Friday, May 24, 2013

YA Guy Yaks About... Boy Books

Let's take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

In a previous life, before I became YA Guy, I was a scholar of American literature.  I had a Ph.D. and everything!  (Still do; they haven't taken it away from me yet.)  And as a scholar of American literature, I wrote scholarly books and articles, most of them about my sub-specialization, antebellum American literature, or my sub-sub-specialization, antebellum Native American literature.

One of the things I learned as a scholar is that, during the nineteenth century, boy books--adventure stories written by men and aimed at preteen-to-teen male readers--were big business.  It's a little known fact that Herman Melville was famous in his own day not for Moby-Dick (which actually killed his popularity) but for boy books based on his experiences as a sailor.  His first two books were titled Typee and Omoo, and they were pure boy books, full of high seas adventure, male camaraderie, sexual innuendo, and howling savages.  They were the precursors, in fact, to the wildly popular genre of boy book that would arrive with the next century: the Western.

Other male authors of the time built their reputations on boy books as well.  Mark Twain, for example, did a booming business with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn--the latter famous for its experiments with vernacular and first-person narration, but still a boy book through and through.  James Fenimore Cooper, Jack London, and Zane Grey were all boy-book specialists, as were Richard Henry Dana, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, John Neal, William Gilmore Simms, and others.  Nathaniel Hawthorne was a bit of an outlier, but many of his short stories are boy-bookish at the core: "Young Goodman Brown," "Roger Malvin's Burial," "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," and others all tell the tale of young men confronting a hostile wilderness, both outside and within their own hearts.

And then of course there's Poe, who....  Well, Poe is Poe.  The less said there, the better.

But it's worth mentioning that his one novel, the wildly unpopular Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, was an undisputed attempt to cash in on the boy-book craze, marred by the breakneck speed with which the cash-strapped Poe composed it and by his inability to resist parodying the very genre he was copying.

Native American authors did a pretty brisk business in the boy-book market too.  George Copway (Ojibwa), Charles Eastman (Sioux), and Luther Standing Bear (Sioux) all capitalized on the public fascination with stories of young men--in their case, young Native men--braving and triumphing over the wild.

So what happened?  If boy books were such hot properties then, where are they now?

Well, first, they're still here.  Never went away, really.  The Hardy Boys stories were the boy books of my own youth.  The Harry Potter series, female author notwithstanding, certainly follow in the boy-book tradition.  So do the books of Roland Smith, Christopher Paul Curtis, Rick Riordan, and others.

But in the nineteenth century, the dawn of the boy book, another literary development was set in motion that would ultimately eclipse the boy-book phenomenon: the appearance of the girl book.

These consisted principally of romance stories written by women for middle-class teenage girls and young housewives, and they sold like hotcakes.  They sold in the hundreds of thousands--in some cases, in the millions--which are mind-boggling numbers when you factor in the relatively small size of the population, the lack of universal literacy, and the relatively high cost of books.  Their authors were people you've probably never heard of: Susan Warner, Maria Cummins, E. D. E. N. Southworth, Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Mary Eastman, and (one you certainly have heard of) Harriet Beecher Stowe.  For all their popularity, boy books couldn't compete with girl books.  They were trounced.

There are two main reasons why.  First, with middle-class females less well represented in the workforce than males, they had more time for leisure reading, and they gravitated toward books that reflected their own experience.  Second, with authorship being one of the only professions in which women could hope to make a good, independent living, women of talent were drawn to writing in greater numbers than were men.

These two factors are less prevalent today, but they laid the groundwork for the modern publishing industry's predisposition toward female-authored and female-centered YA.  The audience and the authorship were prepared over a hundred years ago, so why mess with a good thing?

Now remember, I'm writing this not as a means of railing against the current trends.  I'm simply trying to provide some literary-historical perspective as part of my project to validate and celebrate YA of all stripes, whether it be male-authored and male-centered or not.  Our reading habits have histories, and those histories help us understand who we are today.

Okay, class dismissed.

No comments:

Post a Comment