New Reviews

Books for Boys: Manipulating Genre in Contemporary Australian Young Adult Fiction

Books for Boys: Manipulating Genre in Contemporary Australian Young Adult Fiction. Troy Potter. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher verlag Trier, 2018. 169 pages.

Troy Potter’s Books for Boys: Manipulating Genre in Contemporary Australian Young Adult Fiction interrogates recent Australian young adult fiction (YA) for boys, driven by concerns over the use of genre to ‘reiterate normative and essentialist constructions of gender’ (11). It is primarily concerned with the ideological positioning of boy readers in relation to ways of being male. It draws attention to the notion of a ‘masculinity crisis’ (1) in Western countries and how concerns over boys’ lower literacy rates compared to girls’ intersects here. Potter critiques essentialism inherent in debates over what generic narrative features boys enjoy. He argues there is a cyclical process between gender and genre where ‘boys’ reading interests determine which genres are being written and promoted’ and the ‘depictions of masculinities […] function ideologically to shape the gendered practices of the implied male readers’ which are themselves ‘shaped by social anxieties about how to be male’ (6). Potter argues the call for more ‘books for boys’ is based on ‘a regime of normalisation’ and ‘erases the diversity of how to be male and concomitantly validates binary and hierarchical organisations of gendered identity’ (1). The book heavily critiques the gendered and gendering aspects of books for boys in recent years (5).

The first chapters engage with the past. Chapter One analyses novels that ‘mobilise aspects of the detective genre as a means to interrogate Australia’s colonial history and postcolonial present’ (12). Potter explores how these novels reveal anxieties about gender and the nation (13) with boys uncovering atrocities of the past inviting a renewed interrogation of colonialism. Potter criticises some of these novels for Aboriginalist beliefs and all of them for their ‘masculinist elements’ (37) (such as detectives being male and females being marginalised as the victim, assistant, or femme fatale). Chapter Two analyses historical fiction depicting Australia’s involvement in the First and Second World Wars to consider the implications for the current Australian masculinity. Potter analyses novels in relation to the Anzac legend that has come to embody Australia’s military identity. His analysis indicates how Anzac historical narratives serve conservative gendered and nationalistic interests, arguing that past heroism becomes a marker of authentic and essential Australian masculinity.

The middle chapters explore novels preoccupied with Australia’s present. Chapter Three analyses novels of development (Entwicklungsroman) and Chapter Four looks at comedic novels. The book as a whole reflects the co-constitution of masculinity, but this is quite apparent in Chapter Three in relation to sexuality, disability, and class. It critiques the problematic depiction of the disabled male body as engendering feelings of discomfort, the productively disrupting but limited depiction of male-male desire, and the imbrication of working-class values (not necessarily labour conditions) with Australian masculinity. Potter contends they articulate ‘appropriate masculinity is associated with able-bodiedness, heterosexuality or working class values, or a combination of the three’ (89). Chapter Four examines the use of humour in novels that depict boys enacting ‘awkward masculinities’ (94) that serve as barriers to (heteronormative) love and its accompanying happiness. Informed by Sara Ahmed’s critique of how the drive to an endpoint of happiness functions as regulatory and prescriptive, Potter teases out ambivalences and tensions, arguing that humour, happiness, and heterosexuality are conflated in these novels (91).

The final chapters look to imagined futures. Chapter Five examines how post-disaster fiction defines the concept of ‘humanity’ in the context of highly volatile worlds, with narratives that ‘reanimate [...] the masculine hero tradition’ (119). Potter explores how recent post-disaster fiction reflects tensions between humanist and new materialist understandings of the body and subjectivity. Chapter Six similarly explores what it means to be human in an altered world, this time by scientific innovation. Potter signals the imaginative potential of science fiction for momentarily disrupting conventional understandings of the body and gender, but this is restrained by humanist and masculinist ideology (164-5).

Potter’s study engages with shifts in understandings of masculinity in the wake of gender and sexual liberation movements. Given this, there is an absence in the book in terms of attention to transgender issues. No publication can address every topic, but this omission is evident given Potter’s discussion of gender crossings, such as gender disguise in Kirsty Murray’s Vulture’s Gate (2009) and gendered transformation in Paul Collins’s Dyson’s Drop (2012). In Vulture’s Gate Bo disguises herself as a boy and outperforms her male counterpart in ‘masculine’ survival skills (131) and in Dyson’s Drop Anneke is transformed genetically into a male. These depictions of temporary transmasculinities warrant attention given the increased interest in transgender lives and representation in recent years. Potter notes how Anneke, as a man, is desired by another woman, Yosira, which ‘is a cause of crisis’ and ‘causes sexual confusion’ (152). Yosira desires Anneke as a man and a woman, but she also desires Anneke as a man who emits ‘feminine pheromones’ (152). Yosira’s desire for Anneke can be seen as heterosexual (before she is aware Anneke is female), homosexual (when she becomes aware), and queer (Yosira’s desire is not tied to a specific gender). Anneke finds herself in crisis because she, as a man, is desired by a woman. In various ways the transgender phenomena depicted in Vulture’s Gate and Dyson’s Drop can undermine patriarchal presumptions of female inferiority as well as problematising the coherence of (hetero/homo) sexual object choice (Stryker 7). That a body can be genetically ‘male’ while apparently exhibiting ‘feminine’ pheromones can invite implied boy readers to question the simplification and binary understandings of sex and gender in any single body, as much as it might reinforce essentialist beliefs. Overall, Potter provides an engaging analysis of the humanist and androcentric ideology of these depictions, but signalling the transgender implications might expand the book’s focus of how genre is manipulated in books for boys to (re)negotiate masculinities (beyond ‘male’ bodies and subjectivities) in the new millennium.

Books for Boys: Manipulating Genre in Contemporary Australian Young Adult Fiction is a stimulating and well-supported study enriched by its close attention to textual and generic features. The analysis is attuned to the co-constitution of masculinities as intersecting with aspects such as race, disability, class, and sexuality. While it is highly critical of problems in recent YA for boys, it is also hopeful for further developments in the field that can see less restrictive depictions of masculinities.

Tom Sandercock
Deakin University

Works Cited
Stryker, Susan, ‘(De)Subjugated Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies’. The Transgender Studies Reader. Ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle. New York: Routledge, 2006: 1-17.