July 24, 2008

But What's A Boy Sound Like?

In actual BOOK news, On the Guardian Book blog, UK children's author Anthony McGowan talks about toilet humor encouraging kids to read. Middle graders are a tough audience -- and the gross factor matches well with his book, HELLBENT. Not sure if this one is slated for a U.S. release any time soon. (And how much do you want to bet they'd have to change the name?) One thing I do have to say is that I'm glad McGowan doesn't say he encourages BOYS to read by using toilet humor. He said, "KIDS." As in, girls too.

Liz takes a moment to wish that those people who whine about "there are no good boy books anymore," and "whatever happened to strong female protagonists" could have a booklist exchange. I'm in full agreement that I don't believe in "Boy Books" and "Girl Books." There are certainly some things which have more appeal to guys or girls, but it's a slippery slope trying to divide books by gender.

Brian F., in the comments brings up another good question for writers constantly wondering if their characters sound genuine. When a female is writing a male character and asks the question, "Does this sound like a boy," what's the right answer? "What," pray tell, Brian F. wants to know, "does a boy sound like?"

That question echoed into my brain and brought me to something else: dominant culture assumption in novels, or how to make a character "sound black." Anyone want to touch that with a ten foot pole?


I've just spent a lot of time in the past week doing what my editor calls "polishing," which is making sure a character's country-flavored drawl and Southern colloquialisms are absolutely readable to the average person. Even as a minority, I had no one to ask if my character sounded appropriately ethnic or not -- yet there's always the niggling suspicion that maybe my version isn't the "right" one.

Is the characterization that I did enough? Despite the fact that I didn't mention coffee, mocha, chocolate, cinnamon or anything else edible in reference to her, do you think readers will understand that she has an African American ancestry?

Perhaps the only thing that can be said on the "boy" or the "black" issue is this: no one's got the final word on anyone else's perception. No one is the authority. Girl, boy, black, blue, go with what you know, do your best to depict things as you hear and see them, and you should be fine.


There will always be someone who disagrees, who thinks you didn't do enough, who wants to point out you didn't do it "right." Like so many other things in the writing life, one just has to take that in stride.

New poverty estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey indicate that about 13 percent of people nationwide were living in poverty in 2005. However, estimates from the American Community Survey (or ACS, a nationwide annual survey of households conducted by the Census Bureau) show that poverty rates in 2005 varied widely around the country, from less than 8 percent in New Hampshire to 21 percent in Mississippi. The ACS estimates also show that seven states had statistically significant increases in their child poverty rates between 2004 and 2005.

And now for a word from Colleen:

If you don't read about kids in your economic strata who make it, who study great subjects, or build great things, or create great art, then you don't think you can either. If you don't see success for those from "your world" reflected on tv or in movies or in books then you will come to believe that certain - or maybe all - levels of success are not possible for you.

You will never be rich enough to be anything.

Can it be said any more clearly that all young adults need to see themselves reflected in the literature they read? Though I am personally hesitant about titles which glorify violence and no copy-editing urban lit arguably reflects a socio-economic group that should also be represented. Definitely something to consider. Go, read Chasing Ray, and put in your two cent's worth.


Brian Farrey said...

First of all, I LOVE HELLBENT. It's been out in the US for a while.

Second, since we're talking about the "sounds" of certain characters, I thought I'd share another MFA horror story. While workshopping my novel with an "advanced fiction" class, one of my classmates told me to be careful with my protagonist because "he sounds stereotypically gay."

To prove his point, said classmate opened to a random page in the manuscript and began reading a line of dialogue from the protagonist...in a high pitched, lispy, swishy voice.

You're going to have to trust me (and the other people in the class will back me up) when I say there is NOTHING in the manuscript that suggests my character speaks in a high voice, has a lisp, or is considered effeminate. Nothing. I don't even remember what the line of dialogue was but it was something innocuous like, "Wow, that's really great news. I'm so happy for you." Somehow, in his head, my classmate read that to mean that my protag was a screaming queen. (I don't remember if classmate read this with an actual limp wrist or if my mind just wants to remember it that way so I can hate him more.)

I began to suspect that anytime this classmate encounters a gay character in a book, he mentally defaults to a poodle-clutching, pink ascot-wearing stereotype from 70s TV.

The thought of readers who bring expectations or prejudices to a work sometimes paralyzes my efforts as a writer. "What will people think if I write THIS?" I haven't figured out a way around that yet. It's easy to say, "Screw 'em" and write for myself but that doesn't stop the fear.

tanita✿davis said...

Re: HELLBENT - Oh, good! I'm so weirdly out of touch now that I am in Scotland, I can't tell if things are OUT in the U.S., or just being discovered, or what (not that I was all that hip to begin with). PLUS, Glasgow... is... not... terribly literate, at the risk of offending my neighbors. They're having a helluva time getting their kids to read. Books like HELLBENT are a step in the right direction, if they're as funny as the author's little essay!

I am beginning to wonder how you finished your MFA without one of those unfortunate bell-tower-and-sniper scenes.

You'd think this guy's brain would have informed him the minute the word "stereotypically" came out of his mouth that he was shin deep in poop, and sinking.

I had an MFA incident much like this, where I was taken aside by a Latina student and told I was not "representing" for "my people," and that there was no point in writing if I wasn't going to do that, because no one would read what I had to say.

Every interaction between reader and writer is going to contain a degree of judgment. Writing for young adults means that the judgment will be more impersonal, but possibly more harsh! I feel ya on the fear thing, but I keep in mind a quote from Evelyn Waugh:

"Stick to your story. It is not the most important subject in history but it is one about which you are uniquely qualified to speak.”

Even if your character WAS a neon queen with a pink poodle and a lisp, any stereotype is a caricature. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS TYPICAL.

Gail Gauthier said...

Hellbent was nominated for a Cybil the first year of the award. I personally thought the author went a little overboard on the excrement talk. It became distracting in a book that was really quite philosophical. Hellbent was very unique. I don't think it fit any of the YA formulas. It should have found an audience among older teens who are sick of the same old, same old. McGowan commented at my blog when I reviewed the book, and my impression was that it didn't make much of an impact in the U.S., which is really too bad. I've never seen Henry Tumor here.

Charlotte said...

Thanks for the thought provoking post. Moving to flippancy, I am especially thought provoked by the skin color/food issue, and am now musing, to no useful end, about "sour buttermilk" "under-cooked pancakes" and "unfrosted sugar cookies." I am also trying to recall ever thinking about peaches when looking at someone, and failing...

tanita✿davis said...

Gail: Oh, thanks -- I am SO out of it in middle grade fiction, as we can all see! I hadn't realized HELLBENT had been out in the U.S. - before I even left.

Charlotte: HAH! Pancake batter! Sugar cookie dough! Think uncooked... Isn't it interesting, though, how no one ever has to bother describing people who are of the dominant culture?