Archive | June, 2013

Giving the gift of worlds

16 Jun

After my last blog post, I got talking with my mother about the gendering of books and the pressures on boys to avoid “girl things”. See, I have a little brother. Well, actually I have multiple little brothers, so we’ll call this one Brother 3. Brother 3’s in his first year of secondary school at the moment – 11 years old. He used to proudly read books branded as girly, because he enjoyed them. He proudly did all sorts of stereotypically-feminine things, like being the only boy in his school’s dance club, and I was glad to see him choosing his interests on the basis of what made him happy, rather than on the basis of what society told him boys should be interested in.

He doesn’t read so much any more. Some of this may be down to having other distractions (computers, game consoles, a phone), but some of it may be down to the fact that as he gets older, he’s feeling more pressure to conform to expectations of what boys “should” be like. Mum claims that he’s now “worried that he’ll be laughed at for reading certain books”, something which wouldn’t have bothered him a few years ago. Essentially this is yet another example of how gendered books are bad for everyone: they pigeonhole girls while shutting boys out.

So, what would happen if other people couldn’t see the covers? Obviously this wouldn’t fix all the problems with the gendered-books phenomenon: part of the issue is that people really are unwilling to buy books that are marketed as Not For Them. But I suspect another part is simply unwillingness to be seen with a book marked as not for your group: there can be pretty serious social consequences to non-conformity, and a decent read isn’t necessarily worth these consequences.

This, I think, is one of the great things about the rise of ebooks in recent years. Using an e-reader removes others’ ability to see and judge what you’re reading. It might give you the freedom to read something that you’d otherwise avoid out of social unacceptability. Of course, this doesn’t just apply if you’re a boy who wants to read female-authored books: it also improves freedom of reading for LGBT folk who aren’t yet out of the closet, or kids in certain religious environments who want to learn about evolution, or those in anti-religious environments who want to learn about religion, or anyone who’s ever been made to feel ashamed for their interests or identity.

And freedom of reading doesn’t just give you a better choice of entertainment media. It opens up worlds. Non-fiction opens up the world we live in, teaching us more about our surroundings. Fiction opens countless others. It lets you climb inside the head of somebody else and see the universe through their eyes for a while. If the character in question resembles you, it can make you feel less isolated. If they don’t, you gain understanding and empathy for people whose experiences of life are entirely different from your own.

I want my brother to have access to those worlds; as many of them as he possibly can. So, for his 12th birthday, I’m buying him a Kindle. I’m removing one of the social barriers to experiencing those worlds by making it harder for others to judge his books – and, ultimately, him – by their covers. But that’s not all I’m going to do. Before I give him the Kindle, I’m going to load it up with as many books as my present-buying budget will stretch to. I’m going to give the worlds to him.

Credit where credit is due: this idea is not my own. It comes from the brilliant Ana Mardoll, whose stealth-support approach to her niece’s coming out was to give said niece ebooks with incidental gay characters for Christmas. However, my reasons are slightly different from Ana’s. For one thing, Brother 3 hasn’t come out. Balance of probability says that he’s straight. He’s also male and white. It is not exactly hard to find fictional characters who share these attributes; they make up the vast majority of protagonists. So he doesn’t really need me to give him worlds that resemble his own: he’s got access to plenty of those already.

But you see the bit a couple of paragraphs up about characters that don’t resemble you, and how they can teach empathy? I think that’s a very important function of fiction. It’s part of the reason why boys should be reading books with female protagonists; why white people should be reading with protagonists of colour; why able-bodied people should be reading books with disabled protagonists; and so on. We should all be reading protagonists who differ from us in some of the many ways society treats as significant, but this particularly applies to people like Brother 3. He’s a straight white guy (to the best of my knowledge): the lowest difficulty setting there is. He’s also able-bodied, intelligent, and comes from a well-off family who love and support him. In other words, he’s hugely privileged in his life circumstances. And when life is set up to be that easy for you, a lot of the time, you don’t even notice.* Which can lead to you being kind of an ass – or something much worse – towards people whose lives aren’t set up so favourably, because you simply don’t understand the ways in which the world is different for them.

An excellent way to combat this phenomenon is to enter the worlds of the less privileged: read their stories and listen to their voices. But so many of the stories out there don’t let you do that. They focus on the straight white guys, endlessly propagating the myth that this uniquely privileged position is somehow the “normal” way to be, or at least the way that all heroes are. When was the last time you read a book with a non-white protagonist? A non-straight protagonist? Or, when did you last find such a protagonist in a story focused around something other than their skin colour/sexuality? Because so often, if a book does have a “minority” protagonist, it’s an Issue Book that’s almost entirely about the character’s minority status. And while having some Issue Books is a good thing, because the issues represented therein are real and affect real people, it’s massively problematic when these books become the only representation of minorities. When you find minority characters only in Issue Books, it makes it look as though simply being a hero isn’t available to Those People. Read enough books where all the complex, interesting people are straight white guys and you might just start to believe that real life works the same way.

So that’s what I want to counteract with my brother. I want to give him stories where the protagonists are dissimilar to him in some way. I want him to come to love and respect those protagonists. I know that he’s already started to do this: for example, he recently read and enjoyed the Hunger Games (which is, incidentally, an excellent example of a non-Issue Book with a minority protagonist: Katniss Everdeen is a great female character, but the story isn’t about her gender, it’s about a hero who just happens to be a woman). But I also know that one series isn’t enough, particularly in a world that’s so diverse. Yet it can be hard to find decent fiction with protagonists who don’t fit the standard privileged mould. And it does need to be decent, engaging fiction, or the whole point of the exercise fails: the reader gives up, possibly taking away the assumption that minority protagonists don’t have interesting stories.

So I’m going to end this post with a plea for recommendations. I’m looking for books that (a) have minority protagonists**, and (b) will appeal to a soon-to-be 12 year old boy who enjoys large helpings of action and/or comedy in his fiction. Whose worlds should I show him first?


* And yes, I am aware that this applies to me as well as to Brother 3.

** For the purposes of this statement, I’m counting “female” as a minority despite the fact that we make up roughly 50% of the world’s population. We’re still a numerical minority from a protagonist standpoint, and in the real world, sexism means that we’re often (mis)treated in ways similar to those experienced by numerical minorities.


In which I meet Maureen Johnson and talk about book gendering

9 Jun

My Wednesday evening consisted of an impromptu trip to the Cheltenham Science Festival, after YA Author and Tweeter Extraordinaire Maureen Johnson announced that she was giving away a spare panel ticket. The panel was on the question “Do you judge a book by its cover?”, thus neatly combining two things I adore: science and books!

For Maureen-followers, an obligatory description of Maureen Johnson being just as strange in real life as she is on the internet must follow. I met her in the queue for the event, and she instantly started grilling me on whether I wanted a drink or some cake, insisting that I looked “in need of cake” and as though I “might be about to die”. I reassured her that I was fine and not, to my knowledge, dying, so she went off to get a drink for herself while I tweeted about the bizarre experience, because obviously Twitter is the only sensible response to Maureen. Once she got back, I turned the weirdness tables on her by claiming that I’d have to kill her if I told her about my job, and warning her to watch out for poison in her newly-acquired drink. She unfazedly assured me that she was “very difficult to kill”, then we were herded into the panel and entered Serious Mode.

The panellists were pretty interesting: the creative director of a major publishing house, the CEO of Waterstone’s*, and a neuroscientist who studies decision making. I suspect Maureen was more interested in the publishing industry types, while I was there mainly for the science, but there was one point on which we were united. We wanted to hear them talk about how gender affects covers.

Maureen’s written before about the ways that books by women get pigeonholed, and I seriously suggest you give it a read. Her “coverflip” experiment, where people took popular books, switched the author’s gender, and redesigned the cover “appropriately”, is a good visual example of what she’s talking about. And she’s far from the only one raising such concerns: Jacqueline Wilson, for instance, has some excellent thoughts on the subject and why she doesn’t want her books to be covered in pink.**

Eventually, near the end of the panel, the moderator brought up Jacqueline Wilson’s comments, and asked the panel if they thought “gendering” of covers existed, and if so, how it affected our judgement of books. The neuroscientist, who had the microphone at the time, replied that she hadn’t done any research into that area and therefore couldn’t possibly say. Which is fine: I respect someone who admits when they can’t give an informed answer far more than I respect someone who ploughs ahead with a completely uninformed answer. But there were 2 publishing industry professionals on that panel who might’ve been able to answer the question, and somehow the moderator kind of… glossed over them. It was a rather disappointing resolution to the question we’d been anticipating for so long.

The panel concluded with us being shown 6 possible cover designs for a new book, and asked to vote on our favourite. The book in question was an Austen remix: described to us as Pride and Prejudice seen through the eyes of the servants. It was written by a woman – two women if we’re counting Jane Austen, although her name doesn’t appear on the cover. The cover that won the audience vote showed an old-fashioned handheld mirror, with the back of a woman’s head reflected in it. I thought it was an interesting design, capturing the book’s idea of familiar characters seen from a new angle. Then they revealed the cover the publishing house had actually chosen. And I should add a disclaimer at this point – the fact that the actual cover wasn’t the winner of the audience vote (although it did come a close second), and that it wasn’t to my taste, doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad cover. These people are professionals and presumably know more about what makes a good cover than I, or most of the panel audience, do. But it did strike me that the cover they’d chosen was by far the pinkest of the six options. Which brings us right back to the unanswered question about gendering.

So when, during the roving-microphone audience Q-and-A portion of the panel, Maureen turned to me and said, “you should get the microphone and get our question back”, it was obvious what she was talking about. It took me a while to agree, because I am generally awkward and ineloquent in public speaking situations, but on the other hand, I did really want them to answer that question. So eventually I held my hand up, I got hold of the microphone… and then the moderator announced that we’d had enough questions and that the panel was over.

Were we going to let it stop there? Of course not! We’d been told the panellists would be at the “Talking Point” afterwards, where we could catch up and ask further questions. So we followed (after a brief delay in which another audience member waylaid us and told Maureen off for using her phone throughout the panel – because, of course, Maureen was livetweeting. Protip: if something bothers you that much, maybe you shouldn’t wait until afterwards to let the other person know it’s bothering you). Eventually I got in front of the publishing house’s creative director, whereupon the following conversation ensued. Please note that this is all paraphrased from my probably-poor memory.

Me: “You mentioned, in the panel, the problem of book covers that don’t reflect a book’s content. Going back to the question about gender that was asked, how often do you think a book cover reflects the author’s gender more than the book’s content, and what impact do you think that has on sales?”

Her: “What do you mean, covers reflecting the author’s gender? Give me an example.”

I find the “what do you mean?” rather strange, since one of the examples she’d used earlier in the panel involved a case where they initially designed a book cover “to have wide appeal”, and when the book didn’t sell as well as they expected, redesigned it “to target the female audience”. Clearly gendered covers are something she already knows about. But okay, if she wanted an example, I had one ready to give her – straight out of the works of my companion for the evening.

Me: “Well, for instance, all the headless girl covers on young adult books by female authors.”

Her: “But that makes it easier for people to identify with the main character, because we’re not showing any distinctive physical features.”

Okay, two points to make here. First of all: a headless body is not devoid of distinctive physical features. Your headless girl is still visibly thin, white, and apparently able-bodied. These things are not default states of being! A thin, white, able-bodied woman does not somehow become a blank canvas with which any woman can identify just because you’ve cropped out her face. So no, you are showing “distinctive physical features”, and claiming that you’re not just reinforces all sorts of problematic assumptions about what’s “normal” versus what’s “distinctive” in a person’s body. However, those problematic assumptions were not what I came to talk about. Nor did I come to talk about why headless girls are used on covers. I came to talk about the fact that they’re used disproportionately on covers of books written by women. So the second point to make is this: a defence of headless girls on covers is an answer to a completely different question from the one I was asking. Time to get back on track.

Me: “But a more abstract cover wouldn’t show distinctive physical features either. Look at John Green’s covers, for example – like, his first book has a cover with an extinguished candle. Why is it books by women that get the headless girl treatment? It seems like those books are being labelled, by their covers, as being girly books that only girls can read.”

Other audience member: “But those books are targeted at women because men don’t buy them!”

Really? You’re telling me that most men would hesitate to buy books with pink, headless-girled, clearly-intended-to-be-feminine covers? Well yes, that is part of the problem. Culture tells men that they’re somehow lesser if they have any association with female-coded things: suddenly worthy of bullying, ridicule, and the questioning of their sexuality. So a feminine cover clearly sends a “this is not for men” signal. If you market something as only intended for women, and the resulting product is predominantly bought by women, that does not prove your marketing strategy was the right one. That’s like me choosing to advertise something entirely in Scottish cities, then claiming there’s no point extending the advertising campaign to England because our retail stats show that only Scots are interested in the product.

Besides which, “men don’t buy them” isn’t even true.

Me: “Actually, the first headless-girl book I ever bought was recommended to me by a male friend. He told me ‘it’s a good book; ignore the terrible cover’, so I did.”

Despite all the deterrents, all the signs and pieces of cultural conditioning that tell men, “this book is not for you”, there are still men out there who are buying and reading books by female authors. Just think how many more such men there might be if the covers and culture weren’t doing so much to push them away.



* My favourite chain of bookshops. I have a loyalty card.

** I do find it strange that Jacqueline Wilson tends to get such “light and fluffy” covers while dealing with such weighty issues. When I was in school, I loved her books. My favourite had a storyline revolving around children acting as carers for a mentally ill parent, and included some pretty dark stuff. This was its cover.