Between work, NaNoWriMo (which I completed this year!), and this site, I didn’t get to read as many books as I would have liked. With that said, I’m so glad that the books I’ve gotten have been honed on a theme. That’s not to say that I’ve loved every book I’ve tackled in 2015. Some have been a slog and some have even been outright frustrating. I do think that I’d be hard pressed, however, to find one book that didn’t make me think about something a bit differently.
I’ve gone into a few specific instances and don’t want this to turn into just another batch of reviews. Instead, I’d like to point out some things that stood out to me. The first is just the amount of women protagonists that take center stage when books are written by women. Writing men, and so often white men, isn’t just an easy default, it’s a lazy one as well. There are two things that should really factor in to how many characters are women, regardless of the author’s gender. One is the sheer number of women readers. But even more than that, what about the realistic aspect of it? Women make up half the population (slightly more depending on statistical sources). Shouldn’t that mean that the likelihood of someone’s story being the story of a woman be fifty/fifty odds? But that’s not how it works out. That’s why reading a number of novels by women skews things back to the center. The bias isn’t assumed white male. It’s the assumed self, which is now a woman. It wouldn’t hurt for men to adopt this coin flip attitude in their own writing, as the gender of the protagonist shouldn’t correlate so fully to the gender of the author.
Another focus that I noticed was that the stories looked deeply into who the characters are rather than just what they accomplish. Some titles I read through were incredibly clear about this being the driving force of the story. The Girl in the Road is ostensibly about two women traveling, but the narrative is about unveiling facts about their pasts as their characters become clearer in the present. Some, like Nimona, are a bit more shrouded. Nimona has a clear fantasy storyline, but the subtext is all about identity and perception. Where The Girl in the Road as almost a brutal self examination, Nimona is a subversive reveal of internal identity. And then there are titles like All the Bright Places. That has the framework of the standard YA romance with a couple of key reversals. The first is that the manic pixie dream girl is a boy in this case. That alone is an interesting turn with social implications of the pursued and the pursuer played out in their friendship. The other is that the driving force of the story is internal rather than external. I’m not saying that other YA books have no emotional core, but the main issues are usually something external that the characters are trying to internalize, rather than something internal that the characters are trying to confront and accept. Compare John Green’s Paper Towns (another deconstruction of the MPDG) which revolves around the pursuit of someone else, the analysis of clues left behind, and the ever changing external stimuli of a road trip. All the Bright Places, on the other hand, is about two characters dealing with suicidal urges, each for different reasons. There’s a mini-road trip superimposed on them in order to get them physically from one place to another, but where Paper Towns still used the other as a tool of self discovery (the non-Manic Pixie Dream Girl character still functioned as a conduit for the main character’s self discovery) All the Bright Places has the Pixie drag the protagonist back to the world, kicking and screaming. The format is much closer to that of therapy than a quest, which in a world of popular quest franchises, a frank discussion about mental health as a process rather than a mountain to climb.
And then… there’s the simple fact that it wasn’t easy to stick with women writers all year. What I did read was great, but there’s so much out there that I just couldn’t. The majority of the time when someone would recommend a book to me I would have to respond “Great! I’ll get to it next year.” That’s not saying all of the good books are written by men. That’s me saying that the most talked about books are most often written by men. There’s this strange unbalance between the amount of women readers and male writers that get critical coverage. So many of the people I talk to who come through my library are women, and it’s not as if I had a hard time finding enough books to read. But the books on the best seller list tend to be male-authored. Now and again an outlier (in both sales and public discussion) will surface, often in the thriller genre of late, but certain areas still tend to fall on one side of the gender divide. Nonfiction is probably the biggest issue. So much of my “to read” science books had to be moved to the back of the shelf. This may be a bit of a leap, but I know about women in STEM and this feels like an issue from the publishing side.
Things are getting better. Tor is doing an amazing job of pushing out great women authors in science fiction and fantasy, two genres that have had a long and troubled history with women. Comics, another male-led area of publishing, has had a number of wonderful titles out recently. Hopefully we’ll start to see a shift of women-authored works not simply being labeled as women’s fiction and making their way into the mainstream literary world. The best way to convince publishers to do this? Go out and read books by women.