I find I’m always interested in feminist perspectives, whether it’s in regards to literature, pop culture, or current events. Feminist Fridays is going to be my forum for discussing these issues, and may come in the form of book (or other media) reviews, link roundups, or
my rambling thoughts essays. If you’d like to make a habit of discussing feminist issues on Fridays, join in and leave me a link. If you’d like to contribute a guest post for Feminist Fridays, I’d be happy to chat with you about that was well, so contact me!
Earlier this week, some people started noticing that the female authors on the “American Novelists” Wikipedia page were all being moved to a sub-page “American Women Novelists” because there were simply too many listings on the main page. I saw chatter on social media about it and then a link to this op-ed in The New York Times.
I agree with the outrage. Women shouldn’t be relegated a sub-category and when you Google “American novelists” the results shouldn’t be exclusively male. As I’m typing this at just after midnight CST on April 26, 2013, there’s one of those pink notes at the top of the page that alerts viewers that the page is considered being merged with “American novelists” inviting me to contribute to the discussion.
But because the categorization of information is a big part of my job, I can sympathize with those editors who want to make classifications as specific as possible while still being appropriately broad.
The title of the op-ed piece is “Wikipedia’s Sexism towards Female Novelists.” But Wikipedia is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Wikipedia’s sexism is our sexism.It’s user generated. In theory, it’s democratic, which is why that pink box popped up so quickly in response to these changes.
Last summer, when I was being asked by every patron that walked into the teen zone at the library for a book “like The Hunger Games” I got so frustrated with having nothing to hand a kid because all the popular titles were checked out, so I made a flowchart. It was intended to be just a tool we used at the library, but we also posted it on our website and it got quite a bit of attention and re-posted in other outlets. Because I’d started with the three most popular read-alikes in our library, the first question was “what kind of narrator do you want?” and led to a book narrated by a guy, a book narrated by a girl, and Legend, which has dual narration alternating between a male and female character. From there I grouped books by other topics that might interest fans of The Hunger Games. Though most people reactive positively, a few places, there were some comments that really came down on me hard, as a person, for this way of categorizing the books (and I’ve since changed it in subsequent versions when I added new releases).
Now, I’m not a person who thinks there are “boy” books and “girl” books, and I don’t usually start a conversation about books with the discussion of gender. It is a routine request, however, and something that patrons often bring up themselves. Boys aren’t shy about insisting right off the bat that they want a guy main character (at least in my experience). Publishers make it pretty easy for them to tell most of the time if it’s got a girl as the main character, because they put a girl in a prom dress on the cover, so often even if I do offer a book that might be of interest to them otherwise, they often reject it based on the cover art.
This isn’t a new problem or a new conversation, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking with regards to reader’s advisory.
Today a post popped up in my blog reader (I’m trying out Bloglovin after being disappointed with Feedly’s web system, and still mourning the inevitable end of Google Reader, for those interested) from Heidi at Bunbury in the Stacks (whose taste I very much respect) who was over at Fantasy Books Cafe talking about her favorite women sci-fi/fantasy writers for Women in Sci-fi/Fantasy Month. I’ve picked up lots of great books, SFF and otherwise, based on Heidi’s recommendations, so I immediately opened Goodreads in a new tab, ready to add to my growing TBR pile.
Like Heidi, the first SFF I read was written by male authors. The guys in my life who dug SFF didn’t exactly seek out male writers on principle, but that happened to be what they read and liked. A lot of it didn’t resonate with me, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid twenties and started reading book blogs by women who mostly read women authors that I decided to give SFF another try.
It’s hard for me to explain why I seek out women writers or why I feel more of a connection to the stories they write. The same was true when I picked out my English elective in college—I took major women writers and loved the discussions with my mostly female classmates led by my female professors.
Now, and then, I’m more inclined to read a book written by a woman than a man.
I’m still thinking a lot about “New Adult” literature (which I posted about here and here), so this post I saw on Tumblr about “new adult books yet to be classified as such” caught my eye. A lot of the coverage of New Adult has framed it as contemporary romance with 20-somethings protagonists, a rebranding of chick lit, or YA with more sex. This list of books with male protagonists by male authors contains titles that fit some of the other criteria or exhibit some of the distinguishing marks of the new category, but aren’t really talked about it those terms.
Most of us approach reading or think of books in gendered terms, whether we acknowledge it or not. It can render women invisible, like when we relegate women authors to the sub-page, or it can spotlight their achievements and make them more visible, as I’m sure the Women in Sci-fi/fantasy series of blog posts was intended to do. It can help us find the books we most want to read, or it can keep us from discovering titles that would otherwise thrill us.
Do you seek out authors on the basis of gender? Do you gravitate to male or female characters, whether consciously or unconsciously? Do you think it is helpful or counterproductive to note the gender of authors or characters when recommending books to others?
11 thoughts on “Feminist Fridays: Authors and ‘Women’ Authors, Books and ‘Girl’ Books, Gender and Readers’ Advisory”
Very thoughtful post. I for sure read more books by women. These days I think that’s the case because I tend to pick up the books written by Twitter friends and most of those “friends” are WOMEN! But I think I gravitated towards female writers and protagonists before, too. Hmmm. . .
Interesting post, Molly. I tend to take an “absolutist” approach to gender/sex distinctions, meaning that there are no justifiable classifications based on sex, except to the extent the distinction is necessary to remedy past or present discrimination/bias (in other contexts in the law, some also make an exception for unique physical differences, such as reproductive capacity). As Anna has pointed out, giving female novelists their own category might meet this remedial goal, or it could stigmatize these female authors. It could go either way.
Regardless of how these books are categorized, though, most readers can assess gender (or at least they think they can) based on the author’s name. So, even if female writers aren’t relegated to a separate list, my guess is that readers are still likely to overlook their books at the bookstore or library shelf. There’s a reason so many female authors use initials.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment!
I do find it interesting about how we interpret gender from a name (I prefer gender-neutral names for this reason) and I think it especially interest that women writers still use initials in certain genres or are encouraged to do so.
I have a gender-neutral name (which tends to be masculine in the western world and feminine everywhere else), and I’m always amused by how embarrassed people get when they presume I’m a man before meeting me. I can’t tell you how many of my name tags start with “Mr.”! I would like being called “Mr.” if discrimination against Arabic men weren’t so rampant.
By the way, in my previous comment, instead of saying “such as,” I should have said that the exceptions to “absolutist” views of gender distinctions include reproductive capacity as the ONLY unique physical difference between men and women (with average differences, obviously, not being “unique”). There are people out there trying to add to this category (under state ERAs), much to my dismay.
I really love your Feminist Friday posts.
RE: Wikipedia — I had a very visceral, very negative reaction when I read the NY Times OpEd, which of course translated to my linking to it on Tumblr immediately. However, I’m reconsidering the speed with which I decided that the sub-categorization is problematic after reading s.e. smiths’s post for xoJane:
Thanks, Anna! I consistently found that I often wanted to write about some issue only tangentially related to YA fiction/libraries which is mostly what I post about here, and so I thought making it a regular thing would be fun, and it would also give me an excuse to review some books about feminism when I didn’t have a news event inspire a post.
Thanks for linking to that S. E. Smith post! I do think the specific categories are useful, as long as they are prominently featured on a “main” page. It was an ironic juxtaposition for me, read that NYT op-ed be all like “oh, look at the sexism” and then go to Heidi’s Women in SFF post and be like “lay, a list of women writers in a genre!” It was though incongruous reactions back-to-back that inspired this post.
What a fabulous theme! I tend to gravitate toward female authors subconsciously. It’s not like I set out thinking “I’m only going to read books written by women,” but by and large that’s what I end up with. Maybe it’s a tone thing or just subject matter… I was a women’s studies minor and read a lot of female authors in college, so when I see an author I have already liked, I tend to pick up another of their offerings. In any case, I’m with you on the “girl in prom dress” cover art. It’s not like the girls in those books walk around in ball gowns all the time anyway, and by turning away male readers, the guys are missing out on some great perspective.
It’s funny, what tendencies are conscious and which aren’t.
Sometimes those ball gown books don’t even have actual balls or mention of gowns in the book. It’s ridiculous.
This is such an excellent and interesting post. I think it’s really difficult to consistently assess our motives from a feminist lens in our every-day lives — particularly when it comes to work! I personally believe in a gender-based view of feminism. What I mean by that is that I am interested in gender as a whole, and gender studies (not just women’s studies!). Yet, I notice that I almost always am more inclined to read something by women or look at works of art created by women (or trans folk!) than by men. This is definitely food for thought.
I completely agree that it’s difficult to assess movies in every day lives, both consistently and objectively. It’s interesting that you mention art — I’ve never really thought about if the gender of visual artists (maybe film, but also because that’s narrative?) influence my opinion of their work or my opinion of it (unless it’s a particularly gendered piece? maybe they all are? See, I’m thinking…).
I suppose I am caught up in a phase of seeing a gendered version of everything right now! However, gender is definitely an accepted growing subject of interest in the contemporary art world (and I think -hope- almost everywhere else as well). So, I am noticing more and more that, whether it’s intentional or not, gender does seem to be sneaking its constructed little head into a lot of work. Ok, either that or I just insist on seeing it everywhere I look.