Judging a book by its author

I have a deep seated fear with regards to my book. I get a publishing deal (no, that’s not the fear, that’s my dream!) and when I go into my publisher’s office to see the cover for my book, I start to cry. Why? The book jacket is pink and sparkly with a picture of a baby carriage on the front. My fear is that my book will be narrowly defined as women’s fiction and so will be marketed in such a way that only 50% of the book buying public will see it and potentially buy it.

Of course there are books that are written for a gender specific audience but this is primarily in commercial or genre fiction rather than literary fiction. It’s easy to assign a gender to most of these genres, e.g. chick lit (women), romance (women), espionage (men), thrillers (men). Having always read literary fiction I have always thought of myself as a writer within this genre as opposed to a more commercial genre. (Whether or not this is completely hubristic of me remains to be seen!)

The reason for my fear is that my book deals with traditionally “female” themes: relationships, attitudes towards children and domesticity, motherhood. The world of literary fiction seems to think that books authored by women are inwardly focussed on emotion whereas books authored by men are outwardly focussed on events in the world around them. I can think of many examples that flout this convention and I’m sure you can too. For example, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Goldman, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan or Darkmans by Nicole Barker. Meg Wolitzer in her excellent article for the New York Times over a year ago asks this: “If The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention?” In a perfect world one would hope so but the statistics say otherwise.

There are inequalities in literature and the publishing world across the board; consider this article by Alison Flood in the Guardian on the gender imbalance amongst protagonists in children’s stories and what the impact of this could be on young girls; or this article by Celeste Ng on gender disparities in reviewing, essaying and interviewing; or this brilliant article from the Harper’s Bazaar archives by Francine Prose on whether women’s fiction is inferior to men’s, and where she does the literary equivalent of a blind tasting to see if one can guess the gender of the author from the prose (spoiler: no, you can’t).

It can get a bit disheartening for a female writer with literary aspirations to realise that the deck is stacked against her before anyone reads a single word of her prose. I suppose I should be grateful that I have an ambiguous name! Anyway I know this is all very theoretical at this point given the fact that Draft 3 isn’t quite finished, but it is food for thought. Any of ye gentle readers want to weigh in?

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