“VICE: On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?
AS: I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.”
This unleashed a storm of criticism in the Twitterverse, to the extent that Andrew Smith has pretty much peaced out from Twitter.
I felt some type of way about what he said, but it’s not really my style to rage via Twitter. I need time to think things through, and then I need to write to bring cohesion to my thoughts. So that’s what I’m doing here.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Smith, he’s a YA writer kind of blowing up right now. He’s the author of THE MARBURY LENS, WINGER, GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE (2015 Printz Honor Book & 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winner), and the just released THE ALEX CROW, among others. I reviewed THE MARBURY LENS a few years ago, and he instantly became one of my favorite YA writers.
Before I respond to his comments, let me acknowledge that I am male and therefore read from a privileged standpoint. I’ll admit that I’m not reading with my feminist critique lens 100% of the time. And I know I can do this because I’m male and the world has been shaped by my ilk. If you don’t believe that I have no right to enter this conversation because of my gender, that’s fine. I disagree, but that’s fine. Nobody’s forcing you to read this.
So onto my response.
Even though I love Smith’s writing, I absolutely agree that his aversion to writing female characters is a cop out. Even though one of the most repeated pieces of writing advice is to write what you know, I believe that writing fiction is ultimately an exercise of imagination. You create a character that is not you. You put them inside of a world and in a situation you created. And you arrive at a plot by imagining how that character might think, feel, and react to the situations. It takes an incredible amount of empathy and time and thoughtfulness.
So of course it’s easier to write what you know. The closer the character resembles the author, the easier it is for the author to inhabit that consciousness.
But how many self-portraits can an artist paint?
Smith’s acknowledgment of his fault would be acceptable if he were just starting out. But this is a man who has written several books and won awards for some of them. A writer of that level should be able to depart from his comfort zone, and I think it’s fair and necessary to call him out for being unable to do so–ESPECIALLY WHEN HE IS DISMISSING HALF OF HUMANITY. To ignore or accept his comment would make us complicit in maintaining the parade of white male protagonists in children’s lit.
With that said, I don’t think Twitter is the best place to have this conversation–maybe it was a good place to start it, but certainly not to continue it. 140 Characters is not enough space to engage in a thoughtful and productive conversation. Even if one uses several tweets, they’re still fragmented and easily taken out of context. And it is just too simple to pile on, too simple for someone who doesn’t really know what’s going on to tweet or retweet an incendiary comment that might just perpetuate misunderstanding or unchecked anger.
I’m glad that we are talking about this, and I hope we continue to do so. I hope this conversation produces lasting change in the writing and publishing community. As for me, I’ll still continue to read Andrew Smith because I enjoy his storytelling. However, I hope that I see a difference in his forthcoming books.