In which I rant about gender, cry over Ruta Sepetys, explain the trade book industry, and briefly cavort at the Hippie Hop party
04/08/2012 - 04/08/2012
For Saturday afternoon, I went straight to Jordan Brown's talk on writing for boys, because the only other thing that interested me would have been "Issues in Writing Girls," except that Sara Shepard was doing it. Also because, after doing some research, he was now at the top of my editor-to-talk-to list. As expected, he opened with a focus on how writing for boys is juxtaposed by writing for girls, and how he really dislikes the prevalent thinking that "boys hate reading." Instead he blamed how books are presented and framed for boys, especially the idea that there is "legitimate" reading - serious books vetted by educational and library institutions - and "illegitimate" reading - comic books, magazines, parodies, Sunday funnies, and those humorous novels Dan Gutman writes.
He said that boys get the idea that reading is serious work that cannot be done for fun, so of course they won't want to read. He also mentioned the "screen rule" - if it doesn't have a screen, they won't be interested - relating to the issue of video games and related entertainment phenomena as being a more predominant feature in boys' lives. Additionally he noted a key difference he sees in the themes of coming of age novels for girls versus for boys: when girls are "caught between" problems, they try to make things right; boys, on the other hand, try to avoid it ("they just want to be yelled at less"). In short, he said, it's not that boys are reluctant readers, it's that they don't read what we think they should (classics, anyone?).
I found this all extremely interesting fodder for issues of gender in the literary world. A hundred and fifty years ago, who would have predicted that girls would be more well-read than boys in the English-speaking world? Or, for that matter, that they would do better in school - a system which I would argue is still in many ways skewed in favor of their male peers. Although I don't claim to be well-versed in this issue, I think a better place to look for answers would be in another mix of expectations: We don't really expect boys to like reading, and boys expect each other not to. Yes, young men should read classics! (Think of all those "young [male] geniuses" like Champollion, or John Stuart Mill, or 13-year-old Jacob Barnett.) But do we really expect male adolescents to break free of their peers and especially their gender box to engage in an activity that in grade school is decidedly - at least in the mainstream culture - feminine? (Yes, we have examples of tough young guys like Will Hunting toting Marx, but except for the boys in Dead Poets Society, I can't recall any bookish characters who avoided nerd stereotypes without going the route of the aforementioned boy genius.)
This dichotomy is complicated by the fact that the majority of authors for young adults and children especially are female; the male-female ratio of the attendees was 1 to 5. For the keynote speakers it was 5:7; for the editors panel 1:1 (with moderator 3:4); the picture book panel 3:1 (with moderator 4:1); and the agents panel was billed at 1:1, but a last-minute substitution made it 1:3, the only group event to mirror the gender demographics of the audience. The total author/illustrator male-female ratio for the faculty was about 3:5, and for the faculty as a whole it was about 5:9 (you can find all this information on the schedule and faculty pages of the SCBWI conference website). Of the six awards given out on Sunday, only one went to a man (that's two of the nine annual Golden Kite Awards). Additionally, almost all of the regional and other special coordinators for the organization are female.
On the one hand, it's possible that there is such a glut of female authors in the market, and that because of their similar age and marital status and probably interest in children elsewhere in their lives, they write a lot of similar things. Men, on the other hand, are harder to come by, and as Jordan Brown suggested are more in demand particularly if they can satisfy educators' and parents' desire for their male students and children to read. The coordinators probably wanted to show some diversity and maybe even included extra men so as not to scare off the male attendees (don't we wish people did the same for women in male-dominated professions?). Additionally, the illustrator dynamic seems more flexible than the authors' in both the importance of gender and the ability to do art in other fields. Finally, editors and agents are not authors, so even though they publish and represent authors, they are not necessarily as beholden to the gendered world of authors per se.
Despite the ambiguity (and dubious sampling) of just this one conference, I thought it was very interesting that the men's keynotes appealed to me much more than the women's; even though Ruta Sepetys' was very moving (more on that later), the men seemed to capture the attention of the audience better, and even when they mused about their lives they seemed to have more direction and more of a point. Their approach toward children seemed different as well; Gary Schmidt and Tony Diterlizzi talked about grade school boys and their own childhood selves; Clare Vanderpool and Patricia MacLachlan went on about their children and grandchildren. And even though Bryan Collier, Dan Gutman, and Gary Schmidt all have families, they only mentioned them in passing, not as an integral part of their work.
To get back to Clare Vanderpool's comment, Gary Schmidt opened his speech with an admission that he now realized his working life is a very gendered experience, and then went on to talk about how he gets up early in the morning, eats breakfast, and goes to his own little gazebo-cabin-studio, writes, chops wood, writes, walks his collies, eats lunch, writes some more, eats dinner, and goes to bed. I was astounded. Even though there is much to say of personal choice regarding women and their relationship to the workforce, of the seven female keynote speakers, only three are of working age, fully employed (whatever that means for an author/illustrator), and working mostly in the industry; this contrasts with all five of the men.
The good people of the internet are also a bit confused as to this issue, even in a quick Google query like "book publishing women." Publishers Weekly asked "Does the lack of men in publishing hurt the industry?" while Melville House wondered "Are publishers keeping women down?" Meanwhile The New Republic looked into the idea of a literary glass ceiling and the European Gender-Research.net has a 30-page paper on women in the German market.
Anyway, after his presentation a whole slew of people walked up to talk to him. I decided that, since I had nothing to ask/comment/disagree with about writing for boys, I would go and find him later. By the time I got down to the auditorium to claim a seat, I still had a lot of time left and I was beginning to feel I'd missed a choice opportunity. So I left someone to watch my stuff and raced back up to an empty room. To which I shrugged. Then on my way down I saw him walking back down, and half-followed him back to the auditorium to watch him sit with the rest of the faculty. I then kicked myself and determined to watch his seating area like a hawk on Sunday.
Then Lin got up to give us another humor contest winner's entry: "Corduroy Beats Paddington in Men's Overalls Competition." Then she introduced Ruta Sepetys, whose debut novel Between Shades of Gray (which is absolutely not to be confused with that other book) has been making some news winning multiple awards despite the name confusion (and a sequel is already in the works). (For those of you who are wondering, the name of her book was probably chosen very much anterior to E. L. James' original online publication of Shades of Grey; the sheer length of the publication process - an average of two years - is one reason why not to write to trends unless you're already on the fast track.)
Ruta's talk was the most amazing one of the entire conference. She called it "You Cannot Break the Broken," because in writing this book she became thoroughly, utterly broken. For those of you who don't know, Ruta Sepetys is a Lithuanian name (Ruta means "rue"); she has it because her father and his parents fled that country when Stalin "annexed" it into the Soviet Union following World War II. Some years ago, when she decided to go find her extended family in Lithuania, she discovered that they'd been sent to a Siberian gulag in her father's place. Their story is what inspired her to write the book in the first place.
Her dedication to researching and writing it was such that, after confronting these horrors third-person through interviews with survivors in Lithuania, she agreed to undergo a 24-hour gulag simulation in Latvia. Although the physical trauma was horrible, the hardest part for her, she said, was what she learned about herself. Having watched a line of fellow prisoners be beaten and dragged off, and then having been beaten herself, she saw a man on the floor who couldn't get up who asked her for help. And, she said, "a switch flipped in me and I was changed" - and she walked away. "It' so hard to find out who you really are," she explained: "I am a coward." And then she went on to say that, after a certain point in this book-writing journey, she realized that "even though it wasn't getting better, it wasn't getting any worse." This is when she realized that "you cannot break the broken" - a title which gives as much strength to the Lithuanian people as it does to the pain of "writing emotional truth."
Ruta's message was that it is the truth of emotion, not of facts, that is most important in writing for young people, even if the emotions are difficult to face, because they reflect real problems in the world that we, as rapidly maturing ex-teenagers, will have to go out and face. Given the likelihood that her book will be challenged institutionally for excessive violence, it's no surprise that she described books such as these as "art they [children] need." Although she focused much more on the writer's side of the experience, it was reminiscent of Donna Jo Napoli's talk at the TEDx Swarthmore event. From her perspective, a good book is often borne from the writer's navigation through their own pain, their own fear (cue Poe and Kafka). "What," she asked us, "do you wish would just go away?" Because, she went on, no matter how alone we feel in out problems, there is someone out there who feels exactly the same way. And, as a writer - particularly for the younger demographic - there was this sense that it had to written to help those who come behind us. "We're standing here like skinned rabbits," she said, "hoping that it will all change just one person."
She left half the room in tears and got a standing ovation. Needless to say, her book is now on my must-read list.
Following this speech was another one, which turned us a complete 180 degrees from the emotional to the economic. Deborah Halverson ran us through her "up to the minute" survey of the trade book industry market. To understand what it means, let me briefly explain how young people's literature publishing works.
First, you have publishing houses, the big six and then the smaller ones. They have editors, publicists, etc. and can pay you to acquire and sell your book. There are also agents, who help you find the right editors and publishing houses (and divisions of publishing houses), and handle the business end of things. Needless to say, you must also pay them. The big buyers of these books are libraries and bookstores, or rather, Barnes and Noble. Individual sales, independent bookstores, schools, etc. account for smaller shares of the market. The internet is also slowly taking off as a place to sell, mostly through Amazon.
From the top, money needs to be made, so books need to sell, and authors who can write books that will be sold are in demand, according to what's selling well in general, not only as a fad. That said, ever since J. K. Rowling made bestsellers a news item and authors the new rock stars, there's been a slew of A-list books that haven't really met the standards on the "craft" side of things the way she did (insert latest fad book). On the other hand, B-list books have not been doing so well; in fact, the market sort of resembles the American socioeconomics: lots of people at the bottom, a few at the top. But in publishing there's also this mass of people who are euphemistically "pre-published" and searching for someone to take them on.
This is why the market survey was so interesting. On the one hand, people like Ruta were telling us to write emotion, truth, stories, from our souls and from our hearts, to write well and do our research and it would just happen. Then we had this survey on what the market wants, what the market needs, what the market, reads; authors who used pseudonyms to publish "afresh" as "new writers" were lauded for their dedication to selling well. I only ever heard one comment about "writing for enjoyment because you'll never get published," and it was immediately brushed off (for the record, this is my jumping-off point as a writer; publishing and money are unassumed perks).
To get back to Clare Vanderpool's other comment, most of the conference attendees were unpublished, and this is what the SCBWI exists for. I don't want to sound cynical, but even though it offers a lot of resources to writers and illustrators, the publishers and editors also benefit enormously. All their advice on how to do well is also advice on how to get hired by these selfsame people. It's like all the admissions departments of all the colleges and universities had an organization with an annual conference on how to get accepted to a college, and could tell you if nursing school was in or programming was out, based on how well they thought the job market was doing for those fields.
So with this in mind, here is a crash course on the market "trends and needs": It wasn't looking so hot earlier, but now it seems to be doing quite strongly; theres a bit of a glut in picture books, with requests for concept books, character-driven stories, and always something new and quirky; MG is doing stronger than YA, and searching for distinct voices that aren't too voice-y and writers who know their "craftwork" (AKA they can write); the YA market is experiencing "paranormal and dystopian fatigue" and looking for "product that is revolutionary within a genre"; overall, the suggestion for overcoming the "midlist hurdles" is to write well, tell good stories, and have characters who resonate with their readers.
With that in mind, I headed to the illustrators' portfolio showcase and reception. I met a bunch of young artists while waiting outside and we all exchanged cards (mine were handmade the day before with the extra paper from my badge). Then the pavilion opened and we go to see everyone's work and contact info laid out on rows of tables. Then the awards came out, three for "best of show" and three for "let's help you improve"; one of the guys I met won one of these last three.
Afterwards it was dinnertime (more CliffBars) and we all headed the back lawn and pool. There was a buffet and it looked pretty good, but the line was long and I had to catch the bus before any of the fun started. It looked like everyone else had come with a friend, so I jut got in line for drink with my free ticket. I did not, as suggested by the young artists, get anything alcoholic on the premise that no one would be carded. Instead I got a cranberry and Sprite mix, which was very good. Then I went to wait at the bus station and wrote a little on my new character from the day before (no, still not telling about that one).
Thus concluded day two.