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"'girl' books that are so good, even boys might like them"
kateelliott
I stumbled across Australian author Michelle Cooper's blog Memoranda. Reading reviews in the Australian-based YA review journal Viewpoint, Cooper examines a review, written by a male reviewer, about India Dark, a novel written by author Kirsty Murray:

Here's a quote from the review:

“. . . astute English teachers will recognize that, despite the female narrators, this is a book that will appeal strongly to the boys in the class . . .”

To which she responds (among other things - do read the post):

"I just don’t see why the gender of the characters is only an issue when the characters are female. Teachers don’t often say, ‘I can’t give this book to my co-ed class – the narrator is a boy!’"

None of this is new, I know. People have been discussing this issue forever. And yet still, it does not go away.

I've been puzzling over a recent review at sffworld.com by Mark Yon. Not the overall review, which is positive-with-reservations and is, I think, a fair and thoughtful review that treats the material with respect.

Just over the first sentence.

"The cynical amongst you will recognise many aspects of Kate Ellliott’s new series – strong heroine, rite of passage events, quest for knowledge and so on."

Now, I think it is an absolutely fair cop to point out repeating thematic elements in an author’s novels. Sometimes writers know they’re doing it; sometimes they don’t; sometimes they have an axe to grind; sometimes it just worked out that way. But nevertheless, if the same story elements keep popping up, I think readers/reviewers should totally flag them if they feel inclined to do so or think such notice adds insight into examining individual stories as well as bodies of work.

But cynicism over it having a strong heroine?

Is this a cynicism equally displayed with strong heroes?

Would anyone start a review by saying "The cynical amongst you will recognise many aspects of [insert male writer]’s new series – strong hero, rite of passage events, quest for knowledge and so on." ?

Then I think that, yes, they would, if that was considered a thematic element. "Male Writer's heroes are always wise-cracking swordsmen who get the best of their opponents."

Are female narrators in and of themselves a thematic element?

[ETA: Mark Yon clarifies his remark in the comments below; as Michelle Sagara West, in another comment below had already suggested, it was meant . . . oh, just go read the comments; he says it better than I do, and it seems I misinterpreted the intent here, so my bad.]



Michael Neate in his review of Cold Magic bravely tackles the question of female narrators for male readers head on. "I thought perhaps a 28 year old male just isn’t meant to connect with a young, female voice."

Fortunately(!), he decides he is wrong (he liked the book and the voice). He goes on to write another post about making an effort to diversify his reading in which he asks himself, among other things, "Am I really that narrow-minded?"

This process of self-examination is one I go through myself, although not usually on this particular axis, and I think that asking the question goes a long way toward opening up the horizon of seeing voice as human rather than gendered (or along some other intersectional axis).

In fact, I ran into Michelle Cooper's post because she quotes also from a review of Cold Magic in that same journal in which the reviewer posits that Cold Magic "is intrinsically a girls' book."

To which she responds: "You’d think boys and girls belonged to completely different species, reading this."

I absolutely freaking loved COLD MAGIC and as a romance-heavy reader (and romance writer), I did not see it as a 'girl' book. I hate that a lot of people automatically assume "female protag = girl book".

Girls can't have adventures too? Girls can't save the day? We're only allowed to have "girl adventures" and any girl that saves the day is a Mary Sue?

Blah.

I mostly just wanted to post here and say that I loved COLD MAGIC and if that is a girl book, then I embrace my girl-cooties with abandon.

You are obviously awesome. Girl-cooties and all.

A strong heroine does not make it a "girl book" whatever that is. There are clearly books that have a primary female readership (I can't get into the novels of Janet Evanovich, my wife loves them), and romance novels bore me past tears. There are equally novels that are liable to be opaque to women and appeal primarily to male readers, Kipling's Kim is, I think, a good example of this. I don't think the sex of the protagonist has much to do with it. I really enjoyed both Jay Lake's Green and Cold Magic both of which had strong female protagonists.

There are plenty of people who think boys should be a different species than girls. They don't want their boys "infected" by female characteristics, and horrors, books that show girls as strong and smart might make boys want to be weak and stupid. Or something. Heaven only knows how their minds work. :-)

I think it is getting less pronounced than when I was a girl and there really weren't any girl-having-adventure books, but then this kind of stuff crops up and I think we still have a long way to go. However, this is true on many fronts.

I think it is narrow-minded and a little insulting to think that a female hero cannot connect with male readers. It's insulting to the male readers, actually.

I recently read Black Blade Blues, and loved it. And the first person that I recommended it to is a man. Now, granted, he's a big fantasy reader, but I didn't even consider that the heroine is female-- my friend loves all things Nordic, and as such, I knew he'd love that book. It's like it was written to tweak all his happy points: strong hero, magical Norse sword, Norse gods, Valkyrie...

It didn't occur to me to say "oh, by the way, friend it's a strong female hero. Are you ok with that?"

Honestly, it never would. I recommended Cold Magic to a couple of friends. I never said "oh, and the main character is female, too." I just said "ZOMG, new kateelliott, and it's amazing and you have to read it!"

(I will admit that the fact that the MC's name is Cat is actually a selling point for me. But that's ME. ;D)

Edited at 2010-11-03 02:24 am (UTC)

I like Michael Neate's post on this a lot because he actually explores the issue with himself as subject.

The Viewpoint reviews seem simply to assume that that is how it is and must be -- and, yes, it is insulting to male readers as well as indicative of cultural markers of gender importance.

With the epic fantasy reviewers on a larger basis I suspect some unexamined assumptions, but perhaps that is changing.


As for YOU: You have my hugest thanks. Recs are the best.

I agree! It's funny that we'll stick ourselves in worlds with magic, or high science easily, yet some of us don't want to cross genders, isn't it?

And you're very welcome! I really loved it! I admit to a bias, since I have passionately loved everything I've read by you, but this world is unique and fascinating in addition to the great main character. I think every fantasy fan should read it. :)

OMG, you had me at "valkyrie". Off to order! Thanks for mentioning this!

As you know, I was a girl in the Dark Ages (1950s), and I read "boys' books" a lot, particularly Heinlein's juveniles. I never heard anyone say "you shouldn't be reading those. They're for boys."

But I wonder what would have happened if a boy had tried to check out "Cherry Ames" or the ghastly "Marcy" books that were pushed at girl readers back then?

(Deleted comment)
You're forgetting "The Bobbsey Twins" and Nancy Whatshername.

Would anyone start a review by saying "The cynical amongst you will recognise many aspects of [insert male writer]’s new series – strong hero, rite of passage events, quest for knowledge and so on." ?

They would start a review that said: "The cynical amongst you... - orphaned farm boy, rite of passage events, etc."

I've certainly seen that or variations of that in the past. And I absolutely know readers who avoid it like the plague at this point in their somewhat more jaundiced fantasy reading.

Not that this in any way detracts from some of your points.

But... I also did want to say that there are a number of women who won't read books where the protagonist is not female, at least in the store; most of the them are younger readers, but not all.

Not sure orphaned farm boy is equivalent to strong heroine, though. Which is why I made the point about wise-cracking swordsman.

Orphaned farm boy == orphaned farm boy protagonist. The gender in this case is basically irrelevant to the orphaning and farming identifiers.

(I will ignore the fact that with the exception of Jaran #1, and Cold Magic obviously, all my other books are multi 3rd pov with as many male as female povs).

Urban fantasy and paranormal do seem to have majority female pov, and are, as we know, exceptionally successful within what seems to be a predominantly female readership.

agree with Msagara

(Anonymous)

2010-11-03 05:34 am (UTC)

I agree with you, but orphaned boy is kind of to overly used to lump it into the same context. Its more on par with amnesia.

Although throwing in an orphaned farm girl does sound more of an apealing twist then it should in my mind.

-rehcra

Re: agree with Msagara (Anonymous) Expand

girl' books, even boys might like them

(Anonymous)

2010-11-03 05:29 am (UTC)

To me this question doesn't really need a deep philosophical answer. How can it surprise anyone that women are more perceptive of others points of view? More readily able to experience and understand a male perspective then men are able to appreciate a female's.

In my experience girls are expected to like books with girl leads more then ones with boy leads also; just more girls enjoy reading in general so their excepted/expected reading is wider.

-rehcra

Re: girl' books, even boys might like them

kateelliott

2010-11-03 05:42 am (UTC)

An argument is often made that in a patriarchal society females "have to" understand a male perspective while males don't necessarily need the opposite. I've heard that argument, anyway.

When I was young, it was assumed from my reading experience that I would be willing to/not mind identifying with a male character. Often, my choice was to do that, or not read.

The ways to keep women's writing down just keep on rolling, sadly. There are reviewers who equate 'strong female' with 'Mary-Sue' and trash without reading, reviewers who are still scared of girl cooties, and reviewers whose base line is still 'pretty good for a girl'.

From Buffy the Vampire Slayer

paulshandy

2010-11-05 12:57 am (UTC)

Giles: Emily Dickinsen was a pretty good poet for an, ahem...
Buffy: A woman?
Giles: For an American.

I had the good fortune of a father whose policy was to let me read anything I felt like. If I could understand the words, I was ready for it. Thus I can enjoy reading just about any writer who is also reaching out to me.

I think the reason most of my favorite women writers are deceased (Jane Austen, etc) or writing dark action heroines (Lane Robins, Lyn Benedict, etc) is because while emotions are on the table, modern sex and sexual politics feels to be at a safe remove. Then again, I really admire the imagination of Jeanette Winterson's "Written on the Body" which very much concerns sex but the main character is not named nor given a gender so the character has to be taken on individual grounds instead of sexual preconceptions.

It might be telling that I didn't enjoy Erica Jong's early work, but I did enjoy what she wrote when she was middle-aged, because I was middle-aged, too, and felt I was reading about mutually shared doubts and concerns.

Re: From Buffy the Vampire Slayer

kateelliott

2010-11-10 03:14 am (UTC)

"Written on the Body" is a book I do need to read sometime.


Hello all: hi Kate.

Hadn't noticed this one before today, so apologies for my tardy response.

I'll try and explain where that point came from, as it seems to be being developed in ways that were unanticipated when it was first written.

It was in no way deliberately meant to be a criticism of Kate directly, nor one criticising heroines either.

The point was based on a number of discussions at SFFWorld and elsewhere about character tropes in Fantasy. It had been noticed that we were getting and reading lots of strong heroine characters in Fantasy at the moment, to the point where some were noticing lots of feisty females in currently popular books.

Off the top of my head, let's go for Gail Carriger’s Alexia Tarabotti in her Parasol Protectorate series, Kristin Cashore’s Katsa in Graceling, even Karen Miller’s anti-heroine of sorts, Hekat in her Empress series. There are lots of others that we could mention, not to mention the slew of Urban Fantasy heroines from Anita Blake to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse.

I’m also old enough to know that there is a long history of strong heroines going back half a decade and more, but the point I was clearly trying to make (and obviously did so badly!) was that as we have had in the past (and still do!) trends with masses of series with strong heroes, we are getting lots of novels at the moment with strong heroines. I was not saying or implying that that was a bad thing, so apologies if you got that idea.

To my mind the cynicism applies just as equally to male or female characters, though perhaps what I was intending to say was that with this pattern of female characters at the moment, there are some who would be deterred from reading the book at first glance.

However I do know of some of our cynical readers, who noticing this pattern and the common tropes therein, might dismiss Cold Magic as a book which is just like other similar books – or worse, like the simplified and generalised cookie-cutter character that exists in some books (male and female!)

And Cold Magic is not one of those books.

Furthermore, I certainly don’t think that ‘it’s a girl’s book’. To my mind, readers should enjoy a book, as I do, regardless of gender. If it helps, I never really think about such things when reading and reviewing. I try to concentrate on whether I like the book or not, and whether others would do the same.

I think the issue of gender in the genre is one which seems to create rather emotional responses if not treated carefully. I hope that people reading my comments don’t misinterpret what I was trying to say. Apologies again if people think I was on a mission there or was guilty of some sort of a secret agenda.

Mark


Thank you for chiming in, Mark.

I want to specifically note that Michelle Sagara West in the comments above pointed out that there was another way to interpret your remark -- the way you clearly intended it -- which I confess I had missed completely, so obviously I was taking it too personally. Oops.

I appreciate your clarification, and I'll ETA the post to point out this comment so that anyone reading can know that it was my misinterpretation.

By the way, thanks for the review. I try not to thank reviewers because it feels odd, like stalking, but now that you're here: thanks anyway!

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