Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Gender in the Publishing World
(there will be many generalisations in today's post, I realise there are exceptions to every rule, and that people are individuals first, categories second . . . but today I am afraid I will be indulging in generalities. My apologies.)
Today I wanted to ask a question that's been on my mind a lot lately:
how big a role do you think gender plays in the world of books?
This is a broad question and meant to be. There are so many different levels on which one can discuss this topic. And it of course depends on your role in this world, there is a different perspective from each area: publisher, agent, author, reader . . .
For example, as an author, I often wonder whether men (or I suppose boys in my case with my audience) are put off reading a book with a female author's name obviously at the bottom. I know lots of boys read JK Rowling, but there was a reason her publisher suggested she use her initials only. Not only did they hope to widen her potential market, they also felt that because her main character was a boy, it was the best way not to alienate that audience.
I have to say that I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of boys who read Alex and really enjoy it. We are told often that boys will not read a book with a female protagonist, and I actually had a boy the other day look at me in shock when I mentioned Alex was a girl. This boy had already read the book, in which I say often that Alex is a girl, and yet I suppose because it isn't about the fact that she is a girl, that she isn't particularly "girly", whatever that is, he actually forgot he was reading about the opposite gender and saw her more as an "everyman" (everywoman?) kind of character. Something, I must be honest, that was indeed one of my goals with the book, so I am immensely pleased. But at the same time, does this mean that if I write a "girly" protagonist I will lose the boys who so enjoyed my other books simply on that fact alone?
As a reader . . . I have noticed that a novel written by a woman that centres around romance (though isn't necessarily a Romance Novel), tends to be shuffled aside as "chick lit", while similar novels by men are categorised as general fiction, and tend to be treated with a bit more respect. I have also noticed that men keen on writing Romance Novels feel a need to change their names to appeal to that audience as well. I have also heard tell of men being frustrated with an industry and audience that is predominantly female, and that the male audience/POV isn't always taken into consideration.
This disparity between the genders seems to exist in every genre. Agent Kristin Nelson wrote in her blog post entitled Dad Wisdom & Publishing:
"From my personal experience (and I really can only speak from that perspective), I truly believe that for literary fiction, it’s much easier to sell boy writers than gals. I know. Who can possibly make such a general statement but I have to say that I’ve encountered several worthy manuscripts that I’m rather convinced that if the writer had been male, the novel would have sold."
She also wrote another very interesting blog entry about the genders entitled PW Survey Says about the differences between genders within the publishing industry itself (an industry, one will note, that is heavily female).
And I find it all so distinctly odd. I do think that there are certain types of fiction in which, for whatever reason, certain genders prefer to write, but if someone from the opposite gender has done a decent job of it in their "wrong" genre, why shouldn't they be allowed the same chances and same level of respect for it? And why is it that two people can write a very similar story, and be shuffled off into totally different categories?
On a personal level I have met some interesting reactions with being a woman who is also funny. Many people (usually men - again generalisation) simply refuse to believe at first that I am as funny as I wind up being in my writing. Even in person I have had men look at me in total shock and say, "Actually you're quite funny." My books get that same response, and I must confess there are times I wonder what sort of reaction they would have got if the name on the cover had been Adrian, and not Adrienne. I wonder if by reading a book with a female name, readers (another sweeping generalisation) expect a certain sincere offering, and when a woman makes an ironic/satirical or cynical joke, the reader gets confused and sees it as not meant to be funny in the first place.
I have no proof to back that last statement up, it truly is just a question lingering in my mind that I'm not sure will ever be answered. But I do think there is an inherit prejudice (either in favour or against) an author of the "wrong" gender in a certain category. Someone will see the name, not even process it consciously, but somehow it will still affect how they read the work.
In fact I would suggest you try this little game at home, where you pick up a book by a female author say, and open it up and pretend it was written by a man and see if that changes your perspective on it (and vice versa)? I have, and I have to admit that there are times where it really changes the way in which I read the book. But maybe that says more about me, than anything else.
So what do you guys think? Am I totally off my rocker? Does gender matter in writing? In the publishing world? Is there a bias for one over the other in certain genres? And really anything else you feel like contributing to the discussion!