When I was in Junior High, I interned one afternoon a week at the Chesire Cat Children’s Bookstore. Located in upper Chevy Chase, on the DC side, it was like heaven for a nascent bibliophile like me. (Side note: my version/vision of Heaven would be an endless library of books). The highlight of my time there was when one of the favorite authors did a reading. I was “off the clock” at the time, and to me, writers are rock stars. I was nervous as I presented my copy of her then new book, gushed how much I loved her writing. Then she said something that kind of disappointed me. (And I learned that all idols have feet of clay). She remarked that it was interesting that I was even buying her current book, because it was written for girls.
I remember walking away from that meeting feeling a mixture of “So what?” and a feeling of shame. Junior High is a caste system, where gender roles are rigidly proscribed. I already had been the victim of bullies and if I wasn’t called “faggot” then, it was only because the kids didn’t know the word. Fortunately, I went with the first feeling, and read the “girly” book. And was quite pleased that I had. The novel was one of the author’s best and I heartily recommend it to anyone of any gender for insight into sibling rivalry.
The issue of gender and reading is something that comes up constantly. Every now and then, some (g)as(s)bag will make a fatuous pronouncement about women authors, or claim that they can tell the difference between men and women’s writing. I can’t. I have read slush for both fiction markets and for admissions committees for writing programs, and when you strip away the name, I can not tell. Some of the most “flowery” descriptive language comes from men, and some of the most “cold” and cynical writing comes from women. This goes across genre. In my experience, the reason that people “gender” writing is because they find one gender’s writing inferior and use such words as “sentimental” and “relationship-oriented” to steer “serious” or male readers away.
This is a terrible idea, and boys will miss out on some great literature. If I had followed reading along “appropriate” gender lines, I would have missed books by LeGuin, Joan Didion, Flannery O’Connor, and Alice Walker. Toni Morrison’s underrated novel Tar Baby was, at one point, marketed as Women’s Fiction, since it featured a love story. If I had paid attention to that, I would have missed the rich, mythopoetic subtexts in the novel.
As I grew, I read everything that interested me, whether or not it was written for boys or for girls. One of my favorite books was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia McKillip. When I was researching the author in the library (to write a fan letter), I came across a bit of criticism about the novel being ‘girly.’ It was ‘girly,’ presumably, because the main character is a powerful female wizard who isn’t an ass-kicking action girl. “So what,” I said to myself, thinking that the critic was afraid of girl-cooties and therefore had missed the point of the story.
If women authors have girl cooties, I want to collect said cooties.