Thursday, April 7, 2011

Down These Mean Streets a Boy YA Protagonist Must Go

Verrrrrrry interesting discussion at the #kidlitchat (held every Thursday at 9pm Eastern) on Twitter a few nights ago. Among the topics discussed was male POV in YA books, as well as the possible differences between male and female authors' depictions of boy characters.

One Tweeter mentioned that whenever a teenage boy narrator spends too much time describing someone's clothes, it throws him or her out of the story because it doesn't feel real; while I agree to a certain extent, I also find it ironic that in that most "male" of genres, the hardboiled detective story (as exemplified by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett), descriptions of people's clothing occur frequently.

Here's an example from Raymond Chandler's classic noir, "The Long Goodbye":

"She was slim and quite tall in a white linen tailormade with a black and white polka-dotted scarf around her throat. Her hair was the pale gold of a fairy princess. There was a small hat on it into which the pale gold hair nestled like a bird in its nest. Her eyes were a cornflower blue, a rare color, and the lashes where long and almost too pale. She reached the table across the way and was pulling off a white gauntleted glove and the old waiter had the table pulled out in a way no waiter ever will pull a table out for me." (p. 89)

What's brilliant about Chandler is that his description of Mrs. Wade's clothing tells us so much about her character, and not just about her style, or her class position in life, but about the effect she has on others, including the waiter, the narrator (and the reader!). There's a lot going on in that deceptively simple paragraph. Hell, there's a lot going on in the last line of that paragraph.

Here's another segment from the same book (Vintage Crime edition):

"He wore a gray tweed suit with no padding. His shoulders didn't need any. He wore a white shirt and a dark tie and no display handkerchief. A spectacle case showed in the outside breast pocket. It was black, like his shoes. His hair was black too, no gray at all." (p. 230)

This description of Harlan Potter, an older, obscenely wealthy man, tells us that Potter is apparently virile, too; his shoulders don't need padding and his hair has no gray in it.

The Fedora Lounge offers some more examples of clothing description in Chandler's work.

Would a teenage boy notice someone's clothing and relate it in such detail? No, probably not. But I thought it was interesting that today it might be an indicator of something amiss in a male voice, when in the 1950s it was a common and effective tool.


  1. I can't say I've read much YA lit with a male protagonist, but I can imagine where a guy doing that sort of thing might ring false to a 'modern' reader. I'd probably wonder about it too.

    I love Chandler's descriptive passages - reading his work is like stepping into a Bogart film. :)

  2. Thanks for reading, Alyssa, I figured you would enjoy some Chandler quotes :)

  3. I think GIRL PARTS by John M Cusick is an absolutely brilliant example of great male narrator in a YA novel. It's sometimes downright difficult to read because he paints the boys as pretty...real - awkward, sexual, immature, passionate. But, they are just that - real. I think it's brilliant. Nice post! :)

  4. I'll never turn down Raymond Chandler :)

    I wonder if the common expectations of YA males are doing actual YA males a bit of a disservice? Maybe some of them do notice things like that, but don't want to say anything because they'll be thought a sissy. (and if middle/high school is anything like it was when I was there, there's still a lot of 'gay!' shaming with guys who don't fit the norm.)

  5. Interesting! I agree with the commenter above. I wonder if maybe we don't give YA men enough credit (or maybe we lump all of them into the unobservant male stereotype). All men are different. All teen boys are different, and there are definitely some of them who notice what people wear.

    And I LOVE your new photo. You are gorgeous. :)

  6. I dont' think a male in a YA should speak like Bogie or describe too much of what someone else wears. He should describe what he sees though. There is a very popular YA book that I enjoyed but can't love because the MC sounds too girly. He pines so much and describes scenes so much it's not believable. I've raised teen boys and sterotypical as it may be, they see boobs, short skirts, tattoos, and piercings. They don't see the color of the sweater over the boobs, the knee length striped socks leading up the skirt, the bottom of the shirt barely hiding the tramp stamp, or the lip holding the piercing.
    That's just my two cents...

  7. Thanks for the book recommendation, Sara -- I'll put GIRL PARTS on my To-Read List!

    Natalie and Alyssa, that's a really good point about people's preconceived notions becoming a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Wanton Redhead (great name, btw), I agree that contemporary teen boys shouldn't sound like Bogie -- unless it's a deliberate retro thing. And I think it's probably true that boys don't notice the details of a particular outfit often. I guess I just find it fascinating how perceptions of "maleness" have changed in the decades since Chandler was writing. I appreciate your thoughts! Thanks for commenting.

  8. I'll second the recommendation of GIRL PARTS. Fantastic male AND female characters. They all have really true inner lives.

  9. I've read the Alex Rider series and, although it dips in and out of Alex's perspective and the omniscient 3rd person perspective, he definitely takes a moment to note what others wear. The narration will acknowledge in a few sentences and move on. As this series was also written by a male author, I think it's fair to say men, and teenage boys, aren't blind to fashion.

  10. SL Bookworm, good to know that GIRL PARTS delivers on several levels. I'll definitely have to check it out. Thanks for commenting!

    Miss Cole, I think it's fair to say, too. And perhaps most importantly, the use of description in the book you mentioned says a lot about the writer using every possible writing tool to shape the story.

    Most of us don't notice a lot of details in real life, but in books we like to get a clear picture, so even if a teenage boy might not "take in" someone else's clothing, that doesn't mean it's automatically wrong to include a quick mention for the sake of fleshing out the writing, IMO. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  11. The teenage boys I work with certainly notice each others' clothes-- esp. shoes and tee shirts. They match their own clothes sooo carefully.

    Although society expects them not to-- which is maybe why it doesn't work in fiction, at least more modern fiction.

  12. Hi Perri, thanks for this interesting info. I've been so intrigued by the responses to this post. I really appreciate you sharing your perspective!

  13. I think there's a real difference between this and something like Beautiful Darkness, which describe's Lena wearing 'thrashed boots' (as a female, I had to look up what those were), and describes Liv as seeming like a different person from Lena or the Gaitlin girls because of this detail, that detail, that detail about her clothing...

    You can feel the loving detail to the clothes. Describing a white shirt etc. is a very mechanical thing like someone's eyes sweeping down and noting details, not appreciating the supple crinoline waves of a dress or whatever

  14. Good point, Anonymous, there is a big difference in listing basic compnents of an outfit versus giving details that can also stand in for character attributes.