The Question

female statueIt must have seemed just another author interview. The author was generous, forthcoming. He continued to be generous and forthcoming when he was asked “the question.” (I’m not using his name even though he probably won’t see this, since having already received more Internet attention than anyone could want, he’s absented himself from all social media.)

“The question” went something like this: “There are very few female characters in your books. Why?”

He explained. He said he had grown up with brothers. He said that he knows boys, that girls are something of a mystery to him. He said that he has a daughter and that he is learning from her. End of discussion. Or it should have been.

It wasn’t. When the interview appeared, responses were instant . . . and passionate. The F word cropped up repeatedly. (It’s interesting how the relative anonymity of the Internet brings out the worst in some of us.) The debate was about whether the writer was—or was not—a sexist!

The first time I encountered this kerfuffle, I shook it off, bemused. When it cropped up later with even more venom attached I had to take a deep breath. This isn’t the children’s literature community I have long known and valued.

In the first place, we writers are always told to write what we know. And yes, sometimes lack of direct experience can be compensated for by research. That’s especially true if you’re writing a novel set in the 14th century! But if you’re writing a novel set in the 14th century, you don’t have to worry about folks with immediate experience of that time accusing you for what you don’t understand. If you are a man writing about women/girls—or a woman writing about men/boys, for that matter—you have a whole audience who knows your topic better than you ever can. And you would be foolish to forget that.

So . . . some men have a deep enough experience of females in their lives to write female characters well. Some don’t and don’t know that they don’t, and they write female characters clumsily, relying on male-conceived stereotypes. And vice versa with female writers. I once had a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts who wrote his critical thesis supporting the contention that, with the field of children’s literature being dominated by female writers, male characters were consistently being misrepresented.

But it’s the wise writer of either gender who recognizes the limits of his/her understanding of the opposite sex. Though perhaps given the fall-out from this particular interview a writer isn’t equally wise to admit that recognition.

It’s interesting, however, to consider whether anyone would have taken offense if the genders in this situation had been reversed, a woman who grew up with sisters admitting that she writes about girls and women because that’s what she knows.

Yes, I understand that power comes with responsibility to learn an extra layer—several extra layers, actually—of sensitivity toward those less powerful, less represented. That’s true when considering white privilege, a potent topic in our field as well as in our day-to-day world, and it’s true when considering male privilege. But surely there comes a point, especially in our female-dominated children’s literature community, when we quit judging men by a different standard than the one we hold women to.

We need those men, after all, to create a balanced world of books for our young readers. We need them exactly the way we need writers outside the dominant culture. And I, for one, am one-hundred-percent behind every writer who has the humility to recognize what he or she doesn’t understand and has the courage to say so out loud.