The Gender Coverup

05/07/2013 03:38 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2013

I am a Young Adult author. And I am female. I spend a lot of time around people who talk about books. These people include: other authors, publishers, librarians, booksellers, and loads and loads and loads of readers. I talk to hundreds of people a day online. I meet people at book signings and conventions and all sorts of events, and I hear what they have to say about all kinds of books. And I've noticed a lot of things about how people talk about books.

When I hear people talk about "trashy" books, 95% of the time, they are talking about books written by women. When I see or hear the terms "light," "fluffy," "breezy," or "beach read"... 95% of the time, they are talking about books written by women. Many times I hear people talking about books they have not read -- books they've seen or heard about. I hear their predictions about those books. And then I hear people slapping labels on books they haven't read, making predictions. Again, I hear the same things. "Oh, that's just some romance." "I'll read that when I just want something brainless."

The books in question? You guessed it. Written by women. And some of those books, I'll note to myself, are fairly hardcore and literary, and I'll try to explain that. "Oh?" people will say. "Really? I thought it was just some chick lit book."

Have I heard people pass comparable judgments on books written by men? Yes and no. You tend not to hear "light," "fluffy," "breezy," or "beach read." It tends to be more straightforward--that they liked it, didn't like it, hadn't read it, might read it. There are fewer assumptions made. Somehow, we have put books into gender categories.

"But!" many people say in one collective voice, "Books don't have genders! Books are just books!"

"No!" some other people say. "There are girl books and boy books and man books and 'chick lit.' It is known."

"I don't care," say some other people. Probably most of the people. Because a lot of people don't read much or see why any of this affects their lives. But I believe it does affect us all, very much so, because these are all subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) value judgments on what kind of narratives matter.

"But!" some of those people who are still paying attention cry. "Boys don't like to/can't read about girls!"

"&^%$@," say I.

Of course they can, and stop making their choices for them or telling them what they do or don't want to do. This may be a big part of the problem.

When we're kids, we learn what good books and bad books are because someone tells us. They tell us in classes, though the selection of the books that are considered worthy of study. When I was growing up, to have a semester, or even a year, of literature classes featuring all male authors was simply taking English class. Taking a semester-long (I never saw a year's worth) class featuring only female writers was the highly specialized stuff of the Women's Studies department, or a high-level elective in the English department, one that often counted toward core classes in the social sciences. (Because it wasn't just literature -- it was a specialized demographic.) I never took one.

My college reading was 90% male. I would have said 95% male, but I had to read the Bible and many ancient myths, and to be fair, we don't know who wrote those (but it was probably men). In high school, I took four years of English, including advanced classes. I can only remember reading two works by women in all of high school, and they were both poems. One was by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) and the other by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). And I went to an all-girls school, where catering to the reading tastes and styles of boys wasn't even an issue.

Do you know how much I read about aging men and their penises and their lust for younger women and their hatred of their castrating wives? I read enough stories about male writing professors having midlife crises and lusting after young students to last me seven lifetimes. Can you imagine the reverse? Can you imagine classes in which guys read nothing but Germaine Greer, Eve Ensler, and Caryl Churchill? Can you imagine whole semesters of reading about vaginas? Again, I mean outside of a specialized class in women's literature or anything about the human reproductive system. I seriously doubt you can.

For much of history, women read the works of men. Every once in a while we see a woman cracking through, maybe changing her name, maybe hiding her work, or maybe breaking through the strength of her genius or good luck or both. Then we see a huge break in the early 20th century, a flux of brilliant women. Women start to climb into the bestseller charts, but not so much into the reading lists.

The automatic response from many will be that for school people read a survey of literature from the ages, which, as we know, was predominately male... and current literature is still worming its way in, because things often need to develop a patina before people register them as Quality and Important... so obviously you're going to find a lot of men in there. But that really doesn't explain the last hundred years, which, considering that the concept of the novel itself is only 3-400 years old -- with much of the body of work being written in the last 200 years.

So, we're thinking about boys and girls and what they read. The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We're like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle.

Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read "girl" stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate -- as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us.

Largely because we have little choice in the matter.

When I was in college, I remember hearing the story of Dorothy Parker typing out the words, "Please god, let me write like a man." Even if I didn't know my own reading bias, I understood at once, instinctively. It was the way to legitimacy. Men wrote of Big Things that Mattered. Sure, some of them were endlessly introspective. Yes, the big things that mattered were often penises. Also, sex. Also sex with penises. Also, girls, and how difficult and incomprehensible and unattainable we are for some sex with penises. It was like the penis was literally the magical eleventh finger that allowed you to write, and if I could just GROW ONE SOMEHOW, or imagine it into being, I would gain the abilities I so desired.

Sometimes, it was actually that literal. No, really.

This does not, not even for one second, diminish the greatness of the male writers I love. All I would ask you to consider is the fact that as a female writer, I was raised on a steady and unvaried diet of male writers. I read about impotence before I knew what menopause was. I saw the inner workings of boys' schools/camps and their misery. Even when I read about women, I read it from a male hand. Occasionally I read about boys from a female hand (The Outsiders being a prime example).

I was frequently appalled by the details of the gross boys when I was younger, but I made it through. I was frankly baffled by the various injuries to the male organ I read about, but I grew to understand over time. I did grow bored of the portrayals of women in the books. They had nothing to offer me in terms of case studies to emulate. (For example, my choices in my favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, were the cartoonish Daisy, the dangerous driver Jordan, and the red-lipped and dispensable mistress Myrtle. And in my beloved Hemingway, I mostly got women who drained the main character's talent. There was a glimpse of hope in the character of Brett, but only in that she was just as nuts as the rest of the characters.) The narrators I loved, the heroes I admired... all men.

And let me make this clear as well: I am not a super-flexible superbeing. I was a fairly average teenager, pretty lazy. I preferred analyzing music lyrics and talking on the phone to almost all other activities. I did love to read, but I was more obsessive than voracious, reading the same books over and over. I read male books because they were put in front of me from the time I could read. These were the readings materials I -- and every girl I went to school with -- was marched through.

But I think it is a mistake to think that we stop being told what good and bad books are at the school level. It continues every day. You are informed about a book's perceived quality through a number of ways. One of those ways is the cover. The cover may be the biggest message-bearer. Other messages include: blurbs (who they are from), comparisons, review coverage, store placement, and categorization.

And the simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality. Because it's "girly," which is somehow inherently different and easier on the palate. A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it. If we sell more -- and we often don't -- it is simply because we produce candy, and who doesn't like candy? We're the high fructose corn syrup of literature, even when our products are the same. It's okay to sell the girls as long as we have some men to provide protein.

Maybe this idea that there are "girl books" and "boy books" and "chick lit" and "whatever is the guy equivalent of chick lit"* gives credit to absolutely no one, especially not the boys who will happily read stories by women, about women. As a lover of books and someone who supports readers and writers of both sexes, I would love a world in which books are freed from some of these constraints. Maybe we should do boys the favor we girls received -- a reading diet featuring books by and about the opposite sex. Clearly, it must work.

One way we can do that quite easily is by looking at the covers. We're told not to judge books by them, but... EVERYBODY DOES. That is what they are for. They are the packages that get your attention, that give you messages about what to expect.

Which is why yesterday, I proposed a little experiment on Twitter. I asked people to take a well-known book, then to imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, or was genderqueer, and imagine what that cover might look like. Because we have these expectations in our heads already.

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