Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Of Males and Females and Writership Thereof

A while back, YA author Maureen Johnson* made some waves with a thought experiment about gendered book covers and the difference in visuals between a book authored by a man and one authored by a woman, and how women's book covers were usually designed in such a way that they generally weren't taken as seriously. She invited her readers to participate in a "cover flip" project in which people envisioned what a cover would look like if the book had been authored by someone of the opposite gender than it had been originally published. (See the results here - some of them seem absurd, and at the same time, completely plausible.) 

*who (whom?) I adore, even though I've only read about half of one of her books so far - it's really eerie and creepy (on purpose) and I can only read it in small chunks, because I usually read at night before bed. But her online presence makes me want to be her BFF.

Read all the links. It's interesting and very telling. I'll wait.

They say you shouldn't judge a book by a cover, which is impossible to do, and yet still very wise. Because frequently, sometimes the covers have nothing to do with what's inside - which is the point Maureen Johnson was trying to make. We all think we know how to interpret a cover - all subconscious undertones of femininity or masculinity aside - and whether we'd like it. It's because it's what we're used to seeing. We've been conditioned.

Trust me, I used to be in charge of the book section at Target. I spent a lot of time looking at book covers, side by side.You can tell at a glance what is aimed at women, what is aimed at men, and what is aimed at youth. They are marketed in such a way that it generally does a great disservice to the book. A lot of people are going to pick up books that they are going to hate, because it's not going to be what they thought it would be. And there are books that a lot of people would have loved, that they will never read. They will pass right over them on a bookshelf, and that's a damn shame.

I suppose that is the one positive to electronic readers (which I refuse to own, no matter how cluttered my apartment gets with books) - nobody can see the cover of the book you're reading. So dudes can read "girl" books and grownups can read "teenage" books and they won't get judgy stares from people on the subway, because clearly it is other people's business what you like to read. (Sarcasm alert.)

Perhaps not so ironically, this particular phenomenon is one of the reasons JK Rowling published her Harry Potter series under the name "JK" and not "Joanne" - her publisher thought that identifying her as a female might hurt sales, especially with boys. Scoff if you want, but there's probably some truth to it. There's still that bias.

Which brings me to this post today. JK Rowling was recently "outed" as having published a mystery novel under a pen name - a man's name, no less - in order to give her some freedom from the name JK ROWLING, to see how a novel would do without they hype and publicity of her literary ubiquity. Anonymously. In other words: standing on its own merits. The book received favorable reviews and was doing all right for itself, until a news outlet did some probing and she and her publisher admitted to it when questioned.

(Interestingly, a reviewer on Amazon pointed out that negative reviews had only started to appear once the "real" author was revealed. I guess fame can backfire on you - sure, there was a flux of people who snatched it up because it was written by Her Rowlingness, but there are people that are going to go out of their way to avoid it like the plague - also because it was written by her. This is why I chased down my psych minor. People are fascinating, man.)

The notable part (at least as it pertains to this particular post) is that, once again, she did not publish under a female name. She created a persona - an ex-military man with two sons - under which to write her gritty detective novel. JK Rowling is a smart lady; she knew that this particular murder mystery would sell better - be more convincing - if it had come from a male author. It is what it is.

Frankly, given the eye-opening cover-flip experiment, and my own time spent purchasing books... I wouldn't be entirely opposed to writing under a different name, or perhaps initials, or something. Just to level the playing field. (Who are we kidding, though, that sort of ruse would be exhausting and I would ruin it all without the help of some inquisitive newspaper doing extensive research). I guess it depends on what I write. (It also depends on if I manage to write.) It's been in the back of my mind, though.

Feminist ranting aside, though.  I feel kind of bad for her. The jig is up, and she's lost that secrecy, that freedom. The cat can't go back into the bag.

The book is now being marketed with her name and identity. It still says Robert Galbraith on the cover, but it's merely a formality. EVERYONE KNOWS and no one can un-know it. It will forever be "the book that JK Rowling wrote but published under a different name." Lots of authors do this, many of them are often found out, but I don't know if it usually happens so quickly. 

The fact that it was intended to be a series makes it worse. The lack of pressure she felt writing and publishing that first book is no longer just gone; it's probably returned tenfold. Not only do people know it's her, but now they are going to Expect Things. And they are going to pounce on her if it's not flawless, if it's just as tight and well-received as the first. They're going to say catty things if her narrative isn't as masculine as her pseudonym claims to be. They're probably going to say catty things anyway, because people are catty and jealous and like to say mean things about people they don't know.

Yeah, it's all ridiculous. All she wants to do is write books. I mean, that's all most of us want to do, right? Write things, have people read them, the end. It's a shame that not even JK Rowling can avoid all the bullshit that goes along with doing anything even remotely successfully. I mean, if she can't... what hope do the rest of us have?

At any rate, I hear it's a good book, regardless of who wrote it.


Kelly L said...

OMG BOOK COVERS. Certain covers make me feel all giddy inside. And i've read enough overhyped books now to know that a great cover doesn't necessarily mean a great book (and a shitty cover doesn't mean a shitty book), but covers do usually tell you a lot at a glimpse about what the book might be like. I mean, duh. Design.

But the fact that people apparently—and probably unconsciously—think they know what a book will be like based solely on the gender of the author... I don't really get that. I've read great books by both genders and i've read shitty books by both genders. Usually i hardly even look at the author's name until i've already delved into the book. So... weird, i guess?

Maybe it's just one of those things where people assume that a male is going to write a darker crime novel or that a woman is going to write a more... accurate... romance novel. Maybe people assume that a character of one sex can't be written well by a person of the opposite sex—i think i used to believe that, but i've pretty much gotten over it. Anyway, i doubt it's really all that sexist. I don't think anyone's like "bitches can't write," i think they just unconsciously use heuristics when they sift through the thousands of books out there. You know what i mean?

Kelly L said...

I think it is probably rather an unconscious thing (or at least I hope so)... it's just that a lot of women's books get classified as a romance if there is any sort of relationship in there (even if that's not really what it's about) and men's books, don't - even if there is a prominent love story woven in there. Because chick lit, etc. I don't know. I'm very wary of covers now, although, let's be real, I love me a good book cover (DESIGN!). If the story sounds good, I will look past it, but that IS the thing that usually catches my eye.

I don't know. It's all very interesting, at any rate.

Kelly L said...

Yeah, it is very interesting. I went and actually looked at the link you posted, and now i'm thinking about it a little differently. It would've been interesting to instead of the coverflip thing see very similar books by authors of opposite sexes side by side. Like, just existing book covers. Because i don't actually know what they're talking about—i've never seen a murder mystery with a bright glowy cover just because it was written by a woman, or a romance novel with a darkish geometrical cover because it was written by a man. Or maybe i just never noticed, i don't know. It would be interesting to see examples beyond this J. K. Rowling thing.

I do think i've seen examples of books being categorized differently because of who (or what?) the author is, though. The Night Circus is categorized as a romance novel sometimes, for example. Um, no...

Kelly L said...

See? That's kind of my point. I haven't read "The Night Circus" yet, but it mentions a potential romance in the blurb so BAM! It must be a romance. Whereas you have read it and clearly disagree with that. Would it have been classified differently if it had been "Aaron Morgenstern" instead of "Erin Morgenstern"? Who knows...

Also, my original post with the two covers (not sure which one you read since I'm pretty sure the original was cached in the readers) was apparently the US version and the UK version, for which I felt very silly when I found out, so I revised my post... not sure which one you ended up reading so maybe this paragraph doesn't make any sense at all. :)

Kelly L said...

Ah, i see. I think i did read the original one with the two covers in it. Whoopsies!