le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

teenage boys

I have never been a teenage boy. I do not regret this, but it does mean my own empirical evidence for male adolescence is fairly limited. I'm dependent on second-hand, after-the-fact anecdotal evidence from males of my acquaintance, evidence of the kind that would never stand up in a court of law.

There's a common belief out there that Boys Don't Read. I know this is bunk. Yet! When it comes to YA fiction, I'm becoming more and more concerned that perhaps, in fact, teenage boys don't read YA lit.

The question arose last fall, in Representing Adolescence, and it stumped me: What do adolescent boys actually read? Which books?

When I was in high school, the guys of my acquaintance (if they read at all) were into Tom Clancy and Stephen King and Michael Crichton. Maybe James Patterson, maybe Thomas Harris. Maybe the early, errant John Grisham. One or two standouts read Robert Jordan (in particular, a boy I sat next to in AP European history, who somehow managed to read Robert Jordan almost every day in class yet still pay attention, respond to the teacher, and get staggeringly high grades on tests. In that nerdy way I had and have, I was smitten).
These seem, still, to be the go-to books for teenage boys; at least, at the bookstore where I worked from 2008-2010, Patterson, King, Clancy were still in high demand. The only YA titles I remember any male readers asking for - aside from ones assigned for school reading - were Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak.

So what ARE teenage boys reading? Or, more accurately, what YA books are they reading? Or, more to the point: Where are the really good YA books for YA boys?

Because of my own interests, I know some of the titles and authors that gay teenage boys read; those tend to deal with LGBTQ issues, which - alas for our culture of compulsory heterosexuality/homophobia - are not likely to be picked up by straight teenage boys.

There's something really girly about a lot of YA fiction that's out there, even the good stuff. I try, whenever I can, to resist gender normativity and all that, but the fact is: the publishing world thinks in terms of male/female, and they go all out for the girls in the YA department. All those miserable supernatural romances, all those fancypants girls with scads of money serials, all those books about friends and trauma and first loves and music - all have a girl-oriented feel to them. It may be just in packaging - Natalie Standiford's mind-bendingly great How to Say Goodbye in Robot, while narrated by a female, is not an overly girly book. Yet some jackass decided to give it a vivid bubblegum pink dustjacket, thus dooming it to a life of female-only readership.

The teenage-culture world seems to skew heavily female, in ways that strike me as troubling. There are junior-girl versions of lots of things; magazines make this most vividly clear. You have Teen Vogue and People, Seventeen, and that host of tweenybopper magazines (Tiger Beat, Teen Beat, etc). But there's no comparable set of junior versions of magazines for teenage boys; there's no Teen GQ, no Teen Esquire. The concerns and interests of adolescent boys are imagined to be identical to the concerns and interests of adult men. How can this be?

It used to be that girlhood and womanhood were collapsed into each other (and in many ways, still are), while boyhood (short pants! living in the nursery!) and manhood were two distinct things. Now there's a "training" stage for girls as they grow up into adult women, a phase of life when clothes, makeup and boys are all the rage (as reflected by the teen-girl magazines). This is distinct from women's periodicals mainly by the absence of home decor and organization from the teen mags; women's magazines are mainly concerned with clothes, makeup, Your Man, and your home.  Teenage girls get juniors magazines, junior clothes, junior makeup, even training bras (training for what? it's not like training wheels on a bike, or training a plant to grow in a certain way - is the "training" just a weak effort at desexualizing fairly young girls' foundation garments?). But there are not similar "training" things for teenage boys. Why? Is the teenage boy meant to be read, meant to be, identical to the adult male?

There are heaps of great books with male protagonists; M.T. Anderson's excellent Feed and Octavian Nothing books; Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy; Frank Portman's King Dork; K.L. Going's King of the Screwups and Fat Kid Rules the World.  But it is not at all clear to me that teenage boys are reading them unless forced to by a teacher. 

Among my undergrads, when I ask what the (sadly few) boys in the class read as adolescents, mostly they say - Clancy, King, Patterson.  A few read fantasy: Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman. In the YA world, only two authors get mentioned: one boy was passionate about Neil Shusterman, and several had read and enjoyed John Green's books.

So what's going on here? Where is the abundance of good YA books for guys? Where are the YA guys to read those books? Why is YA somehow the province of teenage girls?


kris said...

I wonder if part of why there is less print culture explicitly targeted at young male adults is because society as a whole is less concerned with guiding them into adulthood, believing that the transition from childhood to adulthood for young men is less fraught than that for young women. (I'm not saying I agree, just that this might explain some of the differences.)

This doesn't explain the myriad of supernatural romance fiction aimed at girls, of course. But it may explain the lack of magazines for teen boys.

Certainly if we look backward to late nineteenth-century girls' magazines, there is a history of guidance (in terms of reading, dress, education, charity, home duties, physical exercise, and so on).

Stephanie said...

For what it is worth, my 14 year old son enjoys reading a lot (especially using audio books). We homeschool and I enjoy kid lit, so that might affect things.

He especially enjoys fantasy such as the Ranger's Apprentice series and Lord of the Rings. Rick Riordan is a big hit (especially his new Red Pyramid series). Currently I am reading the Beka Cooper series to both boys (14 and 11 - they have also listend to and enjoyed Tamora Pierce's other Tortall books). Hunger Games. Flora Segunda books. Garth Nix (especially Keys to the Kingdom). Definitely Terry Pratchett. Diana Wynne Jones.

Not sure if all those are technically YA but they are what he enjoys reading. I do a lot of suggesting (because I love sharing good books) and he is pretty open to reading most things. We always have a book going in the car (currently listening to The Looking Glass Wars).

I wonder if it is more a matter of not having as many opportunities to find a mentor who can suggest good books? School reading tends to focus more on what is in the curriculum and at that age you would probably have to be fairly proactive at searching someone out to give you suggestions. Teens have a lot competing for their time.