Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


External Introspection: Of Guys and Books

Much of our work as librarians is practical and hands-on, but sometimes we get the chance to be philosophical. I was catching up on the blog of a favorite author a couple of weeks ago and decided I wanted to share with my colleagues a series of three posts he wrote, feeling they were relevant to our work encouraging boys to read. One of them responded with a really good question, so I've copied my original email, her question, and my response below.

The rambling original prompt to read his posts, preceded by my attempt at establishing context:

I don't know this for sure, but I'm guessing since it's something I intentionally advocate every so often that I have a bit of a reputation as one of the Guys Read librarians in our system. I think the general library landscape is more accepting of books with guy appeal than it was ten years ago. Even so, often when I read articles or see presentations or the like describing what boys like--the gross humor and etc.--my reaction is, "Yes, but . . . " Even if those are the overwhelming themes on my booklists of guy appeal books (kids; teens), even if the Top 10 "What I Like to Read" responses from the Guys Read field office I worked with last year are:

  • Books about war and/or weapons
  • Books with at least one massive sword fight
  • All Wimpy Kid books
  • World records or other weird facts
  • Anything having to do with Percy Jackson
  • Monsters and ghost stories
  • Books that explain how things work
  • Books about sports or athletes
  • Joke books
  • Cereal boxes
Even then, there still seems something slightly missing in what's conveyed about what guys like, as often as not.

Or maybe not what guys like so much as who they are.

I think I've shared things from Andrew Smith's blog before. Another group of his posts has me thinking today and I'd like to share them, because he's articulated something that gets lost in all the talk about guys liking snips and snails and puppy dog tails. He's talking teens, but there's a version of the same dynamic at play for younger guys.

The posts are in response to a question about his novel Marbury Lens. If you haven't read it, here's a bit of my review:

Jack shares this on page 53, still quite early in his book, but well after he's been kidnapped, tortured, and nearly raped, has escaped and, with the help of his best friend, accidentally killed his attacker while trying to take revenge. Things start bad, but they get much, much worse. Because Jack can't escape the shame and trauma of his experience, even after flying all the way to England and falling in love with a beautiful girl. Because England is where a stranger starts following him, then gives him a pair of glasses. When he puts the lenses on, he becomes another Jack in a dystopian wasteland of a world called Marbury. There Jack is one of three survivors looking for any signs of life other than the cannibals that dog their every step, cannibals that include a Marbury version of Connor, his best friend and the only person he's ever truly loved (before Nickie). Each time Jack goes to Marbury he loses his memory of what he is doing in England and hurts Connor and Nickie, but he can't stop going to the place. He doesn't know what's real anymore and thinks his experience might have driven him insane, but can't stop his addiction to bleak, shriveled desolation--whether in the form of Marbury, the real world, his body, or his psyche.

The posts:

nobody makes hair shirts nowadays (part one) - . . . Anyway, back to Twitter, where a friend named Rachael said (her exact tweet):

LOVED Marbury Lens! Curious if you have ever written a post about male sexuality in it, because I found that aspect intriguing.

Hmm... First off, I like to write blog posts in response to specific questions from readers. So I tweeted back and forth a few times to Rachael because I was trying to wrap my head around this concept of writing about male sexuality in The Marbury Lens.

Um. Here goes:

There is this Zen parable that I am especially fond of. I tell it over and over because it's kind of a pivot point to my life. It goes something like this:

Two fish are swimming along beside one another. One fish turns to the other and says, "So, tell me about this water stuff I keep hearing about."

That is the story.

Good, wasn't it?

Now I suppose I should explain. . . .

nobody makes hair shirts nowadays (part two) - . . . I think there are two important aspects of sexuality that are frequently mishandled, trivialized, and obfuscated (that word sounds nasty) in popular "YA" (and let me tell you how much I absolutely hate that categorical brand) literature: gender identity and sexual identity.

They are different things, and both of them put a hell of a lot of pressure on adolescent males.

I don't know so much about females. Never been one.

The gender identity aspect has to do with what it means to act like a man -- the expectational pressures placed on boys to behave in certain ways -- to "suck it up," for example. This is no small part of Jack's problem in The Marbury Lens. He doesn't tell about what happened to him, because he believes he isn't supposed to. It's just the way boys are socialized to behave. . . .

nobody makes hair shirts nowadays (part three) - . . . Let me tell you a little side note about mean comments (and another mean comment story will come up later in this post): When my first book, Ghost Medicine, came out, I received more than a few comments from people (none of whom happened to be males, but I am not going to make a generalized statement as to the significance of this) who said Boys are not introspective like this in real life. They do not look inside themselves and examine things like love and life and friendship. This stuff never happens with real boys.

I am not making this shit up. That is the truth.

The thing is, that because boys (like Jack) feel so much pressure to "suck it up," to not express unmanly feelings (as though society dictates that genderless emotions such as love, attraction, or appreciation of beauty are feminine, and that other -- equally genderless emotions -- are masculine) externally, they are, in fact entirely vastly more likely to be introspective than girls, especially when it comes to sexuality, sexual identity, and the anxiety they feel because of sexual expectations -- pressures from outside.

If you don't realize that, then I am glad I taught you something which may make your head explode.

It is my job to tell the truth.

And this really is (if there were such a thing) a recurring concept that ripples through just about every book I have ever written.

When you pile all these pressures and expectations on a reasonably bright and aware kid, like Jack, from The Marbury Lens, it is not at all unreasonable for him to conclude -- as he does -- that there must be something wrong with him, and he better not talk about it, too. . . .

I've tried to copy substantive sections of each post so you can get the gist, but there's more at the links, including some good discussion in the comments.

By the way, if you've read The Marbury Lens and want more, he just gave a brief description of the upcoming sequel in a more recent post:

Jack and Conner prepare to leave for England. They have a plan. They think it's the only reasonable way to deal with the Marbury lens. But the four boys - Jack, Conner, Ben, and Griffin - end up scattered in different places at different times. Jack is lost in a Marbury that isn't Marbury, a Glenbrook that isn't Glenbrook, pursued through every crumbling not-world by an uncaring cop trying to solve the mystery of Freddie Horvath's murder, and a deceitful kid named Quinn Cahill who believes he is the King of Marbury. Jack's universe is collapsing in on itself. He finds his friends. He finds his home. There's always just one thing, and Jack knows it. This can't be it.

A response from a colleague, with a good question:

Oooh, I have a question, Boy Librarian:

Do you think boys are socialized to say they "like" certain things, and that "liking" other things can get them into trouble?

There was a time, I remember, when I tried very hard to "like" certain bands, because they were popular. Sadly, I always prefered Cyndi Lauper to Madonna, and didn't think much of Van Halen (though we all agreed the lead guitarist was cute.) Left to my own devices, I would listen to music that was old and out-of-date, and so not cool. John Denver, the carpenters, Billy Joel, soundtracks to musicals. I even remember watching M-TV like it was a study assignment, to learn what the right band to like was.

Eventually, of course, it became far too much effort, and I just liked the music I liked.

So I'm wondering, do boys pick what they are supposed to like? If so, don't we adults continue the legacy of things-which-boys-like and things-which-girls-like by making assumptions about individual tastes based on gender? Say there is a boy who would much rather read Bridge to Terebithia than the book on Extreme Sharks that the adult is showing him. Won't he get the message that he is supposed to "like" sharks? And if he doesn't, then he's weird or he's gay or he's a wuss?

Even as a kid, I would have been offended by a "girls" display of books that was limited to ponies, princesses, and Little House on the Prairie.

(Full disclosure: I've got a "Guys Read" display up at [my library].)

Just thinkin' out loud!

My answer, which helped bring things a bit more into focus:

Do you think boys are socialized to say they "like" certain things, and that "liking" other things can get them into trouble? - Oh, absolutely! (Don't we all, in some ways?) Great question and exactly what this is all about.

The problem is that the socialization is so deep that it truly does define many boys at a subconscious level they can't grasp or fight. Others feel uneasy about certain aspects of the socialization, but the fear of being mocked or of not fitting in won't allow them to really engage their unease or actually rebel against the norms. Others try to rebel, and succeed to some extent. Others completely rebel and consciously choose to never fit in. There's a whole range of responses to this dynamic. The bulk of boys are defined by it, though, to enough of an extent that it's what we have to work with.

(And, sadly, adults are just as responsible for this socialization as peers, if not more so.)

Me for instance: Having a pacifist upbringing and great role models in my family helped me decide on some level I was never going to embrace the dominant concept of "manliness" in our society, but I was too shy and reserved to ever act out against it. Somewhere along the line I realized I preferred the company of girls (or nerds) to most boys, since I was never sure which other boys were holding me to the standard of "manliness," would judge me and mock me for not living up to it. For example, one time when I showed a peer my music interests, he mocked me and told everyone else so they would too, so I learned that music was something private that I'd keep to myself. I had many other lessons like that. At the same time as I tried to reject those values, however, they continued to define me and I found myself uninterested in the types of things we were assigned to read in school--the types of things that Guys Read-type advocates say won't work for boys--and it was not an act, I really didn't like them (and still don't, to some extent). I only became a reader because I discovered the fantasy genre; I read 2-3 books of my own choosing a week as a teen, but read almost nothing that was assigned in school (teachers always told us what we were supposed to learn from the reading during lecture and discussion anyway). I was a proud, self-proclaimed nerd who didn't want to fit in and read for fun more than anyone I knew (and got made fun of for it), yet the social conditioning I rebelled against was strong enough that I couldn't make myself like any type of book but a particular genre.

So whether they knowingly choose it or not, guys reading tastes are at least somewhat defined by this socialization, and we have to reach them where they are and appeal to who they are. Saying, "It's okay to read this 'girly' book," might work for a few, but we're not the ones enforcing these norms for them or mocking them when they don't follow them. And one of the biggest norms we have to fight is that the very act of reading itself is "unmanly," which means the first big hurdle is finding some type of reading that they'll accept as "okay for boys." Then if we can get them to consider certain types of books, most boys genuinely do like what we talk about as "boy books" because it's who they've been trained to be. There are plenty who don't fit the mold, of course--discussions like this are based on sweeping generalizations, not individualities--and that's where reference interviews and personal recommendations come in.

It's also why I don't recommend just any book with gross humor and brute appeal, because the good ones work on multiple levels. A good "boy book," in my opinion, entertains and amuses by challenging conventional mores and manners (don't talk about underpants or puke, etc.), but at the same time challenges the conventional norms of manliness and takes delight in wit and praises intelligence; it hooks guys with its base subject matter, but then works in other values and messages in subtle and fun ways. It can't be a pandering bait-and-switch or be at all preachy because guys will see through that; it has to be both stupid and smart at the same time. (As I said in my review of Ook and Gluk, no one does stupid humor as intelligently as Dav Pilkey.)

It's all about replacing the dominant message that reading isn't a "manly" thing with the idea that reading is fun for guys and that there are books that appeal to "manly" values. Once we can get guys across that barrier and into our fold as readers, they'll eventually start wanting new challenges and stimulation and will expand their interests.

And it's never as simple as just that--that's just my starting point. I may call my booklists "Guy Appeal" lists, but I tried to have a decent level of variety within them because there are many different things that appeal to guys. You'll find horror, fantasy, sci fi, humor, female protagonists, sports, nerds, mysteries, and many other things. The teen list even starts (alphabetical author listing) with a blatant lesson book about how girls are harassed for being girls (Thirteen Reasons Why). The "gross" stuff is mainly confined to the Captain Underpants Readalikes list and things like that. It's not about trying to define guys with our lists and recommendations (as much as possible, though there will always be some aspect of that), but about trying to find lists and recommendations that make sense to the ways guys define themselves.

Say there is a boy who would much rather read Bridge to Terebithia than the book on Extreme Sharks that the adult is showing him. Won't he get the message that he is supposed to "like" sharks? And if he doesn't, then he's weird or he's gay or he's a wuss? - That's why I start every reference interview not with, "You should like this," but with, "What do you like?" If he won't tell me, then my next line of questioning is, "Do you think you'd enjoy something that is . . . funny/serious/fantastical/factual/contemporary/historical/etc?" (Fill in the blanks until one lights up his eyes a bit.) Use questions to make him give you direction and guide your recommendations. And as we start narrowing in I'll even ask directly, "Do you mind if the main character is a girl?" and similar things so he defines what he's comfortable with instead of me assuming or imposing.

(The views expressed aren't based on careful academic study and don't represent all male librarians; these are just my experiences and ramblings.)


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