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BEA 2014: "Girls Books, Boy Books, Gender Hooks" Panel

Hanna Lafferty ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Book Editor

For their 40th anniversary, Women’s Media Group hosted a panel about the issues of gender bias within the publishing industry. The panel was mediated by Rebecca Mead, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and featured prominent figures such as the Editor of the New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul; the Editor in Chief of Grand Central Publishing, Deb Futter; the Executive Editor of William Morrow, Rachel Kahan; and bestselling author Jennifer Weiner (Fly Away Home, Little Earthquakes) who introduced her new book, All Fall Down. The focus of the discussion was on the various stereotypes that publishing perpetuates and inequality of genders on all fronts of the industry.

Paul found in her experience that there are currently more women book critics and editors of newspapers and major magazine than men. However, she said, there is a secondary bias in the industry that is much more insidious than traditional sexism. She found that reviewers were more likely to review books by writers of the same gender. Weiner believes that this happens through the affinity a reviewer has for the story as an excellent piece of literature, not due to bias or sexism. Her high school teachers, as Weiner grew up, told her that what counted as excellence in literature were novels written by men.

Related: BEA 2014: Thursday Highlights

Futter believed that the packaging of a novel also has some featured bias. Jacket covers that are geared toward women are becoming stereotyped as women’s fiction. While it’s obvious that publishers want to target a certain demographic with their jackets, it is important to ask whether or not publishers are presenting something stereotypical or sexist. Covers with pastel covers, legs, and cocktail glasses are telegraphing the message that books written by women aren’t important, while books written by men are considered instructive, noted Kahan. She said that she was now looking for stock photo images of “real” women for jacket covers, photos of women that are not the “stereotypical blonde yogi on a magazine cover.” There is a genuine issue that there are so few images of women of color and of women of different ages and sizes being represented. It’s growing increasingly important for there to be a shift in the publishing industry to non-stereotypical images that work as a representation of the novel.

The discussion turned toward the issue of gender biases made by the consumer. While women seem to be interested in every kind of literature, men were not as adventurous in their tastes, especially when it came to books written by women. Weiner thought that men have been taught from an early age to avoid “girly” books, based entirely on their covers. “Pastels not good, jewel tones yes!” she said, laughing. Futter said that the balance in marketing, of not leaning to far to one side or the other when working with certain demographics, is still a work in progress with commercial fiction. But, she added, the point is that the cover should represent what the book is about, while still signaling a core audience. There are also trends that jackets follow, Kahan said. It wasn’t that long ago that Barnes & Noble refused to take any more books with pink covers, and sent publishers scrambling to look for new cover ideas.

Related: BEA 2014: Lessons Learned in the Classroom

Commercial fiction has long held stigma around it that can be specifically biased against women authors. “Women are told that they can have respect or readers, not both,” said Weiner. To write commercial fiction is a sure way for women authors to alienate male readers, she added, but there is no stigma attached to women reading books with covers of “death and despair.” Futter mentioned that women genre writers are able to make a large profit, but their work is wrongly considered frivolous: “We could all stand to expose ourselves to them [genre fiction] more.”

Kahan found the lack of respect and press for the talent and dedication of commercial writers frustrating. “Authors that turn out two books a year and are good at what they do and are valued by their readership should be taken as seriously as a literary author producing one book every ten years,” she said. Weiner thought the discrepancy between what novels critics decided would last in depth and meaning for future reading was ultimately disregarded by readers, who preferred commercial fiction. The panel ended with a final comment by Kahan that people shouldn’t judged for their taste in literature. A larger issue in the publishing industry is that “commercial fiction is seen as smart fiction for smart readers,” she explained, “but, I’m a smart person and I read it” because it is literature that is accessible and identifiable to everyone.

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