The British newspaper The Independent announced yesterday that it would no longer be reviewing any book that was specifically marketed at one gender. While their announcement certainly did its job – garnering a wave of free publicity for the newspaper and allowing them to slap their own backs quite forcefully – it’s not helping the young men and women they claim to be looking out for or the authors whose books will be measured by these new standards.
Most authors have little to no say in how the books they write are marketed. Those decisions are made by highers-up at publishing companies, with the actual writer just hoping that their book will manage to somehow stand out from the pack of new releases. Choosing to boycott a book based on to whom it’s being marketed is kind of like boycotting a band based on who goes to their concerts – there is not much that the actual creator of the work can do.
I spent the entire year 2013 reading only books – from different time periods, countries, and genres – written by women. At the end of the year, I documented the project for the website Flavorwire and realized that spending a year spent reading solely female narratives caused me to look differently at the world and its inequalities.
The comments on that post were pretty predictable. Several people wrote that they “don’t limit themselves” and that they “only read good books.” The implication that good books must necessarily include books written by men only highlighted the subtle sexism that exists in the publishing and reading worlds. And that’s what the Independent is doing – oversimplifying the problem. It’s easy to swan around saying “Oh, I only read things that are good”; it’s harder to examine what makes something “good” and how we judge the media that’s presented to us. Using marketing as an excuse not to read a book is like refusing to watch any television because one time one pundit said something you disagree with. It’s grandstanding.
The organization VIDA, which tracks the presence of women (both reviewed and reviewers) in major publications, shows how these attitudes can affect which authors get press attention and which don’t. Although The Independent wasn’t one of the newspapers VIDA analyzed, there is some data from comparable publications. The London Review of Books reviewed just 72 titles by women in 2013, compared to 245 by men. That’s a lousy 29 percent of books by female authors.
Many of the genres that market the most heavily toward women and girls are genres traditionally marginalized by book reviewers, including young adult and romance. Female authors who write fiction are often more likely to find their books shunted into the ambiguous “women’s fiction” category, ignored by the mainstream and more legitimized capital-F Fiction.
Because book-reviewing publications want to appear “respectable,” they opt for books in the capital-F fiction section. Take, for example, the case of The Hunger Games. The three-book series was written by a woman (Suzanne Collins), featured a female protagonist (Katniss Everdeen), and was first marketed at the girls and young women who faithfully spend their more of their money on books than young men and boys do. Once enough young women and girls bought the books, they flew up the best-seller lists and mainstream publications were forced to take notice, especially after the Jennifer Lawrence-starring films made bank at the box office. But under the Independent’s logic, The Hunger Games isn’t worth writing about, because it was originally marketed toward girls. When a book is marketed to ‘everybody,’ that means it’s marketed to men.
Here’s a better idea for The Independent: focus on reviewing books written by women. Focus on having women write book reviews. Focus on authors, not on the people who market authors. Newspapers like the Independent are part of the machine that helps determine what “a good book” is, and they owe it to their readers to write reviews — positive or negative — rather than simply ignoring some titles completely.
Lilit Marcus is the author of Save The Assistants: A Guide To Surviving And Thriving In The Workplace. Follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.
[Woman with books via Shutterstock]