Sunday, 10 November 2013

One day, or ‘Ok, now I’m cranky’

I said I would have a YA Crime Guest post this week – yeah, sorry, that post is coming up next.  Now I usually use this blog to bang on about writing and process and my books and other people’s books, but today I’m going to post about something else.  Because I also started this blog to share some opinions.  And I read something the other day about gender disparity in the New York Times Bestseller List, and I have an opinion about it. So there you go.

Now if you’ve been reading this blog’s past posts, you’ll know that a while ago I had a little chat about perceived notions of bias towards women in YA fiction – you might wanna go read that before you read this.  I don’t want to rehash too much, but basically it came about because I was asked ‘where are all the male YA writers?’ during a panel (a panel I shared with Simmone Howell and Kirsten Krauth).

I found the question confusing, as I pretty much knew where they were (uh, at home writing YA books?), but since then I’ve been asked the question again and again, and I’ve also made a discovery.  So now when people ask ‘where are all the male YA writers?’, I can answer with ease, because the answer is ‘they’re on the New York Times YA Bestseller list’.

Yes, that’s right.  Recent number crunching in a post by Kelly Jensen – a librarian, researcher and blogger in the US – on the blog Stacked has revealed that according to the New York Times Bestseller list, male writers of YA actually out-sell female writers by a fairly wide margin.
Although there’s been some attention given to the NYT Bestseller list before (by Carey Wilson, here, in 2012), Jensen has done a thorough analysis of the data from 47 weeks worth of NYT Bestseller lists for YA, starting from when they began a YA list until 11/5/13.  E-book sales are included in the NYT YA lists, and placement depends on the highest sales within a given week.

She noted a number of kooky variables that seem to be particular to the NYT list, including the time lag from sales reporting to list placement, and the way books in a series are shifted over to a separate ‘series’ list once the third book is released. She also took into account things like author teams (books written by two authors in collaboration), how long individual authors remain on the list, and whether YA is accurately defined.  If you’d like to read her original posts on the issue (which are fascinating), I strongly encourage you to go here, and then on to part 2, here.

What she discovered was both startling, and curiously…not.

Now I’d like to point out, at this juncture, that a lot of hoo-ha has been made of the alleged domination of YA by female authors.  People have blogged about it, and written articles about it, and talked about it, and generally made merry with the idea that women writers are disproportionately represented in YA.  The NYT even published an article by Robert Lipsyte about how ‘YA is becoming too girly’ – there’s been much lamentation of the fact that boys are ill-served by YA, because of the lack of male YA writers. 

I honestly cannot tell you whether the percentage of female YA writers is larger compared to male YA writers in any given year – I don’t have that data, and Googling doesn’t bring up any results.  I suspect I’d have to subscribe to BookScan and crunch the numbers, in the way Jensen has, to come up with any genuine information (and it’s interesting that those stats aren’t available – if you do have the stats, let me know!).  Anecdotally, female writers are considered to predominate in the field.  And going by questions like the one I had, about ‘where are all the male YA writers’ , it appears that this perceived gender imbalance towards female writers in YA has become the ‘accepted’ understanding.

People genuinely believe that male writers struggle to get a foothold in YA.  This all feeds into the ‘boy books vs girl books’ argument, the one that drives me so crazy – the argument that girls will read anything, but that we need more books for boys, written by men, to appeal to boys’ specialised tastes.  Clearly there’s some idea floating around that male writers of YA languish in a kind of literary ghetto.

But if you look at the stats, a very different picture emerges.

In terms of sales numbers, it’s actually male writers in YA who hold the top spots.  Don’t believe me?  Go look at the raw data.  Jensen first examined the top 15 spots on the NYT Bestseller list, to cast a wide net, and discovered that – on average – bestsellers were attributed to ten authors (noting that authors who appear more than once are only counted once).  7 of the authors were male and 3 of the authors were female. 

In fact, going by the available data, it appears that there has never been a time when individual female writers have outnumbered individual male writers on the NYT YA Bestseller list.  Ever.  In the history of the list.

If you want to see it for yourself, go have a look – here’s the current NYT YA Bestseller list.  There’s currently six male authors up there in the top ten right now, and their books hold eight spots in total.  Are you noticing a trend?

Jensen goes into far greater detail in her analysis than I have here, of course.  She looks at the average length of stay for books on the list, and breaks down information about publishers represented.  There are also other variables to consider, including points raised in comments to the Stacked article – some of the most relevant ones included questions regarding whether some male YA authors already have a healthy readership in adult before moving to YA, and whether gender imbalance in the adult market has trickled down to the YA market; also whether adults buying YA (and that’s 55% of sales) have had a major impact on sales figures.

Authors themselves – if you follow Jensen’s links to the Twitter discussion – have called the NYT list ‘quirky’, and questioned whether the list might have more to do with prestige than with sales.  They asked whether the NYT list is a true reflection of actual buying habits of YA readers.

But they also raised a few issues that it would be well worth following up: namely, is the path onto the NYT list different for the genders?  What would now be an interesting discussion is what the marketing budgets look like for male writers of YA compared to the budgets of female writers.  And how those books are marketed as a product (returning to Maureen Johnson’s analysis of gendered cover trends).  And, y’know, because life isn’t busy enough, maybe we should check and see what the ratio is like for male/female readers (or maybe more relevantly, male/female buyers).

What kind of implications does an analysis of the NYT YA Bestseller list have?  Well, I guess the most obvious implication is that as a society, we still buy men’s writing more than we buy women’s writing.  And I mean ‘buy’ in both senses – we spend our money on it, and we continually return to it as the norm, or benchmark if you will, of quality writing.

Lots of people will say ‘well, what does it matter what the New York Times list looks like?  JK Rowling sold millions - if female writers’ books are selling well, then the list is obviously not a reflection of trends, or even an accurate reflection of market share’.

But this is disingenuous - as Jensen points out, it matters.

Because publishers ostentatiously use the tag ‘#NYT Bestseller’ to plug their books.
Because some retailers (eg big distributors like Target) won’t even pick up a title unless it has the ‘#NYT Bestseller’ label attached.
Because writers themselves use the ‘#NYT Bestseller’ label as a draw for readers and (particularly, adult) buyers.
And above all, because the ‘#NYT Bestseller’ label has status – it has become representative of what qualifies as a good book, a book that we recommend to our friends, a book that we buy as a Christmas present for a family member (see the Wikipedia article note that a Stanford Business School analysis found that the majority of book buyers use the NYT list for buying ideas), a book that we pick up ourselves to see what is going on inside .

It’s also a very visible ranking of sales, and consequently a great way for people to make assumptions about what’s going on in the world of literature.  So if my husband really wants to yank my chain, he can make a comment like ‘So does that mean that male writers of YA are better than female writers of YA?’.  He knows what happens when these jokes get made (‘honey, I love you, now just walk away’), but he’s also making a point: that these are the kind of value judgements that are made by the larger community.

If the NYT Bestseller list for YA is largely dominated by male writers, despite the preponderance of female writers in the field, then obviously there’s underlying social trends going on – well, d’uh.  And if you couple that with VIDA stats and coverflip issues and inequality in award lists (see the Caldecott thing here) and so on, then you start to see a very glaring picture of where women still stand in the literary field.

None of this is new.  None of this is unclear – saying there’s no gender disparity in literature is right up there with climate change scepticism, in my opinion.  It’s a no-brainer.  Gender inequality in literature is, after all, right on trend with gender inequality in all the other areas of life – domestic life, work, government, policy, agency, opinion.

I guess for me the question of literature is one of voice.  Without women’s voices, women’s stories, women’s expression, then half of the population goes silent and unheard - and by extension, unseen, unvalued, ignored.  Sure, some female authors have made it onto the list – and some (Suzanne Collins, Cassandra Clare, Stephenie Meyer, Virginia Roth, JK Rowling) have been hugely successful.  Perhaps this has blinded people to the awareness that gender parity is still a long way off.  Which, when you consider how much has been made of the presence of female authors in YA, is a real kick in the pants.

So I guess the question I have – the BIG question - is this.

Is it asking too much to think we could have real societal change on gender inequality in my lifetime? 

Wow, that’s a big one.  It’s only been about fifty years since the emergence of Second Wave feminism.  My mother was still reading a completely male-dominated literary canon in school; my own experience was only one step removed.  I was one of the first women to go through the officially-classified Women’s Studies major (now called Gender Studies) at my university.

Am I expecting too much to think that women should now have an equal slice of the literary pie within barely one generation?  We have come from a very low base – in slow-moving political terms, fifty years is not a lot, and the fact we’re discussing and questioning it so openly is quite a big deal.  At least we’re talking about it – as Jensen points out, this isn’t a discussion that’s ‘begun’ but rather one that has been raging for some time.  And here in Australia, where our discussions on racism seem to have stalled to the point where we’re all now back somewhere in the fifties, discussions about gender disparity are still strong and ongoing.

But I’m impatient.  I want more than talk.  I want something to happen.

I guess for me, part of the impatience stems from having children of my own, who are now readers.  In some kind of hilarious karmic smack-upside-the-head (for the woman who studied feminist literature and philosophy) I have four sons.  They are my life, and they will grow up into amazing and vibrant young men, and I want something for them.

I want my sons to grow up reading books by men and books by women in equal amounts, to value their stories equally.  I want them to be free of the ‘boy books vs girl books’ bullshit that restricts what is considered appropriate for them to read.  I want them to see books by both women and men with covers that reflect the human stories inside.  I don’t want them to grow up thinking that ‘mum just writes chick stories’.  I want them to grow up believing that all stories are human stories.

I don’t want them to grow up thinking that half of the population is lesser.

So bear with my naïve logic here.  Bestseller lists are about sales, right?  Which means that more people need to buy more books by more female authors, in order to generate the sales that would create gender parity on the lists.  Then we have a ‘quirky’ but nonetheless visible indicator that we’re valuing female voices as much as we’re valuing male voices.

If that’s the case, then I thought I might try a little experiment.  In 2014, I’m going to buy only books by women.

I mean, why not?  Who could it hurt?  Well, I might irritate a few people who think I’m being self-serving, or just find my unsophisticated politics kind of annoying.  I may well tick off a few of my male writer friends - although I’d like to emphasise that the statement above doesn’t say ‘read’, it says ‘buy'.  So I will continue to read books by men – and I’ll promote them, and rec them to friends, and give them to my kids, and review them positively whenever I can.  I’m always happy to promote good books, and great stories.  Haven’t read The Fault in our Stars yet? – do yourself a favour and read it!  Love Scot Gardner’s The Dead I Know? – go get a copy!  Hanging out for the next book by Michael Adams, The Last Shot? – me too!  I’m definitely gonna put it on my to-read list, and in 2015, I will go out and buy it.

But not next year.  Next year, what I’m going to spend my money on is books by women.

It should be easy.  Women writers already dominate my reading list, and there are lots of female writers out there who don’t get the acknowledgement (or sales) they deserve.   This is just something I can do, on a small (miniscule!) personal level.  Not a petition or a discussion – a backyard economic change.  Just me.  One year, one person, one wallet.

It may not count as a blip on the NYT Bestseller list.  But maybe - one day - we’ll see those equal stats line up.

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