Men & YA

I think it’s safe to say that most writers of YA are female. I’m not exactly sure why this is. Maybe it has something to do with that age group being ripe for things like first love and self-discovery which are experienced through the kind of heightened emotion spurred by puberty. Maybe women are just more comfortable or more interested in exploring themes that are more emotional?

I hate to speculate because nothing is that black and white. But there is a very obvious feminine tilt to YA, although more and more men are starting to enter the fold. I recently came across a book on Goodreads that was YA, magical realism (which is the genre I’m currently exploring with book 4), and written by a man. The premise sounded intriguing and I’m always a fan of a male narrator, especially one that feels authentic. And what’s more authentic than an actual man writing for a male character?

But then I scrolled down and read the reviews. The very negative, zealous, disgusted reviews. These readers didn’t just hate the book. They were insulted. Oh and pissed. Really pissed. A lot of the reviews started off by mentioning the male author and how that was initially a draw for them. Something that had been a draw for me too. But after reading negative review after negative review—readers mocking the dialogue, cringing at the author’s every attempt to convey emotion, spitting on the characters for being sexist and anti-feminist, and calling for an all-out witch hunt on the author himself—it became very clear that what was initially seen as a strength in the author being male, was really the downfall of the book. And I’m not sure if that’s fair.

I understand where the readers are coming from. Their number one complaint was the characters. They considered the male narrator to be sexist, pretentious, shallow, and overall just unlikable. The female characters as a collective represented to them the kind of anti-feminist, over-sexualized fantasy that is every man’s wet dream. And it felt contrived. They didn’t feel like the author had really made an attempt to write an emotional, honest story and instead took the opportunity to create some kind of idealized reality in which he could live out his own fantasy.

Maybe they’re right. I can’t say because I haven’t read the book. But what if there’s something else going on here. What if it’s not about the author being some disgusting prick at all? What if it’s about the category of YA itself and the expectations female readers have for it?

I hate to say this, but when crafting a male narrator, or even just a male lead, not every one of us female writers get it right. It’s hard writing from a POV so intrinsically opposite to our own in so many ways. But, honestly, it seems like hitting the mark isn’t even the most important thing to readers. From reading those reviews I’d have to say the most important thing to readers is respect. And characters who they feel degrade and objectify women—especially when packaged as romance with a cover featuring two people kissing—makes them feel betrayed.

But after reading some of the lines and dialogue quoted directly from the book I have to wonder—what if the narrator’s voice is more authentic than we want to admit? Sure some things he and his friends said weren’t very respectful to women but if you’ve been around teenage boys for any length of time you know they say some pretty crude things. Especially when talking about the opposite sex. So maybe he wasn’t an ideal romantic interest. But I’ve read unlikable narrators before and still managed to find at least one redeeming quality that allowed me to root for them.

My concern is that what if the female idealized version of the modern man has ruined our ability to appreciate the authentic male voice. Not the perfect male voice, but an authentic one—which exists on an extremely wide spectrum as not all men are the same.

And just to clarify, this is not me defending something that may really be disrespectful. This is me questioning whether or not we can make room for more male writers in YA and if we can be open-minded when they put out a product that may not follow that idealized model of men and romantic relationships that has been perpetuated by females already writing in the category.

So as I’m working on my own YA novel, I’m now thinking more about genre conventions and what sort of expectations readers will have of my book if I label it YA and I’m wondering how much of it is based on gender and if for the sake of equality that’s really fair to the writer. What exactly makes a good story? Is it an authentic voice? Is it catering to reader’s expectations? And where does this leave male writers of YA who deserve to be able to craft a male lead in their own vision? Maybe this book, during this time, just didn’t work. But I hope that readers will still be open to male leads that are less idealistic and who may have more faults than the average hero because I think there’s a lot to be gained from diversifying the category.

Male writers of YA, do you feel pressured to adhere to certain conventions when you label a story as YA, especially if it contains a hint of romance? Female readers and writers, is there room for a less idealized version of men in YA? And where do we draw the line between what we consider offensive and what we consider art? What are your thoughts?

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16 thoughts on “Men & YA

  1. vevacha says:

    As a dude who is currently working on a book that will most likely end up categorised as YA if I ever get a publisher to take it on, I most definitely feel the pressure of not adhering to certain conventions – for instance, my story doesn’t have a romantic sub-plot that directly involves the main character, let alone one of the love-triangles that seem to run rampant in YA, both of which seem to be pretty big conventions of the genre, and I am certainly worried that this could be a turn-off for readers, or, indeed, for publishers.

    What I’m also worried about, though, is being a man and writing a (very internal) female protagonist, as well as a primarily female supporting cast; I’m somebody who will jump down the throat of a male author who does what the guy you’re talking about is being accused of doing, because it really frustrates me when I come across it, and I’m terrified of making the same mistake myself. The only YA book written by a man that had female characters in it who felt believable I ever read was Dinoverse (the first one, never read the others). And that was at least partly because the author’s wife was a child psychologist, to whom the author attributes a lot of the book’s development.

    I think that a lot of the reason for why male authors in general don’t seem to be able to write convincing and respectful female characters is simply due to a lack of perspective; it’s not always that male writers have no interest in writing female characters unless they are some sort of wish-fulfillment expression of their fantasies about women, but they may simply not know how to do anything else. And this also has the effect of there not being a lot of established male writers that aspiring and, particularly, young male writers can look to for examples of how to both be a male writer and write authentic female characters, which is certainly something that impacted me growing up.

    • You’re exactly right. Both male and female authors attempting to write from the POV of the opposite sex aren’t always going to get it right, and they will never satisfy everyone with their portrayal of the gender but that shouldn’t keep us from trying. I think the same thing goes for people writing about prisoners of war when they’ve never been to battle, or people writing from the POV of a lawyer when they never went to law school. It’s fiction and there are certain liberties that come with that. The truth is we can write about whatever we want, which is why I completely defend any author’s right to write the story they want to write. I don’t think male authors writing in YA or any authors writing in any genre should feel like they have to alter the essence or intention of their novel in order to adhere to certain conventions invented and perpetuated by the traditional publishing system. All of the rules they created are null and void as far as I’m concerned. I’m hoping with this new, more liberal system that gives readers more power, we’ll start to see some of these stereotypes and expectations wane a little, allowing more authors–male and female alike–to start writing in genres they might not have felt comfortable exploring before. It’s unfortunate how readers reacted to the book I mentioned in my post but I’m still not convinced that’s the norm. Because I would hope that any book written with honest intent and great respect for its readers would be acknowledged for at least accomplishing that much even if readers didn’t particularly like the male romantic lead.

  2. eojsmada says:

    Interesting. I know that there are definitely exceptions to this, but I would definitely be curious to see if male readers of YA think that female authors don’t portray male characters in the same way. I wonder if this is simply a matter of perspective or not.

    • vevacha says:

      I’ve only read the first few chapters, but Ethan from Beautiful Creatures had the kind of character voice I would expect a female YA protagonist to have rather than that of a teenage (cisgender) boy, and that was quite jarring. On the flipside, I remember Jacob Black coming across as a pretty authentic teenage boy, albeit an authentic stalker who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

      • I read Beautiful Creatures almost three years ago but I still remember exactly what you’re talking about. Probably one of the things that kept me from continuing the series and yet so many young female readers love those books. So many of them love that character. That’s what my concern was with this book that got such awful reviews. I couldn’t tell if readers hated it because the male lead was unlikable or if maybe an ounce of their dislike of it was due to him not following the typical conventions of a male lead in YA novels. I read some of the excerpts of dialogue readers particularly hated. Some of the male characters used some derogatory terms and while readers were right, that doesn’t make someone good boyfriend material, can we argue that it’s not authentic for some teenage boys? That’s what my concern was–what’s more important? Perfection or Authenticity? Or should we be trying to strike a balance between both? That’s probably closer to the truth.

    • It’s definitely all about perspective. I’m not a guy but I’ve definitely noticed how unfair the expectations of perfection are for male leads in YA–especially those written by women. Females authors are just as guilty of living out their romantic fantasies in fiction as the male writer I mentioned in my post was accused of. And you’re right. There are always exceptions and I definitely don’t think this situation is the norm. It just really surprised me how passionate readers were about tearing down this particular book and it made me wonder what the real cause of their frustration was.

      • eojsmada says:

        Indeed. It surprised me as well. I have really started to notice a real sense of “love it or hate it” infiltrating the the book industry. An overwhelming polarizing spirit, if you will, that doesn’t allow for someone’s viewpoint to have a level of acceptability, but instead relegates everything to being simply really good or really poor.

        I am seeing it more and more in book reviews, and I wonder if this is because of the socio-political problems of the world and people dragging those “ideals” into thse types of things.

  3. Fredrik Kayser says:

    Whener I’ve tried writing with a YA audience in mind I’ve felt extremely pressured to perform. “Not the perfect male voice, but an authentic one—which exists on an extremely wide spectrum as not all men are the same.” Thank you! This is very true I reckon. It’s not easy knowing how to write a lead fromt he pov of the opposing sex, whether you’re male or female. But it is a lot of fun.
    Generally there are the stereotypes but at the end of the day it’s individual. Personally I find the physical and stereotypical aspecs of romance lacklustre if there isn’t any emotional connection. The trick i think comes in how you bring forth that connection. It’s like action movies versus romantic commedies. In the action movie the guy says “There’s something I’ve got to do” and ditches his male comrades and goes back to “save the girl” just as in a romantic commedy one of them goes back to the other. What I’m getting at is that it isn’t so much the content that’s different in terms of what we’re interested in but rather how that content is presented. : )

    • Exactly. Personally, that’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to writing dual POV–it’s just fun. It’s a huge challenge and that’s what makes it interesting. And I know exactly what you mean about physical expectations in YA. I really hate describing the way my characters look, especially from the POV of someone who’s attracted to them. To me it’s not important. Because like you said, it’s about the individual. When I write a male character, I’m not trying to capture some kind of universal male essence, I’m trying to capture this particular character in this particular moment. Which makes me think, does gender even really matter in fiction? So a particular male lead feels a little too feminine. Maybe that’s not because the author was a woman maybe that’s because that’s his character. Unfortunately right now I think a lot of readers equate the “ideal” male lead with perfection when really we should equate “ideal” with authentic, in whatever form that may be.

      • vevacha says:

        I wonder if maybe that was part of the reason Ethan from Beautiful Creatures seemed a little off? Perhaps it was intentional after all! :p

  4. indytony says:

    My take-away from this post is the YA genre definitely needs more “sexist, pretentious, shallow, and overall just unlikable” male authors.

    Where do I sign up?

    • HAHAH!! Then you and the author I mentioned can enjoy being chased around cyberspace with pixelated torches and pitch forks. I’m not exactly sure what the YA genre needs. More diversity, definitely, but from the way readers reacted to the book I saw on Goodreads, any authors wanting to explore male leads who disrespect women but still get the girl in the end, should obviously tread lightly.

      • indytony says:

        “Hah”, he snorts. Danger is my middle name. Actually, my middle name is the letter “E”, but I’m thinking of changing it to “Extreme Danger”.

  5. The Far King says:

    As a man, YA has never been a genre I have considered writing in or really enjoy reading. I don’t think I would know how to!
    My publisher writes YA and is very good at it, but it has almost no appeal for me.
    Takes all sorts, I guess.

    • I don’t think this attitude is that out of the ordinary. Which is why the male writers who do choose to write YA should be considered fairly brave when you take into account how passionate readers are about the category and the expectations they have for it. Apparently there’s not a whole lot of room for error especially when teenage romance is involved.

      • The Far King says:

        It is strange that YA is such a – apparently- narrowly focused genre, yet an author such as Terry Pratchett appeals to all age groups and even his so-called childrens books have a huge following among adults.

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