Arguing that boys can read stories about girls ignores a different problem – that men and men’s voices are being raised and appreciated, even among the plethora of lady leads in young adult literature, and there are plenty of characters of the same gender for boys to relate to. Hale noted that, the week one of her books hit the New York Times bestsellers list, that men outnumbered women on each of the lists, with at least 4 more men on each list than women.
What happens when the YALSA list of best fiction for young adults is broken down by gender binary? Even though nearly 50% of books nominated featured female leads, and over 70% featured female authors, the top ten list featured 50% male authors and 80% stories told through a male character’s perspective.
The preference for male voices, even when women are writing, holds up across other studies of the statistics. Though women authors consistently were higher represented on the overall ‘best of’ lists of the year, Jensen found that the representation in main characters was almost always split evenly between male main characters and female main characters for books published between 2011 and 2014.
“Despite having more female authors on the “best of” lists, the difference in male voices in the books against female voices in the books remains not hugely different [over the years],” wrote Jensen. “There are plenty of books featuring male main characters and they’re earning recognition.”
Though librarian Whitney Winn refused to speculate in her original post, she did wonder: “when there are many excellent books with female protagonists and written by women, it’s worth thinking about why the male-centered and male-written stories rise to the top.”
It’s not the first time Winn looked at YA books by gender. In 2010, she looked at gender in young adult literature of books published in 2009 and found 70% of women wrote YA, with 54% of YA books featuring female protagonists (though, of those female protagonists, 90% of them were written by women).
“It’s pretty clear that the majority of the well-regarded books from 2009 were written by women and feature a female point-of-view,” wrote Winn. “While this is great for women and providing role models for teen girls, it does raise a few issues. One is that it excludes boys and the male perspective. Yes, this is a problem with YA literature, and we need continue to support the strong books that do get published and get them into the hands of readers.”
Yet based on her number crunching in 2016, it doesn’t matter how many women’s voices, either character or author, are published – the ones that get the most attention, that are deemed the best, still focus on the voices of boys and men. And this holds up across the years.
In 2012, The Atlantic asked: why do female authors dominate young-adult fiction? Writer Meghan Lewitt based the question on NPR’s list of 100 Best-Ever Teen novels, where 63% of the list featured women authors. She called the slight prevalence of women authors on the list something that would be considered “a minor miracle in some other genres,” noting that “you’d have to scroll all the way to number 20 on last summer’s Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy list to find a woman’s name.”
Lewitt’s article itself wasn’t particularly problematic – it applauded the surge of women authors, noting the dismal representation of women across other genres and literary categories, and encouraged readers to read YA – but the title of the article raised eyebrows. After all, women weren’t “dominating” – there were simply a handful more women than there were men: 59 female authors and 44 male ones.
“If the numbers were reversed, we would perhaps say appreciatively that the list was close to being gender balanced,” wrote the Lady Business team in their breakdown of YA award winners by gender from 2010 to 2012. “We expect to find male dominance everywhere – anything else is an unusual occurrence, and as such it stands out. And this affects how we view the world far more than we realise.”
They, too, found that while women authors surpassed men in writing YA books nominated for awards (56% to 42%, with 2% of books co-written), it was books with male or dual protagonists (49% and 15%) that dominated award lists. (Their full list breaks down each individual award and offers a further behind-the-scenes look at the statistics.)
Jennifer Lynn Barnes noted that more men than women were featured in Time magazine’s Best Of lists from 1996 – 2012, though those lists aren’t specifically YA, in “Author gender, null results, & examining privilege” as part of her response to whether John Green’s popularity had to do with his gender.
And just this year, the longlist for the National Book Awards showcase novels that featured men’s stories over women’s stories, regardless of who writes the story. While six of the authors are ladies, only three of the titles feature women characters as protagonists, with even less featuring relationships (friendship, familial or romantic) between female characters.
In an opinion piece for the School Library Journal, Kelly Jensen wondered if we honor girl’s stories the same way we do boy’s stories. The statistics show no – that, when forced to choose, we follow what society has ingrained in us and favor the stories about boys.
But we also – as in the case with Scott Bergstrom’s The Cruelty, the book that sold for six-figures to Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends imprint; or perhaps when it comes to John Green, whose success with The Fault in Our Stars caused him to become the face of YA in the media – award men higher praise for writing women.
“But when men write girls—any kind of girls,” wrote Jensen, “they’re seen as special. As empathetic. As doing new, creative, amazing things.”
YA might be a girls’ world, but at the end of the day, it is men who are more frequently rewarded for writing in it – and women who are left to fight that what they’re writing is worth something.