This weekend I took my 11yo and 15yo sons to @YALC. Actually, that’s not really true. My sons took me to Comic Con and in between forking out a small fortune for Dragon Ball-Z figures and watching them play ‘retro’ arcade games I managed to persuade them to accompany me to @YALC on the second floor every now and then.
I write YA. I read YA. Some of my best twitter buddies and heroes are YA authors, so @YALC is perfect for me. A room full of YA books, friends and writers – what’s not to like? In the post-conference wave of love and euphoria, it seems churlish to focus on a negative but the reaction of my 15-year-old son to the conference kept me awake last night like a piece of Scrooge’s badly-digested cheese.
First, let me establish my son’s credentials. He read The Hobbit aged six and by the time he was seven my bedtime reading skills were redundant as he worked his way through the Harry Potter series. As he grew older, he became the literary equivalent of the Hungry Caterpillar consuming at least three novels a week. He read his first ‘YA’ novel aged ten (Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman), read all of John Green’s novels when he was twelve and last year polished off the entire Game of Thrones series in a single summer.
But then he stopped. At first, I thought it was just a GoT book hang over. George R Martin is a tough act to follow. I bought him other fantasy books but they languished unfinished by his bed. He did have some success with Stephen King but then homework and mock GCSE’s kicked in, leaving little time or inclination for reading. I read that this was common: that the pressure of school work makes once prolific readers fall off the book wagon in their mid-teens but that they generally rediscover their love of reading in their early twenties. Maybe like the hungry caterpillar he had consumed too much and needed some time in his cocoon before emerging as a literary butterfly.
I think I was secretly hoping that @YALC would entice him back into YA books. With so much of his life taken up with friends, school, sport, sport and sport, books were the one thing we had in common. But within minutes of entering the second floor where @YALC was held I could feel his hackles rising. We circled the venue searching for people I knew and books to buy. Or at least I did. My oldest son grew tense, prickly and moody. ‘Can we go now?’ is all he kept saying.
After a bad-tempered exchange and some flippant remarks on both sides, we eventually had a calmer discussion over lunch. Initially dismissive of his criticisms of my beloved YA community, I was struck by one observation he made. ‘YA is not a genre,’ he said. ‘It is a marketing category. The key thing the readers have in common isn’t their age but the fact that they are all women.’
What my 15-year-old-son saw when he visited @YALC was a room full of young girls and middle-aged women like his mum selling, buying and talking about books. What he didn’t see was himself. I argued with him (as I often do) that he shouldn’t let that bother him, that he should just care about the books. But the books, he argued, are all about women too. Look at the covers, the titles, the lead characters. It is all about love triangles and endless internal monologues. Why aren’t they selling more fantasy books, he asked, gesturing to the (mostly male) fantasy community around us. Why aren’t they trying to get any of these (boys) upstairs? Then he dismissed his own question and returned to his food with the damning fact that ‘none of my friends read, anyway Mum. None.’
I am not saying my son is right (that’s my job, after all). But he has made me think. I worry, as I often do, about his concept of masculinity, about whether he has absorbed the subtle culture of misogyny that makes men dismissive of female dominated activities. I worry that he lacks the confidence to follow his own interests regardless of what his friends think and fret that my 11yo son (currently oblivious to gender) will soon follow the same sheep-trodden path. I worry that I expect too much of him, who at fifteen is desperately trying to understand what it means to be a man and negotiate a path towards it.
I am sure there are lots of great books out there for young men that I simply haven’t found yet. And I am sure there were other young men at @YALC who had a great time. But still. His comments have stuck with me as the truth often does. I am currently writing a YA thriller and although I am trying to make it appeal to both sexes (and my 15-year-old son claims to like it), it has a female protagonist and star-crossed lovers and I suspect if it ever finds readers they too will be women. As the mother of two sons who worries about the (lack of) boys reading, I sometimes think I should write a book that would appeal to them. But I can only write the stories I want to read.
And perhaps therein lies the problem. The majority of YA authors are women. The majority of our agents, publishers and booksellers are women, so we get excited about the same kind of books. Is it any wonder then that the majority of our readers are women too? Are we in danger of creating a self-perpetuating echo chamber where we only speak to ourselves? I have not touched on other equally important aspects of diversity as others are more qualified to comment but these thoughts apply across the board.
This post is not a criticism of YA literature in general or @YALC in particular. It was a fantastic weekend and the people who worked so hard to make it happen have given so many people so much pleasure. YA literature is one of the most exciting and vibrant categories of fiction today. It is more than a genre: it is a community. But a healthy community questions and challenges itself. A healthy community looks at not just whom it includes but whom it (unintentionally) excludes and whether there is more that we can and should do to welcome others.
For once, I am not pretending to have all of the answers. But I think my fifteen-year-old son was right to ask these questions.