Writing genders

On Facebook, Chuck Wendig pointed out a controversy involving a YA author named Andrew Smith. I do not read a lot of YA fiction currently (heck, I don't read a lot of non-eighteenth-century fiction currently -- grad school will do that to you) but I'm told that his work is very good. Recently he did an interview online where in he made a sort-of-odd statement in response to being asked where all the women were in his work. Thanks to a tumblr post then commenting on the inherent sexism its author saw in Smith's response, the YA world on the Internet apparently blew up.

Smith's books are YA fiction for boys, about boys, with all the questioning of sexuality and what it means to be a man and how to find your own way in a world that is anything but clear that would seem inherent in that. There are apparently women in them, but as secondary characters at best. In today's female saturated YA market, that means his books are actually pretty unusual -- boys are not the primary YA market these days, regardless of how it has historically been (and noting that YA is a pretty modern, marketing-driven classification).

I wish (and I'm sure he does too, since he's apparently been hounded since then for his ostensibly sexist answer to the point of dropping his Facebook and Twitter accounts) that he had simply said for his answer that boys are an underserved market and, frankly, that experience is what he knows best. I'm pretty certain that's what he meant, but what I believe he meant is largely irrelevant. Really, though, anyone's interpretation of "what he meant" is equally irrelevant, including anyone accusing him of sexism.

To the extent that sexism was present, it was reflecting a cultural problem of which he is the victim as much as anyone else. That we can have a society in which women in particular can validly be a mystery to members of the other half of the world's population, to the extent that they feel awkward about their ability to represent that adolescent experience with any validity, is kinda sad -- particularly when the male experience has been so continually represented that women don't really have the option of not knowing what it's like to be a guy, literarily speaking. I would encourage Smith, if he feels he'd like to write girls and women better, to give it more of a shot -- historical ignorance is not a pass for future knowledge and skill, and less skilled writers than him have been able to pull it off reasonably well.

That being said... it's okay for him to want to write the modern male adolescent experience. Obviously that's a huge part of the story he has to tell, and I think it's a story that has a lot of resonance with boys these days and needs to be told.

What isn't okay is taking rage against the unfairnesses of the world and directing it against one person who did not actually come out and say anything like "girls are yucky." You can want to fight against harmful cultural moments and tropes all you like, but being on the side of the angels doesn't absolve you from sin. You can be just as much of an ass in pursuing your beliefs as anyone else is. The ability to do harm with words is a significant weapon. Being irresponsible with it is not actually acceptable, no matter how good your cause.

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