Monday, January 23, 2012

Reading, boys, personhood, all that stuff, redux (Latin for "to quack again")

I'll start off this time with some bits and pieces for your consideration:

•I was listening to a recorded interview with John Lennon; he said that many teenage boys start to learn the guitar because they think it will help them get girls. "The tragedy," he said, "is that the only boys that trick works for are the ones who realize that the guitar is more interesting than the girl."

•Robert Louis Stevenson said that he wrote Treasure Island in part at the request of his stepson who asked for a book with "pirates and no kissing." Actually it contains practically no women—just Jim Hawkins's female relatives, who run the inn while he's off chasing pirates. There's also not a lot of relationship, as nearly all the connections are purely functional—the intrepid treasure hunters are friends but they're mainly coworkers, and so, in a different way, are the pirates on the other side.

•It's been out for a while, but I just happened across it recently: There's no such thing as a reading test, by E.D. Hirsch, the famous promoter of the idea of cultural literacy, and Robert Pondiscio, his longtime associate at Core Knowledge. Their arguments are interesting and worthwhile in their own right, but I'm particularly struck by one body of research they cite: the one that shows that decoding skill is much less important in reading comprehension than interest, that poor readers reading things they understand and take an interest in out-comprehend good readers reading about matters of no interest/understanding, and the terrible Catch-22 that kids who haven't been exposed to much plain old general knowledge (of exactly the type that many ed majors are taught to dismiss as "mere rote learning"), not having any way to connect to material, can't make much use of the reading strategies they're being taught.

•Years after it first ran, this is still one of the most-read articles in Slate, returning to the top 5 for a week out of every month or so. If it had appeared in the New York Times, Slate would probably have run one of their "Where does the Times find these women?" apparently endless series about it, but it does look at what appears to be a real phenomenon rather than a trend confined to the southern parts of island of Manhattan: ambitious, driven young women who don't seem to be able to find their male equivalents, and so settle into unsatisfying long term sexual relationships with amiable doofuses who are just drifting along. The takeaway for my purposes here is the last paragraph:

And yet while young men's failures in life are not penalizing them in the bedroom, their sexual success may, ironically, be hindering their drive to achieve in life. Don't forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex. Today's young men, however, seldom have to. As the authors of last year's book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality put it, "Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy." They're right. But then try getting men to do anything.

•Another piece from Slate: mostly the piece is about the use of value-added as a way to find the good teachers for such administrative purposes as merit pay and sorting out babies and bathwater, and because it's by an economist describing economic research, it manages not to mention much of anything interesting that happens in classrooms. Nonetheless, what it does reveal is that the effects of good teachers are extremely persistent; the right fifth grade teacher will still be suppressing teen pregnancies when the kids are sixteen, boosting their graduation rate when they're eighteen, and raising their overall success in work, military, or college when they are in their early twenties.

•Finally, a source I'm just going to grit my teeth and admit I'm using. One of the first "scientific" advice columnists, writing about psychology and spouting vast amounts of very right wing nonsense (and with a number of unintentionally hilarious catchphrases), was George W. Crane (father of a couple of right wing Congressmen; dear me, what a memorial!) But in his daily column The Worry Clinic, one catch phrase he kept repeating, that I am forced to admit appears to be true, was, "Remember that every human being is wearing an invisible tattoo that reads, 'I want to feel important.'"

Now, by the rule of seven, I know I've just flooded your registers and made myself completely incomprehensible. So it goes … let us forge on into the tulgey wood, and do ignore those whiffling and burbling sounds all around, it's the local wildlife.


Those stray bits all have quite a bit to do with boys, and reading, and all that, which I'm going to revisit again.

There are some predictable upheavals and uproars that happen when the subject of boys and reading is brought up.

Critics of the current state of YA will claim:
•there's not much role for boys in modern YA
•it has become a girl-focused field in which boys are relegated to being Trophy Boyfriends, Supportive Nerds, and Gay Sidekicks, and
•one way or another more traditional boys are being left out of books, and
•that's why so many boys stop reading fiction for pleasure after about fifth grade.

Defenders will point to
•the need for young women, gay men, and people of color to have characters who look like them,
•larger and more passionate audiences for YA than ever before (depending on whose estimate you use, it's quite possible more boys are reading more books—it's just that so many more girls are reading that the overall proportion of boys reading is dropping)*
•dozens of boy characters of indisputably traditional masculinity in various recent books, and
•a slightly retro point: if the poor boyses are feeling left out because they're not the undivided center of attention, after having it all to themselves for so long, well, boohoo, why don't the little sissies stop whining and just man up about it?

The critics can then say that there we have that anti-boy attitude in action, and that they're talking about overall trends and the Spirit of the Age.

The defenders can retort that they didn't start the fight, and if there are that many exceptions around, the rule is not proven.

Eventually, all the YA authors, critics, and librarians meet each other for a fist fight out back of the ALA.

Tragically, that one doesn't happen. It might make ALA a buttload more fun to attend, but such is life, people are so often blind to its possibilities.

Instead, what happens is that many people get to feel very, very important in the cultural struggle, and in shaping the next generation and getting them all edumatated and stuff, which as we all know is very important because eventually somebody's got to be able to read the directions to keep our life-support machinery running.

They get to feel very important. Dr. Crane would be so proud.

The neat mirror image both sides have of each other allows nearly everyone involved to feel both terribly misunderstood and absolutely right, a wonderful combination if the critics, librarians, authors, and publishers (CLAP for short) are to feel really important. It's a perfect coffee-house snark-off in that everyone can treat the other side's arguments with a knowing reduction:

"Right, no wonder he's writing for teenage straight boys, he's just doing that man thing about what a big weenie he has."

"Yeah, so it's not enough for her to be a Sex in the City re-enactor, she wants everyone to be, especially the boys."

"Meatheads rule everything else in the schools, so now every book has to be about sensitive meathead wangst."

"Girls like to dream about impossible, unimaginably strange worlds, like one where hot guys have a passion for library interns."

Is everybody important yet?

Here's a thought. Maybe there's a flip side to Dr. Crane's bit of wisdom there. Maybe it's not just that people want to feel important. Maybe it's also that people hate, loathe, fear, and despise anyone who tells them they are not important.

And maybe because our culture has a thing for dichotomies, or maybe due to too much Hollywood movie programming, or maybe it's human nature, but one of the most common ways to improve people's feeling of being important is to tell them that someone else isn't. Maybe Stevenson's stepson, who wanted "no kissing", and had grown up as a boy in a female-dominated household, was looking for a feeling of importance, so he quite rightly sought a subject on which boys could feel important (pirates) but then he quite humanly (let's give the guy a break, he was twelve years old) also decided to declare something his mother and sister, good Victorians that they all were, probably valued more than he did—i.e. kissing. In fact, his indulgent stepfather gave him a whole pirate story with NO GURLZ! to be anachronistic about it.

I'm skipping around that bit of psychobabble, "self-esteem," because it seems to me that people can manage pretty well while thinking of themselves as utter turds, and even recover from a self-image as fuckups, scoundrels, or whatever, as long as they think it matters. I base this on nothing empirical whatever; I just think a drunken wife-beating Klansman who believes that it matters that he drinks too much, beats his wife, and hates people baselessly, is at least one step closer to reform than someone who mentally adds, and I don't give a shit. This may explain how many religions seem to save people from their own worst sides, even though it is not possible for all of those religions to be true in all details at the same time; they envision a world in which, for one reason or another, an individual human soul matters, and therefore both crimes and kindness, both meanness and nobility, are relevant, and my decision to go to the devil is not purely my own affair.**  (Nor is it purely anyone else's; see Form Letter 9).

In short, maybe it's not just self-esteem (gosh, darn it, people like me …); maybe it's that people ache for the sense that what they do matters, that they are important, not in the sense of an inflated title and the ability to make miserable underlings listen to their pontifications, but in the sense that the universe really would be different without them. (Even if it would be better without them, that still means they are important!)

I'm trying to avoid speaking for anyone on this, not even for my own subcategory of straight white American males with decent educations who read a lot as children. But it seems to me that I rarely if ever found myself thinking about Robin Hood, or Philip Marlowe, or Flandry of Terra, "And he's a Caucasian with a penis, just like me! This affirms that I am wonderful because I am a Caucasian with a penis!"*** The effect was something much more subtle, something that I don't think I ever thought consciously at all: The white guy matters. The white guy brings mattering-ness, a.k.a. importance, to the story.

When I was twelve I had one of those odd transformative experiences of falling through the page and into Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, the granddaddy of Jurassic Park and every other dinosaurs-alive story. If I could show a few readers as good a time as I had then, on the sunny porch in the time between finishing mowing the lawn and going off to a pickup softball game, I would be more or less forced to consider myself a success as a writer. I don't remember noticing anything about the whiteness of Professor Challenger and Sir John and all those dinosaur hunters, until a minor character—"our Negro, Zambo"—intruded. Zambo was bringing up the supplies with which Challenger and Co. would be escaping from the deadly plateau, having fallen afoul of a batch of "natives" who lived there among the dinosaurs.**** Challenger's lot were badly outnumbered and in deep crap, Zambo was loyal as only a fictional non-white can be … and very big and strong … so I thought when he turned up that they'd hand a machete and a rifle to him, and maybe to the trusted muleskinners that came with him, and even up the odds a bit.

No way. He had to climb back down to wait with the mules.

It didn't make Zambo look unimportant, to me; it made Challenger look like he was having a momentary lapse into stupidity. Within a year or two I figured it out, and then it made Challenger seem, retroactively, like a blowhard and a dork.

But I am guessing that for a kid with African ancestors, that dismissal probably stung with the force and precision you get by telling someone they are unimportant. It wasn't that Zambo was cool and it was as unfair as dismissing Lando Calrissian from Star Wars would have been—the guy was barely even there, and then right when his arm and gun might have made a big difference, he wasn't even important enough to stand around being stalwart or maybe die heroically. He was unimportant and anybody who identified with him would have felt that.

So I'm going to propose a radical notion here: what if instead of making the CLAP of YA feel important … we all agreed to find our own importance, not step on each others' too much … and concentrate on convincing the readers they matter? Let's get real here; it is not at all infrequent that a character of a given category (race/gender/culture/etc) is avoided, or replaced with someone who has the outward trappings but not the inward nature, and this happens in fiction generally, but when it happens in YA, some reader someplace who is just beginning to kind of like this reading thing is stung with unimportance. They can tell when we do it, folks, and whether it's a troop of Space Scouts that is all straight white males, or a girl who goes to high school with only gay mixed race werewolves, if there's a big flag saying Unimportant people omitted, the damn kids will see that flag and read it. They're not stupid.

Now here's the thing: what I think may be most flagged with Unimportant is not girls or boys, any particular race, or any particular religious faith. For reasons that might have to do with my previous piece about boys and toilets, I think the signal that is shutting out more kids than anything else is the one that says Your relationships are important, your accomplishments are not. It's been a cliché in YA for a long time—you could argue that all the male characters in A Wrinkle in Time are taught this by authorial sledgehammer, and god knows there are plenty of YAs in which one way or another it turns out it's friendship, or family, or true love, etc. that triumph. It will be a long time, I think, before you read an approving Young Adult novel about, for example, a young gymnast with a shot at the Olympic team who dumps her boyfriend because he's taking up too much of her time and emotional focus (and you'll have a whole room full of those before you see an approving story in which, say, a guy ditches his girlfriend to have more time for the debate team).

This is not because it's humanly impossible; nor is it particularly unforgivable; and it is not actually a conscious position as much as it's just a logical consequence of some widespread beliefs in the literary community, such as that stories about relationships are more artistically worthy than ones about adventures (for a visit to the awe and majesty of death and the horror at the heart of ordinary life, I will stack up Lawrence Sargent Hall's "The Ledge" against Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" anytime, but in one, the situation is the focus, and in the other it's the relationships). It's not that relationships don't matter, but relationships by their nature don't have goals (or shouldn't—if you've ever been trapped in a conversation with someone who wants to set goals for a relationship, you know what I'm talking about, and may you never know). It's not that relationships are unimportant, but if they have the only importance there is, if actions and achievements are relegated to unimportant window dressing, then the agency that makes for personhood is dismissed with them, and thus the personhood of any character who ismainly a do-er rather than a be-er. 

And that brings me to the various accounts of male haplessness and lostness in current YA. Has our literary culture out-Hamleted Hamlet? After all, everyone says the guy takes no action, but in the course of the play he launches at least four major schemes and plots, and he does kill five people. He would seem to be giving action its due, and be perhaps a bit overactive by current standards.

When I think about the best teachers I've had who were people rather than books, the main thing I remember is how vital they made it seem. Poetry, axiomatic set theory, African post-colonial politics, nineteenth-century stagecraft, judo, close reading, realistic set design, Goju-ryu, Early Latin—those teachers made sure we knew it was important. And because we tried to do it, we became important too, and the knowledge stuck because it was attached to our importance.

Maybe we're teaching too many kids to look for their importance in the wrong place, and they're resisting it like sensible people would—the boys more than the girls because they have more of a heritage of agency, of being important because of what they do as much as because of who they are.

I have known many dedicated artists and scientists who somehow raised happy children on a mix of benign neglect and brief-but-intense attention paid mostly to "who is this delightful person becoming?" I have known many people who tried to be full-time professional parents, dedicated their lives to "having a great relationship with my kids, " who produced lost kids who had a hard time being happy.  Being is always somebody else's job to infer about you, and they can re-infer at any time, so you never get to keep it, and your importance comes from what you "are" in their eyes; your personhood is dependent, even if it is dependent on a person who loves you (or the you they imagine and construct) with all his/her heart.  But doing is your own job and once done, can only be taken away from you by lies in which you acquiesce; if you climb up on the roof all by yourself without permission, your mother can decide you are a bad person, but she can't take climbing onto the roof away from you.  (This, by the way, is the point, to me, of one of my very favorite short stories, Philip Roth's "The Conversion of the Jews.")

Not, again, to say that we must now all write tales of mindless action, but consider how many young women, gay boys, and members of various mistreated minorities have managed to enjoy "boy books" full of action. Might that be because a person taking action is someone with whom any child will want to identify?  Because for kids, who are in process of becoming persons, personhood is the ultimate attractor, and everything else secondary?  If so, then maybe we should stop telling the boys that they need to read these books to be more like the characters in them, i.e. appealing to bookish girls, and start saying "It's a book about doing ... challenging ... facing ... struggling with ..." all those specifications for do.   Offhand, I remember that as a boy, I adored Call it Courage, The Sky and the Forest, and Island of the Blue Dolphins—nonwhite heroes all, and in the case of Blue Dolphins, an actual girl. But all of them doing an immense amount -- and therefore, persons.


*I don't suppose anyone will notice that this means that many, many more teens of all genders are reading, which of course, is good news, and therefore not news at all. I think we should give all the credit for that to the first pop star or actor to publicly say s/he had nothing to do with it.

**See the quote that is the epigram of FatherLucifer for one way of phrasing this. And that epigram is a bit of a clue about where the book is going. Actually one of these days I should do a piece about the epigrams in my books; there are more clues there than many critics imagine, and very often to the reader's exasperated cry of "What was it about?" my best answer is, look at that little quote at the beginning.

*** Please, nobody name a band "Caucasian with a Penis." Just don't.

****Sadly, I now realize, none of the "natives" looked the least bit like Raquel Welch. I don't know how I failed to notice this at the time.