“Women built this castle”: An in-depth look at sexism in YA.

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On March 8, Vice published an article by their writer Hugh Ryan entitled “The Failure of Male Societies: Author Andrew Smith Tackles Monsters and Sex.” In and of itself, this article wasn’t anything spectacular; it was a short interview with an award-winning YA novelist, not designed to cause a splash or launch an online campaign.

However, in Ryan’s opening to the article, he commented that “female characters are Smith’s real Achilles heel: he doesn’t have many of them and they tend toward the stereotypical.” He then asked Smith about the lack of female characters in his books, which include Grasshopper Jungle and The Alex Crow. “I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all,” replied Smith. “I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.”

Smith then went on to talk about how his newest novel The Alex Crow was about the failure of male societies.

And so the YA community took advantage of these comments to do what it does best, when its not reading – it began to talk about what it had read. Twitter exploded with commentary on Smith’s quote. Responses ranged from Sarah McCarry’s hilarious snark and thoughtful blog post, to actual earnest conversation about the internalized sexism in Smith’s remarks. Tessa Gratton wrote a blog post that would be cited, quoted and complained about – depending on the person talking – throughout the rest of the campaign.

“I was shocked, primarily, by the negative response,” said Gratton when I asked her about her experience via email, though she expanded on it in a blog post on her Tumblr. “I had been naïve enough to believe the vast majority of the people in my community agreed with me about what sexism is and that Smith’s comments reflected that sexism. I gave the online world too much credit. To be honest, I thought my post would go out, get some agreeing feedback, if I was lucky spark a brief conversation, and then like everything women say about sexism, fade into ephemeral space of internet-yesterdays.”

While nobody denied the institutional sexism in young adult literature or the world in general – an issue that has been discussed in a variety of other places, including the website Ravishly and Tor’s UK division – they played semantics as to what it meant while others came to Smith’s defense, proud that he was acknowledging a fault and hoping to see him do better.

As the conversation continued to unfold, the YA community began to divide. Some called for those critiquing Smith’s words to be nicer, using the hashtag #KeepYAKind – a spin on #KeepYAWeird, the name of the tour currently affiliated with Smith’s books. They called out those most open about their critiques of Smith’s words, said that they didn’t want to see an author being attacked and bullied, and that it wasn’t fair to Smith, who admitted that he was “trying to be better.”

“Bypassing women altogether in [the review]process is nothing new, but it’s nothing to applaud,” wrote author Sarah McCarry in “Faking Nice in the Blogosphere: Women and Book Reviews” for Huffington Post. “Book bloggers and reviewers- female book bloggers and reviewers especially – often seem to subscribe to a kind of cultlike apologism, in which they feel the need to defend the author as a person even if they are temerarious enough to be displeased by her book.”

When I first posted about the incident on March 26th, I pointed out that I had not seen a single explicit attack on Smith’s character, only a critique of his words. I invited any links with explicit attacks on him to be sent to me. None have. I still have not seen an attack on him, though he explicitly attacked bloggers who critiqued his words and blocked authors who asked questions about what he’d said. Smith also answered a Tweet from a fan about his new book The Alex Crow. “And there are some great GIRL CHARACTERS in this book,” he Tweeted, before adding the hashtags #SomePeopleAreFools and #IHaveWritten10NovelsAssholesGetALife.

Screencap courtesy of Kelly Jensen's Tumblr.

Screencap courtesy of Kelly Jensen’s Tumblr.

Author Kate Messner responded, and Smith apologized for his words and deleted the Tweet. He added, however, that while Messner’s point was a valid one, “I don’t believe words can be kind or unkind, they are vessels filled with the intent of the speaker.”​ Smith then blocked Messner.

Smith continued to deny that his Tweet had been aimed at the women critiquing him earlier in the month in a Twitter conversation with Clinton Kabler.

clinton kabler andrew smith screencap
But the majority of those critiquing Smith’s words were women. When Publisher’s Weekly’s article on Bergstrom’s six-figure deal went online, the majority of those critiquing Bergstrom’s words were – again – women.

A day after the Publisher’s Weekly article on Bergstrom went up, and a day after critiques of his words began, author Barry Lyga wrote a blog post simply entitled “Morally Complicated YA” – both a quote from Bergstrom and a reference to the hashtag that blogger Kayla Whaley had begun the night before, where those in the community were sharing recommendations of YA books that pushed moral boundaries.

“In publishing, you can be a dick and people will shrug it off, but if you’re a successful dick, people hate you,” wrote Lyga, adding later, “I could spend the day bashing Bergstrom (whom I’ve never met and who is probably a very nice, very talented guy), or I could do something productive.”

Lyga, like many, saw the critique of Bergstrom as bashing, choosing to believe that he was a “very nice” guy, despite his dismissal of the category of literature Lyga also writes in. Others on social media dismissed those critiquing Bergstrom’s words and writing as jealousy.

Bashing implies that the comments on Bergstom were unwarranted. After all, Lyga writes, “Who knows what else Bergstrom said that PW chose not to include?”

But publishing in an industry that values words. Words have meaning, choices, shape the narrative.

Bergstrom chose a narrative that raised his own book by putting down others in the women-dominated industry, of making his leading lady different by having her conform to patriarchal ideas of beauty and behavior. Smith chose a narrative that made him the victim despite admittance of his own faults, chose words that attacked others rather than admit his own mistakes.

But because of who the critique stemmed from – because of what the critique focused on – those critiquing weren’t seen as simply critiquing the words presented to them or sharing an opinion. They were seen as irrational. Angry. Overreacting. Unnecessarily jealous.

Because they were women, defending themselves, defending their rights, defending other women.

As Brenna Clarke Gray wrote in her post about leaving Goodreads on Book Riot in March, “The bookternet should be a place where we can talk openly about representations of women in literature, about the unbearable whiteness of publishing, about the need to read diversely. And we should be able to do it, as women, without fearing gendered attacks and silencing. When I say the bookternet is not safe for women, I mean it.”

Or as Sarah Hollowell wrote about the backlash to speaking out about Andrew Smith in March, “I watched as women who did speak up were torn down, spammed, threatened. I watched as they were told to just sit down and shut up because he just messed up, you can’t criticize him for messing up, we have to protect our own, and our own means this white male writer, but not the women he found too mystifying to write, not the women being targeted.

Or, as Maureen Eichner Tweeted after the Bergstrom announcement, “Men defending each other is admirable. Women defending each other is bashing.”

But what about boys who read? Click through to page 5.

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About Author

Nicole Brinkley

Nicole is the editor of YA Interrobang. She has short hair and loves dragons. The rest changes without notice. Follow her on Twitter at @nebrinkley or Tumblr at nebrinkley. Like her work? Leave her a tip.

37 Comments

  1. Shalee Coleman on

    LOVE THIS.

    So tired of my interests being trashed due to my identity, when the moment I choose to pass on a cultural phenomenon because I am not really interested in reading yet another story about a shy white boy who gets the girl, I am somehow being discriminatory…

  2. “If you are only reading straight able-bodied cisgender white women, you are contributing to larger problems of ableism and homophobia and racism that still exist in YA and, as I’ve mentioned, are too prevalent and numerous and complicated for me to include in this piece without turning it into a full-length book instead of a novella-length article.”

    Can we please get an article about this, though? Soon?

  3. This feels SO timely. Just this weekend, I listened to a white, male YA author who has been roundly praised by the industry, talking about his upcoming novel that clearly owes a huge debt to a recent novel by a woman. Will he be asked to acknowledge that debt? We’ll see. (I did point out one specific similarity, and he swiftly explained it away, so…)

  4. A superb article – excellent points throughout. At the same time as I was reading this, I was taking part in a Twitter discussion about women writers and the work of Octavia Butler. Now, everyone has gaps in their reading history and Octavia Butler is one of my gaps, I just haven’t read her work yet. But it occurred to me that while there’s plenty of male writers from her same generation that I also haven’t read, I’ve been more broadly exposed to those male writers being mentioned in articles, reviews, etc over the years, while Butler, despite being a giant in the field, has been less prominently featured in the sci fi and gaming mags I grew up with. Beyond the problems in the publishing field directly, there is the hinterland of the magazines and blogs that surround out, and the problem of a lack of recognition for the work of women often extends to there. Thank you for the article – lots of things to think about. And as for Bergstrom coming in and shooting down a whole genre? First time I heard of that convinced me I would never bother picking up a book of his.

  5. The deliberate sexism in YA mirrors the bigger crisis with the suppression and erasure of people of colors voices in literature. I’d also love to see an article on “contributing to the larger problems of ableism and homophobia and racism that still exist in YA.” More than that, I’d like to see tangible steps towards a solution.

  6. This is such a great read. I’m getting ready for teaching a class about editing YA books and this is PERFECT for the discussion! I’ll print this and hand it out to the class. Thanks and congrats, Nicole!

  7. One in four women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape.

    This mother of all factoids is based on a fallacious feminist study commissioned by Ms. magazine. The researcher, Mary Koss, hand-picked by hard-line feminist Gloria Steinem, acknowledges that 73 percent of the young women she counted as rape victims were not aware they had been raped. Forty-three percent of them were dating their “attacker” again.

    I am all for the cause of feminism. Please let us use real facts instead of quoting hyperbole. It is the only way we can make real change.

    • Dude, this is the only thing you have to say about this article? Seizing on a chance to tout false rape reports? Really? Slow your roll and read the article again and maybe don’t use alarming phrases like “hard-line” and “hand-picked” and “fallacious” with feminist when you’re trying to convince us you’re all for it. Please, take several seats.

  8. Wonderful comprehensive (with the noted limitations) piece. It never ceases to amaze me how ubiquitous the phenomena of belittling YA is. It seems to pop up somewhere at least once a month. And too often female (and often marginalized) voices bear the brunt.

  9. Great article. Thank you for taking the time to put this all together. I’ve been guilty of pushing books on my 11 year old son, but you’ve opened my eyes. Why can’t he read books about girls? They won’t diminish his masculinity. If anything, they’ll make him more compassionate and empathetic.

    • My 14 yr old son loves Tamora Pierce books, Diana Wynne Jones books, Patricia C. wrede books, lots of older fantasy. He also loves Lois McMaster Bujold books and I have Elizabeth Moon queued up for him next, when he comes up for air out of the Vorkosigan Saga (Bujold.)

      He cares if the book is a good *story*. The rest is window dressing. I recommend Howl’s Moving Castle as a nice gateway. Or Alanna. Enjoy!

  10. Amazing article! Thank you for your thorough research and thought-provoking words. And thank you for ending with concrete things that people can do to change the situation, to bring about some justice in this field. I would also add that readers should learn about and support the work of small presses, which are often the ones at the forefront publishing women authors of color, women authors with disabilities, and LGBTQIA authors. And check out the roundtables of We Need Diverse Books, which explore #ownvoices perspectives. I hosted one for authors with disabilities, and six out of seven are women with the one man a genuine ally.

  11. Seriously? A post about sexism in YA fiction and the publishing industry brings on a rant about supermarket distribution centre gender breakdowns? And how feminists are frauds and wage gaps don’t exist?

    As a previous poster suggested, please also take several seats.

  12. There is no way to edit my previous post but the commenter I was responding to has been modded out.

  13. This is a wonderful, much-needed article. I’d also add, as someone who has worked for a long time with YA authors and loves YA, that we need to make sure the debate encourages writers from diverse backgrounds rather than making them feel publishing is a white monolith of heterosexual ladies and they have no chance of success. There is a real hunger within publishing for good writing from many different voices and perspectives, at long last, but editors cannot publish books they never see, or that weren’t written in the first place. White men tend not to get discouraged by rejection; they get angry. They self-publish. They self-promote. They demand and expect respect. Maybe we all need to think more like white men.

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  17. *slow clap* I absolutely loved this article. There were so many good points made here. When I have more free time, I need to read the hyperlinked articles that were mentioned.

  18. Wow, interesting article that has given me lots to think about. In my own personal experience (I’m a white, 20-something female living in a mostly-conservative, mostly-white area, and I’ve taught middle school for three years), the issues talked about on page 5 of this article were super-relevant to me. Very few of my friends, family, or acquaintances knows or cares who is on the bestseller list this week or what some author they’ve never heard of said on Twitter. But there is a very clear assumption that books about girls are for girls, while books about boys are for everyone. In my teacher education classes in college, this was presented as a fact, not something that we should or could change. I remember reading Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy” when I was younger and thinking, “My younger brother would love this,” but I hesitated to recommend it to him because I knew my mom (who is an elementary school teacher) wouldn’t like my brother reading a “girl book” – she’d think it was weird. I can’t remember a time when I saw one of my male middle school students reading a book with a female protagonist besides “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent” – books with those nice, gender-neutral covers. And as an English teacher, we had so little class time to teach any literature that there was no discussion among the teachers about reading literature with diverse protagonists. (But the topic of literature and public education is a whole other can of worms.)

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  20. This is a fantastic article.

    You know what warms my jaded heart? That The Cruelty seems to have flopped HARD. Turns out that readers are smarter than you think and don’t like being condescended to and put down by someone who knows almost nothing about the genre.

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  22. What a wonderful article! I’m so excited to see such in-depth research and writing on a subject very near and dear to my heart. I hope this becomes an article series, because I would love to see more on intersectionality in YA!!

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