Last week, we ran a brief interview with Andrew Smith, the acclaimed young adult (YA) author of The Alex Crow. One of Smith's answers created a fairly loud boom in the online echo chamber of YA writers and readers:
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?
Andrew Smith: 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.
A lot of The Alex Crow is really about the failure of male societies. In all of the story threads, there are examples of male-dominated societies that make critical errors, whether it's the army that Ariel falls in with at the beginning, or the refugee camp, or Camp Merrie-Seymour for boys, or the doomed arctic expedition, they're all examples of male societies that think that they're doing some kind of noble mission, and they're failing miserably.
Several writers, including Sarah McCarry, author of All Our Pretty Songs, and Tessa Gratton, author of the Blood Journals series, took issue with Smith's answer, finding his statement "othering." Gratton wrote that Smith's comments implied women are "less than human, or at the very least, inherently different from men. That is one of the oldest sexist arguments in the entire world."
McCarry expressed her offense through a series of satirical tweets, such as: "huddled together, the women and females cackle and chant!!!!!!! what is their language???? perhaps a Daughter will solve this riddle." In a follow-up on her blog, McCarry wrote, "Smith's comments do not seem to me personally to be worthy of any kind of critical engagement whatsoever."
The issue of sexism in YA literature (or all literature, or the world) is not a new one. And it doesn't begin, or end, with Andrew Smith's comments. As writer Derek Attig acknowledges in his Book Riot piece on Smith's comments, "The problem is quite the opposite: it's that this whole thing is totally normal."
VICE reached out to several YA authors to hear their take on the rift in their community.
In an email to VICE, New York Times bestselling author Gayle Forman wrote, "The degree to which we as a culture still assign more gravitas to that which is male (and white, and straight, and middle class, while we're on the topic) is hugely problematic. It is underpinned by a larger issue, which is that in books, and the culture at large, white male is still the default. Those stories are for everyone. Everyone else's stories are niche, i.e. only relevant to you if you're the same world of the characters. So there's an assumption that boys won't enter books about girls, white kids won't want to read a book about Asian kids. This is hugely problematic. And it has nothing to do with Andrew Smith."
When asked if she found Smith's comments offensive, Forman replied, "No! I found them to be honest." Gratton, too, said that she was not offended by Smith's statements. "What offends me is when sexism is purposefully used as a weapon, and I do not believe Smith was doing that, or even necessarily aware that his comments reflected a sexist idea."
"I am so sorry that Smith has been denigrated. I only meant to point out that the comments themselves reflect cultural sexism," Gratton clarified.
Carrie Mesrobian, author of Sex and Violence, had little time for the controversy. In a statement to VICE, Mesrobian said, "He's a writer who writes boys and men as they are, not as we wish them to be. He is kind and generous and the last thing from sexist. This entire Twitter dust-up was bullshit. Further, I'm feminist as fuck. If I thought Drew was being sexist, I'd probably tell him directly. But I don't think his comments to VICE were sexist."
While the controversy began over Smith's comments, it has also raised concerns about the ways in which writers and readers discuss sexism and gender inequality online. Given the speed and severity of online debate, how can the community engage in measured, educational conversations? Many YA fans saw Smith's comments as tone-deaf, but honest. One male writer, who requested anonymity, saw Smith's comments as "brave," admitting a weakness where others would deny one or turn the other cheek. But, as is often the case online, the loudest voices were those of anger and hurt. Smith has since removed himself from social media.
"The worst thing we can do is pretend sexism has an easy solution, or that it's isolated from racism, ablism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.," concluded Gratton, "Nobody is the villain here, nobody is the hero."
Theodore Goeglein, author of the Cold Fury novels, found Smith's reply sympathetic. "His reply was an admission of being a work in progress, one that many, many authors and bloggers of all genders and ethnicities would be hard-pressed to make, since it means that they still have things to learn," Goeglein said, "I read one comment that said, in essence, 'Just trying isn't good enough.' If that's the truth, then all of us, every single person in this debate, is fucked."
"I think we—and I mean authors, editors, publishers, illustrators, publicists—need to first and foremost be able to have uncomfortable conversations, about gender, about race, about sexuality, about class, about who can write what and how," wrote Forman. "But I fear in this kind of charged environment, that won't happen. People are too scared of saying the wrong thing."
As of Sunday morning, Smith's publicist has not responded to request for comment.