World Book Night? – World Bollocks Night!

Share on Facebook11Tweet about this on Twittershare on Tumblr0Pin on Pinterest0Email to someone

World Book Night – Supporting Stereotypes and Gender Bias in 2014

When I first heard about World Book Night, I felt all excited. A whole day dedicated to free books, reaching out to people and offering them things to read, engaging people in discussions about and the act of reading. As an English tutor of adults and an aspiring writer, I assumed that there was nothing about this celebration that I would not like.

Unfortunately, this year, I was wrong about that.

Waiting for me on my twitter feed was the following tweet from For Books’ Sake, staunch promoter of women’s writing and women readers.

To say I was stunned would be an understatement. I could not believe I had just seen an organisation dedicated to raising engagement with reading summarily dismiss the writing of an entire gender as unappealing and unsuitable for engaging another. Not least because this did not match my experience of men’s reading tastes at all. Finding this hard to believe I went to check out the World Book Night website, only to find that the claims made by For Books Sake were indeed true:

World Book Night is committed to reaching people in marginalised areas of society, and with this in mind, the 2014 list has been curated with a view to offering a range of brilliant books explicitly chosen to appeal to and inspire people who haven’t yet been turned on to reading.  There is particular emphasis on books for teenagers and young adults, 46% of whom don’t read for pleasure; and men, 42% of whom don’t read for pleasure.*  The quantity of easy to read and accessible books has also been increased. As well as a wide range of fiction the list features four Quick Reads, four young adult titles, three non-fiction titles and two short story collections. We constructed this year’s list to encourage more men – who we know are more likely to read books by men – to take part in WBN, an event which has so far appealed primarily to women.

(emphasis mine)

For Books’ Sake had it right – World Bollocks Night indeed!

As a female writer myself and an avid reader of books written by both male and female authors, I was left unconvinced by these claims. After all, many of the female authors whose work I have enjoyed most have been recommended to me over the years by boyfriends and male friends. Out of curiosity, I put the question to my facebook friends list, inviting men to comment and let me know whether they had read any works of fiction by female authors, by choice rather than because they were prescribed by a syllabus for study.

The response was simply overwhelming.

Strong support was immediately voiced for the young adult authors, with JK Rowling, Malorie Blackman, Suzanne Collins and the late lamented Sue Townsend all putting in strong showings. Whilst most of the men who responded to my impromptu survey were in their 20s and 30s, this was no surprise, as young adult books (particularly fantasy and science fiction series) are hot stuff at the moment. The big blockbuster series of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight and Divergent have all been based on books written by female authors. There was also significant affection expressed for children’s author Enid Blyton, whose books could still be found on the shelves of several responders.

There was no doubt that genre writing would dominate the majority of the selections. Science Fiction and Fantasy were popular choices among the men who responded to my query and their reading of female authors across these genres was certainly diverse. Robin Hobb, Mary Gentle, Trudy Canavan, Lois McMaster Bujold, Susannah Clarke, Anne Rice, Anne McCaffrey and Diana Wynne Jones were names which appeared repeatedly, showing up on the bookshelves of scientists, computer programmers and arts graduates alike.

It’s not surprising that these authors are well liked and supported by men who read. Last night I spoke with my husband about his reading choices, which also included Bujold, Hobb and McCaffrey, alongside Naomi Novik (the film rights for her Temeraire series were purchased a few years ago by Peter Jackson) and Jacqueline Carey. I asked him what factors had influenced his reading choices, and whether a male or female author name on the cover made any difference to his inclination to read something.

“The story is the most important thing. When I read the back of the book, I want an idea about the plot, not a description of the character’s appearance,” he said. “I like books with strong characters, who do things, no matter what their gender.”

It’s easy to see why he likes Lois McMaster Bujold, whose serial hero Miles Vorkosigan can barely scrape through two pages of plot without precipitating political catastrophe, while Miles’ mother, Cordelia, brings a traditional conservative empire to the brink of democracy and gender equality within the space of a single novel. Similarly, Robin Hobb’s ‘Farseer’ trilogy introduces us to Fitz, who is rightly described by his fellow character The Fool as being a ‘catalyst’ to his whole world. Wherever Fitz goes, he takes action and things change, with ripples spreading throughout both the story and the entire setting.

Female writers are beginning to stake more of a claim within the adult fantasy and science fiction markets, echoing their successes in the young adult sections of these markets. It helps that credit is now being given where it is due, to writers such as Stella Gemmell, who co-authored her husband David’s final ‘Troy’ book, and has become a successful published author in her own right. David Eddings gave credit to his wife Leigh Eddings for the input she had into his world, while she went on to publish work as a solo author (and was yet another author listed by one of my respondents as a favourite). Jany Wurts co-authored the phenomenally successful Empire Trilogy with Raymond Feist early in her career before becoming a best seller in her own right.

There are some stumbling blocks still to be tackled by way of prejudice however. My husband did admit that a lead female character was something that some male readers might find ‘off putting’, but that he had no problem with it. The traditionally male dominated worlds of science fiction and fantasy entertainment are slowly beginning to embrace the idea of complex female protagonists, even outside of printed literature. The Mass Effect games allow players the choice as to whether their main character, Commander Shepard, is played as a male or female. While the majority of male players might still opt for a male hero, the fact that the choice has been made available and that the games have still gone on to be well regarded best sellers, while players follow the same plot options for both gender choices, shows just a little of how far the industry has come in terms of equality in the treatment of gender. Twenty years ago such a thing would have been unthinkable. Now, there are still those who complain, but there are also those who are applauding the idea and the games still sell like hot cakes.

Crime fiction put in a strong showing on the list, with Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie (one of the few female authors to be shortlisted by this year’s World Book Night) both in evidence, even with their frequent use of female main characters. What surprised me substantially, however, were the names of the modern classic and traditional cannon female authors who turned up repeatedly. No less than five of the responders listed Jane Austen books among their favourite reads, with three of those men also listing the Brontë sisters as preferred authors. Margaret Atwood also showed up among the choices, as did Audrey Niffenegger, alongside Simone De Beauvoir. All books which are perceived to appeal to a traditionally female dominant readership.

I think it’s safe to say based on the responses that I received from the men of my friendship circle that men are capable of finding a lot worthwhile in fiction written by women, they enjoy those works and rate them extremely highly. All this just highlights how World Book Night’s 2014 majority focus upon male authors in order to appeal to male readers is sadly short sighted, especially when these women writers have so much to offer which has already been proven to appeal to traditionally male markets.

The idea of encouraging more men to read is not a negative one in and of itself. World Book Night cite the government statistics which highlight this as a cause for action. But the deliberate exclusion of female authors in favour of male authors to achieve this objective is unnecessary and absolutely prejudiced.

There were female authors on the lists that were submitted which were unknown to me yet beloved by the men who recommended them, who I will be investigating and no doubt enjoying the world of soon. Women writers have a lot to offer to World Book Night’s cause of increasing male readership, in terms of providing stories and characters that do appeal to male readers, with intriguing mysteries to be solved, characters packed to the brim with agency and engaging personalities and worlds to be explored and discussed in depth.

Perhaps the World Book Night’s organizers would do well to read works by a few of the authors on this list, as recommended by men who do read. After all, this is exactly what they want to be promoting.

*[Got something to say? Submit to Project Shandy]*

Speak Up!