My love for books is boundless, but discussing my predilections is a source of anxiety. Over time, I’ve learned that inquiries about my favorite titles are rarely expressions of genuine interest, but rather a litmus test for intellectual prowess based on a set of arbitrary expectations. As a writer, my merit is subject to scrutiny based on the contents of my bookshelf, and my female identity ensures the expectations are exponentially increased. It seems I am destined to suffer from a never-ending barrage of “well-meaning” comments regarding the direction of my work and preferred hobbies, or as I like to call it, concern-trolling.
The notion that erudite literature is the only type worth exonerating is inextricably linked to the preconception that all writers aspire to become the next literary great. Among other things, this assumption creates a schism between adult and young adult publishing, culminating in the sentiment that children and young adult titles are frivolous things incapable of the same level of complexity and depth as their grown-up counterparts. Though much of this is the by-product of a culture that conflates self-worth with job status, gender ostensibly plays a large part in how societal roles are conceptualized.
The gender disparity is evidenced by the media that examines “women’s interest” authors and the language used when engaging them, including the denotation of “women’s interest” (I shouldn’t need to point out that gendering a subject is self-serving and reinforces negative stereotypes.) Unsurprisingly, casual sexism is rampant in discussions of genres predominantly populated by female authors.
Last week, NYU Local caught fire when they purported that “if you’ve ever had a roommate or a little sister or a mom or your monthly period,” you’ve undoubtedly heard of John Green. This cringe-worthy assertion is subsequently followed with the proclamation that even though the YA genre is “crafted specifically for [the] small, zitty and hormone-crazed” teenagers, there are some non-Green gems out there, even though the author repeatedly reiterates that Green is the figurative father of the genre.
The majority of the suggested novels NYU lists are old favorites written by authors with more literary commendations than Green, and yet he’s presented as the brilliant mastermind of the genre. Clearly, NYU intended to invoke his name and pending movie as a hook for a relevant-interest article, but instead created a problematic source for which the non-initiated will adhere.
The John Green Effect
Love him or hate him, John Green is a powerful force in YA publishing. But lauding commendations on his shoulders for turning a generation on to a long-standing and previously thriving genre is not only presumptuous, it’s offensive to every other author in the business and plays victim to the trope that an author’s crowning achievement is to be the front-runner of it’s genre. Big-name blockbusters emerge from the every genre on a regular basis, but no single instance should be viewed as the absolute driving force behind the genre. Literature is highly subjective, but the reason many mass-popular titles come into popularity can usually attributed to an effective marketing and promotion team. Publishing is no simple matter.
Relevancy aside, it’s a challenge to find recent articles about YA lit that don’t focus on Green; his name tends to to dominate the discourse, even when it shouldn’t.
The Daily Dot’s Aja Romano recently attempted to explore the implications of gender in YA publishing, but the result was abysmal and inaccurately represented the issues at hand and (unsurprisingly) used Green as the focal point of the conversation. People were appropriately outraged, and Twitter was abuzz from these two pieces.
You can read all of Sara Zarr’s thoughts via Storify.
At the time Romano’s article was published, it opened with a call-to-arms against author John Green that had been circulating on Tumblr (it’s since been edited at the behest of authors who called it out for the absolute ridiculousness that it was). The all-caps decry of a famous author segued into the article’s central message: Male authors—Green specifically—shoulder the blame for female authors’ success or lack thereof within the YA genre simply because they exist within the same space.
The “John Green Effect” is described as being the phenomenon that occurs when Green gives his mark of approval to select titles he reviews and they magically become popular. One example is the delightful Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell. The problem with this theory is that it is no more than typical conspiracy-theorist tripe. It assumes Green has the direct power to manipulate trends and that author success is firmly dependent on his approval, which is untrue. In the case of Eleanor and Park, it was popularized with librarians and book bloggers well before Green got around to showering it with accolades.
Let’s be clear: Reinforcing a male vs. female dichotomy is counterproductive. YA is not expressly a women’s interest genre, and men who enter it are not co-opting women’s issue, much as women entering other areas of publishing are not co-opting a male space. YA is unfairly stigmatized due to reasons I listed previously, and the fact that gender is pertinent within YA publishing correlates with ingrained gender views that persist in all areas of society.
“Do male authors overshadow their female counterparts?” is not the conversation we should be having. YA lit is an important part of publishing and deserves acknowledgement for the important role it plays, and shouldn’t be characterized by elitist notions that aim to stigmatize its presence or detract credibility from its creators. It’s reductive to categorize it as childish material or eschew it entirely until a man can “reinvent” it, and it’s useless to argue that talented ladies like Rainbow Rowell require male approval to succeed.
Yes, gender’s intersectionality with the treatment of YA authors is a topic that should be explored, but if we want to talk about women, we should do it by celebrating their work, not by derailing the conversation to focus on men.