Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Masculinity in RITA and YALSA-award winning YA romance

My apologies for the lack of a post this past Friday. I was attending the Children's Literature Association's (ChLA) 40th annual conference, held this year in Biloxi, Mississippi, and got too caught up in conference-doings to put together my planned post on masculinity in YA romance. So this week, I'll switch things up, with a general post on Tuesday and a review on Friday.

Back in February, I posted about the topic I planned to speak on at the conference: comparing YA romances nominated by the Romance Writers of America (RWA) for their annual RITA award to YA romances (or YA books with strong romantic elements) named by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) as Michael L. Printz Award winners or Printz Honor Books. Now that I've completed and given my talk, I thought I would share some of my findings here.

At the time I proposed this paper to the conference committee, neither YALSA nor RWA had announced their nominees/winners. And after mid-January's American Library Association meeting, where the Printz winner and Honor books were announced, I found myself in a bit of a bind. Only one of the five books lauded by this year's Printz award committee focused on a developing romantic relationship between two teens: Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. If I were to make this topic viable, I would have to look a bit further afield: to YALSA's "Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults" list, compiled by a separate committee of YA librarians. I wanted to use the same number of books for each of the two groups I studied, and so anxiously waited for the end of March, when the RITA nominees were announced. Surprisingly, there were only four books nominated for RITAs in the YA category (most of the other RITA categories had seven or eight nominees). Finalists must score in the top ten percent of all books submitted, suggesting the pool of YA romances was far smaller that of other RITA categories.

The RITA nominees for best YA romance include Robin LeFevers' Grave Mercy, Katie McGarry's Pushing the Limits, Emily McKay's The Farm,  and Erica O'Rourke's Bound.

Turning back to the YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults list, then, I selected three additional titles: Alethea Kontis's Enchanted, David Levithan's Every Day, and Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys. None of these books focused exclusively on an adolescent romance, but each contains a strong romance storyline.

Some interesting things to note about these two groups of books:

• All of the YALSA titles were published by traditional New York children's book publishers (Harcourt/Houghton; Knopf; Scholastic; and Simon & Schuster), while only one of the RITA-nominated titles was (Houghton Mifflin); three of the four RITA nominees were issued by traditional romance publishers (Berkley; Harlequin Teen; and Kensington).

• All of the YALSA titles were published in hardcover, or simultaneously in hardcover and paperback, while only one of the RITA-nominated titles appeared in hardcover (the one published by Houghton Mifflin). The three RITA romances published by romance houses were issued in paperback.

• Fantasy, not realism, predominated on both lists: each list features three works of fantasy, and only one example of contemporary realistic fiction.

• While the YALSA books and the RITA-nominees both achieved high scores on reader review sites such as Goodreads and amazon.com, only one RITA nominee received strong praise from professional reviewers (again, the title published by Houghton Mifflin). The other three received lackluster reviews, if they were reviewed at all.

In addition to these general observations, I noticed several important differences between each group of books' depiction of ideal masculinity:

• The four RITA-nominated titles all featured heterosexual masculinity, while the YALSA books portrayed a broader range of masculine sexuality. Two of the YALSA books focused on heterosexual romance; one on a gay male relationship; and one, Levithan's Every Day, attempts to disrupt our current assumptions about sexuality and gender by having its narrator wake up in a different body each day, some days a male body, some days a female one, some days a body that desires the same sex, some days a body that desires the opposite sex.

• The male protagonists in the four RITA-nominees are all white. Or at least, readers can assume that they are white, though race is never discussed as a salient category of identity in the books. In contrast, the characters in the YALSA books are more diverse: two Latino boys, and a narrator who wakes up in differently-raced bodies each day, in addition to white characters.

• Three of the four RITA boys appeal to their books' female protagonists in large part because they are "bad boys": leather-jacket-wearing authority spurning rule-breakers. The one exception, Grave Mercy's Gavriel Duval, is cast more in the heroic than the bad boy mode. But all five (we have one love triangle, in Bound) are highly competent, a key component of normative American masculinity. The YALSA boys, in contrast, are more "outsiders" or "outcasts" than "bad boys." They, too, refuse to play by the rules, but the rules of normative society rather than the rules of institutional authority.

• The boys in both groups, however, reveal emotional vulnerability to their romantic counterparts. Normative American masculinity may push boys not to reveal emotions, or emotional vulnerabilities, but in order for romances to appeal to the largely female reading market, male characters must demonstrate their ability to feel.

• In the RITA-nominees, male strength, another key characteristic of normative masculinity, most often takes the form of physical violence. Boys fight others to protect the girls they love, or to protect their more vulnerable younger siblings or friends. In the YALSA books, in contrast, physical violence is often viewed as a problem, something that stands in the way of developing relationships.

• Physical fighting isn't restricted to males, at least not in the RITA books. Two girls fight alongside of their boys, while a third works violence behind the scenes, as an assassin. This might make it appear as if the RITA books offer more positive models of empowered femininity. But this conclusion only works if you accept the equation of strength with physical violence. The YALSA books reject this, not only for their male, but also for their female protagonists.

• While the RITA books allow their female protagonists to act masculine (to fight), they do not extend the same gender flexibility to their male characters. Boys performing actions or feeling emotions traditionally coded as feminine are far more prevalent in the YALSA books than in the RITA titles.

The overall conclusion of my small study—that librarians who specialize in young adult literature tend to honor books that are far less normative in their depictions of masculinity than do romance writers—is perhaps not surprising. But it is interesting, especially given that the guidelines of the Printz Award specifically note that the judging is based "entirely on its [a book's] literary merit." Librarians are not supposed to allow a book's ideology to influence their decision, yet this comparison shows that questions of content and ideology are often part and parcel of judging a book's literary merit.

And it is disappointing that YA romance writers, for whom "literary merit" is not as much at issue as it is for librarians, prove far less willing to embrace masculinities that depart from the norm. During the past decade, a substantial body of romance fiction grounded in feminist principles has been written for adults. Yet if a teen girl wishes to read romances that offer alternatives to a normative masculinity, a masculinity heavily invested in proving the dominance of males by eroticizing the subjection of girls, she'll still do far better if she looks to the books nominated by YALSA than to the ones held up as exemplary by RWA.

Do you think these patterns will remain constant over the next few years' cycle of awards?

Next time on RNFF:
Feminism and Revenge in Lori Austin's
Beauty and the Bounty Hunter


  1. This is the outcome I expected, and I see no reason why it would change anytime soon. To some extent, I think the romance genre with its requirement of a HEA or HFN is particularly limiting when it comes to YA. Also, literary merit is often equated with pushing a genre's envelope and challenging boundaries. I believe that explains the apparent importation of ideology and content into a consideration of literary merit.

  2. I suspect that there will be a "ground breaking" novel that some publisher is willing to take a risk on and it will start a whole new trend. I think the new genre of 'new adult' will help expand on the fluid nature of gender representations as the authors have the freedom to be slightly more salacious than they could with YA novels. What didn't come as a surprise was the importance of librarians in ensuring that teens have access to a wide range of novels including those that buck the status quo.

    1. Will that "groundbreaking" novel be lauded by both RWA and YALSA, I wonder?

      And yes, a definite thumbs up to librarians!

  3. I would not that Berkeley is a romance imprint, but as an imprint of Penguin it is still a traditional New York publisher.

    And The Farm deserved any and all ugh reviews.

    1. That should be note, not not.

    2. Yes, Berkley is a romance imprint. Penguin does have children's and YA imprints, but this book was published under their romance arm. That's the distinction I was trying, but didn't quite, make clear.

  4. Interesting post! I've only read GRAVE MERCY of the RITA nominees, and was surprised at its inclusion because it didn't seem to have as strong of a romantic subplot as most YA books (The sequel was far more "romantic" in my opinion, and definitely had an exceptional male lead). Librarians as a whole are probably more inclined to want to challenge norms on masculinity than traditional romance readers, anyway, but this is an interesting comparison nonetheless.

    1. Thanks, Molly. I guess what I'm most curious about is WHY romance readers might be less inclined to challenge masculinity norms than YA librarians? Is there something inherently conservative in romance?

  5. Great analysis! I've never really paid attention before to RITA, so I'm glad to have my eyes opened up to that.

  6. Thanks, mclicious. The RWA has been granting RITAs to YA books for quite a few years now -- it would be interesting to see if looking at the RWA/ALA awards in different years would give a similar result to this year's comparison. Perhaps I'll do this again in future years, to see...