Books are for Girls?
Dearly Beloved YOU GUYS:
In my hometown there was a genre bookseller named Future Fantasy. Small store, off the beaten path, beside a coin collector and a funky, old taquería. When I finally learned how to read at thirteen, I used watch their author signing schedule and bike my fantasy paperbacks over to get signed by the likes of Robert Jordan, Ray Feist, Tad Williams, and Robin Hobb. The booksellers, noticing what I read, would point me toward other books. Recently I had cause to think back to who was attending those signings. Certainly there were “adults” (anyone over eighteen), but there were also a fair number of people my age, specifically a fair number of boys my age.
I’ve been thinking about this because at the past few reading events I’ve given I haven’t noticed _any_ young men. True, I have read at schools and visited an 8th grade boys’ book club (organized by a mom and resulted in playing stickball in the backyard with the author, which, I have to say, was rad). However, in my experience if I don’t go out of my way to find younger male readers, I will not see them. That might be a function of what I write (but I hope not), or function of being yet a smaller fish in the SFF pond. But when I recently began asking around about young men reading I was struck by a wave of pessimism.
Let’s embed a watchable example of what I perceive to be the prevailing attitude. The video below is an illustrated lecture of Phil Zimbardo, famous psych guru who ran the “Stanford Prison Experiment” back in the day. Much of the lecture focuses on the label’s Zimbardo applies to psychological orientation within time. The slice pertinent to this blog starts around 5:40 and continues to about 7:11.
I’m not a fan of Zimbardo’s reasoning. Casting whole cultures into time-centered labels based on metrics such as “speed walked in a cafeteria” or “what people complain about” seems arbitrary and anecdotal, without proof of causation. I have the same complaint of Zimbardo’s fear of video games as the destruction of boys. He has data (kinda) illustrating that boys play a lot of it, but he has no proof that it is related to the dropout rates. Many generations have declared that the next generation of men is growing up spoiled by the luxuries of the day: before the internet, it was TV; before TV, it was comic books; before comics it was pool halls or jazz music or dance halls or whatever. There always has been and will be hedonistic temptations to have fun. It hasn’t ended civilization yet.
What has struck me is the perceived division in how boys and girls want to be entertained. Namely that henceforth boys will play video games and girls will read. I don’t know if this is true; however, I am quite sure that we have allowed for the establishment of a marketing system that _tries_ to make it true.
Witness the overwhelming male orientation of the video game industry. Blizzard’s recent “Real ID Snafu” is a good example. Witness also “booth babes.” And here’s a bit of evidence that you can find by yourself. Google the phrase “video games girls.” The first hit I got took me to a website entitled “GameGirl” the leading post of which read “Game Over” and explained how the site had gone defunct. The second hit lead to a website entitled “Hottest Girls in Games” with the sub-heading “These girls are some of the hottest digital vixens we’ve ever seen.” Not. So. Classy.
What about the other side of the pool: boys and books? Things are better, I think. Google “books for boys” and there are plenty of admirable websites like booksforboys.com and guysread.com and guyslitwire.com (this last pointed out to me by the witty Steven Berman). And yet these sites also express pessimism about the publishing industry’s stance toward boys. To quote Colleen Mondor on guyslitwire.com:
“There seems to be a perception that boys don’t read as much as girls, especially teenage boys. As the YA Columnist for Bookslut it has been especially clear to me that whether or not boys want to read more, finding books for boys is not so easy. There are so many more books targeted toward female readers than male that it is really quite amazing – and also very disturbing.”
When I asked a group of friends in the publishing industry about young men reading, I got an interesting response: boys are willing to spend money on games, girls on books. This is one of the modern explanations for why the world is as it is: the market made it so. And I have no doubt that it is true that boys spend more cash on games, girls on paperbacks. But should we let this be so? We’ve created an entire industry, the marketing industry, that sets about creating markets. And boys certainly will read: witness Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Ender’s Game, etc. Though the Twilight books might be at the current apex of the books-in-the-public-consciousness world, there’s no reason why the next set of books couldn’t appeal to boys or to both genders.
So, Dearly Beloved YOU GUYS, what do you think about all this? Am I getting my boxers in a bunch for no good reason? Are video games really the undoing of boys? Should we be trying harder to get books in boy’s hands?