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Kirkus Reviews and Rape Culture

I’m taking a quick break from talking about world-building today to talk about worlds much closer to home.  Specifically, publishing, book reviews, young adult literature, and sexism and rape culture.

 

Kirkus Reviews chose to post a review online of the forthcoming book Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu.  The gave a quick summary of the book, before jumping straight into the second half of the review where they criticized the author for promoting gender separation, vigilante justice, and ignoring the importance of due process.  Followed swiftly by faulting the book for not including a how-to manual of proper procedures for reporting crimes.

Which is not only off-base, but factually incorrect in several instances.

First of all, you are not legally obligated as a regular citizen to report a crime at all, nor are you obligated to speak only to police about criminal activity you may have witnessed or been a victim of.  You can also report crimes anonymously to many federal agencies.  Nor is reporting to school officials illegal or in any way wrong.  They might not have the authority to do anything about the assault but then neither does the justice system always provide a remedy.  Most people are aware that you can and are encouraged to report crimes to the police, and reporting to school administrators or any trusted adult can be and often is the first step in such an official report being filed, should you want to go that route.

 

Second, you have no obligation to include anyone, male or otherwise, in your private organization.  Inclusion of men and/or male allies has often been a thorny issue in regards to feminism and fighting sexism.  Even men who view themselves as feminists/allies can engage in enormously problematic behavior that can result in harm to women who are the victims of sexism or assault.  That’s not to mention the many documented and undocumented cases of false “allies” attempting to exploit or harm women and victims of sexist violence.  There is no wrong in choosing to have an all-female group to work on these issues.  Men can start their own groups if they so choose, or find a co-ed group in which to do their own advocacy.

 

Third, on the subject of anonymous accusations, due process, and vigilante justice there is a great deal more to say.  First of all, an anonymous accusation in a school paper is not an invocation of the justice system.  You have a legal right to due process and to face your accuser in a court of law when a formal complaint is made to the authorities.  Nowhere involved in that right is an informal complaint.  While it’s true that an anonymous accuser might be lying, so might a public accuser.  That doesn’t make the accusation automatically false or unworthy of consideration.  In fact, given the outcomes to public accusations that result in dismissals, acquittals, unfounded complaint notes in police files etc, it is horrifically unjust to demand a victim only even make a public formal statement.  Approximately 18% of rapes are reported to the police, and depending on the scope of the definition of rape/assault anywhere between 14-37% of accusations are actually prosecuted, with 18% of those resulting in conviction.  Just short of 7% of reported rape/assault cases result in a conviction when taking the highest estimates.

As for vigilante justice, one may be surprised to find that the repercussions for a victim whose assailant is not prosecuted, or not convicted, are generally far worse than those who were falsely accused anonymously outside of the legal system.  And chances are far better than even that the accused was in fact guilty.

 

Finally, as YA author Justine Larbalestier elegantly notes: YA novel are not instruction manuals.  They’re stories.  About things that happen.  You want to teach kids the (naive, ignorant, willfully blind) way to react to sexual assault, go be an advocate and teach them yourself.  Don’t tell others what their job is and how to do it.

And you don’t get to dictate other people’s responses to trauma, either.  No, not even if you were traumatized yourself.

Because what the justice system does best of all is silence sexual assault victims.  Because that’s what society wants.  They don’t want to hear about it, think about it, have to deal with it.  That’s why a university threatened to shut down a student’s organization if they kept supporting her in speaking out about her assault.  That’s why often (but not always!) victims are disbelieved, pilloried by their communities and their attackers, belittled, dehumanized, humiliated, called whores and liars and crazy bitches, told they don’t matter, that they didn’t react right.  That it’s their fault for being less than perfect.  Which is exactly the message this review sends to young women.  “Don’t be upset if your rapist goes free because other people’s rights are more important than yours.  For example, the guy you’re accusing.”

 

If you want to be the gatekeeper of proper behavior, get your own house in order before you go throwing stones through someone else’s windows.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2017 in atsiko, Uncategorized

 

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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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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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YA Fiction: Character Age and Target Audience

I was looking through my list of story projects toady, and I noticed that a large majority of my characters are not only younger than I am, but younger than one of my nephews.  I certainly don’t think of these stories as YA or MG, and I don’t really see myself as a YA/MG author.  Of course, I do read/watch a lot of material that falls into those categories, especially with anime/manga, so that might be influencing me quite a bit.

A perennial question among writers, especially younger writers, is how to decide what age category your work falls into—anywhere from preschool picture books to not-safe-for-under-50.  Especially because the lines between age categories get a little thin at the age when many new writers take their first steps.  For argument’s sake, let’s say this thinning begins at about the 13-year-mark.  That’s where many people start reading up into the adult fiction market, especially as regards the major genres.  Of course, plenty of people start earlier or later or not at all, but we’re looking at the average here for the reading public.

There are many great discussions online about this topic.  So many that I’d never be able to link to them all.  Here’s an article in the other direction on where YA starts and MG ends.  And here’s an article that gives broad coverage of many questions surrounding the genre.  I suppose I could cite this article on io9 as a bad interpretation of the genre.  It seems to take a rather negative view, which while it contains some good points, seems a bit too soap-boxy to address the real issues.   This article appears to be a slightly irritated shot taken by an author who felt unnecessarily “corralled” into the YA genre or the adult fiction market by labels.  While I agree with her in spirit, I think she’s taking the wrong approach to the issue of labeling.

Here’s a disturbingly accurate analysis of a major trend in the YA “genre” today.  And a short but sweet statement by Carrie Ryan on the wonder that is YA fiction.  A lovely treatise on “what is YA?” from the Alien Onion.  And some questions about where we draw the lines between “adult” and “child” themes.

You don’t have to read all of those links to understand this post.  I just wanted to give a small sample of the many, many discussions on this topic that are out there.  (For a sense of scale, all of the links above came from the first page of Google.)  I hope you now understand the enormity of the task of defining the line between YA and A(dult)G(enre) fiction.  It would be impossible for me to discuss every aspect of this conversation in one post.  I just want to touch on a few points as they pertain to writing.

First, you might be a bit miffed by my choice of terms here.  “YA” is “young adult”, obviously, but why “adult genre”?  One of the major differences between YA and adult fiction centers on the issue of genre.  YA is usually considered its own “genre”, based mostly on the similarity in themes and characters.  Yet it contains all of the “genres” of adult fiction.  Sort of begs the question, what’s with this genre thing, anyway?  Well, that’s another pretty common topic, and you’ll find ample reading with a quick google search.  Unfortunately, that’s not what this post is about.

I’ve digressed a bit in this post, but I think what I had to say was important background for the real discussion.  The primary question here is, how do you decide how to present your work to agents and publishers?  I mentioned above that I have a great number of stories with young protagonists, and yet I did not set out to write YA or MG fiction, and I don’t really consider them to fit in those categories.  But do they really fit in AG either?  Could an adult reader relate to a twelve-year-old?  I can think of some examples of such books originally published as adult genre fiction.  Ender’s Game by Orson Scott card comes to mind.  Yet when I read the book, it was in middle school, and it was a new printing with a cover and format that seemed geared towards younger readers.

So should I attempt to submit my twelve-year-old to YA agents and publishers or to those who deal in adult fiction?  Well, let me elaborate a little more about the book, although I can’t be too specific.  There’s a cast of characters, mostly under 14 when the first book opens—yes, it may be part of a series).  It’s multi-pov, with at least four young perspective characters and possibly two more—one another child, the other an adult.   There are some very dark themes in this story.  These characters are not Harry Potter, or Lyra Silvertonuge, or Unico.  It’s a semi-medieval fantasy and the world reflects that.  There won’t  be any gratuitous sex, or much foul language.  But anything else can happen, and does.

Do kids/teenagers mean YA/MG?  Not in GRRMs ASOIAF, they don’t.  “Arranged” marriage, teenage pregnancy, rape.  All trials faced by what we would consider young children today.  But my story won’t have that either.  Does that mean it’s safe for YA?  Plenty of YA has worse.  So what about themes?  YA runs the gamut, and so does my story.

And what about character?  Desires, goals, experience?  Many of the articles I linked to pointed to classic “teenage” themes of independence, discovering your place in the world, knowing who are—and failing to achieve those goals.  But are those themes absent in adult literature?  They’re certainly not primary angles in my story.  I’m looking more at betrayal, character change, corruption, war.  Pretty common themes in adult fiction.  Yet again, are they absent in YA?  Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall deals with the question of change, and it is emphatically YA.  Corruption, betrayal?  Plenty of that in YA.

So where do we draw the line?  Themes?  Doesn’t seem like it.  Character age?  Nope, not a chance.  Audience?  Plenty of adults read YA, and plenty of teenagers read AG.  Marketing?  That’s up to your publisher. 

So what about your own goals, you might ask?  What if you want to be a YA author—or not?  Well, that’s up to you.  Personally, I find it a bit limiting to label myself like that.  I don’t have a problem writing for either market.  But I do have stories that more clearly fall in both the YA and AG categories.  So it’s not that simple for me.  Which I think is more of a feature than a bug.  But if it doesn’t apply to you, you might reach a different conclusion.  Just like any other area of writing, there’s more than one right answer to this question.

But you’ve got to have some answer.  Any thoughts?

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2010 in atsiko, Writing

 

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