My Other Car Is A Shelf

I read a lot. I'm in the business of savoring Damn Fine Sentences.
I like tea, and puns, and sweaters.

You can read her original article here. It’s very good. It all started with a challenge asking people to create “gender-swapped” book covers—how the book cover might have turned out if the author had been of the opposite gender. It calls into question “girly” book-covers with curly-cue fonts, lots of pink, or a picture of a stereotypically pretty girl (quite probably with her eyes cropped out of the picture for some inexplicable reason.) Especially in YA lit, books by female authors are assigned girly covers, which makes it somewhat less likely that boy readers will pick up the books and decide to read them.  There is also an inherent “trashiness” to books with girly covers, which is, you know, troubling. The whole #coverflip tag is an interesting thing to peruse. I think my favorite submissions were girly On The Road by Jane Kerouac and a cover of To Kill A Mockingbird featuring literally a dead mockingbird in a pool of its own blood. Manly.

But the whole thing has got me thinking hard about what makes some books get written off as girly, if there is such a thing as books that are “boy-y,” and how a book’s cover (something selected by the publisher, which the author has very little say in) affects prospective readers’ perceptions of books. Thinking so hard, in fact, that I got out my post-its and made this:

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(I’m in my room, it’s a typical Tuesday night…) Yes. Holy crap, I am a nerd.

Anyway, at first it got me thinking about gender-neutral book covers. Let’s ignore books by men with male protagonists for the time being, since we’re talking about feminism here. So what we’re looking at is books (mainly young adult books) that are either written by women or have female protagonists (or both), but that have, I think, successfully managed to avoid being dismissed as mere “girly books.” I.e. both boys and girls are reading these books. I would posit that this has a lot to do with their covers, so let’s take a look at them.

Books written by men with female protagonists:

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Books written by women with male protagonists:

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So far the message I’m getting is that in order for books to be read by readers of both genders, the authors need to write about the gender they are not. I’m not really sure what that means, but I do think it’s interesting.

More interesting, however, at least in terms of good old feminism, are:

Books by women with female protagonists:

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I wanted to display all the covers from The Hunger Games series because I think they are great examples of book covers that aren’t off-putting to either gender. Another genre which gets some pretty good gender-neutral covers in this category is mystery. I don’t know which covers to choose because I don’t really read mysteries, but from working in a bookstore I know that lots of female mystery authors have completely reasonable, non-girly book covers and are read by both genders. Nevada Barr, Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Martha Grimes, P.D. James, J.A. Jance, Sara Paretsky, Ruth Rendell, Kate Wilhem, Jacqueline Winspear, etc., etc.

And yet, when I was talking to my boyfriend about all of this last night, he asked me, “Are there even any female mystery authors?” 

Yes, Ryan. Yes there are.

So what makes a book girly?

  • female protagonist
  • female author
  • girls or women as target audience
  • ROMANCE—is romance inherently girly though? That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. I mean, presumably men fall in love too, right? And enjoy sex? So theoretically men would be interested in reading about romance in at least some of its many forms, right? But if there’s more than a little bit of romance in a book, it’s dismissed as “girly” and not a book for men
  • interpersonal DRAMA
  • not being set in space or at a crime scene
  • girly cover

Books marketed as girly (with a girly cover design) often get discarded by those who haven’t read them as chick lit. Beach reads. Fluff. Or, maybe in the worst case, smut.

Is there such a thing as a boy-y book?

If so it would probably include the following:

  • male protagonist
  • male author
  • male target audience
  • WAR, VIOLENCE, action
  • being set in SPACE or at a CRIME SCENE
  • no girly cover (although “boy-y” covers, if they exist, do not off-put girls in the same way that girly covers off-put boys.)
  • I dunno, maybe, like, Tom Clancy or something?
  • Riordan? Wimpy Kid? Both girls and boys are reading these. Again, girls read books that are for or about boys, but boys are much less likely to read books for or about girls. Girls are not shamed if they read boy books, but boys are shamed if they read girl books. That’s another important distinction.

Are there inherent differences in what boys and girls like to read? Is that okay?

I’m not sure. Maybe that one’s for you to answer. Do you have any thoughts about any of this? I think it’s all really interesting to think about.

1 year ago
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    I really appreciate that Maureen Johnson’s simple tweet turned into a bit of a phenomenon and it’s now forcing people to...
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    One thing that annoys me about this whole “boy books” “girl books” thing is that double standard. It’s totally okay if a...
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    J.K. Rowling, P.D. James, J.A. Jance? I had no idea the latter two were women for a long time. (But then, I also thought...
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