Monday, December 10, 2012

An Authorly Chat on Fantasy, Gender, and YA

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a small but amazing talk on Gender in YA Fantasy and all sorts of other bookish YA things (not its official title). It was hosted by Sarah Mesle, a Humanities professor at UCLA. The panel consisted of Leigh Bardugo, author of Shadow and Bone; Cecil Castelluci, author of First Day on Earth, The Year of the Beasts, and others; Javi Grillo-Marxuach, television screenwriter and producer of such things as Lost and The Middleman; and Amber Benson, otherwise known as Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and author of the Calliope Reaper-Jones books, among others.

Like a total teacher’s pet, I arrived early, sat alone in the very front row, and whipped out my notebook, pen poised in anticipation. I looked very cool and blogger-esque. It was an amazing talk covering all sorts of literary topics, with a lot of insightful questions and dissenting views (it was awkward but fun when the authors disagreed with each other, like my bookshelf was squabbling with itself). Not only were these authors brilliant, but they were hilarious. I did my best to transcribe some of their key points, but since my brain is a wonky sieve on the best of days and my notes from that night look like this:
Yeah. Just TRY to read that.

I may accidentally leave out some of their choicest bon mots. But I’ll do my best. First off, each of the authors shared a little bit about their current and upcoming projects. Amber Benson read an EXCLUSIVE snippet of the story she’s working on about an abused boy’s love of escaping into horror movies. Cecil Castelluci read us graphic novel pages from her alternating prose and graphic novel book The Year of the Beasts, and two pages from First Day on Earth about a boy who thinks he’s been abducted by aliens and joins an abduction support group. Javi Grillo-Marxuach showed a clip from the pilot of The Middleman that had us all cackling. Leigh Bardugo, who happened to be wearing kickass boots, read a scene from Shadow and Bone and between Alina and Genya and displayed some amazing fan art by Irene Koh.
Shadow and Bone author Leigh Bardugo
After that, Sarah Mesle asked the panel some questions. A lot of the chat focused on the idea of fantasy and YA literature in general as an escape, with Castelluci noting that her two books, The Year of the Beasts and First Day on Earth, have a strong contemporary part to them. Mal, the main character from First Day on Earth, is looking for “a way to hitch a ride off of Earth because Earth sucks.

Amber Benson: My character is looking to escape into horror movies.
Sarah Mesle: Into darkness. 
Javi Grillo-Marxuach: Crisis is preferable than the brutality of ordinary life.

The authors then went on to discuss why genre and YA tap into this mentality more than literary fiction.
JGM: Literary fiction is like– you can’t escape, all ends badly–
Leigh Bardugo: Ennui!
Grillo-Marxuach employed a metaphor using Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, which was directed by Sam Mendes, of American Beauty fame. “I loathe American Beauty with a hot flaming passion,” he said. “It stinks of pretension and bullshit. But when Sam Mendes does a genre movie, he blossoms into an amazing director.” He argued that the “added tool of world-building” provides metaphors and a framework in which to explore ideas.

The conversation turned to the huge rash of dystopians and how they are uniformly dark, and how these themes are just the themes of everyday teen life intensified.
LB: The crisis is made real…They all consist of love under crushing regimes, under duress-
JGM: AKA parents.
Castelluci commented on the heavy amounts of darkness present in YA genre fiction. “When there’s an extreme amount of darkness, you can see that pinpoint of light.”

Grillo-Marxuach discussed how genre fiction depicts the realities of teen life by arguing that decision to leave the state and go to college, “those things are blown up … Emotions are pitched at a high level.” He compared the choice to leave for college to leaving the farm to become a Jedi Knight, thereby earning all the geek credit from the geek audience. “I like the respite of being able to see things blown up into big metaphors and great ideas as opposed to the mundane quality of everyday life.”

“Decisions you make as a teenager are very die,” Castelluci said. “You’re at a crossroads, and you actually can make bad choices that affect your life. Your worry isn’t illegitimate. You have a right to be freaked out.

Benson spoke about the aspirational quality to YA, citing Bella Swan as an example. “The way Bella appears, readers put their selves in her place, everybody wants her even though she’s klutzy. People want to be her…With fallible characters, people get annoyed. They want (female protagonists) to be perfect. But if they’re too perfect, then they’re Mary Sues.”

JGM: In this day and age, there is no monolithic, defining work or our generation, thank God. Anybody who reads Twilight will thankfully read and love many other books. Bella’s not the only female role model.

From left to right: Leigh Bardugo, Javi Grillo-Marxuach, Cecil Castelluci, and Amber Benson
  Castelluci cited a comic book edition she wrote, featuring a character of her own creation, a female teenage mechanic. “I had to specify that she was meant to be all covered up,” she said. “Not a hot mechanic.” She says she once proposed a more feminist story, where the main female character had a vulnerability. “They didn’t like that. They said, But she’s strong, she can punch. She can’t have a weakness.”
SM: People want the ideal for female characters

Bardugo, proving how up to date she is with social media of all forms, told us of this Tumblr post which has been making the rounds:

male character: i made a mistake
fandom: oh you poor misunderstood soul
female character: i made a mistake

CC: Katniss isn’t likeable.
JGM: It’s not very likeable to think, “Gosh, it would probably be better if this this person died in the Hunger Games right now.” She does the right thing, but we can see her thoughts. We can see her choosing between the right and not right, which makes her imperfect.

One of the questions posed by the audience had to do with high fantasy versus low fantasy. (High fantasy means it takes place in an entirely new, separate world, whereas low fantasy is part of our world, e.g. Harry Potter, urban fantasy, and paranormal). The girl who asked was wondering what they thought about the proliferation of LF in recent years and the lack of HF.

Bardugo jumped in here, since obviously her book is high fantasy, saying there are some amazing books out there set in completely other worlds, such as Graceling and The Girl of Fire and Thorns, but there is definitely a dearth of HF in the YA market. Castelluci pointed out that there is less science fiction, too.

Grillo-Marxuach took a cynical view, arguing that it’s cheaper to film things set in our world. He cited companies like Alloy, basically “YA mills,” that acquire books with the intent of turning them into TV series and films.

JGM: The Vampire Diaries is cheaper to film than alternative magical eighteenth century Soviet Russia-
LB: Not Soviet. 
JGM:  (JGM and Audience laugh) Not Soviet. But it is easier to film fantasy that includes elements of real life, as opposed to blood-driven machines powered by human blood… I totally just came up with a great idea right there for a book. You’re welcome.
(Pause as all the aspiring writers in the audience (including me) madly scribble this down) 

(This is the point where I realized relying on my notes was completely stupid since I was accidentally writing them in some sort of indecipherable code, so I pulled out my phone like any sane person and started recording. Everything will be much clearer from now on.)
A lot of the blame in the gender divide in YA readership lies in marketing and covers. Castelluci argued that sometimes boys won’t necessarily pick up a book that is pink and has a frilly dress on the cover. Their parents won’t buy them books like that. Bardugo argued that books like The Hunger Games and her own novel, which attract a large male audience, prove that if given the chance, boys will read traditionally “girly” books. We shouldn’t be teaching boys that a pink book is a bad thing.

I posed a question about all the “End of Boys” articles, including Mesle’s own, which I disagreed with in some respects but which is hardly offensive, unlike some other articles, and raises some very viable points. I asked what the authors thought the many doomsday proclamations out there bemoaning the fact that girls are “taking over” the category.

JGM: I am healthily skeptical of anything that cries out the end of anything, because I remember in ’89 we had the end of history. (Audience laughs) I remember, like, history ended, they had a book called The End of History and I’m like, wow, that’s it, the Cold War’s over, we must be the most important human beings alive… it’s bullshit.  The fact is the stream is getting broader… there’s a greater range of characters, some of them are boys. Thankfully, mercifully, an increasing number of them are pitched toward women, but I don’t think any one thing is going to end. Success and viability are actually self-regenerating streams. Things just only get bigger and I think that the idea that what is perceived as mainstream and what is perceived as viable literature only can now include a broader range of characters, and is only better for everybody. I don’t think the space for boys is getting smaller, I just think the space around it is getting bigger.

AB: Sometimes you have to go to an extreme to get back to the middle. Before things were geared more toward male protagonists. I grew up reading all these science fiction writers like William Sleater who were writing about boys, and I identified with the boys… that was what was available to me… We have all these females now, to go to the extreme, and we can now come back to the middle.

LB: Well, it’s interesting, though, to think… this is probably not something I would ever want to write about, because I wouldn’t want to take the flak, but I will say that there is a lot of objectification of men and boys in YA… it is very much of an ogling culture. (Audience laughs) I’m not saying this is a negative thing… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with if you have a female character with men existing in that world as sort of extensions of that… this is the character we’re following, and these characters exist basically to help or hinder this person, or they exist as lover interests, or whatever. And now we’re seeing more books that have male protagonists, or that have more fully fleshed male characters who have their own drives. We’re seeing more third-person narratives… we’re seeing dual POV much more. The genre is evolving.

CC: I really think that it helps when we have covers like yours (points toward Shadow and Bone on table)… that have neutral covers… it makes it a lot easier for a person to say “Oh, this is a book” and not a romance book.

SM: Young adult literature reflects a broader cultural ambivalence towards what it means to be a good man… (Here followed a funny but un-transcribable discussion about how one should raise young girls vs. young boys that I unfortunately cannot share, as the humor will NOT translate. Suffice it to say there was much giggling (sorry I’m a tease)).One of the solutions is to teach boys, “I am not embarrassed to be reading a pink book with a dress on the cover”-

CC: That’s what I’m saying!

SM: Why are we ashamed of that cover? Like, why are girls ashamed that cover? Like, I like pink. I’m not wearing it, because I’m trying to be serious.

CC: That’s what I’m trying to say. I think that that’s where the battleground is…And at the end of the day, the cover doesn’t matter. A book is a book is a book is a book (I think perhaps this will be engraved on my tombstone. Or maybe a bookmark, or something).

JGM: Yeah, but pink is a horrible color.

“The onus (to change that) is on writers,” Bardugo said. She said that she personally “(doesn’t) care for a lot of sci fi, and hard fantasy makes me sleepy. YA (versions of these genres) put less burden on the reader, because the emotional stakes are raised.” There are people who “turn up their noses at romance, people who indict kissing YA books as girly. Stop being so smack-talky.”

Mesle argues that “more love of reading is the answer” to getting boys to read “girl” books.

Castelluci shared her experiences after she wrote P.L.A.I.N. Janes, a YA comic book technically marketed for sixteen-year-old girls. “I got fan mail from men who felt compelled to apologize for reading and not being part of the traditional fan base.”

On the idea that fantasy literature is about escape:
AB: You know, in general I think we all want to escape our lives a bit, that’s why we go to the movies and read books and do drugs and have sex, and eat a lot-
LB: You have a good life. 
JGM: Yeah, I want to party with you!
AB: But you know what I mean…the thread underneath, I think, is that we all want to forget that we’re gonna die a little bit, that we’re mortal. And in these books you have fantastical elements that… take you away from your mortality, or in some cases do the opposite, thrust you right into dealing with your mortality… but at the same time… make you feel like you’re immortal. There’s more to life than this sort of plane. I think that’s why we want to escape into these worlds and why these characters want to, they’re not just escaping metaphorically. They’re literally getting out of this world.

SM: If we imagine the imagined reader of YA, the reader is not necessarily a teenage girl, but the imagined reader is definitely a teenage girl, like that’s the way that the genre is couched so we imagine this very vulnerable reader who keeps learning about her self-presentation and so forth, that’s why there’s so much worry about Twilight, you want people to __ how to look at themselves the way Bella looks at herself and Edward, so we imagine this very vulnerable, careful, methodical way of being looked at.

Whereas when you think about fantasy, the most extreme version is that famous Saturday Night Live sketch about Game of Thrones, where the creative consultant is this sixteen-year-old boy who’s like, “What this scene needs is boobs and a blowjob”,(I laugh so loudly I ruin the recording) so like in the sense of imagined fantasy viewers there’s this very crude, sort of nerdish awkward boy- a caricature of boys just as much as the girl is a caricature of girls…

Mesle went on to pose the question of beauty in YA, not just how characters look at themselves, but how they look at others, and how they want others to look at them.

LB: I’ve actually taken a bit of crap for the way I portray beauty in my book. I think that beauty is a commodity like anything else, and I used to be a makeup artist, like a special effects artist, and I grew up in Hollywood, so I’m sort of keenly aware of what beauty can and can’t do for you, and I think both teenagers and boys and girls, but particularly girls, are keenly aware of that. And one of my most loathed tropes in YA is the beautiful girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. (Whole audience goes MMHMM, yes, absolutely, PREACH)

LB: (puts on funny breathy voice that makes me cackle into my recording device) She doesn’t have to try. She wakes up gorgeous and she has glossy locks and a perfect body, but her friend wears makeup and so she’s the glamorous one! And I’m always like shut uuup. And I’ve met a lot of teenage models. They know they’re beautiful. As teenagers we’re very aware of (how we look). But I think that makes people very uncomfortable, so they don’t express it.

I think sometimes we want to create characters in YA that behave the way that we want teenagers to behave, we want to create paradigms… Like, what are our responsibilities to people who are reading? It doesn’t make a very interesting character… but also I think it creates this kind of potential for guilt and shame over this desire to look a particular way or to want to be in a particular environment, and I think that that dishonesty in dealing with beauty or wealth or pleasure, whether it’s the pleasure of a velvet cloak or the pleasure of getting it on in a broom closet, to deny those things is dishonest and I think it presents a dishonest picture to the reader.

JGM: The only thing we can really do is hope to woo you with character and revelations that come out of character, and in order to do that efficiently our characters have to be more flawed, spikier, more difficult, have weirder nooks and crannies. If you make your character a sort of straight up depiction of what you would like aspirationally, you don’t have something that’s gonna surprise (readers).

Mesle asked the panel what they thought about how common the portrayal of feudal worlds world are in fantasy, worlds that retreat into biological gender roles with no female control over their bodies.

JGM: You take that struggle (of being trapped in a gender role) out of the kitchen and put it in a desert planet or a feudal kingdom or whatever, immediately that struggle is not just a struggle, it is the only struggle, and I think that sort of helps you strip away and sort of look at your life and say, “Okay, it’s very clear to me what I must do.” Whether you can take that into your everyday life or not, that’s fantasy versus escape, but I think that’s why.

LB: You don’t see kids picking up (books) about as much as, say, World War II or the Napoleonic Wars. You do see them picking up things that are like… this is as far from YA as you can get, but Game of Thrones. We can talk about the move and the sexposition and so forth, but I always think about this scene… there’s a scene in the second season of Game of Thrones. It is very true to the book where Brienne of Tarth, a female knight, pledges her fealty to Catelyn, and the extraordinary thing, because it is very much of the feudal world, and the realities of Brienne’s struggle are very much there, and Catelyn is very much not like (puts on voice again) Oh warrior princess! She’s a woman who’s a mother-
SM: You do great characters.
(Audience laughs)
LB: Interestingly a lot of people hate (Catelyn), but that’s true of most great characters, right? They have to be hateable by somebody.

But this is not a scene you will ever see in anything other than genre. It was this incredible moment, like that is one of the best scenes I’ve seen between two women on television in a very long time. So yes there’s these sexposition but there’s this other side of fantasy too…

My world (in Shadow and Bone) is based on Russia in the early eighteenth hundreds, so it’s not feudal but it’s still very much bound by the same things we’re talking about in terms of biology and in terms of gender roles. That said, once you add magic to this equation- once you add things like a swath of impenetrable darkness and monsters and molecular chemistry that’s magical, all of a sudden gender power becomes the issue, and it’s less defined by gender than (by) access to this kind of power. And that opens up a lot of possibilities, I think. That’s where we start to play with where biology doesn’t matter as much in this environment. Instead it becomes “What are the challenges of those environments, now that you have added to it?” And I created a world where there was this war that had been going on so long that all men and women are drafted.

And with that our awesome, lengthy chat ended, and all the authors graciously agreed to sign things for us. Which means not only do I get to share all these WORDS OF WISDOM with you all, but I have goodies as well! One lucky person will win a copy of SHADOW AND BONE signed by author Leigh Bardugo, as well as a copy of THE YEAR OF THE BEASTS, signed by every member of the panel, including author Cecil Castellucci!

And guess what? This time, it’s international! That’s right. So long as you live on Planet Earth and are over 13 years of age, you are eligible to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. I'm really happy you recorded (and wrote down) this! I want to come to one, one of these days. Thanks for the giveaway ;)

    1. You're very welcome! I hope you get to go to a talk like these. They're a lot of fun. It's great to be in a room full of bookish geeks who want nothing more than to talk about YA for a couple of hours.

  2. This was a fun to read I love Shadow and Bone it was one of my favorites book this year so I am jealous you got to meet Leigh Bardugo!!! I agree that there are defiantly other role models out there that are much better than Bella Swan even though I am a Twilight fan :)!!! Thanks for the great giveaway!!!

    1. Meeting Leigh Bardugo was amazing. I awkwardly fangirled all over her in a totally embarrassing fashion, but of course she was super nice about it.

  3. You are officially one of my FAVORITE bloggers EVER! I really mean it to!(I'm not trying to be a teacher's pet or anything, just telling the truth!) I love reading your reviews and I usually just swallow up everything you write! I sound like a crazy stalker...I KNOW....maybe I am....but I just wanted to say that I love your blog and you are so good at blogging even though you've only been doing it for a couple of months! I just thought that SOMEONE should praise you for all your hard work, since I know firsthand that blogging is VERY difficult and takes alot of time and effort!
    Sincerly, Your one and only crazed fan....

    1. I know I already told you this on Twitter, but you have LITERALLY MADE MY DAY. This just fills me with so much warmth I can't even tell you. I heart you guys sososo much. It's why I do this!

  4. Thanks so much for transcribing this, it was a really interesting read (and your handwriting looks just like mine). I especially like the talk about gender roles and portrayals in YA, since that's really important to me. The main reason why I like YA is because it's currently very female-centric, which is refreshing because every other facet of entertainment is kind of a sausage fest.

    1. I'm very sorry your handwriting looks just like mine, because that must mean you have a lot of difficulty reading it! I agree with you. I LOVE that YA is female-centric (also I snorted at the "sausage fest"). So much of literature and entertainment in general really IS male dominated. I'm glad you enjoyed.

    2. Ugh, yes. I take all my class notes by hand, and inevitably end up very cross with myself when it comes time to actually study them :/

  5. I like their discussion about high and low-fantasy. I too have noticed a bit of a dip in the YA high-fantasy available (though I haven't read Shadow and Bone yet - shame on me!) and I'm glad they see that too! It sounds like it was a great time and they all seem so great and entertaining! Thank you so much for sharing this with us, I really loved reading it :) And by the way, illegible handwriting is nothing to be ashamed of... if I were there, madly scribbling away to catch everything they said, mine would be just as bad. Maybe even worse... you should see my notes from my history lectures!

    1. Ahh! You must read Shadow and Bone! You'll love it! But there are far more low fantasy books than high fantasy in YA nowadays. And yeah, this really was a blast. And lol at your handwriting. I shudder to think what handwriting worse than mine would look like!

  6. I cackled at the bit about the girl who doesn't know she's beautiful. I HATE that trope with a passion. Like they said, most people are aware to some extent of how they look. When a girl in a book has three guys fighting over her and she still bemoans that she's just not that pretty, I see it as a sign of lazy writing and often toss the book aside.

    1. That trope is the WORST. "Why are all these supermodel quality guys in love with me? I'm so PLAIN and AKWARD, though I guess I do have perfectly clear skin that requires not one stitch of makeup. But I'm just so averageeee." That really grates on me too.

  7. lol! There is so much amazing to discuss in this post. Have no idea what my favorite is, though :D But I do like the discussion about YA Fantasy and reading to escape. I'm 19, and I kind of read Fantasy books to escape. I'm not like all the other normal teenagers, you know, tons of friends, drinking, having sex, etc. I'm mostly just for myself :) And because of that I love reading. It makes for a great escape. And I love it a whole lot :) Favorite genre is Fantasy, actually :D And favorite book might be Shadow and Bone. <3 So thank you so so so much for this perfect international giveaway :D It is the best. <3 Want the signed one so so so much :) (Also, about the comment about girls not knowing they are beautiful. Gah. I hate that so much. Like with myself. I KNOW I'm not beautiful, but I don't think I'm that ugly either :) And I can be beautiful. When I put on make-up and fix myself up :p lol ;p)
    Love, Carina

    1. I too love Fantasy, and there's definitely a strong element of escape for me. And Shadow and Bone is definitely near the top of the list!

      I'm happy to make the giveaway international! So many great overseas people who often miss out on great books.

      Girls definitely view themselves more negatively than other people do (though I love that you consider yourself beautiful, at times! I'm sure you're lovely all of the time, and feeling that way only makes you lovelier) but generally they have an idea of how they come across to others, looks-wise.

  8. Wow, this is a great post. Very detailed and you met and talk to her. *dies* I've heard great things about Shadow and Bone. I liked the high and low-fantasy. Lately I've been seening a lot of high fantasy books, don't know if they are coming this way or I notice until now lol.
    Thank you for the international giveaway, fingers crossed, I really want to read this :D

    1. Thanks! And yeah, I was fangirling quite a lot about meeting all these people. You should DEFINITELY check out Shadow and Bone! It's one of those books I pitch to absolutely everybody I meet, to their supreme annoyance. I hope you get it!

    2. Yeah I can imagine! Hahaha to their supreme annoyance, well done!! ;) LOL. Me too! :P

  9. Awesome post! :) I haven't read Shadow and Bon yet, but I am definitely moving it up on my short list now. So jealous you got to meet her!


    1. Meeting your favorite authors is kind of surreal. I was just kind of like, "That head right there, that is where your genius lives. That is where the Darkling lives" (except hopefully not that creepy). But you MUST read Shadow and Bone! I supersupersuper love it.

  10. Wow.. this post is super awesome! It was fun reading it and I loved Javi Grillo-Marxuach's comment about Katniss's character- "We can see her choosing between the right and not right, which makes her imperfect." Agree 100%..


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