Friday, December 9, 2011

A day down the toilet, why boys don't read fiction anymore, and the how-to of personhood

It started with a toilet.   For those of you who have read Tales of the Madman Underground, it's that chapter titled "An Afternoon Down the Toilet."  For those of you who haven't ,  this is probably the most minor spoiler in the history of spoilerdom: Karl is a high school student in small town Ohio.  His father is dead, and he and his mother depend on the money he brings in at five different part-time jobs, because she drinks and inhales as much of her paycheck as she can.  In that chapter (last chance to avoid a spoiler, plumbing fans!) one of Karl's sometime employers, Browning, stops him on the street after school and offers him $20 to change out a toilet in the employee bathroom.  (It's 1973, so that's a pretty reasonable rate for a bit of unlicensed plumbing).  Karl does it, does an excellent job, and collects his money, which his mother steals later that night to go out drinking.  (Again, in 1973,  you could do that on $20). 

There's around a thousand words in there describing the exact, grubby, messy details of pulling out a permaclogged toilet that has been in place for thirty years, and putting a new one in neatly and correctly so that the work will stay done for decades.

So one day  I was working on something else entirely (books are like zombies,  you put them down, they get back up and come after you again, intent on eating your brain) when the phone rang, and it was Sharyn November, my editor for Madman.  "What the hell is that thousand words about a toilet in there for?" she demanded.  "Just cut to he got the job, he did the job, afterwards he was really tired and dirty but glad he got the money, and then his mother stole it and he was disappointed."

As it happens, Sharyn November is a very hands-on get-into-detail editor, which I like exactly in proportion to how smart I think the editor is, and I think Sharyn is exceptionally smart.  But in this particular case, she happened to be dead wrong in a way that, I think, will probably lead to my saying some things about the "Why don't boys read?" conundrum and maybe drifting into its wider politics too.  In my usual way I'll take a while getting there.

At the time, all I knew was that unlike most of Sharyn's suggestions, that one put my back way up.  After making the sort of noises that mean "I don't know why but I don't want to do this" for a while, I ended up saying, "Here's what I think will happen.  Three or four reviewers, maybe, will mention that toilet negatively, and they'll all be women who are some kind of book professionals.  But at least five fan letters from actual teenage boys will say it was cool.  You keep saying one thing you like about this book is that it's so masculine, and this is a place where it's really masculine.  Trust me.  It says M on my Driver's License and I know this stuff."

One of the many ways Sharyn is smart is that she can accept a gut check from someone else's gut, even when her gut doesn't agree.  So she muttered the usual things about fucking prima donna artiste hacks who believe themselves to be great writers, and let me leave it in.

Actual count as of this morning (SMUGNESS ALERT):  reviews mentioning that toilet negatively: 3, all by women (two librarians and an editor).  Fan letters/emails mentioning it positively: 9, all from high school boys. 

So I knew something or other, and not just how to change a toilet.  And it's only taken me about this long to figure out what my gut knew back in 2008.  (My gut is large, it contains multitudes).

The gender difference is important, but so are the other two differences:
  1. the age (I would guess based on the date of the MFA listed after her name that the youngest of the toilet-negative reviewers was in her early thirties, whereas all the pro-toilet boys mentioned still being in high school and hating it), and
  2. the fact that the anti-toileters were writing in public, mostly for an audience of other book people, but the pro-toileters were writing privately and directly to the author in some version of the "you touched my heart somewhere that matters to me" letter that a lot of us think of as the ultimate spiritual reward for this otherwise often silly way of making a living.

So let's line those things up against each other:

Wants to read about  the boy siphoning out trap, cutting rusty bolts, sweating solder on copper pipe: teenage boy who tells the writer they don't read much or like school but liked this book.

Wants to read that the boy got tired, dirty, and sweaty, sans detail: mature woman who reads a lot and mostly talks to other women about it.

Both feel: a bitter sense of injustice that Karl's mother stole his $20.  One boy told me he was so mad he could feel his eyes watering, but the reviewers who mentioned the toilet mentioned that theft too, and were also outraged.

Here's the difference, I think.  Why did the $20 belong to Karl, and why was it wrong for his mother to take it?  Not all the reasons, but the main, emotional one.

I think for the anti-toilet* side, it's because the kid worked hard and she's his mother.  But for the pro-toilet side, it's because he did a superb job (I have him mention this more than once) and that money is his commemoration of having done it.  In public-woman-constant-reader land, Karl's mother violated what should be their relationship; in private-boy-not-much-of-a-reader land,  she not only stole but denigrated his achievement; that $20 was no longer the manifestation of a physically difficult feat done brilliantly (and praised by his boss), but just some energy and dirt from Karl to be exchanged for a chance for Beth to sit in a small-town bar and look for men to tell her she was hot.

And that, I think, is at the heart of the "why don't boys read and what can we do about it" perennial uproar.   (No, not hanging out in bars and looking hot, which I'm sure has fans of both genders.)  I mean that crucial difference between  valuing experience and relationship to other people, versus achievement and relationship to the self.  If all that hard-to-turn bolt does is make Karl strain his muscles and bark his knuckles, it doesn't really need to be in there (along with the trap and the weight of the toilet and all the rest); what matters is that he's in the role of the hard-working good guy who deserves to be treated better by his mother, and those other details are no more relevant at this point than, say, what he was wearing or what girl he likes.  But if turning that hard-to-turn bolt is the point of the whole thing – Karl experiencing himself as a good amateur plumber – and it's about not getting the proper credit for a job well done, then it's a direct attack on how Karl is allowed to see himself; his competence isn't a source of his identity, but a convenience for an aging bimbo.

Now here's a thing that my old comrade Karl Marx** would have recognized: much depends on the material conditions of life.  Think about the life of the occupationally constant reader, especially of a woman in her thirties in our society.  Mostly it's about words and relationships; who says what to whom and how,  about what other people said to other people.  Life is talk (often the cool, reflective talk of online and print) and the naming  and sharing of experiences, and satisfactory relationships (not just the classic romantic one, but also to friends, family, coworkers, etc. ) are critical in part because if the relationships are not working, there's no one to listen or talk. 

Now, when old poops (and in literature,  old poopery can be achieved at 25)  think of books for young people, the tendency is all but inescapable to think of them as recruiting devices to get the damned kids into a life something like your own.  If life is about feelings and experiences, and the relationships that contextualize them, then that's what you're going to want in your YA or your juveniles or whatever you call them.  In that worldview, the most important thing for young people to do is to achieve a good verbally expressed understanding of the importance of relationships – essentially to learn to construct good "drama" as high school and college students use the term nowadays.  Even if the book is concerned with moving into the working world, it's about finding a mentor and a vocation (i.e. a relationship and an emotional state regarding work).   Furthermore everything about that life is dedicated to its publicness (we might call it the Katie Roiphe Effect); what's important is not just to get those feelings and relationships into the right words but to share them with other people, so that the community can approve the words.  And even furtherermore, the book folk involved in this are mostly people who have already succeeded at it (which doesn't mean they're secure – it's always a very insecure existence!)

Contrast that with what a boy in traditional gender roles is brought up to be interested in: making a mark in the world, counting coup, doing something, being somebody because of what he's done.  If life (or at least life as you're trying to imagine it) is about achievements and competence,   that's what you want in your reading.  In that worldview, what's important is to do something hard well and own it.  Even if the book is concerned with that charming girl that fascinates the hero, the boy reader wants some accomplishment tied in (say, rescuing from pirates, for example).  It's intrinsically a private thing; knowing you can do something well enough is a relationship between you and your self-assessment of your own skill set, and though you may be attacked by self-doubt, you either have a pretty good idea how to pull a car out of a skid, repair a dollhouse, or cover third base, or you don't.  Furthermore, since most boys are not Jonny Quest or Tintin, for the most part the interesting competencies are not ones they've tried, but ones they'd like to imagine having.  (The classic Monty Python nudge-nudge wink-wink sketch that ends with "What's it like?" illustrates this perfectly – the real question, which every boy and ex-boy in the world recognizes, is what do you do and how do you do it and most importantly what's it like to know what you're doing?)  And the experience of knowing what you're doing means at least the mention of some things you only know if you've been there and done that -- the resistance of the rusted-in bolt, the way solder runs like water if the joint is hot enough, and so on. 

Now, this is hardly an original observation, so far.  Any number of editors out there have concluded that although the problem with boys not reading fiction is a hard nut to crack, the complaint that many boys don't read fiction with girl protagonists can be addressed by the same solution that addresses the irritation  of many female readers who object to all the shallow shopaholics (or clever manic pixies or wise earth mothers or all the other panoply of girly stereotypes):  create a girl who kicks butt. 

That's a good start, but only a start.

Let me suggest there's another side to it:  it matters, much more than is generally acknowledged,  exactly how butt is kicked and how the act of butt-kicking is connected to the protagonist.  If you read the classic "boys books" with vast amounts of butt-kicking, like Treasure Island, Captain Blood, Beau Geste, Captains Courageous, Huckleberry Finn,  or Have Spacesuit Will Travel, there's a surprising amount about how things are done, detail by detail.  I learned a fair bit about exactly how you use a crossbow in battle  from The Black Arrow, how a too-small crew keeps a tramp freighter running from The Sea Wolf, and the reason behind things my coaches were telling me from god knows how many Matt Christopher books, but it wasn't  the learning that mattered (that was a side benefit at best).  It was the "What's it Like?" – the vicarious experience of competence – not the MacGyver sort of "this is a genius who just makes stuff magically," but the sense that I could have that same power over my own universe and make things work when they had to.  I was fairly unlikely to have to hold Fort Zinderneuf against the Touareg,  lead a boarding party onto a hostile frigate from a rowboat, perform an emergency appendectomy on a submarine while destroyers passed overhead, or bring a Curtiss JNE in on a dirt road by moonlight, but the feeling of being up to the challenges – of knowing what it's like to be able to do what needs doing – is critical to a boy who wants to grow up to be "a good man in his world and a good enough man in any world."***

And you don't get that vicarious experience of competence just by imagining the experience of getting grubby and tired – you can do that in any sissy-ass health spa gym, and you don't have to be good at anything to do it.  You get it by imagining, step by step, doing something specific that not everyone can do, and taking pride in doing it well, whether it's changing a toilet or, Musashi-like, fighting your way out of a bathhouse with just a burning stick and a wet towel and killing the assassins sent after you.  I'm told the Buffy audience became more female with time****; one reason may have been that there was less about the mechanics of staking and more about relationships.  Maybe if we want boys to read about vampires as eagerly as the girls do, we need to stop connecting to vampires as beings with special needs,  feeling their conscience-ridden anguish, and all that, and deal with important questions like how to find the optimal point between the ribs, where you can get a sharpened wooden stake in a pinch, and just how much force you have to put on that mallet.

All of which brings us to a larger, and maybe less comfortable question.  Whether we like it or not, and I'm lazy enough that I sort of do, heavy readers are perpetual spectators in life; they spend a great deal of time thinking about other people who do things, as opposed to doing them themselves.  Nor is their relationship life a substitute for actively seeking goals in the wider world. Family and relationships are important and necessary, but they're not goals for most people, most of the time, any more than oxygen or food are. ***** 

Real goals, real attainments and achievements, sooner or later involve some form of making or doing something, rather than being or relating.  In the larger world, like it or not, it is the doers-and-makers, not the feelers-and-relaters, who make history. 

That's one reason why "well-behaved women rarely make history" – because traditional women's roles have emphasized that feeling and relating side of things, and the doing-and-making has been over in the boy's wing of society, so women have had to fight for a fair shot at it, and insisting that they are going to get in on the doing and making has often been the exact definition of not being well-behaved. 

To be clear, I'm not saying that there should be no feeling/relating/just being in books.  There's not only room for both feel/relate and do/make, and a need for both, but the interaction between them pretty much defines how you hold reader interest.  What I am saying is that  much of what's being published in contemporary YA tips very far toward the feel/relate side, and I think the reason is because many of the people who produce, promote, and distribute it lead exactly that kind of life.

Sadly, though,  a person whose life consists of reading, going to consume entertainment with other people, and talking with other, similar people about books, dates, and friends may be busy, but is not leading much of a life; that's a life on the sidelines.  That a disproportionate number of people relegated to that half-life are women is a social tragedy,  because it's a stunting of potential; that so many writers, editors, librarians, and teachers are being drawn from that twilight existence probably has a great deal to do with the lack of specificity and direct competence in so much YA literature, and with its de-emphasis where it does appear.

But specificity and competence are the hallmarks of fully experiencing life as an engaged person.  Simone de Beauvoir pointed out that when women behave like persons, they are accused of behaving like men.  Conversely, given the historic privilege of boys – they are invited to be persons unambiguously and right from the start – it's hardly surprising that it's difficult to interest them in stories that ignore or denigrate critical attributes of personhood.  People who have been conned, cowed, or pressured into a half-lived life may enjoy fantasizing about a more glamorous or emotionally satisfying half-lived life, but those who have been raised to expect to live life fully, whose culture tells them to get out and do,  are unlikely to fantasize about half-life, or to find much appeal in it no matter how well it is depicted or how exceptionally nice it is for a half-life.

I'm not sure we should worry much about why boys aren't reading the recent profusion of YA novels, as about why so many girls are tolerating so many of them (and the ones they tolerate).  People worry about why so many little boys act out and end up being medicated to make the bland stupidity of school tolerable to them,  but perhaps we should worry more about why so many little girls don't try to defend themselves against it, and will submit to it without drugs or coercion.  A girl whose fantasy life reaches only as far as being well-liked and well-dressed (or having an attractive and sensitive though dead boyfriend) does not give my heart quite the same hope for the next century as a girl who daydreams about delivering desperately needed vaccine through a howling blizzard, foiling an evil conspiracy, or flying a spaceship.

Which brings me to my last  burst of smugness. I've got a bet down on the appeal of specifics and competency. In  Losers in Space, my next Sharyn-November -edited novel,  though the viewpoint character is not only female but what most people would call feminine, she's also really good at a whole bunch of hard things that she learns how to do in dangerous situations with the clock ticking (although I don't have her changing any toilets against the clock. I have moved beyond toilets.)  I'm betting she'll have a surprising amount of boy appeal – or, calling it what it always should have been called, person appeal.  Because I don't think being a person is just for boys, anymore; I think we've  advanced farther than that, or at least the kids have, and who else would one write YA for?

*Let me get this on the record:  I just want credit for not having used dozens of other possible names for the factions, such as anticrappers, propotties, and so on.  Including not having worked in any way to talk about a middle position between pro and anti being mesopisseristic, until this footnote.

**Karl (Marx, not Shoemaker) and I go way back.  We share being bearded,  spending too much time writing and thinking, getting irritated about injustices that everyone tells us can never be righted, and disagreeing with many Marxists.

***Raymond Chandler, if you're trying to place it; The Simple Art of Murder.  It's familiar because it comes along later on in that famous quote about going down these mean streets.

**** not individually, I don't think.

*****though there are a large number of people obsessed with finding and eating exactly the right things and a smaller number who have become obsessed with various systems for better breathing, and you may have noticed that those people are even more annoying than the ones who can only talk about their relationships; and of course if you really deprive someone of them, they become goals until they are re-attained or restored, e.g. if someone is squeezing your neck your life goals will probably involve oxygen.  But these are exceptional cases.