I ignored the dust-up in the book community between Franzen and Picoult. At least, I tried to ignore it. I knew what was being said, and honestly, I’m tired of bookish drama. However, I found myself reading an article by Lionel Shriver that actually prevented me from sleeping the other night.
Shriver’s article was all about the idea that female authors do not generate the literary accolades as their male counterparts. She even took it one step further and said publishing companies are complicit in this favoring of male over female authors by forcing female authors to beautify their covers, making them appeal to female readers by removing anything that women may find offensive. Her examples imply that publishing companies try to present all novels written by women to appear romantic in some fashion, one step short of being a bodice ripper whether the subject matter of the novel fits the cover or not.
I cannot agree with the fracas that female authors are treated differently than male authors. As for publishers being complicit in bringing female authors down, publishing companies are trying to sell books. From their eyes, if romance is one of the top-selling genres out there, then I can understand why they try to create covers that mimic other proven covers. So what kept me awake the other night?
It’s this – who cares? I suspect that the assumption that men win more awards is true only in proportion to the number of male versus female authors out there. If there are more men releasing books, then they are going to win more awards. It’s simple statistics. As for the cover debate, as I was laying in bed, I thought of several female authors who had covers that were in no way pretty or romantic or girlie. Kathy Reichs. Patricia Cornwall. Margaret Atwood. Stephenie Meyer. J.K. Rowling. Tana French. Suzanne Collins. Even Nora Roberts, queen of the romantic suspense genre, does not show a woman gazing forlornly into the distance or portray a heaving bosom on her covers.
Even more, look at that list that I generated in a thirty-second brainstorming session. These are all women who have generated more publicity than Franzen ever will. Stephenie Meyer alone, love or hate her books, regularly makes the list of top celebs each year solely by releasing six novels. Do I even have to mention J.K. Rowling’s success?
Let’s face it, award-winning books can be something of a catch-22. I’ve seen enough debates on the long and short lists of the Booker Prize and other awards to know that people will always disagree with the award winner itself. Also, just because a novel wins an award does not mean that it is going to become a commercial success. I honestly never knew which books were award-winners until I started blogging because I never paid attention to that designation. Ultimately, what is truly important in this discussion?
I do have certain, very strong, feelings about the originating complainers and their reasons for making such statements. Let’s just say that I feel that “poor sportsmanship” is a huge factor in this argument. I also feel that such discussions do nothing to help any real gender discrepancies that may indeed exist, and it certainly does nothing to help women’s cause for equality – no matter what the topic.
What does everyone else think? Did anyone else immediately generate a list of female authors whose book covers are not “girlie” and whose popularity surpasses that of most male authors? Is anyone else tired of the endless debates about who is better or the unfairness of everything?
I think reader-generated enthusiasm makes itself known at the cash registers. I imagine that Suzanne Collins sold more Mockingjay copies than Franzen did Freedom copies the first week! This is what bothers me about the whole disagreement. Yes, literary accolades are nice but what really counts is the reader response. Franzen and Picoult can disagree all they want, but at the end of the day, who generates more revenue is really where the argument ends.
I do get what you are saying about the norm in society. We are more willing to read about men in novels (and watch them on TV) because they have always taken precedent. I suspect that you are correct, somewhat. However, I don't think this is intentional because TV marketers and publishers know that a key demographic for both segments is women and has always been women.
It makes perfect sense! You are deliberately trying to read outside your comfort zone by selecting novels that challenge your prejudices and preset biases. Most people do not do this either because they don't recognize their prejudices or else because to do so is too uncomfortable. You would think, however, that judges would recognize this in themselves. Or maybe not.
I would think partially that the judges are too often only a certain group / gender, and also that they don't recognize their internal bias and consider it? Possible anyway! I know I love international fiction, but often times it does grate me or really make me think about my opinions and prejudices more. If I didn't do it often I might just write the books off as too different. Reading a lot, though, I have come to really appreciate that, and the stories that they tell. I wonder if without that recognition of my internal biases I would write off more? If that makes any sense!! 🙂
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Chris – I agree that there are bigger issues, and I was really trying hard to ignore this one. Someone sent me a link to Shriver's article, and I – like a dummy – read it. I was all set to read it and forget it, but there were some sentences that just nagged me until I felt I had to get it out. The celeb memoirs are a joke – Justin Bieber anyone? – and only add fuel to the whole fascination with vapid celebrities that really aren't celebrities.
I do know what you mean, and while I can agree with Shriver's point regarding covers in theory, her approach and tone in the article turns me off of her rant.
I wonder if male authors are less inclined to use female characters because they know that a majority of the readers out there are female and therefore there is added pressure to get a female character's "voice" correct. Or that men are more willing to write what you know, and if they don't understand or know women, they won't write about them whereas women are more inclined to take a chance and write whatever is necessary for the story.
I agree with you that the sexy, posing women tend to make me shy away from those books as well. I mentioned that on a review for Wildthorn – it looked too much like a romance novel until I saw reviews stating it was about a woman wrongly incarcerated in a mental institution. The cover gives absolutely no hint that this is the subject matter!
Amy, I think what you say is most logical. White males are going to be inclined to read about more white males, just as women tend to gravitate towards female protagonists. So, the issue lies in the judges themselves? Interesting theory.
It's interesting that Shriver seems to agree that most books geared to women ARE stupid, considering how they are described. It's only if a woman consents to write "male" books should they be respected. Her books are too good for those girly covers. Yknow what I mean?
Oh my. Yeah, that article doesn't really sound like it advances any real issues or ideas. I find it hard NOT to believe that there are biases in the judging as it is always weighted heavily to white males, but I don't think that covers or publishing is the issue. I think that unless we make an effort we will very often just read what relates to us (i.e. our situations, authors or characters that are like us) and relate to it more than a book that goes against our built in prejudices. So if it is mostly white men judging these prizes, I wouldn't be surprised to see mostly white male authors. I don't know if that is logical, but yeah.
That being said, I never used to pay attention to prizes. In fact, I still don't. The only prize I ever check up on is the Commonwealth Writers Prizes because it is a lot of international fiction 🙂
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