Robot 6

Gendered or genred?

A quick guide to shoujo manga from Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga

There’s a big’ discussion going on right now in the manga half of the comics blogosphere about shoujo manga not getting any respect. One of the triggers was Melinda Beasi’s piece on Twilight and the Plight of the Female Fan at The Hooded Utilitarian and the other was Christopher Mautner’s review of Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories right here at Robot 6. Melinda’s thesis is that shoujo manga gets no respect, even from women, because we’re embarrassed about reading something so overtly gendered, and that if we want to be taken seriously, we need to take some pride in our comics. In a column at The Manga Curmudgeon, David Welsh singles out Chris’s review as an example of someone basically saying “this book is good despite the fact that it is shoujo manga”:

“Dream, on the other hand, has both feet firmly planted in the world of shojo manga. The ten tales that make up this book all consist of overly sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve-style work. There’s very little ironic distancing and self-effacing humor here, although it does peep its head out occasionally. Mostly though, that’s been ignored in favor of heightened melodrama and earnest heart-tugging. While it avoids the sort of contrived, romantic, situation-comedy type plots that mark a lot of the shojo manga that has been translated into English over the past decade, there can be little doubt that Dream has more in common with Fruits Basket and Boys Over Flowers than Red Colored Elegy or Abandon the Old in Tokyo.”

And then Melinda chimes back in at her blog, pointing out that people who drop Fruits Basket and Boys Over Flowers in the same bucket are ignoring the fact that they are totally different books.

Except… they aren’t, and that gets to the heart of the matter. Both stories feature a heroine who is sweet, beautiful, and somewhat assertive but not so much so that she becomes unattractive. Both are love triangles in which the boys are of higher social status than the girl, and in which one of the choices is a guy who is hot but emotionally distant.

Shoujo manga is a genre, and that, not the fact that it’s read by girls, accounts for its low status. Superhero comics are also a genre, and despite what some comics bloggers think, they also have a low status in the outside world. Most of my female friends will have nothing to do with them, and most adults brush them aside. The same is true of Harlequin romances, fantasy novels, and science fiction. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys neatly illustrate the two sides of this coin: One is for girls, one is for boys, but both are equally formula-bound, and the fact that in one book Nancy goes to a haunted house and in another she goes to the big city doesn’t change the fact that every Nancy Drew book encompasses the same world view, the same means of expression, and the same set of characters, always described by the same adjectives. If you’re not inside the fandom, all the books do look alike.

If you are a fan, that changes—you read the books carefully, you know the different creators and the different worlds, you see a hierarchy in terms of literary quality. But a genre is a genre is a genre, and you simply can’t write a shoujo manga in which the girl is, for instance, a lesbian, or the hero is a boy because by definition that isn’t shoujo manga.

I come to this conclusion after reading a great deal of shoujo manga, and getting really, really tired of those conventions. The parents who die tragically, leaving their young child to be rejected by uncaring relatives and end up sleeping in a playground. The girls who devote their lives to tracking down that one boy who was kind to them the day their parents died, and whom they never saw again, but because of whom they take up the violin, cooking, whatever, and get themselves admitted into an elite school that is above their station, and where they will be continually tormented by the alpha kids. The elite club of girls who somehow decide on the cutest boy in the class and bully anyone who gets too near to him. The aforementioned hot-but-distant guy. The rules of shoujo manga are as rigid as the rules of Harlequin romances, and in fact, they really aren’t that different.

Here’s the thing: You read your chosen genre for relaxation, not literary quality. Stop!!! You’re about to tell me that there are science fiction novels and westerns and shoujo manga that have great literary quality. Of course there are, but they are the exceptions. Most genre stuff, from The Da Vinci Code to Kitchen Princess, is predictable and two-dimensional, and that’s how most people like it.

And that’s what they are apologizing for. You think superhero fans don’t do that? There’s a whole cottage industry based on self-deprecation—I’m a Nerd T-shirts, blogs with the word “geek” in the title—as well as a standard stereotype that involves poor hygiene and living in one’s parents’ basement. The superhero reflex is more insular than self-deprecating, actually; the standard reaction is scorn that someone doesn’t understand the nuances of their particular genre rather than embarrassment about caring at all about these things, but there’s a strong whiff of defensiveness to that.

That’s why I was not so bent out of shape about Wonder Woman being left off DC’s 75th anniversary logo. Superheroes are a guy medium, primarily produced for and consumed by guys. If I, as a female, choose to read them, I do so knowing that I’m stepping into the guys’ clubhouse. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment being gendered. How dreary it would be if the Lifetime Channel had to give equal time to cars, guns, and football, or if Playboy was required to carry recipes and fashion tips. We’re doing this stuff for fun, so we might as well have what we like.

There’s one more point worth considering, and it applies specifically to comics: In comments at The Hooded Utilitarian, Ed Sizemore points out that teenage shoujo fans are much less apologetic than older readers about their choices. One reason for that is that shoujo manga is written for teenagers. It’s age-appropriate for them; for us, not so much. So while I do sometimes feel sheepish about reading shoujo in public, I have the same problem with Archie comics. It’s not just a genre, it’s a kids’ genre, so I’m out of my home demographic.

And really, I am. I’m tired of shoujo manga because it doesn’t reflect my life or my interests but I can understand, like Melinda did with Twilight, that there was a time when it would have really resonated, and I would have found it irresistible. Vampire Knight was like a Proustian madeleine for me, bringing back not the specifics of my teenage life (I went to a Catholic high school, so there were no vampires) but the feeling of being fifteen and in the middle of some tortured storm of emotions. Honestly, that’s one of those things, like childbirth, that I’d prefer not to relive.

So, to summarize: Shoujo manga, superhero comics, other works written to a formula are genres. They don’t get much respect, but it’s not because of the gender of the readers so much as the limitations of the genre. Reading for fun is a good thing, and it’s nothing to apologize for, but neither should we confuse it with serious literary work. If Moby Dick is held in higher esteem than Fruits Basket, it’s not because it was written by a man rather than a woman, it’s because it has more to say and speaks to a more universal audience.

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40 Comments

Except there are a lot of shojo manga in which the hero is a boy. Natsume’s Book of Friends, Crown of Love, Tokyo Babylon, Legal Drug, Banana Fish, Saiyuki Reload, Moon Child, Otomen, Silver Diamond, They Were Eleven, ZigZag… these are just off the top of my head. Also, many of these are not romances. I’ll agree that romance is a huge genre within the demographic category of shojo manga, but shojo manga itself is definitely not a genre.

Also, I have a hard time accepting a description of Tsukushi Makino as “sweet,” (and she’s downright violent most of the time) but I’ll let that go. :)

Melinda, I’m going to go all circular on you here and say that while some of these may be technically shoujo manga (because they appear in shoujo magazines), they are not the books you and David and Chris were talking about. I think for American readers, who don’t usually pay attention to what magazine a manga series ran in in Japan, shoujo manga is indeed a genre, and it’s a romance genre. Do you think books like Legal Drug and Banana Fish have as big a teenage audience as classic shoujo? Do you feel the same impulse to apologize for reading them? Compare Legal Drug to Cardcaptor Sakura—which are you more comfortable being seen with? Legal Drug has a very neutral cover; it could be any graphic novel. Cardcaptor Sakura is girly all the way.

Thanks for this Brigid. It’s a very though provoking and worthwhile take.

I agree that shojo is a genre and that there are similarities between books that are going to get them lumped together for various reasons. And I agree that genre is often denigrated.

I think you move too easily from that, though, to a dismissal of some of the gender implications. Briefly, genre’s are often dismissed in ways that plug into gendered preconceptions and prejudices. The way super-hero comics are dismissed ties into stereotypes about guys; the way shojo is dismissed ties into stereotypes about girls. However, sexism exists, and those stereotypes are not equivalent. Iron Man can be a mass market movie and be (relatively) respectable as such, because the nostalgia for boy’s fiction and boy’s genre is seen as a respectable position. Twilight is extensively and extravagantly reviled because girls’ concerns and genres don’t get the same kind of pass.

I also pretty violently disagree with your argument that non-genre work is somehow categorically better or more interesting than genre work. Literary fiction is basically a genre itself; it just appeals to different people (in general) not to a more universal audience. It’s worth pointing out, since you threw it out as an example, that Moby Dick is in a lot of ways boys’ adventure fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with not being interested in a given genre for whatever reason, and obviously most people most of the time tend to gravitate to things that are marketed to them. But just because something’s marketed to you — even if you’re an adult — doesn’t mean it necessarily has more artistic merit than a book marketed to someone else, even if that person happens to be kind of young. As I mentioned elsewhere recently, Alice in Wonderland, which is for kids and especially for girl kids, is better than 99.9999% of everything, whether it’s Philip Roth or Norman Mailer or A.S. Byatt or (even!) Nana or whatever it is that’s supposed to have universal appeal because it’s marketed as literature.

I think there is some question of where the level of disrespect is coming from and the level changes the argument. I don’t think anyone is arguing that they don’t understand why say the cultural elite doesn’t respect shoujo manga. Sure those in fine arts don’t respect comic books either, but then that could be said for just about all pop culture art. If we are talking about the average man on the street, comics and shoujo might fall in the same category of lack of respect. But to my mind. Melinda Beasi’s article is focused on a specific level: the comic blogsphere and comic book fans in the U.S. Within that sub-set, shojo is not getting its due respect. With this community people treat books like Johns Green Lantern and Bendis Avenger as on some level “art,” something that deserves critical analysis. If the formulaic superhero book deserves respect (and I think it does mostly) than shoujo deserves it as well but rarely gets it. Comic blogs are much more likely to champion shounen books that at least kind of look like the super hero books they already read.

And really the, “alll shoujo books are the same” argument seems absurd to me. There is at least as much diversity in books as in super hero and maybe even more (How many super hero books go without fighting and super villians? Now how many shojo books go with out romance as the driving force?)

I’m going with Melinda; shoujo is not a genre. If you had said “shoujo romance” I might agree with you more (but only a bit), but shoujo is not “what Viz publishes under the Shojo Beat imprint”, it’s everything that was originally published for girls. American publishers certainly do redirect material to the audience they think fits best, but even so I think redefining shoujo to “pink sparkly stuff starring clumsy teen girls in love” is doing a disservice to the category and only reinforces the prejudices of the shoujo-haters.

Noah, I just can’t agree with you that genre works are equivalent to literary fiction. Just because Moby-Dick has some adventure scenes in it doesn’t make it not literary; good literature should be interesting to read. But compare, say, Fruits Basket, or a standard Harlequin romance to Marianne Wiggins’s Evidence of Things Unseen or Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, two literary works that have really stuck with me. Those novels have more layers, more structure, more complexity, and yes, a more universal message. Anyone can pick them up and simply read them, while shoujo manga or superhero comics require glossaries and explanations. (Of course that’s kind of true of Moby-Dick as well, but at least Melville supplies them in the text. :)) The experience simply isn’t the same. Genre writing is necessarily formulaic. This is not to say there isn’t bad literary writing, but good literary writing serves a different purpose than good genre writing and I don’t have a problem with placing a higher value on it.

Gricomet, I see what you’re saying but I think it depends on where you are standing. Listen to a group of manga fans talk about superhero books, and I doubt you will hear any respect for their artistic qualities. In fact, I would venture to say that superhero comics don’t exist at all to most shoujo manga readers. (Which begs the question: Which is worse, to be denigrated or to be ignored?)

I can definitely agree that many western readers are only thinking about romance manga when they use the term “shojo,” but certainly critics should know better, shouldn’t they? The thing is, and maybe this is something we just disagree on, I think there is high quality to be found in books from all across the larger demographic category, including the girliest titles.

Going back to my comparison of Fruits Basket and Boys Over Flowers… I’ve read both of these series all the way through (something I doubt many of those who scoff at either of them have done). I’m not going to hold up Boys Over Flowers as a great comic, because even though it is a lot of fun, part of what is fun about it is that it is *so* gleefully over-the-top and distant from reality. This still indicates skillful craft, in my view, but the series is certainly not intended to be read deeply. Fruits Basket, though? I’d go a long way arguing on its behalf as quality reading material I’m proud to own.

Nearly every genre of *everything* has some standard tropes that are used and reused over again, but to hold up those tropes as the sum of the genre is not only dismissive of its readers (and writers) but also just *inaccurate* in my opinion. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that, as a reader, I bring a lot with me to a book, which means I tend to give most books a pretty deep read, regardless of genre. And even if this means I end up writing passionate, 1200-word essays on Shugo Chara! (all sincere, by the way), as a general rule, I tend to think this is a good thing. Fruits Basket deserves a deeper read. I feel the same way about many romantically-inclined manga, like Basara, We Were There, Kimi ni Todoke, Sand Chronicles, NANA (a couple of these are technically josei, I believe, but since they are marketed as shojo here, they fall into the range of your argument). When I read statements, especially from critics, that lump all shojo titles together, or even just shojo romance titles, they just seem very surface to me and not very much in touch with the actual works.

JRB, I’d add, too, that several of the series I mentioned with male protagonists (Natsume’s Book of Friends, Crown of Love, Otomen) actually *are* published on the Shojo Beat imprint. I didn’t have to reach for those at all.

Hey Brigid. I really dislike Margaret Atwood. I find her literariness glib, her themes dumb, her symbolism heavy-handed, and her ideas obvious. I wish I could get back the moments of my life I spent reading her lousy books. I think her work is significantly less interesting than Fruits Basket, and way, way less interesting than shojo I really like (like Dokebi Bride.)

I don’t think it’s useful to categorically say that one group of books or another is better or more universal. Every book (Margaret Atwood too) is targeting specific audiences in particular historical circumstances. But what that means can vary widely from work to work.

Melinda, I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. Heck, Blank Slate, which is violent action melodrama (starring very pretty guys, admittedly), is a Shojo Beat title. But it still has more in common with, say, switch (girl-friendly shonen, published under the Viz Media imprint) than with Fruits Basket.

Just to clarify, I was talking about everything that gets classified as shojo, not just the love triangles set in a high school.

Oy vey.

So what about the writings of Lem, Ballard, and Heinlein? A lot, if not most, of their work would be considered genre work, but they also carry a considerable weight of literary worth.

Literature rises out of good use of a formula/genre. I think that’s what Noah is saying. To automatically think less of a piece of work just because it ascribes to a certain genre is ridiculous.

@mr. pants,

Of course there are works with strong literary quality that arise out of genres. But I don’t think there are a lot of them.

@mr. pants,

Also, that seems to be a particularly strong tendency in science fiction. I’m not sure why.

@Noah,

I’ll take Fruits Basket over The Handmaid’s Tale anyday! Everyone has a few clunkers, and Atwood has had more than a few. But when she’s good, she’s very, very good.

“Both stories feature a heroine who is sweet, beautiful, and somewhat assertive but not so much so that she becomes unattractive.”

OK, so I have a real problem with this statement. As a woman, a journalist and a law student, I’m an assertive person. So if I happen to get a little more aggressive, say like Artemis — who is quite gorgeous, thank you very much — does that make me less attractive? Does that make that character less attractive? Does that make any woman less attractive? So if a woman gets all “uppity” that makes her ugly? Because that’s basically what you’re saying by making that statement.

“Superheroes are a guy medium, primarily produced for and consumed by guys. If I, as a female, choose to read them, I do so knowing that I’m stepping into the guys’ clubhouse. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment being gendered. ”

And what happens when the big Two companies — DC and Marvel — want to expand their market and get more readers? Should they not try and include women if they want to market their product to them, especially in a time when comic sales are declining? If they want to increase sales, start marketing to women more. And how can they do that? Make it so that Superheroes are for everyone, not just guys.

@georgethecat: I was being facetious there. I hate the non-assertiveness of shoujo heroines, and Tohru Honda’s inane giggle in the Fruits Basket anime drove me nuts. I think a lot of American shoujo manga readers find it frustrating, and it really is a limitation of the medium. I happen to be both quite assertive and really hot, myself. (At least, my husband thinks so, and he’s the only one I care about.)

As for your second question, my guess is that DC and Marvel have a core audience who are guaranteed to buy their product, and they have no desire to alienate them. Should they try to reach women readers? Yes, but that carries a risk, and most businesses aren’t into taking risks right now. Also, they don’t necessarily have to make superheroes more appealing to women—they could simply do something completely different, as DC did with Minx and CMX manga. Unfortunately, they didn’t do a very good job of marketing either one.

You are ignoring the effect of sexism on how genre works are evaluated. Both superhero comics and shoujo manga are gendered (to different extents and in different ways), but this does not lead to the same result. Superhero comics are looked down as being vestiges of childhood. Shoujo romances are looked down on because they are romances; because they are girl’s stories.

Also, I have to agree with Noah wrt literary fiction. It’s become a genre in denial of itself. And it is a genre, with its own tropes, conventions, etc etc. Thank you publishers and marketers, I suppose. Literary fiction is identifiable, and not just as ‘the stuff that isn’t all that genre stuff.’ You can recognize it in the same way you can recognize ‘art’ movies – not necessarily by quality, but by style, subject matter, structure. Which is why you can’t just compare categories of art in order to make broad statements about their relative quality. What we identify as literary fiction is no better than what we call science fiction; the vast majority of both are total crap. Simply: they are telling stories in different ways, with different affective goals in mind. There is nothing inherently – objectively – better about the way literary fiction goes about its business. This is just the old chestnut about high vs. low art.

Tohru Honda’s inane giggle in the Fruits Basket anime drove me nuts. I think a lot of American shoujo manga readers find it frustrating, and it really is a limitation of the medium.

While the naive, quiet heroine is a Shoujo standard, it would be completely wrong to think that that is all shoujo heroines, or even most shoujo heroines. My current favourite running series, Skip Beat, has a heroine who assertive in the extreme (she has to be, she’s an actress) and the series has high readership in both Japan and among Western audiences. Other stories, like Kimi ni Todoke, feature girls whose character progression is about learning to be more aggressive.

There’s plenty of boring and bad shoujo out there, but that’s true of any medium. And maybe the two manga in question are strikingly similar (I haven’t read Boys Over Flowers so I can’t say) but that still doesn’t mean that every other shoujo is.

which are you more comfortable being seen with? Legal Drug has a very neutral cover; it could be any graphic novel. Cardcaptor Sakura is girly all the way.

Answer Cardcaptor Sakura and as far as Tohru Honda being “annoying” I get tired of her becoming the punching bag almost every time the topic of “weak” shojo heroines comes up. If you want weak and spineless a prime example is Hatsumi from Hot Gimmick. Not Tohru who saved an entire family crippled by years of physical and emotional abuse with the power of friendship and love that’s pretty impressive if you ask me

Wow, this is one of the most ignorant things I’ve ever read about books. So good books cited as shoujo (because they are) don’t fit your idea of shoujo so they don’t count? How convenient. If you would pull your nose out of the air and actually stick it into some of those dreaded genre books you might be surprised at the depth you’d find. Seriously, have you even read any science fiction in the past 30 years? You couldn’t have read much and claim that depth is an abnormality. The same goes for pretty much every genre you’ve mentioned.

georgethecat: “And what happens when the big Two companies — DC and Marvel — want to expand their market and get more readers?”

The problem is that they don’t have any idea how to attract women readers. There are problems with distribution, marketing, content — they just don’t know what they’re doing. It’s pitiful to watch, actually.

Brigid, I did read one Atwood story I kind of enjoyed, I’ll admit.

Eric Henwood-Greer

September 10, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Banana Fish was published under Viz’s’ Shojo line. As others have said, i think it’s simply too easy to use the term shojo to meet your *very* narrow definitions and then complain about the genre. Shojo isn’t a genre, it’s a medium the same way manga is as a whole–within it are tons of genres, and yes, many share similarities. But I don’t even think as many English language readers of the limited types of shojo that get translated here use the term as narrowly as you do. Change everything you’ve said to “the magority of shoujo teenaged romance manga” and I might agree with you. But as someone who sees the best in manga within the shojo heading, I think it’s a terribly dismissive and even harmful argument.

” Shojo isn’t a genre, it’s a medium the same way manga is as a whole”

Shojo isn’t a medium. A medium refers to form without regard to content. Comics is a medium. Manga is a medium if you use it to mean all comics — western ones as well.

Shojo is a type of manga, comics drawn for girls. Just like young adult books are written for kids. To say either is a different medium from comics or literature is absurd.

I should have refreshed the page before my comment.

Oops.

You may have a point that shojo manga is a genre and as such manga in this category share a lot of common modes of expression and archetypes but I think your definition of shojo is an over-generalization. For example you said that a shojo manga can’t have a boy as the main character which isn’t true. It may be uncommon but I can think of at least three shojo manga that with a male lead: “Natsume’s book of friends”, “Otomen” and “Jyu-Oh-Sei”. I will of course freely admit that these series include other shojo troupes but a genre isn’t always as limiting as you make it out to be, and I think that’s true of all the genre’s you mentioned, not just shojo.

As with all good conversations, I agree with some of your points and disagree with others, but I totally see the point you’re making. People who do not read any “kind” of thing tend to be very dismissive of it. A librarian at my local library – which has an unusually large manga and GN collection – told me he “didn’t get this stuff.” I asked him if he had ever actually read any – no one will be surprised when I say that he said no. ^_^

I canNOT stand romance novels, or the male equivalents, the hyper-masculine action novel. I diss both freely. And people who do not like vegtables and people who take comics books *too* seriously.

Where I disagree with you, is in disliking shoujo for the very qualities that make it popular with the girls who are the audience. I like shoujo. Some, like Karakuri Odette, or Waza-ari Kiwami-chan I like better for bucking some of the more tedious trends. Some, like Gakuen Alice or Heartcatch PreCure, I like despite myself. And some, like Nobara no Mori no Otome-tachi I like because of an agenda. I feel the same way about shounen (Let’s power up and have that same fight AGAIN!) and josei (I hate him, but I want him) and seinen (kill/screw all the things, rawr!) Some are better , some are worse – they are what they are.

I can understand why you feel you “have” to review shoujo, but don’t really like it – but I like it. I’ve got three shoujo books sitting right here, one in English and two in Japanese and I’m perfectly glad to read them, be seen in public doing so and enjoy them for what they are, adult as I am.

Cheers,

Erica

I don’t like the use f the phrase “shojo” and “genre” in this article, but COME ON guys, there is an excerpt from Even a Monkey can Draw Manga up there! We all know what books are being insulted here, and many of them are ones that a serious manga fan hates! Also, you may have all loved Fruits Basket, but it’s not much of a stretch to imagine someone putting it down after the first volume (The universal principle of Manga:If volume one is the best volume, the series is probably bad).
One thing though, I would read Cardcaptor Sakura in public any day, thanks to Tokyopop’s garish but thoughtful more general packaging, not to mention the fact that WHO CARES IF IT LOOKS GIRLY?! I enjoy reading the series, and if the place I’m reading happens to be public, so be it. We should have all gotten over any self-esteem issues AGES ago. God.

Hey, Brigid. You took me sort of by surprise with this one. In a sense, the genre/literature dichotomy you draw is tautological, in that you are defining “literature” as “that which is good” (regardless of whether or not it follows some of the formulae of this or that genre) and “genre” as “that which is not so good”. But since the trusty old “90% of everything is crap” rule applies to both genre work and works written by earnest graduates of creative writing programs (I’m a not-so-earnest graduate of such a program myself), I’m not sure how useful your dichotomy is here.

I would hope that you would agree that Hagio’s A Drunken Dream, despite adhering to many of the conventions of shojo manga, is not crap, and may well be “literature” (as you seem to be defining the term). Chris Mautner seems extremely reluctant to allow that there can be shojo that is not crap, and, yes, he pretty clearly states that is the “girly” aspects of shojo that make it crap. He just does it from the position of an extremely male-centered indies “comix” (God, how I hate that term) fandom, rather than a musclemen-in-technicolor-longjohns fandom. Tossing out examples of vapid, mind-numbing works from a genre to make the argument that the genre is worthless (except perhaps to a small demographic of children or teens) is shoddy logic.

I feel somewhat silly suggesting what should be obvious: that each work should be judged on its own merits, regardless of the labels applied by publishers or critics.

I can’t believe no one has brought up Ursula K. Le Guin. She has written extensively about “genre”, and she has no problem embracing such labels as “science fiction” or “fantasy.” And she has more “literariness” in her little finger than most of the writers in a given issue of the New York Review of Books have in their whole bodies.

Oh, and I forgot to comment on this:

you simply can’t write a shoujo manga in which the girl is, for instance, a lesbian, or the hero is a boy because by definition that isn’t shoujo manga,

Wow. Even taking into account your clarification in the comments section, this is just plain wrong. I can think of numerous examples of lesbian or boy protagonists in works that are undoubtedly shoujo manga, and not simply because of the magazines they were published in.

I agree with most of what you write, including the part about superhero comics, but I have to say you’re way wrong about science fiction novels.

Buy a good selection of the winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards of the last 10 years and read them. Even putting aside for the moment the (subjective) considerations of literary quality, you will find science fiction novels are too varied, the field too big, to be considered “bound by strict conventions.”

I don’t think they’re “comfort” literature in the least, and it’s hard to deny their ambition, no matter what you may think of the writers’ merit as artists.

There IS comfort books in the area of science fiction, of course, but they’re more often the Star Trek spin-offs and stuff like that, that is somehow tied to TV shows or movies.

I will give you five brief examples of writers and books that appear in the last years lists.

CHARLES STROSS (ACCELERANDO) – A novel that follows a very dysfunctional family across generations of technological revolutions. The more futuristic you get, the less recognizably human they are. Their feuds and personal problems are painted in a larger and larger canvas the more powerful they become.

MICHAEL FLYNN (EIFELHEIM) – The novel tells two stories, one dealing with an alien contact in European Middle Ages, the other about modern historians and scientists studying said alien contact centuries after the fact. It has themes of religious (in-)tolerance throughout. It is also a detective story, only the “crime” is a poorly-known incident centuries algo.

PETER WATTS (BLINDSIGHT) – A bleak story about the illusion of free will, as a crew of heavily modified humans makes contact with alien intelligencies that are not remotely human. The story is shot through with flashbacks about the protagonist’s life as a guy who is perfectly suited for alien contact, since he lacks normal empathy for humans due to a neurological disease, and he had to study rules of social contact the hard way. One of the most painful books I’ve read.

CHINA MIÉVILLE (PERDIDO STREET STATION) – A fantasy novel in a world very reminiscent of Victorian London seen through the lens of Miéville’s marxist convictions. Blends science fiction, fantasy, horror, and lots more into a world of pure strangeness. Lots of politics and social criticism. Miéville is the anti-Tolkien in a lot of ways.

DAN SIMMONS (ILLIUM) – This story is a retelling of the Trojan War, in a future where techonology is so advanced that they engineered their own Greek Gods very closely to what mythology said about them. It’s an irreverent look at Greek heroes.

Now, I dunno, but I don’t think these 5 novels, or the scores of Hugo Award winning novels in the last 10 years have a lot in common with each other. There is the general theme of using technology in the stories, sure, but that is mostly as enabler to be able to tell them. They may be unappealing to the general public with no interest in science, history, mythology and stuff like that, but not a one of them is remotely like the other four.

Geez, I come back from a hard day at work (yes, on a Sunday) and there’s all sorts of intelligent commentary to deal with!

OK, OK, I give—shoujo manga can have boys and lesbians. I was wrong, and as always, Matt Thorn is right. (Duh! Heart of Thomas!). And yes, Matt, the argument was sort of circular the way I stated it, so let me try again:

Bad books are flat, formulaic, trite. Good books are not. What makes a book bad or good is not the gender it is written for but the quality of the writing.

However, because certain genres (and yes, I should have said shoujo *romance* rather than strictly shoujo) tend to have very similar stories, characters, and styles, I think genre fiction is more likely to be bad than so-called literary fiction. Part of that has to do with things like the aims of the author, the audience they are writing for, the speed with which the books must be produced, how well the book is edited, and other extrinsic factors. Part of that has to do with the style of writing itself. Genre readers like a certain consistency to their stories, and to an outsider, that consistency translates to “the same story over and over again.”

Erica, I still like shoujo, and Fruits Basket is actually one of my favorite manga. But I read a fair amount of it and i really do want to throw some books out the window. It’s not just the repetition of storylines, but the fact that the stories themselves are lacking in genuine human emotion. The artificial rules, bullying cliques, blackmailing and searches for the long-lost friend just seem contrived.

Rene, you’re right about science fiction, too. There are good writers in every genre, but sci-fi seems to have more of them, for some reason.

Matt –

Except that I really don’t think shojo is crap or worthless, and I really don’t think I ever said that (please point out to me where I did). There’s a lot of shojo I like. like Swan, which I’m an unabashed and devout fan of. I think there are people in the indie comix scene who do and therefore will likely not warm to Hagio’s work easily and that’s really what I was trying to write about, though apparently I failed utterly.

Brigid, thanks for the clarifications. Sales of all periodicals in Japan having been steadily declining for the past fifteen years, and this has led, apparently, to major publishers running around like chickens with their heads cut off rather than using their brains and seriously trying to adapt to the new digital age in innovative ways. What this means on the ground is that editors–particularly of shoujo manga magazines–have become hopelessly conservative. Instead of taking risks, they have hunkered down, and force their artists to adhere to narrower and narrower genre conventions. It’s a very sad situation. The most interesting work being done by women is in women’s manga magazines or “unisex” magazines, such as Comic Beam. Unfortunately, very little of this is being translated, and most of what is is being translated poorly, pretty much ruining the reading experience. But that’s an entirely different soapbox, and one I stand on often enough.

Chris, in your comments section, I gave a pretty thorough list of instances where you signal to readers that you think shoujo manga is crap. Whether or not that was your intention is another story. What you seem to end up doing is leading your reader away from A Drunken Dream, telling them, “If you don’t like that frou-frou shojo stuff, you probably won’t like this,” to wit, “Nothing to see here folks, move along.” And you most definitely harp on the “girly” aspects in consistently mocking terms. I mean, come on: “the strawberry pink and lace-strewn side of the path”? Seriously? Which is all too bad, because (though I’m obviously biased), I think A Drunken Dream includes some of the most interesting, thought-provoking, well-crafted, and moving comics now available in English.

Brigid -

I do think the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction is that genre fiction values plot in first place and has as goal to create a certain frisson in the public (the frisson is genre-dependent, and can be excitement for adventure fiction, soft feelings for romance, fear for terror, etc.), while literary fiction values style over plot, and is usually more interested in character study and explaining what life is about (according to the author’s view).

Of couse, I’m oversimplifying. A lot of the best genre fiction co-opts literary goals, so there is a lot of genre fiction that is worried about stylistic flair, character study, and relevance. But it may be more fair to judge them differently, since they usually have different goals.

And I think literary fiction also can be quite bad, since its goals carry with them their own pitfalls. Too much stylistic flair can result in books so cryptic that no normal person with less than a dozen literary degrees can enjoy them. Too involved character study can make it seems like navel-gazing. And explaining what life’s about can devolve into preaching.

But yeah, genre fiction sometimes is too derivative. I mean, sometimes I think I don’t want to watch another action movie or romantic comedy again. And fantasy novels, Jesus… There is original stuff in the genre, guys like Martin, Gaiman, Mieville, Erikson. But there is also a lot of Tolkien clones and a lot of Robert E. Howard clones.

which are you more comfortable being seen with? Legal Drug has a very neutral cover; it could be any graphic novel. Cardcaptor Sakura is girly all the way.

I know I qouted this allready but something about this question really bugged me you see briggid you and Melinda and I know you where asking her specifically that question but I thought to myself “well that’s easy to say your not going to get strange looks if you have a copy of Cardcaptor Sakura in your hands.” But I’m a guy if I where to do it the awkwardness would be hard to deal with I just thought I would say that since it’s been on my mind as of late. thanks for sparking an intresting discussion even if I don’t agree with everything in your article haveing an intelligent discussion is good and mentally beneficial Ciao (LOL)

Jeez, Matt, give Chris a break. His review was basically positive! He said he hoped it would get a big audience, and he praised the art fairly unequivocally, and the content with some reservations. I don’t think anything he said signaled that he thought shojo was crap. He signaled that he thought shojo was girly — which it is! — and that he suspected that the book would not necessarily cross over to an indie audience even though he wished it would. And really, ” “the strawberry pink and lace-strewn side of the path” really read, in the context of the rest of the review especially, as an affectionate and gentle poke. Shojo is overwhelmingly femme; jumping down the throat of folks who point that out doesn’t seem to me to be helpful either for shojo or for femininity, both of which get a bad enough rap as it is.

Plus…he apologized! Stop hitting the guy!

Brigid, you might look at Jim Collins’ *Books for Everybody.” It’s got some flaws, but he does a very good job of explaining the ways in which literary fiction is as trope-bound and predictable as genre literature.

I’m late to this one, but…

I think of “literary fiction” the same way I think of “graphic novel”: as a marketing term used to make the product sound like it is “quality,” but really having no bearing at all on actual quality.

A Drunken Dream is the comic I’m most excited about reading because I’m thirsting for a “literary” example of shoujo manga. I hadn’t read much since high school, though recently started reading Heart of Thomas. Most people don’t see the varied examples of shoujo manga and are only able to reference the ones most popular with the kids. Of course, there’s decades of work, and we haven’t seen much of the “good 10%.”

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