Bookcovers, marketing and the extra work female writers need to do

In a discussion of a novelist who has used his storytelling techniques to craft a novel, screenwriting guru John Truby describes the following:

[T]he ending was when Lehr chose to give her hero moral, as well as psychological, flaws. Not only does this make for a better story, it also prevents critics from labeling and dismissing the book as “chick lit.” This isn’t just about a woman’s emotional attachment to her child, which however valid is still totally within a woman’s world. The story is also about the central moral issue of being a parent.

What A Mother Knows

I’m not going to disagree with anything he’s saying here, but I find the reality of this publishing world depressing. What he seems to be saying here is that women can’t find widespread success if we are to write about purely female concerns. Being female isn’t quite enough, however ‘valid’ the subject matter. We are to appeal more broadly or risk labelling.

I would like to point out that appealing broadly does not in fact prevent female writers from being marketed as chick-lit, even when said author changes her name from Margaret to Lionel. The deeply satirical and perverse and interesting questions found in the work of Lionel Shriven often come packaged in chick-lit pastels.

 

post-birthday-world-lionel-shriver

When I picked up this novel, I had no idea of its author. I thought Lionel Shriver was a man.  I remember thinking, ‘Hmm. Cupcake, wedding ring, pastel colour scheme. This is an unusual cover for a book written by a man’. Proof positive: I have been conditioned to expect feminine covers on novels written by female authors.

This isn’t right.

Then I happened to see Lionel Shriver on TV. She spoke to The First Tuesday Book Club. I was impressed with her feistiness, expected a feisty book and brought The Post-Birthday World to the top of my reading pile.

Part way through reading, I was surprised at the content, not because of the author – who, in person, is a great advertisement for her writing – but because of the cover. The Post-Birthday World is a brutally honest and unflinching journey into a woman’s dissatisfaction, neediness and sexuality. I remember flipping back to the cover thinking, ‘This cover is just not right for the book.’ I did like the cover. It’s why I bought the book. Ihappened to love the novel, but not because I got what I thought I was getting. That was dumb luck. I read the book because of that TV panel discussion in which I got the sense of an unflinching author who doesn’t take crap.

When I’d finished Shriver’s novel I read some reviews on LibraryThing. Turns out I wasn’t the only reader who picked up The Post-Birthday World expecting something else. Many women hated it. They expected to identify with the protagonist. Instead, they hated her, and hated the book. I don’t remember seeing any reviews written by a man.

But Lionel Shriver does not write women’s fiction. She does not write chick-lit. Shriver writes political commentaries with misanthropic, confronting and divisive themes. I see no reason why many men would not get something out of Shriver’s work but I can see no reason why your average bloke would even consider picking up one of her girly-looking books.

But even her women readers were misled. The cover suggests women’s fiction. But in women’s fiction – more so in chick-lit – the protagonist must be likeable – at least likeable enough to engender reader identification. That seems to be a rule of the genre. The readers who left scathing reviews on LibraryThing wanted something else and it’s not fair that they got something different altogether. They wasted their time and money. Meanwhile, Lionel Shriver probably hoped a different sort of reader would pick up her book. But did they?

Lionel Shriver was a midlist seller for many years before hitting the big time with We Need To Talk About Kevin. I have heard her ask audiences to give her earlier books a little love, since they tend to languish unread.

Do male writers need to worry about their work being dismissed as ‘dick-lit’, even though women in their fifties are keeping the fiction publishing afloat?

Does this attitude trickle down into kidlit world?

How Police Procedurals Are Different From Real Police Work

Police procedurals are the most popular subgenre of story worldwide. We have police procedurals such as The Wire, which has a dedicated and enthusiastic fanbase of those who like mimesis in their fiction, but the fact is, cinéma vérité is pretty hard to follow if you’re trying to just relax and enjoy. Of course the audience knows that police procedurals are just stories, but after listening to a podcast interview with a retired Australian homicide detective I couldn’t help but think that writers of police procedurals might make more use of reality to no ill-effect. I’ve also been listening to In The Dark and watching a bunch of Forensic Files on Netflix.

REALITIES THAT DON’T GEL WELL WITH FICTION

  • Detectives work on more than one homicide at once.
  • Crime takes a very long time to solve — months, years, decades.
  • There are more people walking around guilty than there are innocent people in prison. It’s a very high bar, getting someone to prison.
  • Police are short on resources. They’re generally unable to put cars outside houses of witnesses who testify. Likewise, it sometimes happens that the police basically know who committed a crime but are unable to bring the case to court. The public like to think that in these cases the police are ‘keeping watch’ over this person in the community, but in reality the police don’t really have the resources to watch someone’s every move.
  • Corruption in the police isn’t the big problem it is in fiction because people who come into the police force for the wrong reasons tend to get weeded out in early career.
  • In lots of shows — Broadchurch springs to mind, another is True Detective — we see a big city cop get sent to a rural area for some reason. He’s probably some sort of renegade cop genius with personal issues. He has such an excellent nose for the job that he is able to solve these smalltown crimes no problem. He learnt his skillz in the city, you see, and brought all his knowledge of ‘real’ crime with him. It’s easy for us to assume, therefore, that smalltown cops are not as good at solving crimes as big city cops, or that the solve rate is better in the city. The opposite is true when it comes to the solve rate. There’s no evidence that city cops are better than rural cops or vice versa. The fact is, rural crimes are easier to solve. There are some obvious reasons for this. Namely, any witnesses are quite likely to have seen the criminal before and may even know the full name and where they live. Added to that, the criminals in small towns are pretty well known to police because there are fewer people and therefore fewer criminals. Small town cops therefore don’t need any big city cop coming in and telling them how to do their job better, showing them all up; any newcomer to a smalltown police department would actually be at a huge disadvantage, having to learn the criminal landscape from scratch.
  • Killing someone and placing the in their hands afterwards won’t make it look like a suicide, because it’s pretty clear to the forensic team when they find blood spatters on the gun where the hand should’ve been holding it.

REALITIES THAT WE MIGHT SEE MORE OF TO NO ILL-EFFECT

  • When a criminal is charged with homicide, the police offer support to the perpetrator’s family as well as to the victim’s family. Sometimes the perpetrator’s family accept support, other times they don’t want a bar of it.
  • Police officers are people people. They’re dealing with such a wide variety of people every day that they have to be. The messed up drunken loner is a fictional trope.
  • Specialists who do things such as criminal profiling don’t work full-time doing that thing. They are called in on contract, and will have another main job, say as an academic in psychology.
  • Different types of suspects need to be interviewed using quite different techniques. For example, a suspected pedophile needs to be treated sympathetically, with kid gloves. If the interviewing officer lets their disgust/temper get the better of them they’re likely to blow a confession.
  • When someone kills themselves with a gun they don’t tend to drop the gun. For some strange physiological reason they tend to grip the gun and hold onto it even after they are dead.

The Literalness of Children’s Book Titles

When describing how he jumped from being a child reader into being a reader of adult fiction, Francis Spufford found titles of adult books to be far less dependable than those for children:

If a children’s book was called The Blue Hawk, it would have a hawk that was blue in it, with claws and wings and wild raptor eyes. If it was called The Perilous Descent you could count on it being about a descent that was perilous: two World War Two airmen stranded on a sandbank fall through a hole into an underground passage, and go down and down and down, through shafts and chasms, until they land by parachute in a subterranean country peopled by the descendants of shipwrecked refugees. Perfectly straightforward. Adult authors, on the other hand, seemed to be constitutionally incapable of giving a book a truthful name. Try The Middle of the Journey, and you get a bunch of academics in New York State sitting around and talking to each other. Did they set off for anywhere? They did not.

The Child That Books Built

The Blue Hawk cover

This is about games, but applies equally to female characters in books.

“Add more women” is an easy, moderate position to take in the conversation on gender in games. It’s our “get out and vote”: a political stance with no action, no consequence, no real politics. It ignores the totality of sexism in the industry: from the online harassment of female gamers,harassment in gaming spaces, the wage gap that devalues them as producers, and the language that dismisses them as consumers. These can’t be solved by simply “adding women.” Adding more women without rethinking their position in the culture or valuing how they may change it does no more than reduce them to quota-fulfilling body parts. Add breasts and stir.

On Gender Equality And Video Games

How Do Writers Deal With Phones In Fiction?

hands holding a mobile phone

Phones have not been good for fiction. Phones counteract every storytelling guideline.

  • Throw your character into peril, we’re told.
  • Endanger their very lives, we’re told.

But if this character has a phone, or should have a phone, the audience asks, “Why don’t they just…?” and that is about the last thing you want your audience to ask.

As others have said, the phone shouldn’t solve the problem. In this way phones are like magic. Even before mobile phones existed writers knew that magic shouldn’t solve the problem.

The same few tricks get old pretty fast:

  • The character’s phone is out of range (legit if it’s the wilderness, maybe not so legit if it’s at our neighbours’ house even though they don’t get mobile reception for real — and we do.) The nice thing about horror movies is, ghosts can mess with mobile reception.
  • The phone is out of battery. This feels like an out and out hack.
  • The character is a hipster type who doesn’t carry a phone. An example is Juno McGuff in the film Juno, who uses an iconic burger phone.
  • The phone has just been stolen
  • Or broken

More believable:

  • The entire story is set in the past, before people had mobile phones
  • The main character is pre-adolescent, which means they wouldn’t necessarily be carrying a phone

PHONES IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN

MIDDLE GRADE AND OLDER

Even in stories for children, phones can make everything harder, as articulated by Robert Lanham:

I find it impossible to write fiction that’s set after 2002. Not because I’m a Gen-Xer waxing nostalgic about relaxing to Morcheeba on a distastefully stained sofa I found partially torn apart by a dog in an alley. (Oh, the glamour.) It’s just that it’s inconceivable to depict contemporary times authentically without including interludes where characters stare at their cell phones instead of advancing their plot lines – their lives – towards some conclusion. Which is, as a thing to read, mind-numbingly dull. Unless I write “and then his Galaxy 4’s battery died” no one can ever get lost, forget an important fact, meet a partner outside of a dating site, or do anything that doesn’t eventually have them picking up a phone. So I’m stuck writing about an era where Ethan Hawke was considered the pinnacle of manliness.

– from Your Phone Is Ruining You For Us at The Awl

A recently published middle grade novel struck me immediately for its heavy use of phones. The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams (2019) by Jenny Lundquist is about girl relationships. They pass notes in class, and the note feature is necessary because the entire point is that it is an anonymous note. But they also ‘pass notes’ via phone. This mixture of notes (‘pumpkin-grams’) combined with texting creates a storyworld which is partly grounded in reality, part magical.

You can check out the first few pages of The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams with the Look Inside feature on Amazon or similar.

PICTURE BOOKS

One privilege of creating picture books is that very young characters are not expected to carry phones or other connected devices. In contemporary fiction for adults, authors must now completely reimagine traditional plot lines.

In fact, reality looks slightly different for a lot of preschoolers, many of whom are using touch screens daily. Parents are also using phones a lot more than is depicted in the more utopian picture book storyworld.

PHONES IN MOVIES AND TV

Movies are a descendent of stage, and there’s absolutely an imperative for writers to put characters together in a single space.

A technique we see quite often now is a character who texts, and the content of the text appears across the screen similar to a subtitle. A film which does this is Lady-Like. Even in the trailer, you can see how much phones are a part of this story — an inevitability, given the age of the characters.

In the trailer alone you see:

  • Characters holding their phones while talking to others in the same space
  • A variety of screens, not just phones but use of laptops, even as part of a conversation in person
  • A character talks on the phone while another jumps around beside her in the background (on the bed) which means the phone scene is less boring for the audience. (A character talking on the phone is basically a Tea Drinking scene, and must be accompanied by something else.)
  • Little screenshots of the character’s phone superimposed on the main picture, hovering in 3D near the character

Jane The Virgin is a romantic comedy which satirizes the telenovela. Jane The Virgin was one of the first big hits to really play with the text messaging on the screen thing which has been much emulated since. I’ve heard some people saying they love this aspect of Jane The Virgin, whereas others have said it is used with ‘mixed results’. Satires can get away with more over-the-top elements than other genres, so I think it works well. In the scene below it is especially spoofy since the characters are sitting in the same room together.

ADVANTAGES OF PHONES

But am I being a negative Nelly?

Phones have huge advantages in real life, so they must have advantages in fictional lives, too.

  • Characters don’t get lost if they have GPS, but honestly if my GPS drops out I am in deep because I no longer have a map in my car. (Do they still print paper maps?) This can legitimately create some dicey situations.
  • Cyber bullying. Unfortunately the psychological aspects of bullying have been amplified by phones and the Internet generally. Unfortunately this needs covering in fiction as well. From a storytelling perspective, a character cannot get away from the villain. The Netflix series You wouldn’t exist as it does without phones (and social media). Often in these stories, the empathetic character knows something’s going down, but not exactly what. It’s the note-passing in class but amplified, 24/7.

RELATED LINKS

Things We No Longer Need Because We Have Smartphones from Laughing Squid

Oh, and what have Kindles killed?