In an interview with Vice about his upcoming Young Adult fiction novel, The Alex Crow, author Andrew Smith told interviewer Hugh Ryan that he considers himself, “completely ignorant to all things woman and female.” Ryan had pointed out that Smith’s books contained little for female readers; “Where are all the women in your work?” he asked.
Ryan’s answer may seem innocuous but it ignited cries of sexism from many in the book world, including author Tessa Gratton and Derek Attig at BookRiot. So many people attacked Andrew Smith on Twitter that he deleted his account (which naturally led to cries of cowardice).
Let’s set aside the question’s implication that female readers don’t like Andrew Smith’s books. Better yet, let’s refute it instead. Women buy his work at Books & Books. The fans who come to his events are mostly teenage girls. If Andrew Smith had stayed on Twitter, he would have seen the outpouring of female support – from authors and fans alike – for him and his books.
That aside, I agree it’s amusing that a guy who writes about giant horny alien grasshoppers finds writing from a female point-of-view beyond his ken, but let’s not mistake snark for critique. Calling Smith’s comments “othering” women – or accusing him of equating women with aliens – is reminiscent of those folks who make the “what will stop a guy from marrying his horse?” argument against supporting gay marriage; what you’re getting out of it is not what’s being put into it.
I’m a feminist. I’m also male. As a penis-bearer, I can’t tell women reading Smith’s remarks not to be offended. I don’t have a lifetime of womanhood informing my reading. But consider that interview in the context of an author being asked about his books, not a Women’s Studies Professor being asked about his curriculum, or even an average man being asked about woman. Author interviews tend to focus on books and the process of writing them, and Smith’s answer is about his shortcomings as a writer.
As Jonathan Chait pointed out in New York Magazine, there is no allowance in P.C. culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous. Rather than admit that maybe they picked the wrong battle, some feminists have tried to strengthen their vilification of Smith’s comments by going back to his books. Using his past work as prior evidence of sexism, they call his female characters one-dimensional, ornamental, less fully-formed than his male characters.
YA fiction emphases plot over character, and both genders can get short shrift. In my forays into YA with Lauren Oliver‘s Delirium Trilogy and Nova Ren Suma‘s The Walls Around Us, I found Lena’s friendships with Hana and Raven more interesting than her relationships with either love interest, and Miles and Tommy from The Walls Around Us are defined by their relationships to Ori and Amber. The men are largely cutouts meant to react to the female protagonists who are the real stars, and so what? Those books kicked ass, and the males characters served the plot and kept me turning pages, so they served their purpose.
It’s important that we keep working toward equality, and to know that we’ve only come this far due to the passionate fighting of those willing to suffer for voicing unpopular opinions. But this mess is just counterproductive and depressing.
There are better ways to keep the conversation going.
Now I’m going to unpack what really bothers me about this whole thing. Andrew Smith wasn’t accidentally revealing his Inner Sexist, but instead showing us his Inner Critic, admitting where he feels lacking as a writer. I’ve written about this many years ago but it’s worth repeating; writing as a female can be a daunting prospect for a guy.
There’s alchemy involved in finding the right narrative voice. A writer needs the reader’s buy-in if they’re going to get anywhere together. Sometimes you worry that the sense of realism you’re trying to create will be broken by accidentally including something “inherently male” (sperm donation?) in your character’s thought process.
Now imagine you’re Andrew Smith, trying to create a believable invasion of giant alien grasshoppers, or glasses that look into another world. While one can pull off the fantastical with one-dimensional characters, you should only try it if you’ve mastered Camp (see A Dirty Job), Whimsy (see Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), or Plot (see Ready Player One). The most direct route to selling your fantasy is by grounding it in reality, which means using characters that the reader will believe. Worrying that syntax might ring false is a legitimate concern, especially when the wrong tone will cause the reader to pick up the next book.
In letting his muse, his imagination, fly free, Andrew Smith is allowed to use the familiar – a male protagonist – to anchor himself.
Shit, I get worried when I write from a Native point-of-view and I am half Native. I worry that my characters will be seen as stand-ins for all Mohawks rather than individuals. I worry that Native readers will think I’m too white. I worry that the authentic touches my history brings to my work are really just family quirks.
I come from a matriarchy, my closest relationships are with women, and I enjoy reading female authors; I still worry that female readers might might find my first-person female characters inauthentic.
When I’m writing, I like to play around. Women… men with a view of the world that I find repulsive… once I was even a bullet. My favorite protagonist I’ve written is a teenage girl adopted from China, and I’ve never been half of those things. But do I know what it’s like to be a person of color in a sea of white classmates, like her? Yes, I do. Do I know what its like to retreat into my own world because the real world seems unbearable, like she does? Yes, indeed. If my writing is solid in those respects, then research and imagination will see me through the rest.
Limiting writers to their own race, sexuality, gender, age, or whatever else would make fiction pretty boring. And while I realize that this is the exact opposite of what some of us got from the Andrew Smith Vice interview, I’ve arrived here because it’s part of the same issue – telling an author what to write.
Chasing the muse is a sacred thing. To some of us, it’s the only time we feel connected to our larger purpose in the world. It’s no place for politics, gender or otherwise.
Here’s the best thing I’ve read about this so far, written by author Chuck Wendig.