The Great Gender Debate ****

The Great Gender Debate

Edinburgh book festival

One day only

 

The premise here was to discuss the efficacy and necessity of ‘gendered’ book marketing. That being said, it might be more accurate to call this event the Great Gender Collaborative Discussion: all three authors (Kathryn Evans, now winner of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s My First Book award for her debut More of Me, Jonathan Stroud, author of the popular Bartimaeus, and Lockwood books, and David Levithan, author of several YA titles including Every Day and Two Boys Kissing) agreed that what boys like and what girls like are not all that different, and that what differences there are are what adults teach them. Levithan went so far as to question the very nature of the event: ‘We’re actually debating the wrong thing’.

 

Throughout the discussion I found Evans remarkably honest, ready to discuss her mistakes and foibles, and to learn from them: ‘I once said to a librarian, “Actually, my book is for girls”,’ said Evans, to audible groans from the audience, but went on to say that she understood, now, what a disservice that was doing to potential boy readers, who should be given the benefit of the doubt.

 

When asked how they choose the gender of a character, Evans, whose main character is apparently very much a part of Evans herself, freely admitted to backgrounding male characters. Levithan, whose protagonist in Every Day wakes up every morning in a different body, took a more abstract approach: ‘they’re characters, not traits’. He stressed the importance of characters being defined by their interior rather than exterior lives, and the freedom of writing a character without a single body or ‘outward’ gender.

 

‘Everything we’re taught from when we’re very young is that “boys like this, and girls like this”. But boys and girls like my books equally,’ said Evans, when questioned about the demographics of her readership. Stroud made the point that children are taught what they’re “supposed” to like: it comes, not from the children themselves, but from the viewpoint of the person in control, “the person who has the power to make assumptions on behalf of the children.”

 

Another thread woven through the discussion was empathy, and the importance of intersectionality in literature. Levithan, to my pleasant surprise, reminded us constantly of the existence of nonbinary and asexual people, and the importance of including them in young people’s literature. These sentiments have been echoed in many of the events at this year’s Book Festival. It’s been quite refreshing to see these issues discussed openly.

Eris Young