Too Many Ladies On the Dance Floor? I Don’t Think So

Young adult, we’ve been recently informed, is a ‘female dominated’ genre. Evidently it’s mostly women authors writing in the genre, and teen girls reading in the genre, and there’s much speculation about why this might be, perhaps most notably in this piece at The Atlantic, which got a lot of attention when it came out in August. The author, I note, suggests that YA isn’t plagued by the ‘gender wars’ of adult fiction, where it’s predominantly men who are recognised and celebrated as authors, while women are shoved to the sidelines.

As though young adult authors aren’t influenced by this, or aren’t active in fighting for gender equality.

Sure, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Stephenie Meyer are huge. So are John Green, David Levithan, and Scott Westerfeld; not on the same scale, to be sure, but they have very dedicated followings and I doubt any of these men feel ‘dominated’ by women authors in young adult, nor do they feel like they’re getting a short shrift or need to fight women for attention and fame. They’ve spent time and energy writing books, interacting with fans, and building up a base of strong followers (myself included!) who eagerly look forward to their next publications.

It’s interesting to see women cast as ‘dominant’ when they’re succeeding in a field, given the overtones that go with that word. It creates the mental image of female authors rampaging over the landscape, taking no prisoners in their thirst for literary, well, domination. And this belief, that YA is a women’s game and the purview of women, also reveals some interesting underlying attitudes about both YA and women. I for one welcome our new female overlords, but apparently I’m in the minority.

Outsiders often describe YA as childlike and simplistic, with more basic plots, language, and characters than adult fiction. Some use this to prop up an argument that we are going downhill, literarily speaking; the rise in popularity of YA is supposed to be evidence that people are losing critical reading skills and can’t handle complex books. Yet, some YA is extremely complex and well-crafted—just as some adult fiction is very simplistic and poorly crafted. Sweeping statements about genre are rarely accurate, especially when you’re talking about such a huge and diverse genre.

With the assumption that YA is less-than comes the automatic belief that of course it would be a woman’s genre. Men certainly don’t have time to muck about with simple fairytales for children. Men write complex, deep, interesting, literary books, unlike women, who are apparently inherently childlike and nostalgic for days gone past. It’s implied, even, that women find YA easier because it’s softer, easier, gentler, and thus must appeal to their nurturing selves.

The disdain for YA and YA readers is palpable and frustrating, and with the perceived dominance of the genre by women, I’d argue that at least some of that disdain is coming from misogyny. What I’m hearing is ‘this genre (in which women are very well-represented) is read primarily by women and teens, and is therefore lesser than other genres.’ Readers of YA are assumed to be simplistic and incapable of grasping more complex plots and literary devices, and they’re looked upon with disdain or pity; ‘well, at least they’re reading something.’

It’s an insult to both readers and writers of YA to say that the genre is inherently less worthy than adult literary fiction. And the fact that so many women are active in the genre is not, to my eye, a coincidence. Like romance, in which women also play a very active role, YA is treated like the lesser plaything, not even worthy of being considered true literature. Women may have carved themselves a niche in an industry notoriously ruled and controlled by men, but their very niche is automatically devalued because there are women in it, which makes for a terrible doublebind.

Notable that women authors throughout history have been treated as lesser-than, and that their works and the genres they’re assigned to are also thought as not quite up to snuff. The palpable disdain for women trying anything and succeeding at it is so tiring, and it’s frustrating that any time an industry starts to experience more advances for women, people start writing it down. There was a time when writers like Steinbeck and London wrote books intended for young readers and those books were loved and taken seriously; now that men who weren’t literary giants in the world of adult fiction first aren’t dominating YA, suddenly it’s less worthy?

And why can’t YA authors be literary giants in their own right? Is it because they’re writing for a ‘lesser’ genre, as people would have us believe? Or is it because some of the biggest and strongest sellers in YA right now are women, and thus their work isn’t considered on the same footing as that produced by men? Why isn’t Frannie Billingsley more widely celebrated for her rich, textural, intense books that weave plotting, narrative, and beautiful structure together? Why don’t we see Lauren DeStefano’s Chemical Garden Trilogy analysed and widely discussed both for its use of language and for its commentary on modern society? For that matter, why is Nick Hornby celebrated as a quirky, fun, movie-adaptation-worthy, respected adult novelist while John Green is still very much put in a box because he writes for young adults?