“But I’m Not A YA Writer” – Gender Biases in the World of Books

I was raised thinking I was in a post-feminism world. We had the vote, we were out there earning our own money, with our own credit cards, standing equal to any man. But, the older I get, the more I realize that the biases are still out there. They’re just softer, well-intentioned, and far more insidious.

At Balticon 53, I attended “But I’m Not A YA Writer”, with panelists Sherri Cook Woosley, Gwendolyn Clare, and Julayne Hughes, moderated by Laura Nicole “Spence” and we discussed the modern trend of calling speculative fiction books written by women “young adult” (YA).

What’s the Difference?

I have a full set of panel notes on the difference, that I’ll be sharing later, but let me sum up.

Young adult novels typically center on teenage characters, often coming-of-age, and learning how to be independent. Thinking for themselves. YA is often told in first person, and sometimes in present tense. And YA has hope.

Adult novels can have teenage characters and can be coming-of-age stories, but the characters are typically a little older, or a decent portion of the book covers their adulthood as well. The solutions are usually more nuanced and complicated, the world building is often more fleshed out, the politics and economics are more complex, and the violence can be darker. Third person point-of-view is more common and it’s typically told in past-tense.

Now, these are all trends. YA is by no means a lesser skill and certainly can deal with dark themes and violence. When trying to categorize a book, think about a 9th grader, would you recommend it to them? Or not. The line often comes down to the voice.

Who Is Misclassifying Authors’ Books

When you hear about this misclassification, many of us think we know exactly where the problem is. But. It’s not what you might think.

Is it the lack of women in the upper echelon of publishing companies?

Nope. The publishers and editors are properly categorizing them.

Is it the marketing departments?

Not really. Their marketing teams are starting off targeting the right markets…

So where is the problem?

It’s when the book blurbs hit the internet that the real disconnect comes out. The book bloggers and good citizens of GoodReads are where a large percentage of the misclassifications are made.

How is this happening?

Clearly, there are tons of factors that go into this, and no amount of speculation can encapsulate each individual’s decisions.

And? Sometimes the line can be nebulous. But not that often.

Even if one starts off looking at the book blurb, with the proper classification, and comparing it to other books in the appropriate genre during a review, these books are often getting ‘shelved’ with YA.

And the only thing that might even suggest the novel is YA? Is the author’s name, reading as feminine. Or, the author becoming widely known as female.

The 2018 critically acclaimed novel, The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang was marketed as a drug filled, grimdark fantasy take on the war between China and Japan during World War II. The themes were dark, the voice was adult, and the book was marked down as being too violent or graphic for YA. It got tons of 1-star reviews, because the book wasn’t what the readers were expecting.

Which leads us into:

The Consequences of Being Misclassified

  1. You get marked down for not meeting expectations
    • 1 and 2 star reviews on Amazon and GoodReads greatly affect your sales
  2. Your audience can’t find you.
    • If the real audience thinks the book is for their kids, they’re not as inclined to read it
    • When a story about a mother gets handed off to teen girls, the voice won’t resonate as strongly as it would with a mom

The LGBTQA community has gotten good at finding allies. At standing up for each other. There’s still push back, but they’re fighting hard to make sure their books are properly classified, not just shoved off into ‘special interest group’ or ‘adult’ sections simply because it contains characters that aren’t cis-gendered and/or heterosexual.

We can learn a lot from them.

So, how do we get around this?

The Call Of The Pseudonym

Publisher and audience biases have had women writing under pseudonyms or initials for centuries – from the Brontë Sisters, to George Eliot, to J.K. Rowling herself — women have used pen names to be more marketable. And? It seems to work.

Studies indicate, even Harry Potter might have had a harder time reaching the right audience if it came from Joanne Rowling.

Women these days, and others that don’t fit into the gender binary still succumb to these pressures. Because that’s how they make the sales to the right audience.

How Do We Fix This?

The sad news is, this isn’t something we can fix overnight. It’s not like we can print a correction in the paper and people will instantly stop. Instead, we have to help make the cultural shift. Here are some ways you can help.

  1. Pay more attention to how the books you read are classified by the publisher
  2. When you see a book improperly listed, think about reaching out to set the record straight
  3. Stop assuming boys won’t read female main characters. Or female authors. Teachers, parents, librarians: If you make it a non-issue? Often, they will too.
  4. Maybe you’re the target audience for books you’re not reading. Look at who you’re reading.
    • If you haven’t read a book recently by a female author, ask the internet (or me, in the comments below) for recommendations, based on your favorite male authors.
    • NOTE: This works for other markets – writers of color, writers of disability, LGBTQA writers, non-american writers. Branch out and see what you’re missing. Great writers can come from anywhere, but they only get the chance to shine if they can prove they have a market.

Any stories about gender bias happening to you? In any direction! Clearly, men writing in certain genres face similar issues. As, obviously, do people of other genders!

Any other suggestions on ways to help people move past their assumptions, and allow books to be enjoyed on their own merits.
With marketed expectation management NOT getting overridden by cultural assumptions?


As always, thanks for tuning in, and join me again next week as I share more writing tips and writerly musings from the over 24 hours of programming I attended at Balticon53.

I attend panels, so you don’t have to.

Writing Diversity

I’m combining notes from “Diversity, What Is It Good For” with panelists Devin Jackson Randall, Ken Schrader, Michelle D. Sonnier, Scott Roche, and Jennifer Povey
and
“Avoiding the ‘Representing the Entire [X] Trap” with panelists Day Al-Mohamed, K. M. Szpara, Stephanie “Flash” Burke, Ken Schrader, and Christie Meierz

Diversity is a big thing in writing these days, especially in the Young Adult section of genre fiction that I typically hang out in. There are long, on-going conversations that I’ve tried to provide context for in my notes.

Remember, even if you disagree with some of the thoughts below, these people came together to have a conversation in good-faith. They love what they do and are working hard at trying to do BETTER. No one is perfect, we’re all people. If you have criticisms, try to make them constructive.

Why Do We Write Diversity (besides representation)

[Context for people who aren’t familiar with the conversation. The biggest reason people suggest writing diversity is to be representational: to allow people to see themselves in unique characters.]

  •  The world is naturally diverse, this way our worlds reflect creativity. – Scott Roche
  • So we don’t limit ourselves. It’s like using 8 crayons instead of all 64. – Michelle Sonnier
  • Not doing so is doing yourself a disservice. If you aren’t diverse? Do your research and fix your world. – Ken Schrader
  • To learn about other types of peoples through writing and research. – Devin Jackson Randall
  • Some people ask “why include this” and call it pandering. Because we exist! Even the uncomfortable bits! – Stephanie “Flash” Burke

Tips on Doing Diversity Right

  • Remember, it’s a character… who is ALSO a [minority], that’s not their defining feature. – K. M. Szpara
  • One person can’t (and shouldn’t) represent a whole group. – Christie Meierz
  • Acknowledge the differences, and then move on! – Stephanie “Flash” Burke
  • Ignoring it limits your writing. – K. M. Szpara
  • Paying attention to it makes them real people. – Christie Meierz
  • Don’t skip marginalized characters in short stories because of ‘space’ – Day Al-Mohamed
  • Don’t just point out skin/orientation when it’s different than expectations. If you’re going to do it for some characters, do it for all. – K. M. Szpara
  • Don’t slap the audience with the difference in every sentence. – Stephanie “Flash” Burke
    • “Almond eyes, pale skin/chocolate skin… now I’m hungry”
  • Don’t describe other races with food terms. That’s overdone, a definite trope, and turns that character into a fetish.
  • Don’t hand me a book and say ‘you should read this, it’s about queer people.” If the answer is ‘yes’ when I ask, “Oh, do they die?” Kill the straight people instead! – K. M. Szpara

Intersectionality

[Context for people who aren’t familiar with this term:

Google defines intersectionality as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

In other words, a queer, white, woman with disabilities will have a different experience than a heterosexual, white, woman without any disabilities. And as you layer in other levels of social categorizations, the experiences will continue to diverge.]

  • It’s currently a buzzword, but it’s recognition of pieces we’re mislaying. Paying attention to it makes characters less 2-dimensional. As M. Evan Matyas says, “We want to walk all the way around the character.” Day Al-Mohamed came from a place where everyone looked like her. When she moved to America, she met whites and blacks and learned that blacks have their own culture and they don’t all have the same one. – Day Al-Mohamed
  • Look at it as subtracting monotony from world. – K. M. Szpara

What Are Your Pet Peeves About “Accuracy” Limiting Diversity?

  • There were blacks in medieval Europe. – Jennifer Povey
  • Fantasy as a genre. Your fantasy has no minorities to be realistic, but DRAGONS? – Michelle Sonnier
  • Westerns should have Asians, blacks, and natives. They’re typically FAR too white washed. The man who inspired the Texas Ranger? WAS black – Scott Roche
  • People using a single minority character – Ken Schrader
    • Either their only reason to be in the story is to make it ‘diverse’. They’re not given their own personality, wants, or needs.
    • Or the writer doesn’t do enough research so the character is 2 dimensional
  • Continually stereotyping a minority character – Devin Jackson Randall
    • Thai has a 3rd gender, but in media, the standard is to make the character’s gender the butt of the joke
  • All [minority] have the same political views. (Blacks? Dwarves? People with disabilities?)  They need reasons for their views!

How to Handle It When The Diversity Matters

  • Remember that who you are effects how you approach things. And things effect you differently based on who you are.
  • Point of View is shaped by the character’s history.

Examples of Diversity Done Right and Wrong

  • A fantasy movie about the Great Wall of China was marketed to have white main characters. In reality? The main characters were Chinese.  Pacific Rim, Luke Cage – both good representations of the world they’re supposed to represent. – Scott Roche
  • Star Wars and Star Trek – in every iteration strive to be more inclusive and diverse. – Michelle Sonnier
  • Often done wrong – Only villains (and often) are disfigured and/or injured. Heros are typically neither. – Ken Schrader.
  • (Except Fury Road, she was missing an arm from here *gestures to elbow* down. Well, here up would be hard.) – Scott Roche
  • Firefly was getting it right-er – Ken Schrader
  • ‘Ten Count’ (yaoi), ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ – both try, but often stop at 2-dimensions and don’t make excuses for themselves. ‘Sensai’ is good, but has issues.  – Devin Jackson Randall
  • Lois Bujold, especially her VorKosigan series handles disabilities well. – audience

Diversity used to be dubbed as ‘not marketable’, but that’s changing. – audience

Social media is helping [or hurting, when it doesn’t do its research]  – Devin Jackson Randall

Tricky Things – How To Make A Marginalized Antagonist

[Context for those who aren’t familiar with this trope: Very often, marginalized is used as shorthand for bad-guy. We don’t want to do that! For starters, it’s lazy. Secondly, it’s over done. You can’t say “there’s plenty of Russians in genre fiction” when they’re all drunken, bad-guy soviets.]

  • Backstory. Villains can be teachers. – Stephanie ‘Flash” Burke
  • No one (well, very few people) are villains in their own minds. They usually have very well-loved (if not good) reasons for doing what they do. – Christie Meierz
  • Ask if [marginalized] antagonist needs that [marginalization]. If not, you might be doing the wrong thing, for the right reasons. (ie – adding diversity, but accidentally falling into the stereotyping tropes). – Ken Schrader
  • It’s overdone. In James Bond, nearly all villains are disabled. It’s too cliche. – Day Al-Mohamed

Closing Thoughts

  • Don’t make sacred things casual. – Audience
  • Don’t forget mental illnesses. – Scott Roche
  • Don’t have people just brush off trauma. – Michelle Sonnier
  • Do your due-diligence, but don’t shy away from diversity. – Ken Schrader
  • Support good diversity, so we’ll get more.  – Devin Jackson Randall
  • Do your research. – Jennifer Povey
  • Don’t just observe other types of people, talk to them, if they’re open to it. – audience
    • You can usually ask friends for recommendations or
    • There are online groups for writers with people who volunteer
  • Checkout disabilityinkidlit.com – Day Al-Mohamed
  • If other characters don’t harp on differences, it won’t be a big deal. – Stephanie “Flash” Burke
  • There’s a difference between diversity being a coat of paint on a character, and it being a PART of a character, rather than their defining trait. – Audience
  • I don’t think the future is white. – Christie Meirz

These are just some people’s opinions!

What do you agree with? What do you disagree with?

Any other things writers should keep in mind when creating diverse worlds?