When Joanne Rowling was first looking to publish her billion-dollar best seller, Harry Potter, her publisher offered this bit of advice: Change your name. Don't go by Joanne, because boys won't pick up books by female writers. Go by JK.
So she did. By the time the third book was published, it was common knowledge that the person who created the vast alternate universe of Harry and his magical friends is a woman. And guess what? Boys still picked up and read her books, because they were interested in the story. In many ways, we are still living in the culture that told Marian Evans to go by George Eliot, that encouraged the Bronte sisters to begin publishing under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (Caroline, Emily, and Anne, respectively), that caused Louisa May Alcott to publish some of her more fiery writings under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, and countless other females to go by their first initials rather than the full name (E. Nesbit, S.E. Hinton, etc).
Maureen Johnson, a published YA author who is infinitely more expert on these issues than I am, has commented on the dearth of respectability for female authors time and again. She writes, on the recent “crisis” of boys not reading books, that the answer is not to encourage or sell more male authors, but to encourage boys to recognize female literature as just as legitimate as male, which is something not enforced by our schools or education.
Take a walk, sometime, through the YA section of B&N. If you cannot immediately identify (without looking at author names) which books are by male or female based solely on the covers, I will eat my hat.
Okay, maybe I won’t do that, but it is an interesting experiment. Last week, I went over to our local B&N, which has quite the selection, and browsed through the YA lit area. One of the first things I noticed is that there are A LOT of female YA authors. And there are A LOT of books with feet, shopping bags, and flowers on the covers. Every so often, there would be a book by a female that was marketed with a non-pink/flowery/”girly” cover, but there were almost no books by males that were marketed in the girly fashion (the exceptions being books by male authors about “girly” subjects, like relationships).*
This is to say: the movement in marketing typically goes one-way. It is possible for female authors to be marketed like males, but the reverse is not universally true. Even in the fantasy section, where male and female authors are on more or less equal standing in terms of readership, female authors were still readily identifiable with “girly” covers. Just check out some of these examples I found:
[caption id="attachment_267" align="aligncenter" width="225" caption="This is a best-selling book about a young girl who gets raped by a high school classmate, and spends the school year refusing to speak about it."][/caption]
[caption id="attachment_268" align="aligncenter" width="234" caption="One of Madeline L'Engle's early works, which features both a male and female main character. And is not about romance. "][/caption]
[caption id="attachment_269" align="aligncenter" width="247" caption="John Green's "Looking For Alaska," a retelling of The Great Gatsby. You wouldn't guess this was actually all about a girl named Alaska, would you?"][/caption]
While at the bookstore, I also found two end cap displays in the teen fiction section. One was “Summer Stories,” which consisted, in other words, a special selection of “fluffy” literature you don’t have to think about – basically teen beach reads. The other one, directly opposite, was “Must Read Books for the Summer,” books ostensibly good for the teen to read to keep his or her mind sharp for school.
Want to guess which one had more female authors?
There were thirteen titles on each display. Of the ones of fluffy beach reads, all 13 were female. Of the ones considered “must-read,” 10 of the thirteen were male, and at least one of the three female authors had her name disguised in initials – S.E. Hinton.
Is it any wonder, then that boys aren’t reading? That people don’t see female authors as legitimate literature?
When all we are taught is that male authors are legitimate, and female authors are a means to an end in learning, it is no surprise that women authors don’t do well with men in the marketplace, even in fields where there is positively a glut of female authors. This is exacerbated by marketing the literature in such a way that boys – already figuring out how to adjust to societal masculinity demands - are uncomfortable picking up “girly” books.
Feminism, in the end, is about making it easier for both men and women to be comfortable in their own skin. When we market “girls” books in such a way that boys, already pushed into a more "masculine" role by societal pressure, are uncomfortable being seen purchasing or reading such books, it should be no surprise that young boys aren’t reading as much as their female peers. The patriarchal system is just as damaging to the males of our species as it is to the females. Smashing gender roles – this includes gendered marketing – is not about female rule, but rather about allowing people to express themselves in the ways they feel more comfortable. Fundamentally, we would have more boys reading if we didn’t reinforce gender roles so adamantly, both in terms of what we tell young boys about what it is to be a man, and how we market books.
*Note: I recognize that there is nothing inherently feminine about relationship books or the color pink, as gender and gender signals are socially constructed, so when I say something is girly, I mean the commonly accepted gendered interpretation of such symbols. That's kind of my point.