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