Women and books, women in books

May 8, 2013

Earlier this week, the results of a challenge posted by author Maureen Johnson hit The Huffington Post, and I had a grand old time looking through the results, which you can find here.  Basically, flip the covers of books so that the “girly” no longer look girly, and vice versa. 

My personal favorite was Lord of the Flies, but all of these are truly well done, and I hope there’s work in the artists’ futures.  However, this coverflip is just one tiny aspect of areas that are just straight up ridiculous for female authors and books about women and women who read books.  You know I’m gonna break this down so get ready.

Women authors
The number of women who have used pseudonyms or their initials is absurdly long, and this is not some issue that’s no longer a problem.  Rowling did it. Yep, it’s easy to forget because no one really cares too much now that she’s so successful, but she did that on purpose to hopefully sell more books.  It’s not like this is some 1800s throwback issue or even a Andre Norton-era issue.  This still happens.  N.K. Jemisin?  Sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction author who goes by initials instead of Nora because this still happens.  She’s also a woman of color, and has problems because of that (like her books being placed in the African-American section), but that needs its own post.  Women authors are scared that their own names will frighten away potential readers regardless of content. 

Not only is this a problem when women try to publish under their own names like they need to be ashamed of them, but they’ll get shredded for “not getting it” if they try to write about men.  Men writing about women is just always going to be a little awkward and is apparently forgivable, but women writing about men emasculates the men somehow.  George R.R. Martin, bless his heart and his books and may he finish them quickly, is under the impression that women notice their own breasts and the cloth that covers them when they walk.  NOPE.  Writing for a sex or gender of which you are not a member is always challenging, but it is not okay that the problems associated with it are ignored for male authors while female authors are destroyed for it.  Or, reviewers claim they emasculate men if they say anything critical (like Margaret Atwood apparently did to Jimmy in Oryx and Crake).  

And then, of course, the covers.  Book covers are frequently sexist, racist, and just all around horrible.  Let’s not even talk about the ones that are “now a major motion picture.”  I’m still recovering from seeing Ella Enchanted get that treatment.

Books about women
“Books about women” end up in their own category, with “chick-lit” as its own little terrible subset.  Men and women read books about men, and women read books about women.  Please let me reiterate: books about women are not given their own space because women have struggles inherent to their sex.  They are separated because it is assumed that men won’t read them. 

What sells is brotime and ladytime: bros get fighting and angst, women get “drama” and “feelings.”  Even if those plots are exactly the same, wars are male and drama is female.    

Personally, I’ve lied by omission when trying to get people to read The Hunger Games; I just conveniently leave out that it’s a female author and female narrator and let the person just buy the book and deal with it.  (Interestingly, the covers on those three books are decidedly not girly.)   

One of my best moments in college (who am I kidding, this was one of my best moments EVER) was when some truly excellent people brought Tamora Pierce to my campus.  This was an author who truly helped shape my childhood with her amazingly detailed, kick-ass fantasy novels, and she’s been writing since before I was born.  She read an excerpt from her then-unpublished next book, signed basically whatever you wanted her to sign, did a big ol’ question and answer panel, and was just generally amazing.

Her books’ main characters, 95 percent of the time, are female.  The audience was 90 percent female.  A friend of mine there mentioned she had a male friend who did not attend because he was scared of it being all girls.  This is a powerful, fascinating woman with complex, realistic characters in a world that rivals Middle Earth and Westeros in levels of detail, and she gets brushed off because she writes books for teenage girls so she doesn’t matter.

I have to lie to people to get them to pick up books with female narrators, while it is just assumed that I’ll somehow adapt to a male narrator because I’ve been doing so for forever.  No one’s ever said to me “oh you might not like it, it’s about guys.”  Jane Austen is forever “girly books” because they’re about women potentially getting married and that’s not exciting.  And then we have an issue with women who dislike Jane Austen’s novels because they don’t find them enjoyable describing themselves as like, traitors to womanhood or something.  Not liking Ernest Hemingway doesn’t make you a traitor to manhood.  But she’s it, she’s all we’ve got, so everyone feels the need to be nice. 

Women who read books
Gonna get a bit more personal here, but this is important and related, too.  Women read everything that men read.  No, really.  If a woman says she’s read a book, she probably did!  And if she’s bragging and didn’t read it, she’s a liar, but she’s not a “fake geek girl.”  A woman lying about how much of a fan she is is actually the same as a man lying about that.  And don’t come to me with that “she’s just doing it to sound sexy” bullshit like the woman kicked a thousand puppies or something.  Lying isn’t admirable, but don’t act like it’s somehow worse that it’s a woman pretending.  Also, does this even actually happen INQUIRING MINDS NEED TO KNOW

And personal protip to guys who talk to me about books I love: don’t try to explain them to me.  Don’t try to judge how much of a fan I *really* am.  And don’t act like I’m somehow infringing on your territory.  Books are for everyone!  If I mention that it took me till book 3 to realize Robb Stark didn’t have any POV chapters, don’t try to convince me that he does have two, especially when you just began A Clash of Kings.  If I am purchasing a fantasy book and reply “yes” to “are you a fantasy reader?” your next move is not to name three authors, listen to my reply that I haven’t read their work yet, and then say “well you’re not really a fantasy fan then, are you?”  When I tell you I read and enjoyed many of Orson Scott Card’s books, please don’t immediately launch into “umm didn’t you know he hates gay people?”

No mansplaining.  I’m going to read these books and I’m going to know things about them and some books I haven’t read yet and things are problematic and I GET IT.  And there are TONS like me.  Deal with it and talk to me like I’m just another person who read these books. 
Everything I just said obviously does not mean that every book read by, written by, or about women is automatic gold.  But please register the fact that I have to even SAY that.  Because “this obviously does not mean that every book read by, written by or about men is automatic gold” sounds fucking RIDICULOUS. 

So what do we do?  Pick up something with or by women, and talk to them about the books you like.  Shooting something down because it’s about ladies is unacceptable, and so is shooting down ladies talking about your books.  Involving women is just involving people, and when we all understand that, the world will explode with books and book discussions.

Or at least I hope. 

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