Great Books and Disagreeable Thoughts

What are you reading on International Women's Day?
I'm loving 'Girl Defective' by Simmone Howell. It's spunky, lyrical and extremely hard to put down.  I almost missed my station because I was reading it on the train into the city today. I'm hoping to finish it tonight and then jump straight into Kate Constable's latest novel, New Guinea Moon. These novels were launched jointly on Wednesday night at Readings Bookshop in Carlton. It was a great event; crowded and friendly with cupcakes, champagne and eloquent readings.

Last night, I attended the CBCA Claytons seminar held at Trinity College in Kew where four different authorities on literature for young people discussed books they thought might feature on the 2013 CBCA awards shortlist. The CBCA host Claytons nights in the lead up to the release of their shortlist but I'd never attended one before last night.  It was actually much more interesting than I'd expected. I'm sorry I've missed all the previous years. The speakers were fascinating and articulate, the food was delicious and it was a chance to catch up with lots of folk in the kid lit scene that I haven't seen for some time.

But on the way home, a disagreeable thought struck me. So many of the judges had spoken eloquently about beautiful books that should speak to all readers. On a couple of occasions, judges held up books with girls on the cover and commented that it was a pity that boys probably wouldn't read the book because there was so much to gain from the story. I started wondering how many boys will miss out on reading 'Girl Defective' and 'New Guinea Moon' simply because they are about girls, despite the beautiful prose and the great characters. We live in a gendered world where there are books for boys and books for girls.  Fair enough, to a point. Yet there are so many books, irrespective of the gender of the hero of the story, that speak to all readers. The most disagreeable thought that struck me was how boys are trapped, even more than girls, when it comes to reading.

I've had a boy reader tell me he had to put one of my books (Walking Home with Marie-Claire) in a brown paper bag so his mates couldn't see what he was reading a book with two girls on the cover. Another boy, who was vetting a cover for one of my novels, said that if the more feminine cover was chosen, he wouldn't be able to read the book in public. Boys fear ridicule if they are seen to be interested in girl culture. All this leads to the sad state of affairs we have in the adult world, where few men read books by and/or about women. Possibly it also leads to many of the other problems we have with violence and rage against women. When you don't understand someone, when their perspective is foreign to you, then you're more likely to feel afraid, less likely to empathise. In contemporary Australia boys have small opportunity to learn about female culture, to deeply empathises with women and girls, without being harassed. Girls, on the other hand, not only read about boys but are encouraged to do so.

Fiction is one of the best tools we have for inculcating empathy for 'the other'. If a white child refused to read books that have Asian or black child characters on the cover we would be alarmed by their racist response. But when a boy says he won't read book because it's about a girl, we shrug and say 'boys will be boys', effectively reinforcing his unease about female culture. Then the boys become the men who won't read books by or about women.

VIDA, an American organisation committed to supporting women in the literary arts, released some disturbing statistics this week about how books by men and women are received which illustrate exactly how gendered reading affects the lives of writers and readers.

You can't force boys to read books about girls when the whole culture tells them they are 'sissies' for reading about girls. Some of this fear of all things feminine springs out of homophobia, which is incredibly ironic when you consider that its the heterosexual boys who most desperately need to understand the gender they are destined to love. The straitjacket of masculinity is bad for boys and has devastating consequences for girls.

Women cannot overturn this state of affairs. We need our brothers, sons, fathers, husbands, male friends and lovers to set an example to the next generation of boys by being seen reading books about women and girls. Not every book, not all the time. It's nice to indulge in books about your own gender too. But if next International Women's Day every male children's author in Australia was photographed reading a book with a girl on the cover, if every father read his son a book with a female protagonist, if every male teacher shared a story with his class from a book with a girl on the cover, we might move a little further towards building a more confident and compassionate culture for boys and a safer, fairer world for girls.


simmone said...

Firstly - thank you for reading & for being there and i wish we could have had more nattering time! (soon!) secondly I agree with your disagreeable thought and I love your idea about the photos. I think we have to start even earlier. I bought my son Truly Tan (by Jen STorer) today and had the moment when I showed him ("this is a book about a detective - you'll like it ...") where I saw him consider the cover. The cover is girlish (although not Too Girlish and with beautiful/cool illustrations by Claire Robertson to boot) and features vox pops from girls) I get that publishers have to make $ but I wonder how hard it would be to tweak something so that gender wasn't so apparent at first sight ... anyway tis worth thinking about for sure and discussing and changing!! (I also think the teenage book jackets of the 1970s 80s were far less 'gendered')... but of course it wasn't such the big bizness that it is today. sigh.

Kirsty Murray said...

I think you're right about covers becoming even more gendered. But wouldn't it be great if covers didn't have to be gender neutral to entice boys to read them. I think we need a vanguard of very masculine blokes who are comfortable enough in their skins to be seen reading diverse books to help boys feel more comfortable about enjoying all types of literature.
And I love the cover of Girl Defective and think EVERYONE should want to pick it up and read it.

Lili said...

Well said, Kirsty!

If I had a dollar for every teacher who has told me it's a shame Pink has a pink cover because it means boys won't read it... I wonder how much of this attitude has to do with gatekeepers instead of actual teenagers. I get some fanmail from boy readers, and I know the readers of the Dragonkeeper series are about 50/50 boys/girls, even though there's a girl on the cover.

It's terrible that our boys are being taught that stories about girls and women aren't important, and that the role of women in most literature is as mothers and/or corpses.

Every time I go to a boys' school (not very often), I ask what's on the English curriculum. There are rarely books with female protagonists.

Kirsty Murray said...

Good comment, Lili. Boys' schools almost never select books with female protagonists but girls' schools tend to be more even handed. Even co-ed schools lean towards the male protagonist (theoretically for the sake of the boys).

I don't think we can lay all the blame at the gatekeepers feet. The whole culture, not just the schools, frames the dialogue about gender and it is almost impossible for boys to get out of the strait-jacket of masculinity. Teachers are aware of their discomfort and fall into the same trap of reinforcing stereotypes. Guess we just have to keep the conversation growing.

Kirsty Murray said...
This comment has been removed by the author.