Having a summer with a 9-5 job, weekends not spent briefing cases and, in general, significantly less reading than I’ve become accustomed to, I’ve picked up fiction reading again.
My general method of choosing a fiction book goes something like this: go to the library or bookstore, look for a title and a cover that interest me, and if the inside flap/back cover aren’t too offensive, give it a try. Sometimes it works wonders, sometimes I end up struggling through the first 15 pages of a terrible book I’ve stopped reading a hundred times over. But what I noticed the last time I went to the library was that every single author I ended up putting in my bag was male.
It wasn’t as if I’d tried to make it that way, and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t looked at books by female authors. But my method, which is far more common than I thought it was, tends to inevitably bias me against female authors. The title part is just fine – unless the title is 350 Pages of Manhattan Socialites Shopping for Things to Fix the Other Problems in Their Lives, I’ll take a look at it – but the covers inevitably communicate that the books are no-fly zones for anything even approaching novelty or insight.
I’ve probably missed out on dozens of good (or at least palatable) books because of this, but it’s a hard thing to overcome. When Male Author writes a young woman’s coming-of-age tale in pastoral Kansas in 1953, the cover image is a soft-focus nature scene with a woman artfully posed on top of a small hill. When Female Author writes the same book, there’s a picture of a high-heel shoe with a clump of grass stuck to the sole. A harrowing tale of escape from Soviet Russia by Female Author has an art deco tube of lipstick with a hammer and sickle on it; a political thriller is adorned with a swirly martini glass with a pink donkey and purple elephant inside and sparkles shooting out, because nothing says “read me” like putting Lucky Charms in a drink glass.
It’s not that there is no place for these books, or that they automatically become unreadable. It’s that when female-authored books are increasingly, upfrontly ghettoized with clear visual signals, it becomes difficult to differentiate between them without doing far more work than you would for a male author. When a publisher is telling me that half of the human race can only write books whose themes are evoked by:
1.) A glass of alcohol;
2.) A piece of jewelry;
3.) A shoe;
5.) Laying on a beach chair with a big hat sipping an alcoholic beverage with fancy shoes and makeup on;
Then what they’re telling me is that if I’ve read one of these books, I’ve read them all.
I’m currently working on Life After Genius by M. Ann Jacoby, which isn’t anything spectacular, but is at least a competent example of the troubled-genius genre. And doesn’t have a swirly, glittery compact on the cover, for Christ’s sake.