Sexism, Twitter and Giant Insects

Author Andrew Smith is having a good year. His last book, Grasshopper Jungle, won a Printz Honor and he’s been getting good reviews on his new book, The Alex Crow.  He’s been called the Kurt Vonnegurt of YA and Grasshopper Jungle has shades of Slaughterhouse-Five with it’s multi-layered plot lines  that are kinda absurd.  However, he started a controversy after comments he recently made to Vice.com  Here’s the quote that got him in trouble.

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?
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.

So, he’s saying that the reason that his female characters are one dimensional is because he has had no experience with them so he can’t write them.  By that logic, what experience does he have with giant insects that he was able to make them believable? Anyway, it’s not surprisingly, many women in literary circles took to twitter and other social media and called him out on this comment and in response it seems Mr. Smith deleted his twitter page.  In return, many of the women who criticized have been harassed and bullied for speaking up.  Criticizing someone’s work is not bullying them and nor is having a valid point either. This has sadly become all to common on social media.  Let’s not forget that Gamer Gate is still going on. That many women on the internet are threatened with violence for nothing but pointing out sexist practices and trying to start conversations to change them.

I like this tweet by author Shannon Hale.*

but I feel for women author they really don’t have the luxury of creating one dimensional characters the way men authors do at least when it comes to female characters.  I feel like it a female author wrote male characters the way that most female characters are that they would be undoubtedly called on and probably wouldn’t publish another book. But that’s just me.

I liked Grasshopper Jungle. My only beef with it was the fact that the only real female character in it, Shann was a non-entity.   As I wrote in mini-review of the book earlier this year.

Weird. In one way, it was refreshing to have a novel take on bisexuality in such a head on way but on the other hand, the female lead Shann, is pretty one dimensional. So it’s progressive in one way and a step back in another way.

So one one hand, he wrote a compelling story of a boy struggling with his own sexuality against the backdrop of apocalyptic destruction by giant grasshoppers.  On the other hand, the few women in the story were the girlfriend, who is a none issue besides being the main character girlfriend and mom of the main character’s best friend who is promiscuous. So, in Mr Smith’s own words, he is ignorant of all things women so he’s just not going to put the time into writing them.

So this has turned out to be a longer post then I intended but that’s OK.  We need to talk about this.  We need to talk about the lack of diversity in literature, whether it’s adult fiction or young adult fiction.  We need to stop allowing authors get away with lazy opinions that because they are not female or minority that they can’t possibly write those characters so they don’t and when they do, we should call them out on it and not fear being, harassed, threatened or bullied.  Andrew Smith is good author as he was just recently honored with a prestigious award so he should be held to higher standard but then again all authors should be too.

So I ask you, what is your opinion on this or this topic?  Sound off in the comments below.

*Speaking of Shannon Hale.  Here’s an account from a school visit she recently did where only girls were given permission to hear her talk, not the boys.

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5 thoughts on “Sexism, Twitter and Giant Insects

  1. I agree that anyone should be allowed to offer objective criticism of an artist without fear of bullying, name calling, or harassment. I’m not familiar with the story enough to really say for sure why the author responded the way he did in his initial remarks, but it sounds like he was referring to his own life experiences to explain his lack of multidimensional female characters. The response was very vague and on the surface seems like a flippant retort to get out of answering the question. Does he mean that he’s more comfortable writing about men than women because he was a man who grew up mostly around men or is he referring to other experiences that have influenced his thoughts on women? As you allude to, writing is an imaginary and creative process. If he has the imagination and talent to conceive of the characters and situations he has written about, then why can he not apply the same imagination toward female characters? Is it truly because he can’t or he won’t? I’m not sure his remarks clarify that. Shannon Hale’s tweet was very astute and it was a very valid question for the interviewer to ask. I just dont know if his remarks necessarily demand to provoke outrage. I feel though that just because an artist’s work may not strive to fairly represent a certain group doesn’t necessarily reflect that the artist is trying to undermine or demean that group. It’s certainly fair to question and criticize this aspect of the art without fear of verbal attack, but I’m not sure one can demand that the artist change their creative process if he or she doesn’t feel the need to. I hope I’ve articulated my point well enough because I actually think there are multiple aspects that should be considered for this complex issue and that I don’t believe there’s any simple answer to resolve this kind of conflict regardless of where one stands on the issue.

    • No I understand what your saying. I can only speak for the one book of his I’ve read but what I’ve gathered from other blogs is that his lack of female characters is not limited to one book but to most of his books are like that. And I do think he realizes it as he says it’s something he’s working on. And as you said, why can’t use his imagination for his female characters? He’s not the first author of heard similar comments from. I think Michael Frazen or Junot Diaz have said something similar but I couldn’t find the quote or quotes so I didn’t mention it.
      i think the real controversy has become less about him and what he said but the reaction to those who criticized him. That women are being threatened by men for speaking out about sexism, whether it’s in books or video games. It keeps happening. God forbid we threaten patriarchy or the status quo.

      • I remember similar critiques leveled against David Mamet, but you’re right that the real issue is the bullying and harassment of women and those who openly criticize the way women are portrayed in art and literature and who are trying to call attention to sexism.

  2. I think the thing that bothers me about quotes like this in general is that I am a woman, yes, but I can’t imagine that as a woman I feel and act any differently than all the other people around me. I mean, what are we saying? that the female of the species is so alien and unknowable that we can’t possibly fathom that they have inner lives and desires but still have to deal with mundane shit like dishes and going to work?

    I get it, it’s hard to write about what you don’t know. But, I think we should be very careful that when we’re not writing about what we don’t know that we’re also not perpetuating myths about how some part of the population is dark and unknowable.

    • I think what really offends me the most is the laziness behind the comment. Since I don’t know about it I’m just not going to try. But i’m with you. I don’t think we are all that different from men. It really shouldn’t be that hard. He has unbelievable imagination. Grasshopper Jungle proves it. So even if women are foreign to him, why would it be that much harder for him to imagine what it would be like for a girl as he did for what it was like to be a giant grasshopper?

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