JD Salinger almost nailed it. He didn’t like art on the covers of his books. It took away from the tale by creating what might be a false sense of the story inside, by telling the reader (by default) what they should see in their heads when they crack the spine. Even his name confused his gender, were he not already known.
But shouldn’t a book be about the story, not whether the author is male or female?
If the idea of male dominance still exists in today’s literary community, which is arguable, then let’s end the argument by taking Salinger’s idea a step further. Take away the cover art and the author’s name. Go with “by a writer” instead of our own names.
Every writer in the world would have to agree to do it, so it’s obviously doomed to fail. Writers, like children and politicians, fight endlessly. Writers want to be known, they want the accolades, and they aren’t putting their stories out there for the sake of the story, but for the sake of their ego and checkbook.
Boil it down and there’s cash at the root.
Writers write because they would go mad if they didn’t write, right? Their intellects would vaporize, leaving nothing but gray jelly behind, if they didn’t tell a story. Being a story-teller has nothing to do with sales. It has nothing to do with awards. If you want to write, then do it. Don’t write because you want to be famous. Don’t tell a story to make money. In today’s world, platforms exist for authors that make publishing as easy as clicking the word “upload.” If you want to be a writer, don’t worry about sales or fame, because it might never materialize. Write because you don’t like the idea of gray jelly. My latest book, “Mantula,” currently in the editing process, exists because my son and I had a blast making up a fictionalized story based on a photo I took of a dead tarantula. I didn’t write it in the hopes it would sell. I don’t even care if anyone other than my son and I read it. I wrote it because at that point in time it was a story I needed to tell. To me there’s no better reason to write.
I also read about the publishing industry for fun, which leads to an unending stream of frustration. I read magazines that focus on literature because it’s something I’m passionate about. For better or worse, many now focus on sexism in the writing world. Articles focus on male writers, hinting at the demise of the male dominated writing community, or bemoaning what the article’s author believes to be an unbalanced field favoring men.
If the “world of male dominated literature” is coming to end, I will still write. I didn’t start writing because I felt privileged. I like to tell stories. That’s why I started writing. I read VIDA: Women in Literary Arts counts and shake my head, both out of regret that we live in a world where balance is needed and out of a nebulous suspicion that I’m being hustled, fed an “underdog” story by an organization that doesn’t want to put itself out of business. It could be I can’t see past the privilege of male authors, but I’m beginning to doubt it. Sell me on a good argument, though, and you might turn this consumer into a believer. Only it hasn’t happened. I think I’ve looked beyond my privilege. And I still don’t see scales tipping toward men in the literary community. I see anthologies seeking only female authors. I see contests for female writers. I see articles written only by and only about women, and I read about the largely female workforce behind the scenes in the publishing world.
I grew up reading female authors thanks to my single mom, to this day I read literary magazines managed by a largely female crew (with articles that cover women in literature out of a perceived 1980s-era view of sexism), I read literature articles that largely focus on gender over literature (thanks Huffpost books for politicizing the “Books” section, not to mention alienating male readers by making us feel less liked than female readers). And I’ve taught my children to prefer stories over anything else (my son wanted to be Katniss for a while. So did I).
Screenshot from HuffPost Books.
Since when has literature been more about the author than the story? Since Hunter S. Thompson? Since the dawn of the Me Generation? With HuffPost Books, which I still land on, but rarely click further, I counted 14 separate posts about women writers (and specific women writers in particular). Four women authors were mentioned in the headlines by name on this particular day (March 31st, 2016) while the only male writer mentioned by name was Shakespeare. I don’t care about these things as long as the articles feature something worth reading (I can only read so many JK Rowling pieces), but it did seem odd that a story on the male-dominance in literature was mixed among the female-dominated story line up.
Then there’s a recent Jezebel article on a male literary icon accused of inappropriate behavior with a whole host of women – like Bill Cosby with the Literati. It leads with the headline, “Is This the End of the Era of the Important, Inappropriate Literary Man?” But not all literary men are either or both. And if there is an end to such an era, another will begin (the era of the inappropriate literary woman for example). This article would have been better met had it remained laser focused on the individual. There will always be a larger problem. We are all human and humans are inappropriate. The news is important for so many reasons, but to herald the end of the inappropriate literary man is not one of them.
This shouldn’t even have to be typed out, but here it is. Not all male writers are sexist. Not all male writers believe their stories are any better than any other writer. A lot of us read books written by our favorite males, Kerouac, Coates, Steinbeck, King, Palahniuk, Rushdie – and we also read books written by our favorite females, Rice, Rowling, Angelou, Nin, Christie, etc., And, just like female writers, males have important stories tell, even a few that have nothing to do with their gender.
While readers may wonder if female authors really do get reviewed less, if they do win less awards, and if they do feature more male characters, perhaps they should also wonder what drives books to do well, and in turn which makes some authors write a certain way. The answer is easy: sales. It takes people buying copies, it takes the right people talking about them at the right time to buzz it along, but mostly it’s about the money. Maybe education needs to come into play here. Teach us readers that what we like to read is wrong. Like any cantankerous child, we won’t do what you tell us to do. We may even do the opposite. Reading is about the story, and great reading happens when readers really dig a story. Again, we’re human.
Telling mass market readers we need to rewire ourselves to be less ignorantly sexist, to appreciate less masculine story-telling, however it’s presented, will be the death knell of popular literature. The publishing world, in this respect, follows sales, and shouldn’t be in charge of telling readers what they should and shouldn’t read.
If you’re a male and you feel the literary world frowns on you, write about it. If you’re a male and you don’t care what the literary world thinks or if you ever get a book deal, keep writing anyway. If you’re a female and you think the literary world isn’t your friend, write a damn good book about it. If you’re a female and you think now is the time to be noticed, keep writing until you get a book deal.
And if you’re male, female, trans, or anything really; write a compelling book with a wicked plot and I’ll buy it. I don’t care who you are. But I may want a signed copy of your work.