Maureen Johnson (one of my absolute FAV authors especially for following on Twitter because she’s just as weird as I am) recently conducted a small experiment that she called Coverflip. The idea of the experiment was to take books and imagine if they were written by someone of the opposite gender as their true author, and then create a cover, thinking of how it would be different based on the gender of author. So for example you might take The Great Gatsby, imagine it was written by a woman, and design the cover for it. There were some really interesting covers, and some interesting reactions (many of which included things like “wow, now that this doesn’t have a girly cover I really want to read it!”), and I found myself thinking about how I view books that are marketed as chick lit.
I don’t read a lot of “chick lit”. Lately I’ve been into the classics because it took me so F’ing long to start reading them that I have to catch up, but when I read easy or fun books, I tend towards sci fi and fantasy. Now some of these are marketed with female oriented covers, but for the most part they highlight adventure or intrigue or mystery. I realized after this coverflip exercise that when I DO read chick lit books I often feel like I have to apologize: I try not to read them in public, I’m ashamed to be seen reading something that is marketed as trite and empty headed. I’m getting to the point where I’m a little self-conscious of reading ANY YA fiction in public (which is stupid because YA fiction is fantastic and I like it a lot better than most adult fiction which tries to be all edgy by having sex in it, but that’s a topic for another day), and I’m starting to realize thanks to this exercise that having shame about what you read is silly. When you are reading, you are doing something for yourself. You are occupying your free time, doing something that you enjoy. Why should you capitulate to what others suggest you SHOULD be reading rather than what you actually enjoy?
But Coverflip brought up more questions than just how societal pressures can force us to feel guilty about the things we actually enjoy. One of the biggest ones for me is about romance in fiction, how romance is marketed, and why we often view romance as an unimportant, badly written, or trashy topic. Romance is generally associated with female writers. In YA fiction, it’s often marketed towards girls, and viewed in the same way as chick flicks. Interestingly, one of the reasons I didn’t take John Green seriously for a while was because his covers gave off the same light, romancey vibe that a lot of female YA authors did. In my mind, that meant he didn’t write about important topics. Once I really read his books, I found that he engaged with some very basic questions of what it means to be human and to look for human connection. So why is it that when I think romance I think trite?
One obvious reason is because romance is considered feminine. Men aren’t expected to want romance. They’re expected to want sex or grit or violence. Romance is for women. Which means that it’s empty headed right? But the problem with that is that romance is actually a fairly universal drive. Romance is about connecting with another human being, about what it means to feel close, about what love is. Men have those drives too, just like women do. And even if women were the only ones who had those drives…what on earth is trite about trying to find someone to spend your life with? What is trite about human connection? What is trite about trying to understand what drives us to be around other people? These questions are not trite at all. Romance is about what makes us human and how our human nature resonates with others. This is far from trite, and so making covers of people making hearts with their hands diminishes the importance and power of what it is to be in love or to seek out love. Whether these read as feminine or masculine, it shouldn’t be diminished in this way.
An important element of this is the idea that women are relational and that men are independent. In the hierarchy of male and female, this means that individualism gets prioritized over relationships. Many of our great writers (or people who are considered great) write about people fending for themselves or overcoming odds: Jack London is a perfectly typical example of this, and he’s considered a Good and Serious writer for young adults (despite the fact that he focuses almost all of his descriptions on violence and doesn’t do a whole lot of focus on character growth). So for some reason books about relationships are considered unimportant. Obviously most books have relationships in them, but they are not the focus. Action is the focus. Books that are almost exclusively about relationships are designated as chick lit (even when they deal with important themes, a la Jane Austen). Again, it seems odd to me that books about family, friends, lovers are considered unimportant or boring.
In relation to this, many of the images on “feminine” coded books were of people, often people holding hands or kissing, young people, or women (or all of the above). In contrast, many of the “serious’ coded books were images of things, textual covers, or had fantasy styled covers. These types of dichotomies play on all sorts of sexist stereotypes about what is appealing to men and what is appealing to women, but one piece that seems very bizarre to me is the idea that covers with people on them are not as serious as covers with objects on them. What is it about a person on a cover that reads to us as “this book doesn’t tackle real issues”? Why do we seem to feel that humans or connecting to humans is unimportant? Why are we afraid of books that are open about the fact that they include people interacting with each other, or are even FOCUSED on people’s interactions with each other?
Overall, this experiment confirmed to me that in all sorts of marketing we view women as relational and men as doers or actors, individuals who venture forth. We view those individualistic stories as important, and we view stories of people relating to each other as trite. None of this makes any sense to me. Every human being on the planet has relationships, and those relationships are what keep us alive, and often the things that make our lives worth living. Most often we read books because we want to connect with another person, to get inside the ideas and feelings of another life. The whole point of literature is connection on an emotional level, and yet when we advertise that openly the book is viewed as shallow. And beyond that, why should we feel guilty for books that might appeal to things that are silly or shallow within us? Why should we feel guilty for letting ourselves be goofy and bubble-headed? Is there something wrong with just entertaining ourselves with books, or are books supposed to be a bastion of academia, only for Serious Men and the few women who can be just as serious? But perhaps the biggest question left in my mind is why people on YA covers NEVER HAVE HEADS?