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literature & technology: the gender games

By now, we all know the story of JK Rowling, who, at the request of her publisher, published the Harry Potter books using her initials, instead of her full first name. Her publisher believed the book would appeal to boys, and thought boys wouldn’t want to read the book if they saw a woman’s name on the cover. I admit, when I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for the first time, I thought a man had written it. Then, on the inside cover of the fourth book, I noticed the publisher had printed a couple of fan letters Rowling had received- and they began ‘Dear Joanne’. Immediately, my opinion of the novel changed – I loved it even more. My ten-year old self was already aspiring to be a writer, and it was inspiring to discover a woman had written Harry Potter.

Recently, writer Kasey Edwards was told by her (female) literary agent that she’d be more likely get published, reach a broader audience and receive more publicity if she used a male pen name.  When Edwards refused to do this, her agent told her that, well, at least she’s pretty, as that would help with the media.

Are those the two choices left for women writers? Write under an ambiguous or male pen name, or make sure you’re pretty enough to have a stunning author photo on the jacket of your book? If you want good sales, that is. I find that hard to accept, and yet I can see how this sort of mentality is created. It has always been acceptable, and even admirable, for girls and women, to a certain point, to act like “one of the boys”. But if boys and men wish to act like “one of the girls”, they are ridiculed. This trickles down to what they are reading, and, from a very young age, children are steered towards books for girls and books for boys. Publishers generally market books for this young age group very specifically towards one gender or the other. If a girl wishes to read a book that is considered to be for boys, no problem. But it becomes a problem if a boy wants to read from the more girly books, as they will get teased for it. I understand that publishers do this in order to help parents choose books for their children, and also to encourage children who have just learned to read for pleasure. And let’s face it, at that age, children do seem to divide into groups of boys and girls. But I honestly believe this has a big impact on what these children will choose to read for the rest of their lives.

This seems especially old-fashioned in these days of technology, where a quick Google search will reveal a writer’s true identity anyway. This will also reveal what the author looks like. Thank goodness we still live in an age where the only legitimate way of judging whether or not the author’s writing is any good is to pick up the author’s novel, sit down, and read it.

So, is it really as the literary agent told her client? If her client’s book had landed on an editor’s desk at a publishing house, with her name blatantly giving away her gender, would the editor find an excuse not to publish it? Personally, I highly doubt it. A good book is a good book, and if the editor believes it is a good fit with the publishing house, they will publish it. That’s not to say the publisher won’t suggest a male/ambiguous pen name before publication (as in Rowling’s case), for the reasons the literary agent suggested to her client, but to simply refuse a book for seeing a woman’s name on the front – I’m sorry, but what century do we live in?

If there are men who can write chick lit and proudly have their name on the front of the book, when is the industry going to get over its preoccupation with gender and accept that a good book is a good book, despite the name on the cover? We, as readers, are the ones who need to show them the way, and joining the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge  is a good start. If you’re someone who subconsciously (or consciously) steers clear of women writers, why not commit to reading at least 4 books by Australian women writers this year? I can assure you you’ll be in for some good reads.

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