The Independent’s New Stance on Gender-Biased Books

Graphic from The Huffington Post.

Reading my twitter feed this morning, I saw an article @AndrewDucker posted about the Independent on Sunday’s new policy towards reviewing children’s books:

“Any Girls’ Book of Boring Princesses that crosses my desk will go straight into the recycling pile along with every Great Big Book of Snot for Boys. If you are a publisher with enough faith in your new book that you think it will appeal to all children, we’ll be very happy to hear from you. But the next Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen will not come in glittery pink covers. So we’d thank you not to send us such books at all.” – Katy Guest, Gender-specific books demean all our children, so the Independent on Sunday will no longer review anything marketed to exclude either sex

In theory, I think this is great idea.* Don’t offer free publicity to books that exclude one gender or another. Unfortunately, in describing how the policy will be executed, Guest stays fuzzy on the details, which makes it hard to figure out exactly what kinds of books — other than those with glittery pink covers – .the Independent on Sunday will no longer be offering column inches to.

While the headline statement – that the books will be excluded based on their marketing – seems fairly clear, I’m not comfortable with how Guest goes on to outline what books might or might not be covered. The Independent on Sunday won’t cover books with sparkly pink covers, but what about blue covers? Does her jibe at “Snot for Boys” includes the kids’ series “Captain Underpants,” which – for a time – was literally the only thing one of my younger cousins would even consider reading? The covers were done in bright, primary-colored colors, if I recall correctly. Would that wind up on the excluded list?

And although Guest speaks well of Harry Potter, as a high-placed member of the literary community, she must be aware that:

“Although she was christened Joanne Rowling, and is known as ‘Jo’ to her family and friends, millions of Harry Potter fans know the best-selling children’s author as ‘J.K. Rowling’.

The use of a pen name was suggested by her publisher, Barry Cunningham. He thought that young boys might be wary of a book written by a woman, so Joanne chose ‘K’, for ‘Kathleen’, the name of her paternal grandmother.”

Isn’t that a little more of an insidious marketing move than putting glitter on a book’s cover? “Sure, girls, you can be a famous and successful author, but only if you hide your name, because boys probably won’t read your stuff.

What about books with content that specifically promotes gender and class stereotypes? Alloy publishing’s Gossip Girl, with its oversexed rich teens? What about something like A Little Princess, which not only has a gender-specific title, but takes its orphaned heroine from waif to princess? What about The Princess Diaries, for that matter? 

I see Guest’s point. I really do. And I agree with her intention of helping kids access a wider range of books. There’s no reason for books that have wide appeal to be sectioned off into “for her” and “for him” sections. There’s no reason that a boy shouldn’t read Matilda without having to be self-conscious about sparkly pink glitter on the cover, except that some little boys might very much enjoy having a sparkly pink book and some books have themes that might be inclusive but which are appropriate for a sparkly pink book cover. And what about grown-ups? Will the paper still publish reviews that fall under the general category of “chick lit”? (Now that Bridget Jones is back, by the way, are we still calling it “chick lit”?)

Because Guest avoids giving specific examples of the books that will be excluded from review under the new policy and fails to list specific criteria which books must fulfill (other than the “no glitter” thing, and why the hell does she have such an issue with glitter, anyways?), it’s very difficult to see this as something other than a broad stroke to generate positive publicity for the paper. Why restrict the judgment of a book to its cover? What about looking at the content of a book and deciding whether it reinforces positive gender values? (And whose values?) Twilight has completely unobjectionable covers, according to the guideline of gender-based marketing, but they also promote what many consider to be an unhealthy teenage relationship (codependent and borderline emotionally abusive/controlling, according to a star of a new teen franchise, the Divergent books, and written about over and over on the web if you care to do a quick Google search).

There are other layers to exclusionary marketing that Guest doesn’t even touch on. As many authors know, the cover art decision lays far outside a writer’s purview when it comes to most traditionally-published novels. Rather than singling out and punishing a single author, wouldn’t it be more effective to also ban reviews of books from a publisher who endorses gender-marketed books? In most cases, the publisher is the one walking away with the payday, after all.

What about other types of exclusion that demean all readers? Specifically, the publishing industry’s tendency to “whitewash” heroes and heroines on their covers. I don’t want to drag specific authors into the conversation, but I’ve had friends whose books, when published, featured covers showing white people when the character supposedly being portrayed was a person of color. Is that more or less demeaning – both to the reader’s intelligence and the author’s original intention – than a copy of Matilda that comes with a sparkly pink cover?

Overall, I admire what Guest is trying to do. But from my pre-coffee Sunday morning perspective, it seems that (while the motivation for this new reviewing tactic comes from a positive place) it might have been helpful for Guest and the Independent to more clearly outline the solid criteria that, in their eyes, makes a book’s “marketing” identifiable as being for girls or boys – and why this “marketing” is such a valid litmus test. 

Speaking of tests – the real one will be the next time a mega-hit book rocks up the charts and the Independent on Sunday sits out reviewing or covering it in their literary pages. When that happens, please, somebody give me a shout.

What do you think of this new book reviewing policy? Is it a step in the right direction, or a self-congratulatory and probably ineffective PR move?

*For now, I’m not even going to touch on the implicit endorsement of a gender-binary society, but I’ll also grant Guest that at the moment I can’t think of a single children’s title that endorses anything but the identities of “girl” or “boy.”

Edit: I went looking to see if the Independent on Sunday was featured in this year’s VIDA study, which examines who is writing the material that winds up in literary magazines. It wasn’t included, but if anyone has access to that information I would be very appreciative if it were passed on to me for inclusion here.

Edit: On Sunday afternoon I asked Guest, who has a Twitter account, to have a look at this blog entry. She tweeted back two points:



independent independent2While my feeling is that this still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of clarifying a book – what makes something “explicitly aimed” at girls or boys? I appreciate Guest’s response.

Note that an earlier edit indicated the tweets no longer existed. This morning I retrieved them via HootSuite, which indicates the tweets are still in fact present and just didn’t show up under search; apologies for any confusion.

Edit, 4/2/14: Since its original posting, the Independent has clarified that they specifically mean books that include “For Boys” or “For Girls” in the title. I believe this was poorly explained in their initial statement and, particularly in light of the comment below regarding boys and reading skills, the policy may require further review.

One response to “The Independent’s New Stance on Gender-Biased Books

  1. As a librarian I can tell you that many boys will not read a book that looks as though it is aimed at girls. Younger boys might like to pick up a glittery princess book but fearing mocking, will not do so. Tell a middle school boy that the main character of a novel is a girl and he will lose interest. It has to be done in a sneaky fashion – as Rowling did in Harry Potter where Hermione saves the day frequently and boys get used to reading about a resourceful female.
    There is some argument, I think for some of these boys only books when we know that boys do not pick up reading skills as well or quickly as girls do.
    It is the same argument that shows girls do better in math & science when studying with other girls only.
    But it is also very exclusionary and I think in the long run, it does more harm than good.

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