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?