Monday, September 5, 2011

The Boys' Books of One Boy, Me

I wrote a bit about "girls' books" last week. What I wrote is about all I'm competent to write on the topic. I don't have a daughter, I didn't grow up with sisters, and I did not myself read the sorts of books I talked about. Part of the reason I didn't was because I was a very advanced reader, but still a child. By which I mean, I couldn't exactly appreciate Balzac or Waugh or Wharton or any of them because I was too young for nuance. But I wanted to read adult books anyway, and was inclined towards fantasy (and to a more limited extent scifi and horror), so that was what I read.

I don't want to imply that either a) fantasy and scifi are boys' topics (though I will discuss this below) or that there are no nuanced books in the field. I know there are nuanced books. It's just with fantasy, you can read the book at the surface level and not be missing anything if you don't get the nuance. That's a little less the case with a small percentage of fantasy, and a little less the case with more recent fantasy than it was when I was a wee lad, but in essence, one can read about wizards and cursed forests and dragons and suchlike without worrying about subtext. There is little in the way of literary analysis in the field. So when I was eight or ten or twelve, I devoured fantasy and related matters and felt like I was reading books that were at my level, and didn't feel I was missing much.

(I will note also that I've gone back and read many of the same books again as a grown person, and most of them have no more subtext than what I noticed at age 11. A delightful genre, but not the deepest.)

Now, on to my point a) above, that fantasy and scifi are or are not girls' topics. I will now place myself into immediate hot water by saying that they were, when I was young, the property of boys. There were girls who squatted on the territory, of course, but they were the exceptions, the invaders of a particularly nerdy, in-joke ridden, awkward land that was almost exclusively masculine for certain very young values of masculinity. As time has gone by, as the world has changed, as nerds have grown up and raised their daughters into nerdy ways, as fantasy has expanded and broadened, this has in large degree changed. There are as many, or almost as many, girl geeks as there are boy dorks. (My nomenclature will be vague here by choice. I realize that to use nerd, dork and geek interchangeably is a sin to some, but I will stand by my usage as one who is a bit of all three, thank you very much, and can thus bandy them about as much as I wish for essay purposes.) But this was certainly not the case when I was young, or if it was, the girls kept it very well hidden and used their disdain and complete incomprehension to make it clear that what we geeky boys were up to was nothing worthy of notice or mention.

So then, a bit back to the point, that as a youth I read a good deal of this boyish province of fantasy, now colonized and comfortably settled by girls. And I read a lot of fantasy with killing and fighting and spells and general stupidity in it, most of which has faded into merciful oblivion both in bookstores and in my mind. But now I will document a few of the titles that have endured, and why I think they weren't girls' books, and why I think they should or at least could be.

1)The Lord of the Rings. It always comes back to this. Fantasy grew from many springs, but it was in Tolkien's classic that they all came together, and the mighty waters raged over all the geeks yet unborn, and we grew up on the shores of the land and world that he built. I read this books at least two or three times a year, every year from the time I was about 8; I read them until their covers fell off, until they were stained and battered, until we had to get new copies (more than once). I practiced writing my name in runes, in elven languages. I knew the lines of the Kings, and the degrees of consanguinity of the hobbits, and all such notions. The LotR was my Bible, as much as I had one. My mother had read the books. She was a reader of all things, devouring print like most people drink water. Even now she normally has three books going at once, one for commuting with, and one for upstairs, and one for the bedside. So I know that women (and one must assume girls, though I didn't know of any) read the books. But they seemed an exclusively male domain. There were only a handful of named women, none of them major characters. The scope was vast and geopolitical. And the strongest relationships portrayed are of course manly, mostly the bonds of warriors one for another. Yet there are other traits that would suggest to me that it wasn't just a book for boys who wanted orcs and dragons and such. There is careful thought of culture and custom; there is at least one actual well thought out and deep relationship between Frodo and Sam; there is the universal appeal of a hopeless quest of good against evil. So why didn't I know any girls who read the books until quite a bit later? I can't say. But I didn't.

2) The Belgariad. When I was 13, I consumed this series in moments, or so it seemed. Five books about a boy chosen by fate to defeat an evil god. A cast of dozens of major characters; maps of various kingdoms; gods intervening and monsters attacking and magic spells and everything else a boy could want. David Eddings, who wrote the books, would later write them again and call them the Mallorean. And the Elenium. And the Tamuli. The fact that he had a good series in him and was willing to milk it multiple times is kind of horrible and kind of awe inspiring. In any case, I think it is a good series, for a young person. It has a very strong female character in Polgara. It has many other female characters of all types (I credit Eddings' wife, I think, for that, because it turned out years later that she had helped him with all his books, and she at last recieved credit for doing so on many of his later publications.) It has family dynamics, it has romance, it has slow moments to counter the endless battles and schemes and depictions of evil. All of this, I stupidly think, would make it seem like a good book for a child of 12 or so no matter their gender. But again, I only knew boys who read it (my mother didn't even touch these), and we all loved it.

3) Chronicles of Amber. I probably should do drugs if I want to fully understand these, especially the second series, which is not, in fact, what I'm talking about here. The first five books are strange, innovative, and filled with guys competing with guys to see who can be king of a magical realm. The women are femme fatales or disregarded; even the terribly scary Fiona is seen as a wicked child more than anything else. These books were written by a guy for guys, and as a boy I loved them greatly. I cannot say that these were boys' books, though. They were so obscure for a child that I don't know of anyone who read them in those years, except me and my brother. Adults, they read these books, not children of either gender.

4) Earthsea. One could make a strong case that these books shouldn't even count as "boys' books" with quotes or not. Only they start off so insularly boyish that one almost must. Though written by a great writer who happens to be a woman, they have no major female characters in the first book. It is to a boys' school that the main character goes, to perform boy dares and foolishly, boyishly curse himself. That there is a major female character in the second book is some redemption, and the later books in the series are much more "balanced" if one can use such a weighted term. But as a boy, the second book, with its girl and its strange labyrinths and grim dark service to unknown gods, did not appeal to me as much as the first, or the third with its land of the dead and its dragons. The second book was a bit of an aberration, then, to my young perspective, and in retrospect was a sign that it wasn't, as the first and third were, a "boys' book".

That's a few. I could go on at length about more. All of Michael Moorcock, perhaps. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I could mention a few scifi titles, too. Larry Niven's opus; Heinlein, though I came to him late, really. But I think this suffices. These are books that I know many women have read, and will read, and will enjoy, but in those days, I did not know them. I did not know, until I got to high school, a single girl my age who read such things, or even seemed to want to. Though if they had wanted to, I don't suppose, as a boy, I would have done anything to make it possible. Geekdom was very tribal (still is?) and my tribe was all boys. But these were some of my books, some of the books that the geeky boys I knew read, and that I couldn't picture any girl ever reading.

What were you boy books? What were your girl books? Why were they for boys, or for girls? Why shouldn't they have been?


  1. I have a strange place in any discussions I make concerning the "genders" of books, in that if one were forced to place me somewhere (and one often is) I'd be a writer of womens' books, I suspect. I have three ebooks published. Two have female main characters which drops them from the "boy book" category pretty quickly; the last is a queer fantastical love story that, though it is on its face a story about a boy, doing boy things in a boy milieu, is really not that at all. I think at the age of 12 I wouldn't have read of my own books. Maybe the YA one, although it has a female lead, but not the other two, not at all. So I feel a little strangely about this topic. And I'm glad to be examining it, and to be looking more closely at my own thoughts and assumptions.

  2. The Belgariad - is the only one of those that I, a girl, did not read in about the same time frames, as long as you count re reading them. I was reading those and Marian Zimmerman Bradly's Darkover, which was purposefully feminist after a certain point. As well as Heinlien and Herbert. Of course I was also reading the Black Stallion books and Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden one with male lead and male horse the others with female lead who always had male supports or foils idk which.
    Narnia did a pretty good job of having a balance and that was one of the earliest series I read. I think it was when I was seven or so.
    At 12 I stayed up all night (for the first time ever) to read a trilogy of books the first two had a female lead and the last one a male - Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffery.
    But I had a mother who talked about feminism and bought the female authors and left them around in our house of two men three women, all of whom read, especially SF, voraciously.
    I think if we can stop selling the books as girl books and boy books and just concentrate of good stories that Everyone reads we will be better off.

  3. Anne McCaffery. Of course. I loved those books a great deal, and they were great(before they went on and on and on). Strong female leads, too, in many of them, although in societally limited roles. I never really got into Darkover at all, but I did love Mists of Avalon, which by any standard of measure you want to apply (but really shouldn't) would fall into the female category of books. But I loved the legends of Arthur, and I loved her version as much I ever have loved any version. But was it because it was part of the Arthurian myths? (note, of course, that some of the earliest writers of Arthurian stories were women, notably the court lady Marie de France, and they were created in the main as part of the courtly love movement, so they cross all lines, I think.)