Just A Girls’ Book

So, I was reading the latest edition of Viewpoint and came across a review of India Dark, Kirsty Murray’s new novel. This book has been on my To Read list ever since I heard of it, because a) it’s by Kirsty Murray, b) it’s set in India and c) it’s historical fiction based on a fascinating true story, all of which suggest it will be an excellent read. The review, by Tony Thompson, was very positive, but then, towards the end, he had this to say:

“It would be tempting to suggest this is a book for girls but I think that would diminish a novel that is told with such skill and precision.”

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson)Yep. You see, books told with ‘skill and precision’ are wasted on girls. To give such a book to girls would ‘diminish’ the book, because, as everyone knows, girls can’t cope with complex plots, rich language or vividly-described settings. Only boys have the vocabularies, reading comprehension skills and attention spans that are required to read and understand a well-written novel.

Yes, I am being sarcastic, Mr Thompson. But what’s that you say?

“. . . astute English teachers will recognize that, despite the female narrators, this is a book that will appeal strongly to the boys in the class . . .”

So, boys ought to be given a chance to read this book, despite the fact that it contains characters who are (ugh!) girls. But only ‘astute’ English teachers will recognise this, because apparently it takes a huge amount of wisdom to see that boys might benefit from learning about the other half of the human population.

Of course, English teachers, astute or otherwise, don’t seem to have any problem making girls read books about boys. When I was in senior high school (a quarter of a century ago), only one female writer existed – Jane Austen. There were no female poets, playwrights, short story writers or contemporary novelists in the English-speaking world, according to our syllabus. The current list of texts for New South Wales senior high school students shows some improvement, but in junior high school, texts about boys still predominate. The thinking seems to be that, as boys are more likely to be reluctant and/or poor readers, they must always be indulged at the expense of girls. Girls will read anyway. Besides, it doesn’t matter so much about their academic skills, because they don’t have to get a job – they’ll get married and be supported by their husband. (Don’t laugh – this is what I was told by the parents of one of my students, a girl who’d just been identified as having learning difficulties).

I understand that teachers need to consider many issues, including themes and language, when they’re selecting books for their students. I just don’t see why the gender of the characters is only an issue when the characters are female. Teachers don’t often say, ‘I can’t give this book to my co-ed class – the narrator is a boy!’

It’s depressing enough that the Children’s Book Council awards so often seem to privilege stories about boys over stories about girls. But do we also have to read patronising reviews about ‘girl’ books that are so good, even boys might like them? That’s insulting to both girls and boys.

EDITED TO ADD: Two pages on in Viewpoint is yet another male reviewer who has interesting views on girls and books. Here’s Malcolm Tattersall reviewing Kate Elliott’s alternate history/fantasy novel, Cold Magic:

“One aspect of Cold Magic will be a problem for half its potential readers and a strength for the other half: it is intrinsically a girls’ book. That is apparent on the surface level in the protagonist’s clothes-consciousness and romantic crushes, but it also pervades deeper levels, in the greater significance accorded to relationships than to deeds and Catherine’s ongoing, if unarticulated, struggle for self-determination in a male-dominated world.”

I haven’t read the book, but . . . really? Boys never have ‘romantic crushes’? They never care about what they’re wearing? They have no interest in relationships? They never struggle for their own self-determination? And they have no interest in reading about someone else’s struggle for self-determination?

You’d think boys and girls belonged to completely different species, reading this. Maybe I just give teenage boys more credit than these reviewers do.

UPDATE: Just A Girls’ Book, Redux

18 thoughts on “Just A Girls’ Book

  1. Foz Meadows

    GIRL NERD RAAAAAAGE!

    Yes, some authors write particular books with a particular gender in mind, which is fine; but re the teachers comment, surely the point of forcing children and teenagers at gradepoint to read things they otherwise wouldn’t prod with a stick is to inform them as to the values of literature, make them step outside their comfort zone and generally get RID of the mindset that assumes certain types of book are Not For Them, particularly when said category by default encompasses All Written Works That Are Not Zoo Or Girlfriend Magazine?

    Plus and also: where is the motivation for boys to read awesome girl books if the first comment of any passerby adult on seeing them do so is, ‘Why are you reading a girl book?’ AGHSBDAMMIT

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      YES! EXACTLY!

      (Have edited my post to include another problematic review. Yesterday, my Girl Nerd Rage made me jump to my keyboard before I’d even finished reading Viewpoint.)

      Reply
  2. Judith Ridge

    Kill me now. Honestly, I’ve been banging on about this for so long I feel like Germaine Greer at the launch of The Beauty Myth. And yet it seems to get more deeply entrenched, and more frighteningly, shame-facedly overt at the same time. Let me understand this—any fiction that deals with (allegedly) “girls issues” is a problem. A problem. God protect those boys from the problem that is women. Kill me now.

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Thanks, Judith. It’s depressing, isn’t it?

      But I like to think it’s mostly the older generations of men (and some women) who cling to these illogical ideas. I’ve met some terrific teenage boys (generally with feminist mums) who don’t see girls as the enemy at all. There is hope for the future!

      Reply
  3. lili

    I’m so tired of this. A librarian told me recently that it was “such a shame that Pink’s cover meant that boys can’t read it”. I stared at her and asked why a pink cover should stop a boy from reading. She didn’t really have an answer.

    Having said that, I’ve gotten some great fan mail from boys about Pink.

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Hi, Lili. I think the cover of ‘Pink’ is fantastic, because it plays with the whole notion of stereotyped ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ covers. I’m glad boys are reading and enjoying the book.

      I suspect some boys (or some adults who recommend books to boys) are put off my books because the Australian covers all have photos of girls on the front, but I’m not losing any sleep over it. No book appeals to all readers, and I’m happy to have lots of girl readers . . . and maybe some of them will talk their male friends into reading the books.

      Reply
  4. Kate Elliott

    I just had to weigh in. I haven’t seen this review or journal, but caught the reference to Cold Magic.

    I wanted to note that in Cold Magic and its (forthcoming sequel), the character who is most clothes conscious and obsessed with clothing is, yes, a male. That character is also the one with a romantic crush. I realize the book is written in first person from the pov of the female lead, but how one could miss the other elements, I am not sure. Especially not the clothing part. Maybe there’s an idea that even if some males might be clothes conscious they would never write about it?

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Hi, Kate. Congratulations on your new book, and I hope you get a chance to read the review. It was generally positive (the reviewer called Cold Magic, ‘a well-developed romantic adventure with strong, credible characters driven by complex backgrounds’) – which is why my jaw dropped at the concluding paragraph. It just seems bizarre that the reviewer thinks boys would be put off by elements such as ‘having a romantic crush’! As if boys never have romantic crushes!

      Reply
  5. Kate

    “It would be tempting to suggest this is a book for girls but I think that would diminish a novel that is told with such skill and precision.”

    What an incredibly condescending and stupid thing to say! I sit here in baffled fury. With not much else to say except AAAAARRRRGGGH.

    In some ways I am glad I cannot find the original review — when I click the link above I find a review for Anonymity Jones and that’s all. Otherwise I might be sending snarky emails.

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Hi Kate. Yes, the Viewpoint link I provided is to the home page of the journal, not to these individual reviews. I have a subscription to the print edition, but I think they only feature one or two reviews per edition on the website.

      The strange thing is that Tony Thompson gave India Dark a glowing review – but it ends with these patronising comments about girl and boy readers. Very strange (and annoying)!

      Reply
  6. inkpawprints

    I assume what he meant to say was “but I think that {limiting the readership} would diminish a novel that is told with such skill and precision.” Rather than girls can’t appreciate it properly. Otherwise I completely agree :) I think the world would be a better place if more men were able to put themselves in women’s shoes.

    *wanders off to enjoy the notion of middle-aged businessmen staggering around in high heels*

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Hello, and thanks for your comment. Yes, you may be right about the reviewer not wanting to limit the readership of this book, which is fair enough. However, as it’s worded, it suggests that a book read by girls is, by definition, a rubbish book.

      There’s also his later statement that boys should read outstanding books (such as India Dark) DESPITE the girl characters. How about BECAUSE OF the girl characters?

      But yes, I think we are in agreement! Especially about the shoes!

      Reply
      1. Steven

        Since it seems to be suggested that a lot of what boys like (Halo novels, Captain underpants for younger kids, etc.) is rubbish, I would say it’s only fair.

        Reply
  7. Kirsty Murray

    Thank you Michelle for a great blog post and for fighting the good fight. And also for your wonderful novels – I’ve been a huge fan since ‘Rage of Sheep’.
    As to the age-old and wearying dilemma of girls in fiction, I’m in the ‘kill me now’ camp with Judith. After ‘banging on about it’ in articles and in public, I grew disheartened and turned to messing with the problem in fiction. The major inspirations for my novel ‘Vulture’s Gate’ was gender issues.
    Perhaps the ground is shifting more than we know but it will probably take a few more generations of subversive writing before the tide turns. In the end, it’s the books and the readers that will change the balance, not the reviewers.

    Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Hi, Kirsty! Congratulations on India Dark, which sounds terrific – I am very much looking forward to reading it. (And I’m very glad you’ve enjoyed my books, too!)

      I really do think the situation is gradually getting better, although I get depressed when people use terms like ‘post-feminist’. In no sense are the battles over, even in secular democracies like Australia. I guess the one positive thing is that these problems can inspire fascinating novels like Vulture’s Gate!

      Reply
    1. Michelle Post author

      Hello, Jo. Thanks for commenting – and thanks for your own, very thoughtful, blog entry on this issue! [Sorry, tried to comment on your blog, but had some problems with OpenID].

      Reply

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