Sunday, May 1, 2011

Odd Man Out?

There are some things that are so widely known and acknowledged that they become more truism than fact. Amongst these is the idea that young adult books, especially YA paranormals, are written by women for women. Almost every article I’ve read about the gender division of YA PNRs states that teenage girls are the target audience for this sub-genre, whereas most boys tend to skip directly from children’s books to sci-fi and fantasy.

That women form the overwhelming majority of YA PNR authors is undeniable. Like romance, YA PNRs seem to have become the domain of the woman writer. But of late, there have been some challengers to the status quo in this sub-genre — male authors who have entered the lucrative post-Twilight market to stake their own claim. And their entry raises several questions about the current state of the YA PNR market.

Let’s be honest. Not too many teenage boys are interested in stories about fallen angels who find their soul mate in a high school girl after several hundred years of loneliness. Nor are they likely to warm up to a story about, like, a teenage vampire High Priestess who, like, wrestles with the dilemma of choosing between, like, several hot men, while over-using the word ‘like’.  Nor are they likely to sit up and pay attention to the troubles of a virgin Lord of the Underworld and his lukewarm love interest who attains immortality by sharing the contents of her closet. No, these books are aimed specifically at the Twilight generation of fangirls, the ones who are seduced by the idea of an immortal hottie falling for the girl-next-door. These are basically the teenage version of Mills & Boon stories.

So how does this result change when you introduce male authors into the equation? For one, there is the question of novelty. In a shelf stocked with Lauren Kates and Stephenie Meyers, a name like Scott Tracey really stands out. Sad though this may be, there is likely to be an immediate stirring of interest simply based on the author’s name. A fellow blogger, who did not wish to be identified (probably because he was likely to be stoned for sexism!) admits, “I would probably pick up a YA book by a male author simply because I would assume that he knows better how to write for boys.”

I asked a couple of male YA authors whether the inclusion of more male authors in YA paranormals will lead to a bridging in the gender gap that's currently plaguing YA fiction, and help draw more male readers to the genre. Here what Scott Tracey, the author of Witch Eyes, had to say:

“I don't really know if the gender gap affects readers or not.  Personally, when I was growing up, I never cared whether the author was male or female.  I think the more pressing concern is seeing books that either have crossover appeal (books like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter that can appeal to both boys and girls), or books that focus less on the romance and more on action (which is what I would assume boys would want).”

Karsten Knight, whose book Wildefire, is due to come out in July, was also of the opinion that the gender of the author did not matter very much. He says, 

“I think everyone, myself included, would always love to see more male readers gravitating to YA paranormal and urban fantasy. It's what I grew up reading, and it never once occurred to me then I was in a minority.

Women can write compelling male protagonists, and men can write compelling heroines. I consider it one of the highest compliments when people tell me I write an authentic female MC, or forget that a guy wrote Wildefire while they're reading it. I thank growing up with two sisters for that.

It will always be a great thing to see more male writers emerge from the woodwork, but as long as the writing community continues to produce engrossing literature, I'm not sure it matters who's writing it. Once revisions are done, and a book goes to print, it becomes bigger than the author anyway.”

This idea that a book is bigger than the author, or that people don’t care about the gender of the author, is very PC and in an ideal world, of course, that is how things should be. However, I find it hard to believe that everybody, or even the majority of male readers, thinks this way. I think a story by a female author, coupled with the words ‘love’ ‘soul mate’ or ‘romance’ are enough to drive most teenage boys far, far away from the YA PNR shelves.

Adam Selzer, author of the YA satire I Kissed a Zombie, and I Liked It, concurs on this point. When asked why the number of female readers in the YA paranormal genre far outweighs the number of male readers, he said:

“Well, that whole thing got kick-started by Twilight. That book and its fans simply took over the market, and it's very much a book designed to appeal to girls. After the YA section became "the Twilight section," it was hard to get boys there. It always was, really - boys at that age usually switch to adult scifi/fantasy/horror. But it's harder than ever now.  People always hold up "Catcher in the Rye" as a book that would probably be marketed as YA today - but where would the market for it be? I can't see books like that, or The Pigman or The Outsiders finding a place in today's market. They'd have to win awards before most stores would want to risk putting them on the shelves.  Even books that are about boys have to be marketed to girls these days - take the girl's face on the cover of "Paper Towns."

Right now the trick for me isn't writing to girls, it's trying to appeal to the particular KIND of girl that I know is most likely to read my books.”

This led me to another interesting question. Of the four male YA authors I interviewed for this post, three of them have female MCs. Is this really because these authors find a female character more sympathetic to their plotline, or do they deliberately choose a female PoV in the hope that it will appeal to their largest target audience —teenage girls —while simultaneously offsetting their masculinity?

Adam, for one, was honest about his need to write from a female perspective.

“I enjoy writing female narrators; it's sort of liberating not to have to worry that  people will think the narrator is just a younger version of you (whereas reviews of my first two books were known to refer to the main character as "Adam,", not the character's name), but I wish I felt like I had more of a choice in the matter.  Being a male author in YA these days is about like being a woman in, well, just about every other genre. When I go to conferences and stuff, I'm often the only guy there. At best, it's about a 95/5 split. And with all of my projects, when I'm first planning out a story, the first order of business is to see if I can tell it from a female POV.  It wasn't the only variable, but the difference in the amount of attention I got from bloggers and readers and stores when I switched to a female voice was pretty astounding. I have one new "boy book" written, but I'm not optimistic about it finding a market in stores.”

Sarwat Chadda however, who created a kick-ass heroine in modern-day Knight Templar Billi SanGreal, pretty much pooh pooh-ed my suggestion.

“I wrote a girl protagonist because I have daughters, it’s that simple. When I started Devil’s Kiss, way back in 2004, there was no YA market in Britain, and I thought it was going to be a mid-grade. I’m still not convinced the creation of YA was necessarily a helpful move. I see it as splitting the audience, especially with regard to losing the male readership. Even though I write YA my favourite authors are still probably mid-grade.

Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights series were the inspirations in me wanting to write. Back when I first read them the sat on the same shelves as all the other children’s books, which is where I assumed Devil’s Kiss would end up.

I wanted to explore the father-daughter relationship, hence the emphasis on Billi and her father, Arthur. Most children’s fiction sidelines the parent, so much so it’s probably the No.1 cliche in children’s fiction.

I love the dynamic that Arthur, a classic male warrior leader, has a daughter he’s training to be his replacement. Again, the common fiction is how the son follows the father’s footsteps. How would it be if instead of a son it was a daughter? If you look at mythology and history, we’ve got a long list of awesome warrior women. It didn’t all begin with Buffy, though Ms. Summers is in a league of her own.

I didn’t write for an audience, I wrote for myself. Hence the emphasis on what I love: swordfights, tragic romance and monsters. But mainly swordfights.”

Sarwat’s point about overturning the stereotypes explores an interesting dynamic between male YA PNR authors and the existing default mode in this sub-genre. Each of the four men I interviewed have managed to bring in an element of difference to their books. Shining bright in this spectrum, of course, is Scott Tracey. Witch Eyes is a paranormal adventure with a protagonist who just happens to be gay. It’s not being marketed as an ‘issues’ book aimed specifically at LGBTQ teens, but as a mainstream paranormal where the hero’s sexuality is incidental to the plot, at best.

And then there is Sarwat, whose heroine is an interesting mix of cultures. She’s a Knight Templar who has a Pakistani mother and a Muslim name (Bilquis). It kind of throws the entire Christian-heavy mythos of the Templars into disarray. The love story, too, is a refreshing change from the normal, being tragic instead of hearts-and-flowers-and-HEAs.

Karsten Knight’s protagonist is a Polynesian goddess. If you’ve been complaining about all the white bread YA heroines, well, you know where to look now.  Adam Selzer goes one step further in overturning YA PNR stereotypes. I Kissed a Zombie is a satire about a girl who falls in love with a zombie and has to debate the life-altering question of giving up her mortality to be with the boy she loves forever and ever. And really, it’s not as easy as Bella Swan makes it out to be.

But is this cultural diversity only a drop in the ocean, or can changing the default mode be a commercially successful endeavour? Sarwat, for one, is betting his career on it, with his upcoming series about a UK-born Indian boy who finds himself in a battle royale against the king of demons when he moves to India with his father. Sarwat says,

“I find it fascinating that in all other forms of entertainment there are a huge amount of ethnic superstars, but not in children’s fiction. In Britain 1 in 5 school kids are from an ethnic background, but their (literary) heroes are all white.

But what’s more boring is the moment an ethnic character appears they merely fulfil a whole series of ethnic clich├ęs. I despair when I come across a book featuring a South Asian character and the book’s invariably about arranged marriages, culture clash, terrorism, and more arranged marriages. I’m not saying these books are bad, but, c’mon, please there are 1.1 billion Indians, they’re not all about Bollywood, studying to be a doctor or worrying about arranged marriages. Or working in a call centre.

Check out Cindy Pon and Dia Reeves, two authors who should be a lot bigger than they are. There is some bizarre conservatism, which, sooner or later, will shatter. It just needs that one book with a black Harry Potter or Asian Edward Cullen to work, then the rest will follow.”

Well, we’re hoping Ash Mistry turns out to be that one book, Sarwat!

But it can’t be easy to be that one-in-a-hundred male voice in this female-dominated genre. Especially since YA PNRs have a reputation for being formulaic and fluffy. Most women authors I know are resigned to this sort of sexism, despite finding it insulting and derogatory. But what do the guys think about this?

Adam: Well, most of it is [formulaic], really - but that's not limited to stuff for women and teenagers. Pop culture has always revolved around formula. And the whole “girl who is just like me lives happily forever with her first boyfriend, despite someone having a terrible secret” formula isn't just popular in YA right now, there are a great many readers who demand it. Most of the bad reviews I got for my last one were all based on it not sticking to the formula.

Right now, when readers at large think of YA, they think of this kind of book. As such, adult reviewers are afraid that it'll damage their cred if they admit to liking a YA book. That's where the term "fluffy" comes in. Almost every time that word comes up in a review, it can be translated to “please don't make fun of me for reading this, I'm not saying it's GOOD or anything, I just kinda enjoyed it on a purely mindless level, that's all.”

Sarwat: Er, fluffy? Is ‘The Forest of Hands and Teeth’ fluffy? Most sweeping statements like that are usually made by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Just ignore ‘em.

The formulaic aspect is a problem with all genre fiction. Hey, I’m a huge Clive Cussler fan but there are plenty of thrillers staring chiselled-jawed, broad-chested, roguish ex- Special Ops soldiers and nobody complains about that. Nor do they complain about the wise-cracking, cynical, lone P.I with a pistol in one pocket and hip flask in the other, wandering the rainswept streets of the cruel Big City.

There are conventions to genre fiction, that’s what we love about them!

But when all is said and done, I cannot help but hope that the entry of people like Sarwat, Adam, Scott and Karsten, coupled with the brave, innovative prose of trendsetters like Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, and Dia Reeves marks a new era for YA PNRs. It’s a brave thing to come as the odd man out into an established genre, and try to make a difference, and these guys, who are doing it, deserve out support and respect. An outstanding cheer and a very big thank you to Adam, Karsten, Sarwat and Scott for answering my questions; here’s hoping you guys will get the success you richly deserve!

Adam Selzer is the author of I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It, as well as several other MG/YA novels.

Sarwat Chadda is the author of the Billi SanGreal series, and the upcoming Chronicles of Ash Mistry

Karsten Knight’s debut, Wildefire, will hit stores on July 26.

Scott Tracey’s debut, Witch Eyes, is scheduled for release on September 8.


  1. I've been puzzling over the weird void of teenage boys in the YA market all this year (result of teaching YA lit). My miniscule anecdotal evidence indicates that Neil Shusterman and John Green were the only YAs the boy students I had read as teenagers - Selzer's comment that boys skip YA and go straight to adult sci-fi/fantasy/Stephen King rings true. I'm glad to see guys writing paranormal romance, even if it's a genre that's less to my taste. We need LOTS more good YA books for a male audience - thanks for writing this post and raising the issue so well and so thoughtfully.

  2. Five years ago, I would have never thought a woman could write a worth-while book. Then again, five years ago, I had barely started reading, so there's that.

    Unfortunately, that's a common truism that women write for women, and men write for everyone. It's not exactly a truism popular female writers in YA are trying to break. Every hugely successful YA is about a SWASP heroine, and people eat that shit up. Whenever a character deviates from that norm, the book is labelled as edgy, and the character has issues. I distinctly remember reading some author blog or another, where an editor expressed a concern over the fact that the heroine was poor, Mexican and had trouble with her family. "Why are there so many issues?" the editor asked, and the author wondered why being poor and Mexican was considered an 'issue'.

    My point is that women face quite a bit of sexism in nearly every line of work, writing included. The fact that Stephenie Meyer, Lauren Kate and Becca Fitzpatrick, along with Alyson Noel, Aprilynne Pike and Co. made Paranormal YA look like this washed-out, chaste and boring genre, doesn't help things.

    Great post though. I'm currently reading "I Kissed a Zombie and I liked it" and... well, I like it too.

  3. I am not sure PNR (paranormal romance) will ever interest a large number of boys. I mean, how many men do you know who would read a romance? It doesn't matter if it's a female or male author writing a PNR, it is clear what audience he/she trying to reach.

    On the other hand, there is definitely a lack of urban fantasy for teen boys.

  4. This is true. But at the same time, I must confess that I tend to lump YA PNR and YA UF into one broad category in my posts. For example, if we scrutinize carefully, Wildefire will probably fall into YA PNR, but Billi SanGreal and I'm guessing Witch Eyes, will probably fall into the YA UF category. I'm too lazy to make that distinction though, so I tend to dump all YA with a paranormal element into the PNR sub-genre.

  5. Do you have Katy Perry stuck in your head? I had that stupid song in my brain for a week after read Zombie! Adam mentioned in one of the other posts that he actually wanted to call the book "Dead Guys Have No Reason To Live", which I think is a waaay cleverer title than this one.

    Oh and seconded on the WASP thing! So true.

  6. For me, I can connect with the writing a female author creates because I'm a girl. It's that simple. What I love even more than a great book written by a great female author is to find a book that I love that focuses around a female narrator while the author is a male - I find it wonderful how they can ease into the mind of the female body, no matter the situation. In cases like such, it seems male authors are tentative and are able to add the qualities of feminism and brutality into a character - take Scott Westerfeld, for an example: Tally Youngblood is kickass, but she's also got a touch of what you can only call feminism because the Westerfeld needed to add both in to make for a well rounded character. I think male authors are very careful, because they don't want to project their characters as weak, because stereotypically, they're the "damsel in distress" because their a woman, but I think they want to make sure they have the ability to get right in on the action, especially in mysteries and the few UF's I've read by male authors.
    Great post and I'm hoping my comment makes sense - this topic opens up a lot of explanations in me!

  7. No Katy Perry yet, although for the record, I don't think her songs are all that bad. (must be because of ToddInTheShadows - I take nearly everything that guy says for face value). I like that title better, too.

  8. If there's one quote that will stay with me from this article, it'll be the one from Sarwat that goes: "I didn’t write for an audience, I wrote for myself." It's far too easy to worry about how you'll be perceived or which genre your story will be slotted into - much better to make sure you're writing a story you'll enjoy. The problem with a vast majority of paranormal romances is that they do just mimick the ones that have gone before. I guess that's more to do with publishers wanting to jump on the bandwagon than authors failing to innovate.

    Personally, it never really bothers me if a male writer has a female protagonist or vice versa. If I like the character and if the story grabs me, then that's all that matters.

  9. I had never even heard the song (thought I'd heard OF it) when they told me that was going to be the title, though I don't have anything against her. I understand she wrote Kelly Clarkson's "I Do Not Hook Up," which I think is an excellent song (I particularly like the acoustic version the guy from Gaslight Anthem did). I keep confusing her with Lily Allen, and someone else whose name escapes me, though.

  10. About ten years ago Robert Aspirin told me that "what you WANT to write and what you GET to write are like two piranhas in the same tank." The further I get in my career, the more that rings true. The real challenge for me these late couple of years is taking the ideas I think have the best chance and hammering them into something I enjoy personally. What I LIKE to write is smart, funny books about smart, left-of-center sorts of kids. But there's so little call for that sort of book from YA mid-listers right now that I feel like I have to sneak it in.

  11. Really? Huh... Guess they thought it would be easier to remember that way.

  12. It actually does make a great deal of sense. When I'm building a female character, I have to worry about things that a woman might not worry about (ie, as you mentioned, any weakness in her making me look like a sexist). Look at Dickens - I think he wrote a lot of great women, but everyone always says he didn't, because so many were either "pure and virtuous" or old weirdos (the pure and virtuous ones actually tend to be way more interesting than people make them out to be). I did get a LOT of reviews that opened with some variation on "I didn't think I'd like this because it was by a guy" - enough I'd be a fool not to know that's going to be an issue. On the other hand, I knew ahead of time that I'd be putting another name on one of my upcoming ones, and that made it a different experience.

  13. Funny you mention Dickens, Adam. Estella is one of my favorite characters ever.

  14. Two pieces of anectodal evidence:

    1) My friend, a high school English teacher, noticed at some point that a number of her students, both boys and girls, started to spend their breaks over Trudi Canavan's novels. While Canavan's books clearly fall into the YA segment, and are sometimes perceived as "girl stuff" by editors and booksellers, they are also action-packed and the romance subplot often takes a backseat to the heroine's journay of self-accomplishment. I admit I haven't read anything past the Black Magician trilogy, but the books I read were excellent in showing how the protagonist gained her skills and established her position in an extremely hostile environment - romance didn't even enter into the picture until the third book. Another thing that might have worked in the books advantage was the promotional campaign, which was very gender neutral (the cover featured a mysterious figure in a black cloak, and the blurb didn't mention neither "romance' nor "soulmates"). Every piece of info on the book emphasized that it was about "a fascinating journey of a young girl from the slum striving to become a powerful magician." I admit that I myself picked it up thinking I was buying some good ol' epic fantasy, not YA :D

    2) I'd like to be able to honestly say that I'd never paid attention to whether the author was male or female, but... well. As a teenager I was a die-hard sci-fi and fantasy reader, which posed a bit of a problem in the 80s/early 90s. Why? Because in every sci-fi book I picked up women were either minor characters/token love interests or were virtually non-existent. In the early 90s we had a real boom for American sci-fi and fantasy novels on the market, and I admit that I tore into Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Robin Hobb like a wild thing, thinking exactly what the "fellow blogger" said: "These authors are women! Surely they'll give female characters the credit they deserve?". I think that this sentiment can easily be turned around. Which teenage boy would like to spend time reading about male characters who are portrayed as either unrealistic marble adonises or love-sick puppies who have no life outside of the whimsical, whiny female protagonist?

    So, summing up: I think it's very possible to create YA novels which would appeal to both groups, regardless of the author's gender, provided that the books are well-balances in terms of the action/romance dynamics and character development.

  15. Estella is great (and that is probably my favorite book), and Esther, from Bleak House, is a LOT more interesting than people give her credit for. She comes off as overly pious and kind of a pushover, but that's just how she WANTS to present herself. If you read between the lines, etc, there's a lot more going on (I don't think she's just being Victorian when she talks about how much she loves her best friend). She's no reliable narrator!

  16. I'll certainly give three cheers and more for Sarwat. He's a great guy and a good writer, whose work I like very much. What he says about 'writing for himself' rings true with me. As a writer, of course I have my audience in mind--but the fact is, I have to write what comes. Robin McKinley calls it being given stuff by 'The Story Council'. Mine are more the gods and goddesses of Story (being a manic mythologist, this fits me better). If my main protagonist comes to me as male, that's the way it's got to be. It's all about the voices in the head (and I know that sounds totally mad, but it's true.).
    Lucy Coats at