Ten years ago I was teaching English at a private girls’ high school in Tokyo. On a slow morning, I decided to try an experiment. ‘Draw a person,’ I said to my class of forty sixteen-year-olds, ‘a human being.’ I gave them two minutes, then walked around the class looking at the drawings. Now, this was a girls’ high school with a girls’ primary school joined to it. The principal was a woman and so were most of the staff. In fact, other than a handful of teachers, the janitor, and a few guys working in administration, there wasn’t a man to be seen in a mile’s radius.
But there were no female figures on my students’ papers set out on their desks in front of them.
What does this mean? That I’m not very good at giving instructions? That I had a bunch of lazy students who didn’t want to try drawing boobs or dresses or their figures? Or could it be possible that we tend to think of ‘people’ as gender-neutral or male and ‘women’ as something separate, a sub-group?
Well, why not? There’s ‘fiction’ and ‘women’s fiction’, isn’t there?
‘Women’s fiction’. I’ve heard this phrase a lot lately but I’m not sure that I understand it. I can see why authors would want to write stories with strong female protagonists, or plots that deal with issues that affect women. But why would you need a separate genre for it? Why wouldn’t you just call this ‘fiction’?
Perhaps ‘women’s fiction’ is simply code for ‘something that wouldn’t interest men’. Well, that covers a lot of ground. A study once claimed that in conversation women initiate more topics, but it’s men who control the flow of talk by choosing to respond or stay quiet, and I’d add from experience that this ‘topic initiating’ phase can turn into quite a marathon at times. And while it’s difficult to find a unifying theme in what’s considered ‘women’s fiction’, it seems to involve factors like having a female central character, scenes of friends bonding, the difficulties and rewards of raising children, maintaining family relationships, and finding and holding on to love. And of course men never fall in love, spend time with friends, and have nothing to do with children or families, so why would they want to read about this stuff?
Or perhaps men feel shut out, as if they’re not the intended audience. I suppose I can understand that. After all, if a book appeared on the market written by a penguin, with a penguin as the central character, and a plot that revolved around raw fish and snow, I might not put it at the top of my ‘to read’ list. But then, if I was married to a penguin, if my mother was a penguin, and my sisters, if I had a daughter who was a penguin, and if half the souls I interacted with every day were penguins, I’d think twice about dismissing it.
But men are special creatures – it really doesn’t take much to frighten them away. I’ve met men who say they don’t read female authors at all and would have no idea where to begin. Picture that situation reversed. (‘Hamlet? Nah. Some guy wrote it. Not my thing.’) Years ago I read an article by a man who’d finished a book by a woman and loved it – but he said the ‘awful chick lit cover’ nearly kept him away. I had a look at this cover. A woman stands in front of a filing cabinet. The colour scheme is green and black. Not a stiletto or a martini glass to be seen. So what scared him? A female figure in the foreground?
I’ve also had a fair number of male friends tell me that the cover of my own book looks girly. There’s a drawing of a toaster, with some smoke rising from it, and the title. I guess…toasters belong in kitchens? Girls like kitchens? Or is the font too friendly, the background colours too soft? Maybe the publisher should have gone with something more sombre. An angry, scowling toaster on a scorched field at night, stark white-on-black lettering. Perhaps the toaster would be smoking a bent and crumpled cigarette, with its collar turned against the wind. I remember during Cinnamon Toast’s first few days on the shelves (long before anyone would have known about my protagonist’s thing for other fellas) I had trouble getting male managers at bookstores to accept a signed copy. Or, they would, but they’d ask for it to be signed to Jen or to Claire, to Saoirise. I could see that something about my book had spooked them. Somehow it had girl germs, even if it was about a boy.
But to be fair, it’s possible I was just dealing with something less complicated: men who don’t read fiction. Strange and saddening as it seems to fiction writers, there are a lot of people, both men and women, who think stories are a waste of time. For years this made me feel as if there was something wrong with fiction itself, rather than something imaginatively lacking in these people. Then I had a look at my beloved’s ‘to-read’ pile. There’s a book on soccer. Two thick books on hurling. And an analysis of how a little-known battle of World War Two would have turned in Mussolini’s favour if only he’d requisitioned more felt. (Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the idea. Not everyone who rejects fiction does so because they have lofty matters on their minds.)
But getting back to women’s fiction, perhaps it’s possible that if current trends continue, in the future there won’t be any need to label anything as having special interest to females, because there won’t be enough men reading fiction at all. So instead of ‘fiction’ and ‘women’s fiction’, you’ll have ‘fiction’ and ‘man-reads’, ‘fella-follies, ‘dude-lit’. I suppose it’s possible.
Still, all in all, I’d rather read books about people, written by people. And if these ‘people’ all turned out to be women, well, that would be just fine.
(c) Janet Cameron
A Canadian writer and teacher, Janet E. Cameron has been living in Ireland since 2005, where she teaches ESL at Dublin Business School. She has also lived, worked, and taught in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Tokyo. Last year she graduated from Trinity with an MPhil in Creative Writing, and her first novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, was published by Hachette in March of 2013. Cinnamon Toast was also one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s inaugural Novel Fair contest. For more information or to contact, go to www.asimplejan.com