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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.

An Exercise in Editing, or, Why The Hunger Games Makes My Eyes Bleed

From the back cover of THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. The following quotes, from other writers in what one might call “related genres,” are meant to draw attention to the positive features of Collins’ work.

Go ahead. Read ’em.

Note that each of these quotes, from luminaries and sources including Stephen King (Entertainment Weekly), Stephanie Meyer (OMG she’s OBSESSED), and John Greer (The New York Times Book Review), talks about the plotting and structure of THE HUNGER GAMES.

Not a single one of the back cover comments brings up the question of the quality of the book’s prose. 

There are many reasons this might be the case: the marketing team may have learned that putting quotes about suspenseful page-turners sell more copies and left out things like “Collins’ prose challenges some of the greats of our era with its artistry and subtle evocation of the stresses that authoritarian governments manufacture to maintain control of their populations.” They could have left out, “Her words added an emotional depth and clarity to this packed, well-paced story.” They could have left out lots of things. I haven’t looked up the full reviews.

My personal feeling is that they cherry-picked quotes about pacing because THE HUNGER GAMES suffers from a case of seriously bad writing.

Which brings us to this blog entry. Collins is an author who presumably worked with an editor to get her words to this pointI presume they both considered it publishable. (And charge-for-able). Editors do a lot of different things when it comes to getting manuscripts ready for publication. One of those things is language. And I think both Collins and her editor fell down hard on that front.

My background with THE HUNGER GAMES:

I read chapters 1-4 on my Kindle when @tyyche gifted me a copy. I was at the tail end of two weeks of intensive editing work on Hot Mess, and while I could certainly see why Collins’ story was an entertaining one, the actual quality of the writing made it impossible for me to continue. I said at the time, and continue to maintain, that my guess is the book translates better to the screen than most adaptations. If I ever see the film, I’ll make sure to let you all know.

Anyways, fast forward to the end of May. My roommate’s copy is lying on the kitchen counter and it’s Memorial Day Weekend and after walking past the book a few times, I think, well, maybe I should pick that up and just breeze through it, so at least when people start defending it on Twitter I can come back with a more informed opinion than the one I have now, which is based on reading four chapters of the thing on a Kindle.

There was no way in hell I was going to start reading the book from the beginning again. I backtracked about a paragraph into chapter 4, then continued with chapter five, which was badly written but at least kept moving, then headed into chapter six. It wasn’t until the last page of chapter six that I became aware of a string of paragraphs I probably would have let go through without too much rewriting: page 85 in my edition, from the point where the Avox girl is picking up Katniss’ unitard (UNITARD!) to the end of the chapter. This was the first time that the spare, simple voice beneath Collins’ prose really came out to me, and one of the first times (only 85 pages in!) where I felt like Collins had really hit her stride.

Then it was into chapter seven, and that wasn’t any bloody fun at all.

By this time, half of Twitter had figured out that I was actually reading the book I’d been complaining about for months, and I started getting snarky comments from my co-writer, Eric, particularly because I’d given him such a hard time back when he did the reviews of the first book for The Masquerade Crew. One thing led to another and when I started talking about how what I actually want to do is a top-to-toe rewrite on the entire thing, and I half wanted to do red marks all over a page from the book and show people what my editing process was like, Eric challenged me to do precisely that.

So everything after the break is his fault.
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