feminism in YA

As both a feminist and a YA writer, I enjoyed a recent post on Jezebel.com on the subject. Personally, I read it as Rachel Shukert discussing her process in writing her book-- the considerations she made with respect to her own worldview and the audience she hoped to reach. 

For what better or worse (I argue conversation is *always* better), the post has generated some conversations in the YA reader/writer community. Some criticisms raised are excellent. Like how Shukert could have included more examples of writers who are making these considerations and whose books fit the criteria she lays out. In fact, on her twitter feed Shukert later conceded that point. 

She also says unapologetically that yes, writing for Jezebel.com (a very visible online medium) was in part motivated by her desire to promote her book. And for that, I don't think she owes anyone an apology and I was happy to see her tweet as much. Like basically, sorry, I'm not sorry.

But other participants in this conversation have called into question whether or not Shukert should have been the one to have written this piece. I find it telling that the people questioning don't take issue with what she says, rather, with her "right" to say it. 

This is, after all, her first (and only!) published YA book, they say. They say there are other YA writers and feminists who've published several books and therefore they are the 'experts!' Jezebel should have interviewed them! 

Pardon my Francais, friends, but that is BULLSHIT. 

Not only does Shukert make some great points (the bit about femininity not being the enemy, rather, misogyny is is especially excellent, in my opinion), but as a member of the YA community of readers and writer and thinkers, and as, you know, a woman, hell as a HUMAN, she has a right to her ideas and opinions. And a right to express them wherever she gets an opportunity to do so. 

Last time I checked, this is not an exclusive conversation (the whole point is to break down the doors of exclusivity!) There are not certain people who get to speak at the mic and the rest of us can just clap or snap our fingers or bob our heads in agreement. You have an opinion, you are entitled to share it. Full stop. 

Are certain YA authors more visible in the conversation? Sure. And God bless them for making headway and keeping at it. But that doesn't mean that they are the only ones who get to speak forever and always amen.  That's a bit like saying Charles Shultz shouldn't have ever written a solo essay about comics because BATMAN. 

Get real. I also think the idea that there is a quota of published books one must have in order to be able to voice an opinion on feminism is YA is BS. And even still, though this is her first published book, that doesn't mean it's the first book she's written. If she's like, uh, me, she's got dozens of half-finished, trunked or in-process manuscripts on her laptop. Hell, I haven't published a single book (yet?) and I still have an opinion on the matter. And I'll be damned if I won't voice it. My little old blog doesn't get anywhere near the traffic of Jezebel, but still. Whether I've been offered a seat at the table or not, I'm going to take it. 

That's feminism, yo. 


  1. I agree completely. And this has definitely made me bump Shukert's book up a few notches in my TBR.

  2. Haha! Right on! I haven't read that article, but I definitely agree that she, and anyone, has every right to voice their opinions, especially when asked. So sad when there is cattiness and infighting in the writing and YA communities.

  3. Yes--this. All of this!!!

  4. Everyone does have a right to their opinion, but that means those who read and write YA also have a right to the opinion that they wish the article they'd read was one that seemed more informed on and engaged with YA as it actually is.

    Every writer gets wanting to market their book, and nobody minds it! But every reader wants to read an informed and intelligent article--that's why you generally want people to have researched and thought hard about the topic they're writing about.

    I didn't care that the author had written only one YA book--I wouldn't have cared if she'd written none. But my eyebrows did shoot up to my hairline in that she was speaking slightingly of a genre without seeming to have read much of it, and thus misrepresenting it.

  5. Sarah, I don't think Shukert was speaking slightingly of YA. The only thing I saw in the piece that might be interpreted that way is that she called YA "a euphemistic marketing category." Which is something that I happen to agree with, and I've published four YA books. I'm sure not everyone shares that opinion, but I don't think there's anything derogatory about it.

    I'm also not sure where the impression that Shukert hasn't read much YA comes from. There was nothing in the piece that suggested that to me. When she talks about "writing the book that doesn't exist yet," the impression that I got was that she was speaking in a very specific way about her own book: not that there are no YA books out there that fit her definition of "feminist," but that the specific book she wrote was one that she hadn't yet read. (I.e., a book set in 1930s Hollywood, etc, etc, etc.) Which, aren't we ALL trying to write the book we haven't read?

    To me, the article was talking about why Shukert made the choices she made while she was writing; about her process and what she was trying to accomplish. Headline aside, it didn't seem like she was trying to tell anyone else what to do or suggest that she was blazing some previously untraveled path. I agree that it probably would have been a good idea to namecheck some people who had done it well before her, but I don't think that by failing to mention them she was suggesting she was the first person to ever write a book like this.

    Of course, the headline of the piece was probably not the best to go with-- I think it suggested a more finger-waggy and know-it-all-ish article than it actually was. But I also know that writers for these place rarely write their own headlines-- it's a dark art and there's a lot of SEO involved. If we could learn to ignore internet ragebait headlines as a rule I think a lot of unnecessary controversy and tooth-gnashing could be avoided.

    Finally, and most importantly, I think the idea of separating people into YA-people and Outsiders is really counterproductive to our goals as a community of writers. Personally, I would love it if there were FEWER category boundaries and MORE crossover between "adult" and "teen" authors. Whether as a writer, a reader or just as a social person, I'd rather not restrict myself to one shelf at the bookstore. I don't like it when supposed Adult Writers think of me as a different animal than they are, and I don't think it's helpful to do the same in reverse either.

    But the conversation about all this is very interesting and I'm pretty glad it's one we're having.

  6. Um, I wasn't separating anyone into YA-People and Outsiders? The only people I saw doing that were those who said other people were being cliquey, for suggesting they'd like to see articles by people who might write articles about YA as it actually is--naturally the people they thought of were outspoken feminist YA writers.

    Shukert has written a YA book: she's a YA writer. (And as far as I'm concerned, she doesn't have to be a YA writer to write an article about YA writing. ;) I'm just saying she is one, so if anyone was separating people into YA-People and Outsiders, she'd be a YA-Person.)

    I think people would have responded very differently to an article which had more examples of YA books, and conclusions about YA books they agreed with--it was only because the article talked about YA in a way that didn't have many examples and in a way that struck people as not how YA actually is that people said 'wow, I would rather read an article by E. Lockhart.'

    But there's been a deluge of people mischaracterising YA in articles, and I felt this was one such article, as it said things like the female characters in YA are 'not exactly the first with their hands up, unless it's for totally altruistic reasons' and described Laura Ingalls and Scarlett O'Hara's feminine clothing but not how any actual YA characters dress.

    I agree very strongly with a lot of the things Shukert says as basic feminist principles--femininity is not the issue, misogyny is, other women are neither cheerleaders nor enemies--but I do think that her article mischaracterised the YA genre.

    I think there's definitely a conversation to be had about why the Hunger Games and Twilight are more popular than many other awesome YA books, but acting or writing as if those other YA books don't exist--only name-checking the Hunger Games and Twilight--doesn't work for me, and I think it's OK to say so.

  7. Sarah, I'm sorry if it sounded like I was attributing that thread to you-- I know you didn't say that, and in fact you pretty much said the opposite in your original comment. I guess by that point I was more referring to the larger conversation around Shukert's piece, in which I feel like stuff like that has been tossed around.

    And I agree that the Jezebel piece wasn't perfect, although I still don't think it really tried to characterize YA at all-- I think the author was just trying to talk about her own work, which was a perhaps a mistake but also maybe understandable.

    I also think that, in some passages-- the ones you mention-- she's conflating "YA" with "books I read myself when I myself was a young adult." Which is a mistake in the context of the article, but I think it can be useful-ish to include those books in one's thought process over the course of writing a novel, so I'm not going to kill her for forgetting to make the distinction in the piece. (If that makes any sense at all.)

    I just reread the article can see why the line about characters not always being "the first with their hands up, unless it's for totally altruistic reasons," would have the potential to rub people the wrong way, but I can also see her point. While there are plenty of books out there that present different types of characters than she's describing there, I would argue that Shukert's right that those characters are more uncommon. As a culture, I think we're still uncomfortable when it comes to girls who are out for themselves. From the perspective of an author, I think it can be useful to think about what we want to avoid, and in my reading that's all she's saying.

    It would have been nice, sure, to mention other books that break that mold, but I don't think it's particularly necessary to her point, and I don't think that she's betraying any ignorance by not bringing them up. This is, I think, mostly an error of manners, and a small one.

    You're right that there's been a lot of stuff published in the last couple of years that really mischaracterizes YA. There have also been more than a few writers known for their adult fiction who have published YA books with the attitude that they're slumming. So it's understandable that there might be a certain amount of circling the wagons in the YA community when something like this gets published. We've been burned before and it's easy to go in with our defenses up. Again, I'm not referring to you here-- in fact, I've been a culprit of this attitude myself from time to time. I basically just feel like this particular article wasn't deserving of the blowback it got.

    This may be at least partially because I read Starstruck and thought it was a blast or because I know Rachel very casually and have never experienced her to be anything but lovely and super-knowledgeable, respectful and enthusiastic when it comes to YA.

    As an aside, it's hard for me to think of a writer I would rather read ANYTHING by than E. Lockhart. But it's an unfortunate truth that not everyone can be her, (or Holly Black, or, or, or...) and we all still have books to sell. Rest assured, though, that if one could sign up for the E. Lockhart transmogrification process, mine would be the first name on the sheet.

  8. I admit I was also reacting to the phenomenon of women talking about books by women, and articles by women, characterised as catty or trivial or a mean girls group. ;) When, as you well know, boys can and do talk about articles and genre too. ;)

    I actually do agree that improbable selflessness is demanded from female characters, and that there is virulent backlash to a female character perceived as selfish (Frankie Landau-Banks, the move from approval of Katniss saving Prim to disapproval of her handling of her love triangle, Melina Marchetta's Evanjalin). I think that would be a super interesting article and one I would love to read: it wasn't this one. I think it's actually pretty difficult to write a good article about YA without talking about specific YA books to illustrate trends. But now I have reached a stage of wistfully wondering if someone awesome could possibly be brought to write an 'Exploring That Selfish Bitch! Phenomenon' article, and have strayed from the point and will cease.

    I will take your word for it that Rachel is lovely and the book is great: like I said, I agreed with her feminist principles stated therein. Her article is in no way comparable with say, Meghan Cox Gurdon's article on the shocking darkness of YA literature. I think however that especially when we are saturated in articles about YA written by people who don't know and don't care to know much about YA, it's a mistake, especially in an article that did seem prescriptive, not to show deeper knowledge and appreciation of YA than Twilight and the Hunger Games. Show your work is a good general rule to live by.

    If all articles I read from now on were by E. Lockhart and Holly Black, life would be a shiningly awesome thing.

  9. You should write that cause I would totally be into it!

  10. Preach it, Lindsey! I want to hear everyone's thoughts and opinions and I don't want there to be a "party line" for YA and/or feminism because we are not all one YA book or one feminist, yo. WE ARE PEOPLE.

  11. Q: Can anyone tell me the difference between K2 and IQ? A: Nthn. In Seventh-Heaven, we gitt'm both HawrHawr Need summore thots, ideers, wurdz or ironclad iconoclasms? Look no firdr, ya wild CARD-iologist...

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    PS Need summore unique, uncivilized, useless names? Lemme gonna gitcha started, brudda:

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    God blessa youse
    -Fr. Sarducci, ol SNL


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