Monday, March 13, 2006

Reading and the Sexes

The Little Men Who Love Little House by Emily Bazelon includes the subtitle "Why boys like girls books," but it seems to me to be about why they don't.

Bazelon quotes Eden Ross Lipson as saying that boys "...don't set out looking for story and relationship. They set out looking for information." This quote, combined with the anecdotal stories Bazelon tells about boys who like books with diagrams on how to do things, suggests that boys do have different reading interests than girls. Or at least girls like Bazelon, who worries her own sons won't enjoy the "girl" books she favored when she was young.

One of the most interesting things Bazelon has to say involves librarians. "Why then do a lot of boys get turned off from reading sometime in elementary or middle school? The blame partly lies with librarians. They are mostly women, they tend to love stories, and they also have a thing for books that teach moral lessons."


I don't think the fact that little boys like books with pictures and diagrams necessarily means they don't like "stories" or won't want to read them down the line. I think that's being way too simplistic. I think an argument could be made, though, that the whole children's literature and children's publishing world tends to be made up of women and that a lot of them love a particular kind of story and have a thing for books that teach moral lessons. Librarians shouldn't be singled out.

I don't think these people are heavies in the 'boys and reading story,' either. I think they're just publishing and promoting books they themselves like. If they were publishing and promoting adult books for adults that wouldn't be much of a problem. In all likelihood, there would be plenty of adults in the reading audience that would agree with them. Like attracts like, as they say.

But I think that little boys, and for that matter, little girls, are not small adults. Their interests and reading needs are always going to be different from those of the adult women (and sometimes men) who are publishing and promoting what they, themselves, enjoy. You can have the best intentions in the world, but what are the chances of a forty-five year old woman sharing the interests of a ten-year-old boy?

The real reason boys--and many girls--get turned off from reading is this gap between adult and child in book publishing.

While Emily Bazelon was worried about boys and reading, Naomi Wolf is concerned about teenage girls and reading. Her essay in The New York Times called Young Adult Fiction: Wild Things is a scorcher.

She talks about the Gossip Girl, A-List, and Clique series, none of which I've read because I always assumed they were romances, a genre I don't find terribly compelling, anyway. I couldn't even sit through Sleepless in Seattle. I find it particularly difficult to care whether or not teen characters hook up.

As it turns out, though, these books may be about something else--materialism, status, and sex rather than romance. Wolf describes them as having a "value system in which meanness rules, parents check out, conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be meaningful to teenagers." The books, she says, "package corruption with a cute overlay."

With all the sex these books are supposed to contain, it's hard to believe that sluttiness is still a problem. But Wolf says, "Unfortunately for girls, these novels reproduce the dilemma they experience all the time: they are expected to compete with pornography, but can still be labeled sluts."


This is a really well-written essay, by the way. I'm always complaining about essayists who ramble or contradict the argument they're trying to make, so I thought I should mention that. My problem with Naomi Wolf, though, is that over the years she's seemed to be an authority on everything. As a card-carrying feminist I guess she can go to work on any issue that relates to women. But that seems like a very broad field.

Nonetheless, she's convinced me that I should take a look at some of these books. Whether or not I'll be able to read any of them remains to be seen.

Thanks to Big A little a for the link.

And I'm Off

I'm leaving tomorrow for SUNY Cortland where I will be speaking on Wednesday. I'm getting really excited about this, not because I'm looking forward to Wednesday's conference but because I'm looking forward to coming home Wednesday night knowing that I don't have to prepare for any more presentations for a while. I'm not a natural speaker and I've had to put an awful lot of effort into the talks at last month's writers' retreat and this conference on Wednesday.

On Wednesday I'll be giving my presentation four times. That means that if I find out between 9 and 10 in the morning that I'm horrible, I'm going to have to be horrible three more times. And then sit through a book signing that should be pretty grim. And then spend six hours driving home.

But that's only one possibility.

No comments: