Yesterday I read an interview that bestselling author Jodi Picoult did for The Telegraph. She has written twenty-three books in twenty-two years, and eight have made the New York Times bestseller list. The topics of her books include stem-cell research, gay rights, assisted suicide, rape, and the Holocaust. She specializes in highlighting moral gray-areas.
“I write women’s fiction,” she said in the interview. “And women’s fiction doesn’t mean that’s your audience. Unfortunately, it means you have lady parts.”
What about these topics screams “women’s fiction”? Nothing— her books, which have male and female narrators alike, tell stories that can be called “people’s fiction.” Or “fiction.” But they aren’t.
An aspiring writer will often hear, “know who yours audience is and write for them.” Statistics show that if you are a woman, it doesn’t matter what your target audience is. Your audience will be women.
“Look at The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides,” Picoult says to The Telegraph. “If I had written that, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it. If Jenny Eugenides had written it, it would have had a pink fluffy cover on it.”
The article struck a chord in me especially because the night before I spoke with a boy who is very pro-equality, intelligent, and aware of the prejudices women face. We were discussing the concept of the novel, and I tossed Jane Austen into the conversation.
“I’ve heard of her,” he said. “But I’ve never really read female authors.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I read Wuthering Heights in high school, but I think that’s it. I didn’t like it… I don’t really identify with female characters.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he balked.
“That’s a complete cop-out,” he said, and later added that the fact that he even had the option of avoiding female authors is evidence of discrimination.
I added that he is of racial minority and some of the greatest literature about non-white Americans is by a woman: Toni Morrison.
When I woke up the next day and read Jodi Picoult’s interview, I sent it to one of my best friends from high school. We went through the list of books we read in an AP Literature class. We read just one book by a female author: Beloved, by Toni Morrison. We kept searching.
We found that Beloved was the only book by a female we read throughout all of high school.
We went to a public high school that was ranked #24 in Illinois. According to US News, it was 3 standard deviations higher than the national average for reading proficiency. Despite these statistics, there was little representation from women on our reading lists. We had slightly more racial diversity (about one book a year was written by a non-white man, or Toni Morrison) but not much.
I wrote to Jodi Picoult and thanked her for her comments, which shed light on an issue that was so prevalent that I hardly noticed it before. She wrote me back and pointed me toward Vida, which is an organization for women in literary art. I took her advice and spent an hour on their website and found some eye-opening information.
According to Random House, 65% of books purchased are bought by women. However, in the 2013 Vida Count of published women, they noted that in only 28.8% of works published in The New Yorker that year were written by women. Women wrote only 40.9% of the books reviewed by the New York Times.
Despite this, recent years have seen many best-selling females. In addition to Picoult, there is Donna Tartt, Nora Roberts, Gillian Flynn, Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer. Most notable is J.K. Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter series, the first installment of which is the #4 top selling book of all time (though those figures are very difficult to pin down for certain). She is the first author to have achieved a billionaire status and the only living author with a book in the top ten sellers list.
But back to the 65% women readers.
When I realized how few female authors and narrators I had read in school, I also realized how I learned from a young age to read a male narrator’s point of view. In school, almost never opened a book and found myself represented inside it. My white male peers opened the books assigned for class and had the luxury of finding other white males telling the stories. I haven’t even touched on homosexual, transgender, bisexual, or non-white characters.
When we read The Catcher in the Rye, we heard ad nauseum how teenagers relate to it. The male adolescent experience is very different than the female. Where was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on our reading list? Would high school aged boys be expected to relate to Francie the way girls are supposed to relate to Holden?
Perhaps the human boys would not be expected to even enjoy the book or put themselves in the shoes of human Francie, because she is not really a human.
She is a woman.
I wonder about the correlation between women’s imaginations having to work just a bit harder to relate to the narrator, and the women who read for pleasure. If we think of the imagination as a muscle, then girls in school get more practice. Minorities get more practice. White men find themselves represented in most of the required reading throughout their school years. Do we not teach them how to lose themselves in books?
Throughout my education, I read James Joyce, Hemingway, Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy… These white, heterosexual men wrote incredible books. I was a voracious reader who, in my own time, read the work of gay men, hetero- and homosexual women, white and otherwise. Just not in school.
Why can’t the literary community have a conversation, instead of a monologue?