I haven’t been blogging much lately. In fact, this is my first post of 2014 and it’s almost May. I can claim it’s because of that oh-so-vague word, “busy,” but it’s more a combination of busy/tired/out of things to say. I used to put pressure on myself to keep up the blog, write about topics that have been written about before, and be an active member of some sort of online community. But, I’ve decided to keep my sanity and only blog when I feel inspired.
So here’s what inspired me today.
Every so often – sorry, make that very, very often – some magazine, blog, or newspaper will feature a story about YA fiction. Recently, articles such as this Vanity Fair piece about John Green’s book-to-film deals and this idiotic thing about why women are to blame for boys not reading, have gotten justified backlash from authors, librarians, publishing professionals, and feminists (or all of the above). Those are just the most recent pieces that disrespect female authors. There are several others, and there will be several more.
That is troubling in itself, and to anyone who wants to help restore the balance, I suggest reading and publicly supporting female authors, whether they write YA, adult, nonfiction, poetry, prose, whatever. But here’s what else is troubling:
Almost every article or post about YA fiction mentions John Green in some way, and usually it’s because the article itself is about him. He’s often hailed as the “savior” who will give YA the credibility it deserves. Of course, anyone who regularly reads YA fiction or is familiar with the book industry knows these articles are insane, but the truth is, most people don’t. Most people will only associate a genre with whatever its best seller is. “Readers” and “book people” are still considered a minority no matter how much time we spend in our self-made niche communities. That’s why these articles, unfortunately, matter a great deal.
That said, what I see happening to John Green is similar to what we all did to Jonathan Franzen in 2010 after Freedom was published. The difference, of course, is that people like John Green as a person so it’s not as socially acceptable to compare him to that guy everyone loves to hate. Now that TIME magazine has listed John Green as one of the Top 100 Influential People in the World, the comparison to Franzen seems even more evident. They are both White Privileged Straight Male Authors who have become the faces – and, in many ways, the standard-bearers – of their respective genres.
In his write-up in TIME, Green is referred to as a prophet. The YA community on Twitter today took this to mean that yet another article is praising a male author instead of a female author. This is true only in the technical sense, but I doubt TIME consciously snubbed female YA authors. (Note: TIME does include non-YA female authors on the Top 100.) The hashtag created in response to Green’s honor was #ladyprophets. I’m usually all for getting the names of more female authors out in a public arena, but when it’s at the expense of another author, it feels cheap.
The thing is, there are not a whole lot of authors on the current YA scene who have done as much for contemporary/realistic fiction as John Green has. This should be evident just based on the fact that people outside of the YA community know his name. There are plenty of rising stars, but they aren’t the same as “stars.” Not yet.
(And before you scream “JK Rowling!” please remember that Harry Potter is 1) considered a Middle Grade series even though the characters age, and 2) published before the YA “craze.” It doesn’t follow current market standards for the simple reason that it helped create them.)
(And before you say “Stephenie Meyer!” I’ll remind you that I said contemporary/realistic fiction, not paranormal romance or any other major YA trend.)
So back to John Green.
There are a handful of contemporary YA authors who have a major influence on the market, some male, some female, some of whom are better writers than John Green. But let’s be real. None of them have come close to John Green’s level of success. Was sexism part of that success? Probably, a little, sure. (He even admits, somewhat, to that in this self-reflective post.) But he’s also a talented writer with some very good novels out there. You should read them. Honestly.
John Green made his name with Looking For Alaska before YA was the Hot New Thing and he continued to write award-winning novels while contemporary YA took a backseat to paranormal & dystopian trends. All the while he gained a massive audience with his vlogs and Twitter feed, and he supports other writers – including female ones – publicly and often. So maybe let’s give him a break?
None of these articles are John Green’s fault, and yet the backlash against those articles is suddenly turning into backlash against him. And that? That just makes me sad, both as a lover of reading and as a feminist.
Feminism is about mutual respect and equality. It’s not about tearing one side down to build up another. We should never stop fighting to get women the respect they deserve, and we should get angry and speak out when we see injustice.
An all-white, all-male panel that’s supposed to represent children’s fiction as a whole? Yes, demand answers. People being excited about a writer who happens to be a man? That’s not injustice. We’re all on the same side here. We should be thrilled someone who deserves fame is actually getting it! Like I said above, “book people” are a minority. If we can’t support each other, then who else will support us?
I see similar things happen in writing communities online all the time. Writers who think of their agented friends as “leaving them behind.” Agented writers who are jealous of their friends’ book deals or accolades, and make them feel guilty for their success.
Ain’t no one got time for that, writers. If any of that sounds familiar to you, get new friends.
Be proud of what you accomplish and be proud of what others accomplish and don’t let anyone take away what you deserve. We’re members of a community, and like any family, we’ll fight and disagree, but we need to remember to support each other, no matter what level of success we find, even if that success is John Green-level.