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YA Authors and the Gender Gap

August 9, 2012 by Kiersi

This week, Meghan Lewit, a NY-based writer/editor, wrote an article for The Atlantic called “Why Do Female Authors Dominate Young Adult Fiction?

It’s a great question–and one that she doesn’t even get close to answering.

Lewit prattles on ad nauseum about why certain YA titles (same old, same old–The Hunger Games, TwilightHarry Potter) have obtained huge, almost cult followings in both youth and adult audiences. YA appeals to our desire for escapism, by specifically avoiding “being literary” and instead aiming for sheer enjoyment on the part of the reader; it harkens back to a time in our own youth; it gives us heroes and heroines with which we can easily identify.

But none of those regurgitated responses answer the question as to why young adult authors are overwhelmingly female. The article points out that it’s unusual for women to dominate any literary market–male authors categorically overwhelm publisher catalogs and best-seller lists. And yet, why is it that the young adult market in particular attracts female authors?

Because Lewit just has to toss around blockbuster titles like Twilight and Harry Potter, I decided to break down the question around those two series. What do Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling have in common?

Both were young or new moms at the time the book was conceived. Instantly my mind jumped to a further conclusion: Perhaps it is the very nature of being female that leads more women to be young adult authors? Though the statistics are gradually changing, women are still staying home and raising children more often than men; they are watching their children develop, reading them stories, and gauging what piques their interest. Logically, it makes sense to me that moms might write stories for their children, especially when said offspring reach the teen years and start to pull away from academic pursuits like reading.

Twitter weighed in, and I think some of the answers I received there are even more causally compelling. @austenw suggested that many YA books are, essentially, romance novels for teens. And what other literary market do women authors dominate? Romance. Makes sense to me, considering books like Twilight, like Matched, like The Selection. Many of them are indeed tales of heart and woe, tailored to a younger audience.

Then again, this answer doesn’t explain runaway success stories like The Hunger Games, which is far more of a thriller/action/adventure story than a romance–though the romance is a significant piece of the jigsaw puzzle. These authors aren’t just tapping into a good romance story. They’re tapping into our emotions. Somehow, the journey of growth and self-discovery so prevalent in young adult books appeals to something inside of us. Emotionally, adolescence is very raw. It seems to me that a great author of teen books captures that rawness. More often than not, YA is written from a first-person point of view, a narrative style that instantly transports the reader into the body of the protagonist.

Through the first-person lens, everything the heroine experiences in the novel becomes more intimate, more emotionally compelling. You feel what she feels. You see through her eyes, live inside her skin.

Is it that female authors are simply better at writing such a narrative? Through some biological design, are women more easily able to tap into that emotional connection?

Making such an assumption is bold, but not altogether untrue. And, like any blanket statement, there are exceptions–most notably John Green, who writes some of the richest, most engaging narratives in teen literature to date.

Nevertheless, it’s a question worth asking, a question certainly worth delving into at a deeper level than Lewit’s flat, demagogic piece for The Atlantic.

What are your thoughts?


10 Comments »

  1. This is a great question. In the same token more women teach elementary school than men. The two may be totally unrelated or it could say something about women and children. Is it in our nature to care for children, including entertaining them by writing books? I don’t think it’s crazy to say it is.

  2. Brie says:

    I think it’s because the same teen boys who didn’t give a crap about YA, grew up to be men who didn’t give a crap about YA.

    I’ve had this conversation in the past with my husband and while he’s a voracious reader, past and present, the overall pull of YA never drew him in. His thoughts on the matter boil down to: as a teen guy- why should I read about all these feelings and dramas, which I have enough of at school and home, when I can read about topics that are of more interest to me like building cathedrals or killing armies or whatever.

    • Kiersi says:

      That is a really good answer, I think. My boyfriend is the same way. They just don’t appeal to him. Even Hunger Games didn’t appeal to him, and he hated how “emo” Harry Potter started getting after Book 3.

  3. I object to the notion that work of “literary merit” is somehow opposed to mere “entertainment.” this trivializes writing that’s characterized by fantastic elements. Why is realism “better”? Who says? Women have always been the nurturers, and in this genre we dominate as the nurturers of imagination, arguably the most hopeful thing a human can contribute.

    • Kiersi says:

      I agree completely. It’s fascinating to me how something has to be indecipherable to be “literature,” but anything fun is just “entertainment.”

  4. Romance and YA/coming-of-age stories are about relationships. Often, but not always, romantic ones; they can be sibling relationships, mother-daughter, about friendships. Women are more attuned to relationship stories, most of the time.

    Male writers seems to be get more of a thrill about writing thriller/puzzle/crime types of book, all about solving the crime/saving the world/catching the criminal. Men might have sex in those novels, but the themes are more about ego stroking, IMO, than about a man specifically figuring out where/how he fits into his society. In cases where it’s lit’rary fiction, I swear some writers employ four syllable words as a substitute for their Viagra.

    For me, this is why, with a few exceptions (Robert Heinlein, Piers Antony, Walter Isaacs) I don’t enjoy reading most modern male writers. It’s all about the gadgets and the man being the Big Invincible, Inscrutable Hero, while the female characters are the Helpless Princess or the Amazonian femme fatale who’s supposed to assassinate the hero but falls in love with him instead. I remember books like Johnny Tremaine, and the Red Badge of Courage and even Huckleberry Finn, and those books were all about… boys learning how they fit in the world. (Wimpy Kid series, too, that that may be more MG.)

    They say you should write the book you want to read; I think a lot of modern male writers have James Bond fetishes. (I’m generalizing, of course – not all men are like this, and women write action thrillers too.)

  5. Brenda says:

    A strong subject with passionate responses. I share some of Bev;s views. I do think women are drawn to write about relationships. When I started writing it never occurred to me to write a murder mystery or a YA novel. I was exploring my own life an the relationships in it,, when the book and the characters came to life on the page. They are not me any more than I am them, but there are pieces within that pages out of my life. I do read murder mysteries, YA novels, memories, anything so long as there are compelling characters. I love Jason Bourne and Bond, equally. Will I write a book featuring one of those types of characters, probably not, but I could see myself writing a YA novel – relationship based. As a mom, I am glad for these authors who crossed new borders and giving my kids an alternative.

  6. […] Kiersi Burkhart agrees in her post, YA Authors and the Gender Gap, writing: Many YA books are, essentially, romance novels for teens. And what other literary market […]

  7. Nowan Hasm says:

    The literary marketplace requires readers with expendable time, income and emotional energy.

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