This is me, getting on my soapbox….
This story begins with a recommendation from the great Lady Pole, who has an uncanny talent for finding the Good Books You Haven’t Read Yet. The book is question is a horror novel, dealing with a haunted photo album, a scarred woman, and a discussion about flawed beauty standards…and, because it is brand new, it has yet to appear in the NOBLE Catalog. Thus, I used Google to search for the title of the book. This was what I saw as a result:
Take a look, not at the title (though you can feel free to look at the title), but at the information directly beneath it. This line tells you in what category Amazon has placed the book in question. Not in horror, not in thriller, not in paranormal or ghost story, but under Women Authors.
I’m sorry, what?
Thinking, perhaps, that Amazon classified all books by the gender of their authors, I randomly searched for a book that is currently on the New York Times Bestseller List. This is what I saw:
And then it hit me. Amazon assumes that authors are, by definition, male. And therefore, when the author is not a male, it has to add a new level of classification, to designate a non-typical human author.
This isn’t a new problem, and it isn’t one that belongs to Amazon, alone. We’ve certainly dealt with the “women authors” question before here. But, it’s International Women’s Day, and so we’re going to confront again.
By and large, books are organized by their genre or subject matter. Examples of this can be found by walking into the Library and looking at the shelves. But, sadly, we are somewhat unique in these matters. Institutions that try to make money off the books on their shelves (heathens, wink, wink) generally abide by this rule, as well. Nevertheless, there is an inevitable and unique distinction made in regards to books (primarily, fiction books), written by “women authors”. They get special displays, they get separate shelf space, and they get advertised differently, inherently isolating “women authors”–and those who read books by them–from the rest of fiction.
This is based, at least partly, on the belief that only women can talk about relationships, about families, about interpersonal relationships, or about women, and that they are somehow of lesser importance, or value, or smaller in scope for it. This is not a new trend. Mary Ann Evans insisted on using the male pen name George Eliot when writing her classics like Middlemarch (released in 1871) in order to ensure that her work would be taken seriously. It was only after her Frankenstein became a commercial success that Mary Shelley’s name appeared on her great work. Nora Roberts began publishing under the name J.D. Robb partly in order to prove that women could write books that men would want to read.
It’s just plain ridiculous to isolate “women authors” from all other authors, as if there is something irreconcilable about their identity, but, significantly, it also utterly obscures the point that men can write about families, about love, about relationships, and about women, too. And it forces some male authors to change their names, as well. S.K. Tremayne’s celebrated book, The Ice Twins, about a woman who gives birth to twins, and has to cope with the death of one, and the identity of the other, is written by Sean Thomas, a British journalist. Additionally, S.J. Watson, author of the best-selling Before I Go To Sleep is really Steve Watson. In an quote to The Guardian, he explained, “If at least some people weren’t sure whether I was a man or a woman then it was working, and I was immensely gratified when certain publishers were convinced the book had been written by a woman.”
I understand that Watson was expressing pleasure that he had accurately captured his characters’ voice, and was primarily interested in selling books, the truth of the matter is that if we accepted authors as empathetic, insightful humans, we wouldn’t have to worry about that author’s name sounding too much like a male or female name at all.
To say that only one group of humans are capable about writing books about issues that are fundamental to all humans seems wholly counter-intuitive, but it keeps happening. This is as true for family dramas as it is for the type of horror novel I was searching for in the example I provided above. By consistently isolating men’s and women’s books and experiences, we are ruining our chance of developing empathy, and are surely missing out on some phenomenal books.
Human beings are storytellers–we have cave paintings that date some 35,000 years ago to prove it. We owe it to ourselves, and to the books we read, to ensure that we treat all humans’ stories equally, regardless of their content, or their creator, and thus ensure that we get the very best stories we can get.
…Ultimately, while we are waiting for the rest of the world to catch on, consider this another point in favor of The Library, I suppose.