Monday, August 22, 2011

What's in it for the Boys?

Amanda Hocking wrote about an article she read on the NY Times Sunday Book Review about boys and their reading habits that I found interesting. Basically, what the article said is that the numbers of boys who read is because current YA books "...lack the tough, edgy story lines that allow boys a private place to reflect on the inner fears of failure and humiliation they try so hard to brush over. Editors who ask writers of books for boys to include girl characters — for commercial reasons — further blunt the edges."

While the article did mention some specific books targeting boys, I think the problem is simpler and more basic. Boys do read, but the boys who read books early in life are usually the boys whose time is not consumed by sports or a lot of outside activities. With all the schoolwork and extra curricular activities and sports, who has time to read for pleasure? There are only so many hours in a day.

I do agree, however, that the reading landscape is much different now than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1970s, and has become more constricted because of the fear of upsetting parents and creating yet another war over what books should and should not be allowed. The classics are safe and time-tested and edgier current novels less so. Boys began reading children's books about explorers and then moved on to adult males like Heinlein, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Nowadays, boys move from children's books, if they read at all, and are flummoxed at the length and breadth of adult and YA literature due to the predominantly female protagonists -- or maybe not. Could it be that boys and men are lying about what the read for fear of being thought gay?

I know many men and young men who read a lot. None of them are or have been overly involved in sports (that time thing again, only 24 hours in a day). They do enjoy gaming, which tends to be a more active pursuit than sitting quietly in a chair and reading, but they do not care much for the novelization of their favorite games, most of which read like gaming manuals. In cases like that, it's better to play than read. The men I know read across a wide swath of literature, from nonfiction to science fiction, fantasy (mostly vampire and werewolf fiction), and a few into the verges of romance and mainstream fiction. They like Grisham and Palahniuk as much as Rowling and Meyer. My brother, who has always been a voracious reader, sticks pretty close to science fiction and fantasy (IT professional) and enjoys Anne McCaffrey and Piers Anthony. For him, it's the writing and characters and not whether they are male or female.

For what it's worth, the literary landscape, in my estimation, has become as narrow as the minds of principals and schoolboard members. Women writers used to write male protagonists as believably as their female counterparts and there was no gender bias either way. While there are still some good writers able to cross gender lines with their protagonists, and quite a few emerging that write gender neutral and gay stories for readers of all ages, the choices are limited unless you know where to look, and care about looking at all.

When all is said and done, the real numbers about whether or not boys and men are reading and what they are reading are skewed. Not everyone likes to talk about what they're reading or that, like my nephews, they are reading Stephanie Meyers and Charlaine Harris and Kim Harrison, among other paranormal writers, where the protagonists are female and the emphasis is on romance and sex. I suspect it has always been that way. Then again, my nephews were never big on sports and neither was my brother. An active life in sports takes up time with preparing and training for the game, playing the game, and dissecting and talking about the game after it's over, none of which leaves much time for reading.

It all comes down to time and whether or not there is enough time for reading. I'd like to see a study with that as the focus instead of whether or not the fiction is available for boys to read and not feel as though they are being stereotyped.

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