Boys vs. Girls: The Audience of Speculative Fiction
So, earlier this week, I wrapped the first draft of “Story of G”, and I put out a call hoping for some beta readers to provide some feedback.
I was extremely gratified by the response. Besides my Dear Wife, I’ve got three others currently reading, and anticipate another one or two readers after that. That’s a much better feedback response than I got with “PFTETD” last year. Then, besides my Wife, I had a grand total of 2 readers before I went to final edits before submitting the piece. But I noticed something curious this time around: all my latest beta readers are ladies.
That observation reminded me of this post by author Blake Charlton from last year. In it, he asks whether the market for speculative fiction books has shifted to cater overwhelmingly, perhaps exclusively, to girls over boys. I had wanted to blog about that, when I read it, but I guess I never quite felt up to the challenge. It is a charged and sensitive topic. In noticing now, however, a shift in my beta readers from all-boys to all-girls a year later, I feel compelled to consider the issue a little more. I’m delving into some politically choppy waters here, and I know going in that I won’t arrive at any firm conclusions, but I’m very interested to explore issues like this.
As a writer, I write first out of my own interest and love of speculative fiction – that is to say, I write to entertain myself. But secondly, I write to be read by others. Whether those others who read my work will be predominately female, male, or some more equitable mix of the genders will potentially matter to me, especially if the demands and tastes of the one gender group turn out to be very different from those of the other, in which case the question of how best to meet those different demands and tastes in my work becomes quite pertinent.
To dispense with the obvious: I am a boy. Well, a boy of the somewhat grown-upish variety, but a boy nonetheless. And I read (and write) speculative fiction – particularly of the Fantasy variety (though “Story of G” is not strictly Fantasy). As Blake points out (I suppose him to be at most only a few years older than I), when we were young Speculative Fiction was largely the domain of boys – there was a significant gender imbalance in the field. Spec Fic books were written by boys mostly for other boys. Or at least, that’s how it seemed. Certainly, the authors were predominately male: name a list of classic speculative fiction authors, those from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s or early 90s and there will be some women on the list, but the vast majority will be men. Like a lot of things in those bygone days, it was a good old boys’ club – and never that for the better (I have a particular distaste for anything that can be accurately described as a “good old boy’s club”).
But then, looking around now and considering the current list of hot-new-things in speculative fiction, or my own list of links to aspiring authors, and there is a very different story. Some of the most interest in speculative fiction is buzzing around names like Cat Valente, or N.K. Jemisin, or Nnedi Okorafor, or Mary Robinette Kowall, or Cherie Priest or so on and so forth. Two of the hugest publishing sensations ever in the modern world are J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyers. (Though I do think the audience for “Paranormal Romance” books like Twilight are somewhat different than what might be considered the “traditional” speculative fiction market, categorically the books are a type of speculative fiction. You don’t get Vampires and Werewolves in mainstream fiction…) Sure, there are still big hot new boy names in the field and hitting the bestseller list, like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss. But let’s face it: everyone know Rowling and Meyer – in the speculative fiction world and the mainstream world both. Not even everyone in the speculative fiction world knows the names Sanderson and Rothfuss, as yet, and nobody in the mainstream world will have heard of them.
And when I look around at my list of aspiring speculative fiction author and blogging friends – folks like T.S. Bazelli, and Barbara Tarn, and Aidan Fritz, and J.P. Cabit, and Ollin Morales, and Tiyana White, and David Sharp, and Jo Eberhardt, and Juanita McConnachie, and so on (apologies to those I left off the list) – well, a not insignificant number of these fine writers are the grown-up variety of girls. (Usage note: hopefully my usage of the word “girls” is not taken offensively; I’m using the word “boys” in the same way, here.) Excepting Dear Wife, every one of the fine folks who volunteered to read and comment on “Story of G” are also aspiring authors.
All of which made me think a little more deeply about the question. For instance: where did all of these wonderful female speculative fiction writers come from, if only boys were reading speculative fiction when we were younger? Clearly, my memories of those years are, at best, flawed. Writers don’t form randomly out of scattered stones like something out of a Greek myth. They aren’t just born. Writers become what they are almost always through the medium of having read something. All of these fine speculative fiction writers, once upon a time, they were young speculative fiction readers. Which is to say, there were a good deal more female readers when I was young than even I knew.
And yet, how could I not? I’m an only-son who grew up in a house full of sisters. And all of my sisters read speculative fiction growing up. Sure, they sometimes, as I recall, ventured into more traditional female-reading-fare like Anne of Green Gables or whatnot. But they all read Robert Jordan (though I do think I’m the most up-to-date on that series out of all my siblings).
So, Blake Charlton sort of poses a question, in a way: have the tables turned? Do boys no longer read speculative fiction? Is the genre the domain only of girls these days? Okay, he doesn’t really ask that question, but he does observe that there are comparatively fewer boys coming to signings and author events and readings than girls, which is apparently noticeably different than our childhoods.
Except, of course, our memories of our childhoods are apparently flawed. And, well, I never went to those events as a kid, anyway. I read voraciously, haunted the school library like a persistent poltergeist, and drooled over the racks of fantasy and sci-fi at every book-store I passed but I hardly saw anyone in any of those places – neither boy nor girl. Thinking back, I begin to realize that my impression of the state of the gender balance in those days owes more to the gender of the protagonists I was reading than to any real knowledge about the other readers of those books.
And still, there is apparently evidence, though I cannot point to it, that boys do less reading these days than girls. And, well, that might be a problem for the future: not because it’s bad that more girls are reading but because it’s bad that fewer boys are. Ideally, everyone should be reading.
And, well, at the end of the day… I don’t know. Are boys reading less? Are they reading less speculative fiction (which is the only kind of reading I’m really interested in)? If so, why? And what can we do about it? And if not… well… then I just wasted over a thousand words on nothing.
Ultimately, Blake lays the blame for the problem – assuming there is a problem – on Marketing, and on the perception within the Marketing community that girls read books and boys have short attention spans and only play video games and watch movies. And it’s true, Marketers can just as effectively create market realities, through their marketing activities, as they can to respond to existing market realities.
As for me, I can say only a few things. First of all: the world is a better place for the many female speculative fiction writers in the field today, a phenomenon that was sorely lacking from the generation prior. Secondly, I do hope that there is not a demographic shift occurring after which boys will not be readers and girls will. I want both boys and girls to continue to read, and especially to read Speculative Fiction. Our beloved genre will be the richer for the multitude of ideas and perspectives.
And, well, that’s just it, isn’t it. Our genre is richer for the wider range of authors of different genders writing today. But even so, the bar of what constitutes good quality speculative fiction hasn’t radically changed, so far as I can see, for the inclusion of broader range of voices. Rather, it has only be raised, and raised quite substantially higher. The kinds of stories that engage us and excite us: they’re still the same kinds of stories that have always flourished in speculative fiction. Only now, they’re like to the nth degree. Which is, of course, a harder act to follow, but what a wealth for today’s readers of speculative fiction!
Finally, as the father of a boy, I do hope that one day my boy grows up to be a reader, and especially a reader of speculative fiction.
How about you fine folks, ladies and gentlemen alike: what do you think of this issue? Do you see fewer boys reading these days? Or is the audience just more gender-balanced than it used to be? Or is all of this a hullaballoo about nothing? Please share your thoughts!