Staring down literary criticism's gender bias



In the literary world, the categories of young adult fiction and romance are frequently looked down upon and misunderstood. These attitudes come from both critics and people who haven't even picked up one of these types of books. They are, incidentally, two of my favourite genres to read.

The Hate U Give by Angie ThomasSo where does this dismissal come from? Well, it's no coincidence the genres that are most looked down upon are often written by and for women and girls. In an essay titled 'The Hopeful Romantic' for Kill Your Darlings, Amy T. Matthews writes that when covering romance in her university class for genre fiction, she spends an entire lecture deconstructing what students thought a romance reader looked like. Their initial answer is 'middle-aged, overweight, has too many cats'.

Besides the obvious undertones of misogyny in these perceptions, the truth is all kinds of people read romance. The Australian Romance Readers Association 2017 survey shows that romance readers skew across all ages, with 41.76 per cent of respondents aged 21 to 45. Using Nielson bookscan data, Romance Writers of America estimate that men make up about 18 per cent of romance readers.

Young adult fiction is even more literally typecast, written primarily for teen audiences, despite a large adult readership. Some of the literati snobbery is rooted in how quick we are to dismiss teens' ability to read complexly. Despite the fact that teenagers engage with all types of literature in high school, there's a perception that YA is simplistic, to the point that one Slate article argued adults should be embarrassed to read YA.

But there are also gender dynamics at play here. A common complaint is the supposed feminisation of YA and how it alienates male readers, ignoring the fact that there are many great male YA writers. Not to mention that boys should be encouraged to read outside their own perspective like girls are.

And despite women's innovation in the category (think S. E. Hinton and J. K. Rowling), male authors like J. D. Salinger and John Green are often held up as 'saviours' of the genre, while books with female protagonists by women are given hot pink covers and criticised for being 'sentimental' or 'chick-lit'.

There's a long history in the Western canon of equating maleness with literary value. Even women's literary fiction can't escape the critical blowback of 'Goldfinching', whereby a previously critically acclaimed book that has become commercially popular with women is taken down a peg. In this context, YA and romance are particularly easy targets.


"Easy reading is damn hard writing." — Maya Angelou


But this issue is more than just a bias towards authors and audiences, it's how these books don't conform to what is considered to be serious and masculine writing. The Young Adult writing style tends be more about authentic voice and have less narrative fat. Both YA and romance tackle heavy issues and centre around the emotional development of their protagonists.

Michael Webster, who introduced Nielson bookscan to Australia, says that YA is 'very serious work, accessibly written'. And in the words of Maya Angelou, 'Easy reading is damn hard writing.' YA and romance aren't always interested in pandering to a male gaze, often unapologetically feminine and geared toward female empowerment.

The disdain for feminine writing is summed up best in 'On Pandering' by Claire Vaye Watkins, where she calls her book Battleborn 'a pander', continuing with the line, 'She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.'

I get that it's instinctual to dismiss a book that we don't immediately understand or feel comfortable with, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that it's a good book. Without any qualifications, the best book I read last year was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a YA book written from the perspective of an African American teenage girl. Just because a novel isn't specifically written for your demographic, doesn't make it any less worthy.

Everyone is entitled to their own tastes and there are bad books in every genre, but we do need to rethink our biases. As a culture we are trained to uphold the heterosexual white male narrative as 'neutral'. When hundreds of years of literary canon has primarily been written by men and about men, it will take some rewiring to overcome our initial impressions. But when talking about books, I shouldn't have to feel ashamed of my reading because some people think that it's a bad thing to be youthful and girly.

The positive is that many people already see the value in these books. If you think it's not for you, well, you may be right, but more than a few people I've known who thought that YA or romance wasn't 'for them', actually read a few and were instantly converted. They just needed to take a chance.



Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, young adult fiction, romance, sexism



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Existing comments

Really interesting piece!

Belinda Hawkins | 31 January 2018  

Neve, this is such an important article. Thanks for putting in the effort. Taking notice and drawing attention..two of the most valuable aspects of good literature.

E A (Anne) Gleeson | 31 January 2018  

There is plenty of YA fiction that, at 52, I still dig out and read- mostly obscure stuff like William Corlett and other literature that affected my adolescence. I've always loved S.E.Hinton and J.K.Rowling, and still read the Narnia chronicles and Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series semi-regularly. The snobbery towards the Harry Potter series as childish (admittedly sometimes by women as well, like A.S.Byatt, another favorite author) was dismaying, as if folklore and the fairytale were for children only- for me, good writing and imagery transcends age barriers. I can't speak for Romance literature, except to not that Gothic literature was in it's heyday seen as the novels read by dissolute and silly women, and which people like me now hugely enjoy.

Matthew Cardier | 31 January 2018  

Good YA literature, or indeed good literature of any type, may have many unforseen benefits. I know a young man who for many years was bottom of the class because of dyslexia. Despite that, he possessed a remarkable capacity for lateral thinking. During his assessment for dyslexia he was estimated to have an IQ in the Mensa range. When Harry Potter was all the rage he was distressed at not being able to read of the popular hero. He taught himself to marry the symbols he was seeing on the written page with words, developed his own alphabet and read all of the Jk Rowlings books. He became an avid reader and now has two university degrees with honours. Such is the power of great literature to influence both the individual and community worlds. It is such a pity that in the modern world the vast majority of publishers care only about potential profit from publishing rather than the quality of the literature, reflected in the high rejection rates experienced by all authors. Harry Potter was rejected by five mainline publishers who deliciously missed out on the most successful money earner since The Bible. There are many examples of great literature rejected by publishers notable amongst them Marcus Zusack's The Book Thief and Peter Carey's prize winning True Story of Ned Kelly. Equally, there is a plethora of rubbish published which makes a passing frenzy of money (payment for voyeurism) for the publisher such as the annual Christmas present offerings of the musings of illiterate sportsmen, so-called celebrities and failed public figures. Fortunately, good literature seems to endure despite the lack of professionalism in publishing.

john frawley | 31 January 2018  

Neve, thank you for the important issues you raise. In childhood it is how reading stirs the imagination rather than what is read that is important. I remember getting immersed in reading off the cereal box at breakfast when there was nothing else. More important for YA's where books/media impact on shaping identity and hence important life decisions. Suzanne Marks/1 February 2018

Suzanne Marks | 01 February 2018  

Thanks for this article Neve. I am in my seventies and I read widely, including YA and children's literature. I find this widens my perspectives and also gives me ways of chatting to my grandchildren. I found 'The hate U give' very informative and thought provoking. Our local library is a great source of reading treasures.

Lorna Skilton | 01 February 2018  

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