They’re Just Girl Books. Who Cares?

Sometimes I think the best course of action for me is to simply not read anything in the New York Times about books by women. I just wind up cranky.

Today’s piece by Janet Maslin on this summer’s books by women was astonishing. On the one hand there’s this:

The “Commencement” characters are savvy about, among other things, feminism and publishing. “When a woman writes a book that has anything to do with feelings or relationships, it’s either called chick lit or women’s fiction, right?” one of them asks. “But look at Updike, or Irving. Imagine if they’d been women. Just imagine. Someone would have slapped a pink cover onto ‘Rabbit at Rest,’ and poof, there goes the … Pulitzer.”

They’re right of course. But this is the season when prettily designed books flood the market and compete for female readers.

Too true. Women’s books are routinely lumped together even when they’re vastly different. They’re not deemed to be proper literature just because they’re written by women. And apparently this is especially true in summer which is a time “when literary and lightweight books aimed at women become hard to tell apart.”

So Maslin agrees that women’s writing is frequently compartmentalised and dismmissed. And yet she proceeds to do exactly that for for the rest of the article by lumping together eleven vastly different books and finding tenuous connections between them. All of it under the heading The Girls of Summer. Bless you, sub editor for spelling it out: it’s an article about the frivolous time of year and the frivolous gender. All is clear.

Where is the NYT piece on the boys of summer? That lumps together vastly different books by men. Oh, silly me, that would never happen because boys write real books and girls write summer fluff which is pretty much identical despite the different subject matter:

Amid such confusion, here’s a crib sheet for this season’s crop of novels and memoirs. It does mix seriously ambitious books (“Shanghai Girls”) with amiably schlocky ones (“Queen Takes King”) and includes one off-the-charts oddity (“My Judy Garland Life”). It’s even got a nascent Julia Roberts movie. But the common denominator is beach appeal, female variety. Each of these books takes a supportive, girlfriendly approach to weathering crises, be they global (World War II) or domestic (dead husband on the kitchen floor), great or small.

Let me repeat the key bit: “the common denominator is beach appeal, female variety.”

What now?

I’m confused. Is Maslin saying that no matter what subject these women write about their books are automatically light disposable beach reads because women wrote them? Or is she saying they’re automatically beach reads because of the way the publisher has decided to package the book:

Their covers use standard imagery: sand, flowers, cake, feet, houses, pastel colors, the occasional Adirondack chair. Their titles (“Summer House,” “Dune Road,” “The Wedding Girl,” “Trouble”) skew generic. And they tend to be blurbed exclusively by women.

If only the publishers had given them serious covers with non-generic titles and got a bloke to blurb them then Maslin would have been able to review their books separately and not as “women’s fiction”. Damned publishers confusing poor critics’ brains.

I think my head just exploded.


  1. John Green on #

    I find the idea of “beach appeal” hilarious, as if the beach is now the only place on the planet where humans will read books. Publishers by in to this, too (see, for instance, Penguin’s “splashproof” editions of a bunch of smart, good novels–all written by women).

    The thing that bothers me most about this is that everyone seems to assume that books written by women are written only FOR women, while books written by men are written for everyone. This is obviously bad for women writing books, but it’s also incredibly bad for, like, the species.

  2. Jenn on #

    At my school, as a senior you have a choice of literature classes you can take. Women’s lit is one of them. I don’t really know what kind of books they’ll have in the class, but I’m guessing along the lines of Jane Austin and such, and looking at things from a woman’s perspective. The funny thing is that a crazy English teacher put in to teach women’s lit, and he’s a guy. But he thinks it’d be interisting to teach. I’m not sure it will make, though, because our school has a habit of making classes available they don’t actually know how to teach, like Holocaust lit, which for the first time had enough people sign up to make, but they cancelled it after realizing they didn’t actually have teachers who knew how to teach that class.

  3. Melissa on #

    Interesting! A number of years ago, after reading a Nick Hornsby novel, I decided not to read books by male authors. I had read a long string of books that felt didn’t write female characters very well. Women often seemed to fall into one stereotype or another and be rather one dimensional. A woman wouldn’t think that! A woman wouldn’t do that! I couldn’t get beyond it. However I’ve learned that, as with anything, there are good and bad examples.

  4. Ariel on #

    Feet? They think women are attracted to covers with feet on them? I do not understand.

    Though it’s a bit insulting, one could say that we women are spoiled. We get to read twice as many books because we don’t mind reading books written by the other sex.

  5. Marko on #

    Yeah, because when I walk the “manly” MilSF section at my local book store, the first thing that comes to mind is “Wow, what serious, un-generic covers and titles!”

  6. Shakespeare on #

    I’m starting to see quite a few articles and blog posts about this subject and I totally agree that it’s a really annoying problem. Unfortunately, I’m not seeing too many people give suggestions on how to change it.

    I’m sure there’s something that we can do; something that won’t result in women having to go old school and use a male pseudonym, etc. Or maybe we can’t do anything less than a massive protest, but that seems a little excessive to me.

  7. laurie on #

    I dont see as much of this stigma in the fantasy/scifi lit but any time I see any kind of book with ‘hint’ of romance they slap some quirky illust/ horrible photoshop stock photos on yellow/ pink/peach like cover.

    I havent been to a beach in years

  8. Rachel Vail on #

    I agree — I read that article this morning and my teeth have been on edge ever since. Not only because my current book has a pink cover (and the one coming out next year has, as suggested in the last sentence of the article, “a pair of glossy high-heeled shoes” on the cover.) My head is exploding, too, as I wonder what chance any of my novels has of being considered as anything outside a tight ghetto clump of booksbywomen. Irving, Updike — the character in COMMENCEMENT is absolutely right about what would happen if their first names had been Susan instead of John.

    But as John Green points out, this is not just bad for women writers — it’s bad for all of us. When boys are taught subtly or not-so-subtly that they should only like books written by GUYS, and really only fantasy or SF or non-fiction — nothing about friendship or feelings! – how will they get that to that amazing moment passionate readers feel when in the grip of a great novel? A good book is the gateway drug to lifelong reading addiction; the widest possible choice of books is the best chance to ensnare people who might not otherwise get hooked. We put more than half the books published off-limits to boys, and then we lament that boys don’t read? And that men don’t know how to express their feelings and are emotionally remote?

    Maybe if we didn’t hang a big NO BOYS OR MEN ALLOWED sign on books written by (of all things) women, a guy might pick up one of these disparate books — and get swept away, even if he’s not at the beach.

  9. Eric Luper on #

    I have felt this way for years. Blaming it solely on the reviewers and the media is shortsighted though. Marketing at the publishers are responsible for capitalizing on this. Pink covers. Splashproof covers. Cover designs that accentuate fashion and shopping. Is selling books at the expense of marginalizing female authors okay? I don’t think so.

    But this double standard is so prevalent. There is a 6000-word article in this week’s New York magazine about New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, and they talk about what shoes she wears. As though her footwear affects her ability to legislate!!

  10. Michael on #

    The problem with the covers is that if a book is written by a woman, the publisher markets it exclusively towards women (though it does seem that they have a somewhat misguided, generic way of doing so). They do it because guys simply don’t read as much as girls.

    As a young guy, I read any book that I want to read, Sci-Fi, fantasy, “chik-lit” or whatever. But I can hardly represent my peers as they’re much more interested in video games and paintball than books, and even when they do get out and read they won’t get anywhere near books that have “girly” covers.

    So boys don’t read, because the covers scare them away by being too “girly,” and the publishers make more girly covers because they’re not going to get a significant amount of male readers anyway, so why not advertise to girls?

    The way boys feel about books is a big problem. A few weeks ago I was reading on the bus. A guy asked me what I was reading so I showed him the cover.
    “That’s a chick book! What, did your balls drop off?”
    This didn’t bother me much, but this view of books as a girl thing is a significant block to boys reading.
    I was reading An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. It happened to have pictures of girls on the cover.

  11. caitlin on #

    Yes, feet! Recently, a co-worker and I did a display of YA covers with feet on them. You guessed it all aimed at teen girls. Also, go into any bookstore and look at the differences between mother’s day and father’s day displays. As if women can’t like sports or grilling and men have no interest in crafts or baking. UGH!

  12. Emily on #

    I think there are also lots of female readers who shun pink covers with feet on – that would be me, usually, except that I was proved wrong recently when someone held me down and forced me to read one (ok, someone I respect recommended a book that happened to have feet on the cover) and I found it to be clever, funny and totally my cup of tea. So I think it also works against the publishers’ favour.

    I very nearly got away with a non-pink, non-very-girly cover for my forthcoming YA novel, but at the last minute it was decided to change it – it’s now ultra-pink and has a handbag on it and a girl with flicky hair, none of which is representative of the content of the book, but all of which is the current language of teen books aimed at girls.

    All of this goes so much further back than the publishers / booksellers though. For example, my son currently rides his big sister’s old pink scooter – people say to me “Isn’t it sweet that he doesn’t mind it’s pink.” He’s 2! How does that sort of thing even start occurring to boys?

  13. libba on #

    This annoyed me so much that I threw my flowers down into the sand at my feet, ate a shitload of cake, and collapsed into a pastel Adirondack chair in front of my lonely-yet-windswept/cozy house in the dunes. Then someone had to throw a bucket of beach water in my face to revive me. Thankfully, as a woman writer, I come fully laminated in a bright pink splash-proof cover.

    Now I must go work on my next novel: The Scrote-Sack of Summer.

  14. Justine on #

    Wow, so many great comments. Thanks! Glad I’m not the only one annoyed.

    Libba: You just made me spray wine all over my computer. Thanks a million. STOP BEING FUNNY!

  15. Shell on #

    That is such a frustrating article!
    In all honesty, I don’t even look to see if a book is written by a man or a woman until after I’ve decided the book is worth reading.
    I will say that the design of a cover does have an effect on readers (I’ve done a lot of stuff with design, so it has an even greater effect), and I do tend to shy away from the very generic pink with feet and beachtype covers. A cover should represent either the story or the style of the novel, in my opinion, and I’m just not into reading books about feet or books with a beachy tone (whatever that might be).
    I think that both publishers and critics put women authors (and consumers looking for a good read) at a disadvantage, but so do stores that have displays of “beach books” or books just by women authors.

  16. Rachel Vail on #

    Libba – if I’d had some wine I too would have sprayed — but Justine, you have pointed me in the right direction. Thanks! Off to pop a cork…

  17. Jenny on #

    chhh– some chicks like to read in the mountains,on the train and in the bathtub.They lose a whole group of us when they assume we like to read at the beach only. Some of us hate sand.

    Really, I am depressed now. as an aspiring writer, it saddens me that women writers are lumped together so thoughtlessly. A persons work, regardless of gender should be allowed to stand on its own merits.

  18. caitlin on #

    Barking Spiders! I nearly sprayed a ginger altoid all over the ‘puter (at work no wine) just picturing the cover of Libba’s ahem upcoming novel.

  19. bookwormchris on #

    I think it is Maureen’s The Bermudez Triangle that I have which features the splashproof cover. When I first opened the box from Amazon, I was somewhat confused. Is this reading a book on the beach thing popular?

    Of course, my roommate keeps joking that he thinks I am a homosexual because of the books he sees on my desks. You know, those YA ones with headless girls on them. Or pink with a big key. Actually, most of those books are Maureen’s. I also have E. Lockhart’s Disreputable History. Clearly these books seem to be marketed towards female readers. This is fine with me, because I don’t care overly much about what a book looks like and I’ve enjoyed reading them. I do get a little annoyed at the constant ribbing I get for having these books around, as a 21 year old straight male.

    Last year I read about 60 books. Overwhelmingly they were written by men. Many of them were books I had read before. This year my goal is to match or beat the 60 books number. (So far I’m on 34 as I recall.) I want to branch out a bit more with my reading as well. So far this has meant a lot more female writers (or… most of the works of a few female authors.) Some of these are very recent books and some are quite old. (There are also a few books which I read mostly, but didn’t read completely for class. They aren’t counted in the list.)

    I’ve been looking around for numbers on the breakdown of say how many books have been published by men as opposed to women in the last year or decade or century. Just curious as it will be interesting to see how that breakdown compares with the breakdown of my list at the end of this year. So far it is about half and half I think, but I haven’t tallied it up in the last few weeks. Still, I care more about how good books are, rather than the sex of their authors.

    I’m a fiction kind of bookworm, at least currently.

  20. Georgiana on #

    The only book I ever really remember reading at the beach was my anatomy and physiology textbook, which I took to study in the middle of winter, to get away from distractions. Every other time I went to the beach I was swimming or walking or looking for shells or playing with some kids, either mine or someone else’s, depending on my age. Does that make A and P a frivolous subject? My teacher would probably beg to differ.

    Dividing things up by gender annoys me. I don’t think I’ve ever picked a book because it was supposed to be for a specific gender, or because a specific gender wrote it.

    But I am a bit of a hypocrite because seeing a man or boy reading a book that’s marketed as a girl’s or women’s book makes me smile. I feel a secret kinship that dates back to when I used to get lectured for reading boy’s books when I was young. “Wouldn’t you rather read Nancy Drew?” Sigh.

  21. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Gah. Blood pressure.

    I love the bit about how it’s “generic” to put a LOOOOOOOONG list of things on a cover. You know what else is generic? The empty chairs in white washed houses, or lamplights on empty streets, or silhouettes of cities on “boy book” covers.

    Book covers are generic. Newsflash.


  22. Maggie Stiefvater on #

    Grrrr! I came here from your Twitter and promptly my blood began to re-boil. It had already boiled once after I’d gotten an early review for SHIVER that designated it an appropriate “beach read.” What does that even mean? That I wrote my ass off for that book and it’s fluff? That it would read better with the soothing lullaby of waves in the background? That the plotting was intricate enough to remind the reader that her tankini kept riding up?

    I personally despise gender tailoring covers (be it the whambang masculine thriller covers or the daisies and butt shot girl YA ones) and loved that my publisher did neither for SHIVER. But apparently it wasn’t enough to escape the might web/ vortex of kissy beach read designation.

  23. Stephanie Leary on #

    I saw Justine’s tweet and carefully put down my drink before reading Libba’s comment. Thank God. This keyboard is discontinued.

  24. Justine on #

    Bookwormchris: Yeah, there is a lot of pressure on boys not to touch girl books. Yay you for resisting it.

    Diana: Yeah, there’s so much to annoy in that article. You’re so right about the equal genericness of the covers of capital L Literachure books. And, frequently, of their contents too. Oh, look, another middle aged uni professor is having a crisis and sleeping with his students. *yawn*

    Maggie: You’re a girl you write girl books. They can only be read on beaches. It’s the law.

    Stephanie: I’m thinking of banning Libba. Just to protect our computers.

  25. angharad on #

    In defense of beach reading: I like to think that what people mean is that you want a book that is going to hold your interest for hours– you’ve set aside the time to do nothing but lie around and read– what book should you pick? So being called a Beach Read, wouldn’t be an insult. Shiver sounds like a book I want to swallow whole.

    I would like a picture of LIbba’s splash proof cover, please?

  26. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    angharad, I like your definition. Books like that should be called “armchair reads” because they make you want to curl up in your favorite spot and read them forever. Or maybe “hiding place reads”. I’d read a book that was recommended as a hiding place read.

    Oddly enough, I’d tried reading at the beach, and I couldn’t stand it. Too hot, too bright, too much sand in my underclothes. Reading in the woods on a sunny afternoon, however, is heavenly.

    And I know this is late, but YAY for Blood and Chocolate. But if you liked the book, you probably wouldn’t like the movie. You would, however, enjoy The Silver Kiss, which is by the same author as Blood and Chocolate and leaves you with a similar feeling.


  27. Devon on #

    I was inspired by your boy-books post to ask my tenth-grade students whether they think boys are more likely to read “girl books” or girls are more likely to read “boy books.” They were convinced it was equal (such egalitarian sophomores as they are) until I started holding up YA books and having them raise their hands if they would read it based on the cover. It soon became very clear that many more hands went up for the marketed-to-boys books or books with neutral covers than books with girls (or parts of girls) on the cover. Big shock there. (The ones I remember that had the least male interest were Maureen Johnson’s Devilish and Outcasts at 19 Schyler Place, if anyone’s interested.)

    But even that is just a tendency, not a law. I got so excited this year when one of the boys in my 8th grade class picked up my favorite book, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (chock full of romance and feelings and smoochies), and said when he finished that he wished it could have never ended. Guys certainly have the capacity to enjoy books narrated by girls or featuring girls or even about girly topics, contrary to my own former teacher’s claim that girls are just more able to empathize and thus have an easier time connecting with a protagonist of another gender. Grr.

    Anyway, I’m with you that publishers own a large share of the blame for the stereotype of chick lit. But as someone said earlier, they’re not alone–movies, magazines, TV…they’re all pretty much convinced women’s lives are one long yogurt commercial.

  28. Tam on #

    Now this is an interesting post. When I was imagining what kind of cover my YA paranormal book would have, I thought powder blue with a silhouetted girl on the front. What my publisher actually produced was a funky turquiose rock-chick design. I don’t doubt that it will appeal to girls but thank god it’s not pastel…

  29. Leah Odze Epstein on #

    yeah, this whole male/female writer thing is annoying. Why wasn’t Jay McInerney’s novel THE GOOD LIFE called a beach read? Even though it was “about” 9/11 aftermath, it was still fast-paced and actually, kind of breezy for a book on such a serious subject. But bec. there’s no male chick-lit category (dick lit?) all the books are “serious”–Read McInerney sitting in a leather club chair and Jennifer Weiner at the beach? That’s the implication, but some of us like to read Jennifer Weiner while sitting in a club chair, dammit!

  30. Cait on #

    This kinda makes me glad that my Maureen Johnson books didn’t come until after I went on vacation, because now I can proudly say I read “Wide Awake” by David Levithan and “Feed” by M. T. Anderson on the beach. Then again, one of those Maureen Johnson books was Devlish, a book about a girl trying to save her & her best friend’s IMMORTAL SOULS. Doesn’t really sound like a “Beach read,” and yet it the cover features nothing but a girl and a cupcake. It makes sense in the context of the story, but cupcakes don’t exactly make me think of Demons.

    There’s also the stereotype that female writers can only write female protagonists, while men can write anyone, even if their female leads are portrayed as airheaded-shoe-shopping-obsessed bimbos or men-with-boobs. And if, god forbid, a woman DOES decide to write from a male perspective? She gets relegated to initial-land, because obviously no boy would have ever read Harry Potter or The Outsiders if the names JOANNE and SUSAN were printed across the covers.

    In addition to book covers, I’m curious now about how album covers and movie posters etc. compare. How do “Chick Flicks” compare to Action movies and other movies targeted toward a male audience?

  31. mensley on #

    This reminded me of a couple of things I’ve sent to my wife over the years. One of our shared hobbies is noticing stupidities of cover design. Here’s one on putting “chick lit” covers on anything written by women (with beachy cover goodness):

    And here’s one on the feet thing, from 2005! At this point I’d been noticing this trend for a while, and was glad to see someone else had as well:

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