Last week, David Elzey (@d_elzey) over at Fomagrams posted some interesting thoughts on the Bechdel test, wondering how and if the test applied to YA and kid lit, and if commenters could list examples of books that pass and books that fail. (Head on over to Fomagrams for some interesting comment discussion, too.)
What is the Bechdel Rule?
Even if the name is unfamiliar, you’ve probably heard of the Bechdel test, more often called the Bechdel rule. It’s usually talked about in conjunction with television and/or movies, but the principle could hold true for literature, too. To borrow from David:
The Bechdel Test originated in the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For by Allison Bechdel. The “joke” in one particular strip from back in 1985 was that a character only watched movies if they met the following requirements:
1. It has to have at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man
There is a corollary point that says the female characters must also have names.
In a 2008 interview with NPR, creator Alison Bechdel said she was glad the rule was getting so much play (see this io9 post about SF & the Bechdel rule for more interesting linkage):
Yeah, I’m very glad people are talking about the “Bechdel Rule,” even though I’m a little ambivalent about that name. When I talked to the NPR reporter, I suggested changing it to “Ripley’s Rule,” after the Sigourney Weaver character in “Alien.” Since at the time of the rule’s inception, that was the only movie that fit its criteria. But she didn’t use that part of the interview.
It’s funny to me that it’s getting so much play all of a sudden. For me, the Rule is kind of like feminism in a bottle—applied theory, quick and easy. I think whatever name one gives it, the rule should be applied to everything everywhere, including real life.
Applying Bechdel Rule in YA & Kid Lit
Working out where and how the rule applies in YA and kid lit is difficult, because there are so many distinct audiences. Generally speaking, girls will read boy books, with boy protagonists (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and the Olympians), while boys won’t read girl books, with girl protagonists (The Goose Girl, Howl’s Moving Castle). YA and kid lit are also more distinctly broken into age groups than their adult counterparts, and have looser definitions of genres. That said, I think most contemporary kid lit does an excellent job of passing the Bechdel test, arguably more so than any other age group or genre.
Why the Bechdel Rule works–or should work–in Kid Lit
What exactly do I mean by kid lit? I’m talking about the books kids read themselves, past picture book level and beginning with books in the same vein as Nancy Krulik’s Katie Kazoo, Switcheroo, Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones, to middle grade (MG) and the lower end of YA (Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series, Emily Rodda’s Rowan of Rin series). Wondering why no picture books? Because most children reading picture books aren’t up to grasping as many ideas or subplots yet, making it harder to have more than one important character.
For the most part, kid lit and MG books fit nicely with the Bechdel rule because their readers aren’t up to discussing boys and riding the he-likes-me/he-doesn’t-like-me carousel. Most girl-centric books aren’t up to the envy/frenemy characters either–girls might have a boy or girl best friend, and a boy or girl nemesis, but the books rarely combine both (though Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me is an excellent example of both done well).
What about boy-centric kid lit, like HP, or Rowan of Rin? In my (albeit limited) experience, more modern novels have two or three girl characters who aren’t simply there to be rescued. Hermione’s cleverness practically leaps off the page; in the first Rowan book, the girls (or teens) are tough, and although their fears eventually overcome them, fear overcomes the male characters (with the exception of Rowan, of course, who learns to work through his) as well.
And if there’s only one girl (or worse, no girls) in a boy-centric book? I’ve spent the past few days thinking about this. At first, I didn’t think it mattered, because middle grade reading boys probably aren’t interested in girls, so there’s not really an issue. Yet the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize my earlier response is wrong.
Should the rule apply, if the target audience is boys? Yes. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Kids learn through reading–they learn the way the world works, how to think about things, how to move past fears and so much more. If we present a world without girls, or with only token girls, it sends a message that this is how the world works, and that girls don’t matter.
What About the Bechdel in YA? Does it still apply? Should it?
To me, applying the Bechdel rule in YA is an exercise in frustration. Like most things in YA literature, nothing is clear cut about gender in YA. Half the books I’ve picked up since thinking about this meet the requirements easily. Others are borderline. Others fail miserably. Rereading my own work in progress, I can see how it could scrape by, scrape being the operative word.
The difficulty for me lies in not whether the Bechdel rule is important and applicable, but whether it’s always important and applicable. If a book is a slice-of-life story, or a genre-specific (insofar as YA is ever genre-specific) work, the rule should probably apply. But what if it’s a problem novel, a story addressing specific issues? From memory, Joyce Carol Oates’ Sexy doesn’t pass; neither does Stephen Chobsky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But both books are about boys with specific issues, on isolation and working through problems. If a wallflower rarely speaks to girls in real life, should we really force girls into the book so it can pass a test?
One argument is yes, a la the reasons I listed for kid lit: token girls/no girls sends a message that girls don’t matter. Worse, in YA, where girls do talk about boys, we risk sending the message that boys are all girls do–and should–care about. But YA audiences are different to kid lit and MG audiences. They’re more sophisticated, they’ve read more, they interact with adults on a more even level. The majority of YA readers should be able to understand the difference between style and genre, and see that a book like Wallflower doesn’t pass the test for a good reason, rather than because Chobsky didn’t feel like writing in conversations between girls.
And then there’s the opposite side of the coin, the reverse Bechdel. How many girl-centric books have two guys having a conversation about something other than a girl? In Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, the male characters discuss women exclusively–if the bard can’t beat a reverse Bechdel, should we mere mortals even try? Or is a reverse test moot, because the issue is feminism, rather than equal representation?
As an issue of gender equality, things get even more confusing with books like Sarah Dessen’s This Lullaby, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls*, or Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. These novels–along with many others–focus on two main characters, one girl, one boy. If the sexes are evenly represented, and can talk about something other than their respective love interests (regardless of whether they’re coupled up or not), do we need the Bechdel test? If a girl walks up to a guy and asks him about his favorite book, isn’t that as much a win as a girl discussing favorite books with another girl? If a boy walks up to a girl and starts asking about her music preferences or her iPod playlist rather than who she came with or if she likes him, isn’t that a positive thing, regardless of whether there are other girls around? Gender equality is about, well, equality. If a boy and a girl in literature–moreover, in real life–can interact on an even playing field without sex/attraction/gender issues entering into it, then the Bechdel rule loses some of its power, doesn’t it?
Of course, my view could be biased. My own WIP is about an isolated teen boy, and the female characters rarely interact, because said boy’s life is segmented, a necessary part of the story. As a card-carrying feminist, knowing I don’t quite meet Bechdel’s criteria bothers me, and I could be trying to justify myself and my story–and it feels good to throw my lot in with some of the greats, like Joyce Carol Oates and Dianna Wynne Jones (her latest, Enchanted Glass, fails too, though many of her other books pass with flying colors).
Do your books pass the Bechdel test? Fail it? Why? Does it bother you? Do you think the test should apply in YA?
*I know I list Wintergirls a lot–I love the book, and I’ve learned a lot from it. If you haven’t read it, go to a bookstore, pick up a coffee, and settle down to read over a cup of tea–now.
Image Credit: A boy, a girl, and a book, by Mexikids
Last week, I posted about what makes a book unsatisfying (it’s all about a poor resolution–sorry, Eve). But pinning down what makes a book satisfying isn’t as simple as writing out a list of opposites. Sure, a book with a great wrap up might be a good read, but there’s more to a satisfying book than that.
Reading–moreover, enjoying–a book is a very subjective thing. So far this month, I’ve read just one completely satisfying book – Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief – which hit on all my favorite things. But the parts of a book I like (a lot of sensory detail, historical inclusions, world myths, dalek fight scenes, some tangents) may be quite different to the parts you like. Harder still, our patience and thresholds for enjoyment may be different. (I’m often willing to give a book at least one hundred pages before deeming it slow, but only call about 10% of what I read truly enjoyable.) Despite this, though, there are three easy ways to figure out if a book was satisfying or not:
- You think about the book for a while after you’ve finished it
- You talk about the book with friends, without using negative adjectives
- You look for a sequel/other books by the same author
Trusting the Reader
An inherent part of reading is trust. As I mentioned last week, readers trust that an author will reward their efforts, and provide a story worth reading all the way to the end. But, as my mother likes to say, trust is a two-way street.
It’s easy to pile everything on an author–after all, in Book Land, authors create, giveth, and taketh away. But a large part of writing is giving the reader credit, and assuming that he/she is neither dense nor stupid, and doesn’t require a summary or info dump every few pages. (This is especially true in YA.) But striking a balance between giving just enough information rather than too little or too much is difficult, even for the best authors (Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me is a great example of getting it right).
Although it’s not the only reason a book might be satisfying, having an author’s trust is definitely an important factor in a satisfying read. Much like a keystone, authorial trust holds everything in place. Why? Because readers are people–people who want (and deserve) to be respected not just for their intellect, but for putting in the effort to read a good book. When an author takes the leap–and it is a leap, because one of the greatest parts of being an author is being able to share our stories in the way we think they should be shared–and trusts the reader, three important things happen:
- Redundancy disappears
- Backstory becomes less of a focus/chore
- The story becomes more compelling because we have to work through it
And when an author doesn’t trust the reader to pick up hints and clues? Generally speaking, the writing becomes redundant, with not-so-obvious hints repeated every few pages, and characters taking turns spewing backstory and “necessary” info. Most of the time, this turns a potentially good book into a frustrating read because:
- The characters spend too long talking, and not enough time acting
- The writing is full of telling rather than showing
- Dialogue is stilted, or filled with forced reveals and backstory
- Adjectives are over-used in an attempt to draw attention to important information (usually information that was revealed earlier)
- It takes too long to slog past the history and get to where the story starts
Sometimes, though, these aren’t satisfaction-killers–it all depends on what the reader wants from a book. Danielle Steele, Queen of Redundancy, has a large dedicated following, possibly because the amount of redundancy in her books means a reader can pick them up and put them down willy-nilly, yet still keep up with the story.
Reasons we love a book
Of course, working through a story–like having an author’s trust–is just one part (albeit a very important part like, say the Mona Lisa’s smile) of the big picture. And not every satisfying book hits every one of the reasons listed below–which is okay, because every book, every story, and every author is different.
Reasons a book may stay with you after that last page turn:
- The clues lead up to a big–not obvious–aha! moment
- Characters act like themselves all the way up to the end, even when a situation is difficult
- The story ties into our humanity, playing on emotions (romantic subplots) or sense of justice (villains get comeuppance) &c.
- Plotlines come together in an unexpected way
- Everything resolves, but without a forced ending
- The story/characters challenge the way the reader thinks
- Subplots are resolved
- The story ties into familiar settings/uses the reader’s knowledge in some way
- The story wasn’t obvious/had to be worked through for the pay off
Working through the Story
Reading is fun, but, like most things, it’s actually more fun if everything is not handed to us on a silver platter. Most readers are drawn to stories with a puzzle to solve, or a kind of mystery. This doesn’t mean that mysteries are the only good fiction (though I do love a bit of Poirot on a rainy day), because almost all stories–or rather, almost all good stories–are mysteries, regardless of their genre.
No, not all stories involve murder or theft or pet abduction. But the majority of good, worthwhile stories do involve an element of discovery, some question or event we, as the reader, is drawn to solve. Sometimes, it’s an obvious, almost physical question (Whatever Happened to Cass McBride?) layered with other questions. Sometimes it’s less concrete than that (why does Holden think everyone else is a phony?), an exploration of the whys and hows of an author’s characters/world. But working through a story is compelling because we have to use our intelligence–and often because we learn something new along the way (Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief is a great example).
What have you read lately? Was it a satisfying read? Why?
We all do it, right? Glance at a group of letters, pull out a word. Reading is so ingrained in our minds that it’s almost impossible to not read signs, titles, anything with words on. But there’s reading, and then there’s reading.
Today, reading mostly falls into two categories: reading for pleasure, and reading for information. Reading as an art–really reading, reading deeper, to get within a story, to pick it to pieces and learn how it works–is fast becoming forgotten.
But What Does “Reading Deeper” Mean?
Reading deeper is about thinking deeper, about tapping into critical thinking skills. Instead of being carried away by surface currents, a deep reader asks questions. Unlike general reading for pleasure, though, deep reading requires active thought.
Anne of Green Gables – Why does Anne Shirley want a more romantic name?
Little Women – Why does Jo care about cutting her hair off?
Wuthering Heights – Why does the weather mirror Catherine and Heathcliff’s moods?
Another way to think of reading deeper is to think of it as reading between the lines. In the first Anne book, Montgomery establishes that Anne thinks herself unworthy of love and affection. But instead of simply telling the reader this, Montgomery uses contrasts. At first glance, a reader might chalk Anne’s dislike of her too-ordinary nose and freckles up to vanity. But when taken in context alongside the girl’s history as an orphan and her want of a more romantic name, Anne’s inner thoughts are made clear.
But what I think of as deep reading goes beyond reading between the lines–it’s sometimes called analytical reading. In an article for CopyBlogger, founder Brian Clark writes:
At this level of reading, you’ve moved beyond superficial reading and mere information absorption. You’re now engaging your critical mind to dig down into the meaning and motivation beyond the text. To get a true understanding of a book, you would:
- Identify and classify the subject matter as a whole
- Divide it into main parts and outline those parts
- Define the problem(s) the author is trying to solve
- Understand the author’s terms and key words
- Grasp the author’s important propositions
- Know the author’s arguments
- Determine whether the author solves the intended problems
- Show where the author is uninformed, misinformed, illogical or incomplete
Reading for Facts or Fun
How is this different to reading for fun or information? When we’re reading for fun, we let our conscious minds drift, giving ourselves leave to be caught up in the story. If the action gets a bit intense and our favorite character’s in danger, we might skip ahead, looking for their name, or words that indicate everything’s okay in Trixie-land (I read a lot of Trixie Belden this way when I was a kid). Sometimes, we’ll go back to fill in the blanks. Other times, particularly if the book is something akin to a cozy mystery, we just keep reading and assume anything important will be covered later.
Reading for information also involves skimming, particularly if you’re a speed reader. Instead of taking in every word, we skim a page until we find relevant sections, then read more comprehensively–sometimes reading quite deeply, but only within a given section.
Of course, there are exceptions–as anyone studying literature, history, or even reading itself, like my crit partner and friend, Livia–will know. If you’re writing a paper on The Old Man and the Sea, you pretty much have to read deeply and pull the book to pieces because that’s where the information you’re using for the paper comes from, in contrast to, say, a biology paper on photosynthesis.
Unsurprisingly, deep reading and critical thinking are important skills for writers. But they’re especially important for YA writers.
Why We Need to Read Deeper, Especially in YA
It’s easy to dismiss YA and teen readers–we’re constantly reminded that teens have short attention spans, that there are half a dozen cute kittens and dancing hamsters just a couple of clicks away. To some extent, the YA bestseller list even supports the idea – Twilight, The Mortal Instruments series, even The Hunger Games are full of flash and bang. Why? Because it’s hard to be distracted when:
- things are blowing up
- a demon is chasing you
- the hot guy you’ve been dreaming about is leaning in close for a first kiss
Some flash-bang books are definitely worth a deeper read–there are a lot of layers in The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and The Mortal Instruments (Cassandra Clare) that are lost in that quick, exciting first read.But for every popular action-packed book, there are a dozen contemporary YA novels being devoured every day. Yes, some of them are edgy, issue books about abuse, rape, eating disorders and the like. But the majority are not. The majority are, on the surface, simple slice-of-life books about school, or summer jobs, or a pair of pants that magically fits four girls with drastically different weights and heights.
Why are teens reading these books? Because they’re relevant. On the surface, the stories may seem as ordinary as Anne Shirley’s nose. In truth, the authors are catching hold of the things most important to their readers on a subconscious level. (Good examples include Ann Brashares’ Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi and On the Jellicoe Road, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big In This? and, to some extent, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, particularly The Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire.)
Remember when I said deeper reading leads to deeper thinking? That’s just the first part of the chain – deeper thinking leads to deeper writing, too. Think about it–if you invest time figuring out why and how a book like When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) works, you suddenly have a whole lot of information about story construction at your fingertips (see Clark’s list above for ways to get started). And while you may not sit down and write out every detail you’ve gleaned (though taking notes is definitely useful), they’ll rattle around your brain and inform the next thing you sit down to write. And that information will help you write a deeper, more relevant story–the kind that catches hold of your reader’s mind, then doesn’t let go until it’s done.
Which slice-of-life YA novels have caught hold of you? Why? Do you read deeply?
P.S the kidlet has been trying to add to this post all day. Here’s what he has to say.
Image Credit: lusi, via sxc.hu
There are certain rules about writing about my color. Be polite, but realistic. Don’t make it an issue if it’s not. Make sure the skin color of your protagonist matches the skin color of your cover model (you heard me, Bloomsbury). And don’t use cliches like “coffee colored” or “rich and smooth as cocoa”.
The last one is pretty much an industry standard–last week, agent Colleen Lindsay even tweeted about it, saying, “When writing about people of color, find a way to describe them that doesn’t involve comparisons to various coffee drinks or cocoa,” (if you’re not following @ColleenLindsay, get thee to Twitter this instant–she’s full of excellent advice and #pubtips). But if we can’t describe black/brown characters as coffee or cocoa without setting off editorial alarm bells, what can we say?
Technically, I’m a person of color. My skin is brown–not full Indian brown like my father’s, but a brown tempered my mother’s fair Scottish skin, a brown I used to call “baby poo”. Nowadays, though, I call it milky coffee, or caramel. My uncle describes it as burnt toast. Once, I even looked it up on a Behr color chart. I’m 350F-5, also known as camel. Now, much as I like camels (Who doesn’t? They’re sea-sickness on legs!) they bring to mind dry hair, cracked toenails, Mick Jagger lips, and a bad attitude. Which is why, If someone else described me as camel-colored, I may have to fight the urge to spit in their face. (Just as a defense mechanism, of course.)
In When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead uses the term “Swiss Miss” as an unintended racist slur, a way for her white main character, Miranda, to recognize bigotry (Miranda uses it because she thinks Julia, the girl the slur is aimed at, pretentious). Throughout the book, Stead uses color in an absent sort of way–Julia, is never given a clear ethnicity. And while I don’t automatically associate myself with the brown character in a book, I did imagine Julia as half-Indian, like me. In fact, the “Swiss Miss” comment even reinforced the idea.
While I’m reasonably sure that this rule comes from a good place, from a desire to not cause offense, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really necessary. My brother, paler than me, isn’t offended to be called white; neither is my mother. White is simply their coloring. Is there a similar rule for other colored characters? Granted, even I know Daleks hate to be called pepper shakers and that Triffids hate it when you call their mothers celery sticks, but is it really bad form to describe elves as pointy-eared, or zombies as gray? Do I have to start describing them as rotten brain-loving necrotids?
The zombie, a rich, caesious sort of color gazed into my eyes, his pools of festering erythema locking on with an intensity that made me flush all over. “BRAAAAIIIINS!” he moaned, reaching out a large, misshapen greige hand. “BRAAAAAIIIINS!”
Interestingly–if we believe the over-simplified writing do’s and don’ts lists out there–browns are the only colors off-limits. No one appears to object to olive or peaches and cream. And some browns are okay–nut brown, and almond brown show up a lot. Perhaps it’s a specificity issue, a result of the ever-growing melting pot. Describing someone by their heritage or country of origin can create a certain image. It’s okay to describe someone as African or Chinese, Swiss or Mexican. But in countries like the US, Australia, and the UK, citing race may not be enough–hence our reliance on coffee and cocoa.
Or maybe it’s deeper than that. Do terms of color fall under the same umbrella as the N-word? (I’ve been called the N-word is both contexts.) Is it okay for me to say I’m a milky-coffee color because I am, and not okay for my mother to say it because she’s not? Are they now a sign of solidarity? My spam filter’s a little overzealous–did I just not get the memo?
And then there’s the all-important question of, uh, importance. How much does the main character’s heritage lend to a story? Has the author described their character as coffee-colored because it matters (Sarah’s reaction to her mixed background is a vital plot point), because it’s what they know (I’m Indian, therefore my character is Indian), or because they want to appeal to a certain audience/catch the “ethnic” crowd? In the first two cases, maybe the industry, the gurus who sit on high and declare writing rules (or the really very nice editors and agents who are trying to help) won’t really care how you describe your character’s skin color. And if it’s the latter? I’m not sure, but I probably won’t be reading your book.
Despite my somewhat flippant attitude, I have been known to take offense–I do take offense–at some things. But I think it’s important to remember that words are just words. A word’s power is not innate; it comes from the meaning we give it. True, the N-word will most likely always be off-limits, despite its neutral origins, because we’ve given it that perjorative power. But coffee and cocoa? Why not reclaim them, before it gets out of control?
Photo Credit: David Blackwell, via Flickr.