Thursday, November 8, 2018

How can a champion for gender equality in kidlit 'bend to the rules' to write for children? A ReadItTorial

We're just over the half way mark of the "Writing for Children" course I've been attending over the last few weeks, and the last couple of weeks have been about writing for specific genders. 

This is something I feel very strongly about (so strongly, in fact, that I may have embarrassed myself horribly in the "Writing for Girls" session when I had a very long and extended rant about the marketed cynicism surrounding the book "Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls" and a particular YouTube video that still infuriates me to this very day (there's a blog post about it here, if you want to know why I found it particularly annoying, even as a champion of feminism and removing gender skew from kid lit).

Our tutor, Nicky is an extremely talented writer and teacher, and took great pains in both lessons to point out that - whether we like it or not, and regardless of our own beliefs and strong views on the subject - there is still a strong, visible and in some cases actively promoted divide between stories for girls and stories for boys.

It's particularly prevalent in middle grade children's writing (though, arguably still evident in preschool, picture book and later in YA kidlit too) and I am still annoyed about it, and still want to know why.

It gets weirder once you start scraping away the 'traditions' in publishing, and even if you have a fairly open mind to the way book marketing works, it's still easy to become entirely disillusioned with   children's publishing allowing skewed gender marketing to continue pretty much unchecked.

Some authors purposely and expressly write for specific genders. I'm intrigued by the fact that at middle grade, there seems to be a majority of male writers writing humour - and a majority of female writers writing books that have strong girl appeal.

During the class we were given exercises in writing for both genders, something I struggled with as I have a daughter who will quite happily read stuff that very few boys would touch with a 20ft barge pole... well as stuff that boys will happily plough their way through: 

Nicola again rightly pointed out that children's publishing is a business, and the points raised in class are points that you are pretty much stuck with observing and pandering to if you have any intention of being published. My first assignment piece (writing for girls) was a funny story that pulled in elements of stuff by Jasper Fforde and other authors who love playing with book genres, twisting characters in and out of story worlds even if they don't belong there. It wasn't a particularly girly piece, and I must admit that I cheated a bit in class when reading it aloud to give it more dramatic impact than it deserved, resorting to reading it just as I'd read stuff to my daughter (silly cockney voices and all).

It was, in no way shape or form, a story purely for girls. In fact it would be turned down by an agent - not because it was a piss-poor piece of writing (which it pretty much was) but because it did not tick any of those boxes expected from gender specific books.

For the second assignment (a story for boys) I would probably argue that I stuck to the rules pretty much to the letter, coming up with a science fiction story that was full of tech, pretty flat and in most cases utterly cliched character (sorry lads), about an intergalactic war and kids being at the forefront of that war due to their dexterity and ability to play videogames.

It's probably one of the worst pieces of trash I've ever written (and I say that as someone who is naturally self-critical and self-deprecating about every aspect of my creativity) and yet, sure enough, measured against the criteria provided in class, it absolutely ticked each and every one of the boxes presented as measured methods of writing successfully for boys.

I read both pieces to my daughter, who dutifully made some polite noises about them but understood which was which - despite us bringing her up with an eye for not only reading well within her own comfort zones, but sometimes breaking out into things she wouldn't normally want to read.

The more I write, and the more I pick at the scab of 'gender standards' not just at middle grade but in all books, the more I dislike what I see and the more it goes against all the things I want to champion as a writer or an artist. Sadly it feels that whatever efforts I take at this pre-published stage, I could end up completely buggered by a careless piece of marketing, or a cover design that just doesn't suit the audience the book is aimed at (if indeed I did wind my neck in and write specifically for either gender, something I just can't imagine doing).

I would love to live in a world where girls could feel confident in going to a bookstore and seeing kidlit at their reading level that doesn't resort to nasty dirty little gender-defining marketing tricks in order to pitch stories at them but as I've said many times on the blog over the last few years in these readitorials, just when you think progress is being made you start to fully dig into the mire of gender imbalance in kid lit and realise we're a very very long way away from true progress being made. Rules, it seems, are only made to be broken if you are a 'name' and publishers know your stuff will be money in the bank.

That makes me very sad indeed.