we feel like they pulled a fast one.

And thus we come to the “scientific” magic system. What it lacks in awe and wonder, it makes up for in suspension of disbelief. It does this by mimicking a facet of real-world “science”: logical consistency. In the case of magic, I will refer to this as the Principle of Non-Retroactive Consistency. That is: “no new rule may invalidate an old solution, or (and this is the important one) invalidate an old conflict. That’s the secret of maintaining suspension of disbelief in us readers. If a new power could have been used to greater effect during a previous conflict and was not, then it is clear to us that the either the author withheld this rule to create more tension, or else has now found themselves in a corner that they are too lazy to think through or incapable of getting out of using their old rules. In the first case, they artificially created tension and suspense to make a scene more exciting. This is not nice. It tricks readers, and we do not like that. In the second case, they artificially extricated the hero from an unwinnable situation so that the story could continue. This is not nice. It’s a way to avoid good plotting, and we do not like that, either. One way or the other our suspension of disbelief is broken. Bad author! No royalties for you! Word of mouth shall bury your book. (And that could ruin your career. As an author, you don’t get to make that sort of mistake—not if you want to keep writing under your current name, anyway.)

So what system is best for you? We have established that magic can be divided into two categories. Here’s a condensed description of both:

1. Magical— This form of magic is usually not practiced by the heroes. The author does not explain its rules, except in very general terms, and its pros and cons are not revealed. Most useful for providing a sense of wonder and awe. It is not used to get a character out of a tough spot. Rather, it is more likely to create conflict than resolve it. Or else it balances solution with creation. The real solution comes from the characters’ other strengths. Like courage, or compassion. You know, the things that make them a hero.

2. Scientific— This magic is generally explained in detail. The rules especially are known, and it has a clearly defined set of limits and costs. Most useful for direct application to plot conflicts, and is most often wielded by one or more of the protagonists and their allies. It can be used to create and resolve conflict, because it does not deceive the reader with a false sense of tension. But it is not awe-inspiring. Usually. magic systems can fall anywhere in between these two extremes, and a balance is generally best for what most authors want to accomplish. It’s like distributing stat points. You’ve got to make compromises. You can’t be both a powerful wizard and a powerful warrior… Or can you? (See below.)

Next time, I will examine in detail how magic can be used to create and/or resolve conflict. That entry will be slightly more snarky, however. Many authors have screwed this part up. Beware: Names will be Named.

Secret bonus snark: Remember that Law I mentioned in the last post? As a special bonus, I will explain it–and a few other nifty gewgaws.


Posted by on October 16, 2009 in atsiko, Fantasy/Sci-fi, How To, Ideas, Magic


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