Me and "boy fiction"

Contrary to what the name sounds like, "Boy Fiction" is not a cross between a librarian and Batman's sidekick.  It's the label that a NYT reviewer gave to the work of author George R.R. Martin - specifically A Game of Thrones (the book currently being translated into an HBO series of the same name.)  In all fairness to the article, the commentary was critiquing the HBO show for containing content that the reviewer did not appreciate (sexual content), but one paragraph of the article rather offended me:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half. 
I should state that I have not seen the show - nor do I currently subscribe to HBO - but I have read (and loved) A Game of Thrones.  Martin's work is written for mature audiences and there are scenes of both sex and violence, which I imagine were translated to film with all the gratuitousness I would predict for a show with a TV-MA rating.  Had the story been sanitized for a lower rating, fans would likely protest.  The book is not written as a neat, tidy saga - it's rough, gritty, intense, passionate, violent, shocking, and bloody.  There are heroes and villains, lovers and killers with every character playing multiple roles and written in brilliant shades of gray.  That's how Martin wrote it.  That's the work that captured my attention and drew me into reading thousands of pages of sequels.

And yet, the review article seems to imply that HBO expanded the sex and romance solely to attract female viewers.  I'm both appalled and offended at the idea that the stereotype still exists that women don't - or won't - enjoy high fantasy and that this genre remains classified as "boy fiction".  As far as the book club analogy goes, I must admit that I've never even heard of Lorrie Moore (if anyone wants to recommend one of her works I'll gladly add it to my TBR list) and would definitely suggest the works of J.R.R. Tolkien to any group of readers I interact with.  Perhaps this is why, despite my bibliophilic proclivities,  I have never actually been invited to join a book club. 

But there are plenty of women who enjoy fantasy and other works of so-called "boy fiction".  I know lots of them; I read with them; I am one of them.  One of my current reading challenges is a reread of the Song of Ice and Fire books in anticipation of the July release of book five, A Dance with Dragons.  I read A Game of Thrones five years ago and I enjoyed it just as much the second time around when I finished it last month.  George R.R. Martin's popularity is not because he writes for a certain gender, it is because he writes good books.  He is a masterful storyteller, and the beauty of A Game of Thrones lies in his weaving together multiple genres.  The Song of Ice and Fire series is about family as much as politics, it is about battle as well as relationships, adventure as well as horror, mystery, fantasy, and romance.  Martin composes stories with characters that are realistic - they are fallible heroes, sympathetic villains, and even minor characters with subplots that capture the reader's attention.  They live and they die in tales that seem to be writing themselves.  The saga unfolds more as a history of some distant, ancient land - one that occasionally mirrors modern political themes - rather than just a made up realm of bedtime stories. 

So why is an epic story like this limited to the enjoyment of men?  Why should a well written love story be classified as for women?  I know statistics will show that the majority of fantasy readers are male, but perhaps more ladies would be inclined to explore the genre if that trend was not so publicly reinforced.  Good books are good books, and I don't believe they should be recommended to one gender over the other.  Readers should be encouraged to explore and expand their horizons rather than being pigeonholed into a certain type of book that is expected of them. When I was younger, I followed in the reading footsteps of my older sisters eagerly reaching for their R.L. Stine Fear Street series and L.J. Smith's Vampire Diaries, and though I enjoyed the thriller suspense and paranormal stories, I think I really began devouring books when my brother suggested I try out Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman's Dragonlance Chronicles.  Though I liked mystery and suspenseful fiction, I loved fantasy; and when my cousin first lent me his copy of R.A. Salvatore's The Crystal Shard I knew I was hooked. 

My reading tastes expanded as I got older and I now find that there are few genres I don't love, but I know that I never would have become the passionate reader that I am had fantasy books been kept from me based on my gender.  To label such books as "boy fiction" seems a needless stereotype, and I would hate to have other young readers feel a stigma attached to works that could blossom their love of books.  What do others think about the gender-genre linkage?  Are these classifications helpful or hazardous to matching readers to books they'll enjoy?  Any other women like me that enjoy "boy fiction"?  Any men that enjoy stories generally aimed at women? 

9 Response to "Me and "boy fiction""

  1. Hilde says:
    April 16, 2011 at 3:42 PM

    I completely agree with you on this. It always baffles me when someone puts "boy" and "girl" or "male" and "female" labels on books. Yes, more men read high fantasy and more women so-called chick lit, but I think this might have something to do with commonly percieved stereotypes as well as personal preferences. Women may think fantasy is all about battles and blood and politics, because that is what we have come to expect through media. Labeling it as "boy fiction" certainly doesn't help change that stereotype. Plus, it sounds very patronising to me.

    I haven't read Martin myself (yet - I have a copy of A Game of Thrones and I'm really looking forward to reading it before watching the tv show), but I do read quite a bit of fantasy and love it. I also read several thriller series by the likes of Lee Child and Clive Cussler, which I suspect would also be put into the "boy fiction" category. One of my favourite fantasy series is The Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch, which includes quite a lot of swearing and violence. But they are also very clever and well-written books. Why shouldn't women enjoy that as much as men? Now, I have never been a girly-girl (except in 4th grade when I was trying to fit in by only reading books about horses) and I find a lot of books aimed solely at women to be boring. In fact, if something is labeled "boy fiction" I will probably be more inclined to read it, because I know there will be some action going on. But sadly I think that label would deter more women from reading the works in question than encourage them.

    All this was a very round-about way of saying yes, I read and enjoy "boy fiction", and no, I don't think gender labeling is a good thing. And for the record I have never heard of Lorrie Moore, but I do love Tolkien and would happily recommend him to everyone I meet. Take that, NYT reviewer.

  2. Lesa says:
    April 16, 2011 at 11:55 PM

    Amen, sisters!! What y'all both said!!

    As a kid I loved reading Pippi Longstocking, Little House, Little Princess ect-- but I loved Tom Sawyer, Huck, The Three Investigators and other 'boy' books just as much.

    I don't discriminate against genre or gender-- I will read anthing-- but I love fantasy, sci/fi, and 'macho' action thillers with special forces and cool weapons.

    Never heard of Lorrie Moore.

  3. curlygeek04 says:
    April 17, 2011 at 9:00 AM

    Wow, that is horrible! And from the New York Times? I've always read "boy fiction" I guess -- I love all kinds of fantasy, and yes, I appreciate it greatly when it has good girl characters, but I would read The Hobbit long before I would read most "book club books". In fact I don't like most books deliberately aimed at women. This reminded me of when I was a child in an advanced reading class and a teacher made the girls read Jane Eyre and the boys read Red Badge of Courage. I wish I'd complained but instead I've had a lifelong hatred of Jane Eyre.

  4. lisa :) says:
    April 17, 2011 at 10:32 PM

    Awesome response to the review from GRRM himself HERE!
    To quote:
    "I am not going to get into it myself, except to say
    (1) if I am writing "boy fiction," who are all those boys with breasts who keep turning up by the hundreds at my signings and readings?
    and
    (2) thank you, geek girls! I love you all."

    I <3 you, too Mr. Martin!!

  5. StephanieD says:
    April 17, 2011 at 11:41 PM

    My book club and I were just talking about this very topic today! We were so riled with this rather ignorant reviewer that we decided to read A Game of Thrones for our next meeting.

  6. carolsnotebook says:
    April 18, 2011 at 3:26 PM

    I have no idea who Lorrie Moore is either.

    Count me as a woman who reads whatever she wants, who doesn't believe fiction should be classified as being for one gender or the other.

  7. Captain Nick Sparrow says:
    April 18, 2011 at 8:36 PM

    Another girl who's never heard of Lorrie Moore here.

    I watched Game of Thrones on HBO last night and really liked it (because of all the sex apparently). My friend (another girl!) read the book to get ready for the show. Good to know you liked the book also.

    RE: the boy/girl issue - as a teacher I spend A LOT of time trying to break down those gender boxes we learn to put everything in. It's frustrating to me when others (you know who you are) don't help out!

    Now I'm going to contradict myself and say, I think it's funny the reviewer thinks the gratuitous sex is for the ladies!

  8. lisa :) says:
    April 19, 2011 at 10:41 AM

    Thanks for all the great comments. I've been reflecting on this topic since for a while now and I've actually decided to remove the tag "chick lit" that I've given to a bunch of my reviews. I've realized that if I get this upset at people calling fantasy "boy fiction" there could very well be guys out there that love Helen Fielding or the Shopaholic books and get just as peeved when I call it "chick lit" (I mostly adopted the tag because it's fun to say and reminds me of the gum/candy Chicklets). I'm pretty convicted about not having a double standard here. Of course, now I'm trying to think of a gender neutral name for these lighthearted stories usually centered on a woman with some degree of a light love story. I'm leaning toward "cozy fic" - I've heard the term "cozy mysteries" for what are best described as PG-13 detective novels - and I think the "cozy" term applies well without any male/female connotation. Any thoughts?

  9. Captain Nick Sparrow says:
    April 21, 2011 at 11:22 PM

    I always thought the "chick" in "chick lit" referred to the main character, not the reader?

    Check out Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chick_lit

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