How do angry men become that way? What has gone wrong in their lives? One answer might be reading–or lack of it. Reading has a civilizing effect of bringing us into, not away from, civil society. Unfortunately, the big American publishing houses have thrown in the towel on books for boys. Why? Because books for teen boys don’t sell. Boys don’t buy books. Boys don’t go to mall bookstores. They don’t talk about books with their friends or punch them up on Goodreads. Boys don’t want to be seen carrying a book. Nowadays the reading gap between teenaged boys and teenaged girls is a chasm. Therefore (in marketing logic) why publish books for people who don’t like to read? This, of course, becomes a self-fulling downward spiral when it comes to keeping boys reading. Because bad things happen when boys don’t read.
Sadly, many boys think books are for girls. And it turns out they’re right. Look at any list of new-release novels for young adults. Of twenty titles, fifteen will be pitched explicitly toward young women. Two or three novels might include male characters dealing with “otherness.” With luck, one of twenty books might be a realistic fiction about a heterosexual teenage boy navigating a complex rite of passage in a “right now” landscape. Shelf Awareness, a website dedicated to the book trades, recently posted a photo of advanced reading copies of new novels, towering piles of ARCs each with the word “girl” in the title. Think Gone Girl, then go from there. New novels with “Boy” in the title would make a very small pile, unless they include “Boyfriend,” and you know who is going to read that one.
What these boys need–but do not have– are narratives in which they can see themselves. Novels pitched toward maturing boys, novels that reflect their particular interests. These include sports, hunting, fishing, stock cars, motorcycles, snowmobiles (anything with spark plugs). And sex.
As noted by Daniel Handler, the Lemony Snicket author (NYT July 29, 2017), “There’s hardly any real sex in young adult books, and when it happens, it’s largely couched in the utopian dreams . . . rather than the messy, risky, delicious and heartbreaking one we live in.” That’s because censors and skittish editors force us authors to write aslant. We can’t write the clumsy, hormone-driven scenes of emerging sexuality because such “language” will offend. But sex scenes (making out, masturbation, and up to “all the way”) are exactly the material boys need to read in order to help them judge what’s normal, what’s good, and what’s bad in this suddenly all-consuming aspect of their lives.
The current shortage of good books for young men should not, however be blamed entirely on our publishers. How can we expect them to publish new books almost certain to lose money? These are big corporations with stockholders. So here’s an idea. Maybe, like banks and insurance companies, our publishers deserve a little help to keep boys reading. The Fed bails out banks. The government gives large insurance companies subsidies to keep individual premiums low. Why not support for publishing companies who show a commitment to keep young men literate, thinking, and engaged? Hey, we have to do something. Now more than ever we need boys to grow up to become good men.