If Harry Had Been Harriet …

“It’s a known fact that among children, girls will happily read stories with male protagonists, but boys refuse to read stories with female protagonists. J.K. Rowling was aware of this: if Harry Potter had been Harriet Potter, none of us would know about her.” Claire Messud – from GUERNICA (Feb 2010)

In Messud’s article she points out that of the 100 books on Modern Library’s best novels of the 20th century, only 9 of them are by women.  Men read books by men, and women read books by men.

As you know, I’ve been reading (and am enamored with) Laura Hillenbrand’s latest book, UNBROKEN.  A friend’s husband has also been reading this book, but last week he hit a snag: he stopped reading on page 290, saying only that it shouldn’t have been written by a woman.

I would like to say I was surprised.  I was not.  I just felt deflated.  I hear stories like this all the time.  In grad school, one of the best male writers in our class — a guy who wrote in the style of Cormac McCarthy and was, by most accounts, brilliant — claimed he never read women writers.  Never.  How anyone can go through life and “not read” Margaret Atwood or Toni Morrison or Jane Smiley or Barbara Kingsolver, etc… just blows my mind.  I remember thinking, What if I never read William Styron, Pat Conroy, Larry McMurtry, John Steinbeck, or Wallace Stegner, strictly because they’re men? Once, in a poetry class with one of my favorite (male) professors, I noted that there was not a single female poet on the syllabus.  When I asked him about it, he gave me a puzzled look and then said, flatly and simply, “I only had room for 14 poets, and the men are the best.”

As a female writer, it’s so tough to hear over and over again how men don’t read women.  Thankfully, every now and then, a little miracle occurs that gives me hope.  I was thrilled, for example, when the 2010 National Book Awards for Fiction and Nonfiction were both awarded to women writers Jaimy Gordon and Patti Smith.  I celebrated by running out, that same day, to buy their books.

I wonder, how would J.K. Rowling’s books have been received by boys if they’d been stamped with “by Joanne Rowling” instead?

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9 thoughts on “If Harry Had Been Harriet …

  1. Bonnie Middlebrooks

    Your neighbor’s husband continued to page 376 but with just 30 pages to go, suggested that she finish those pages and let him know how it ended. She skimmed them to try to understand why he gave up on a book that kept his interest for quite a while.

    I don’t think it was a sexist decision to quit, but a lack of interest in having every feeling explored. (He did use a sexist comment to explain himself, though. No surprise to me.) I think he is one of those people who prefer others who don’t explain their feelings too thoroughly. Perhaps it was too “touchy feely” an ending for someone like him.

  2. Teri C.

    That’s commendable, considering that if I quit a book at page 290, I doubt I would ever, ever go back and finish it. I am the queen of quitting when I’m done, instead of when the book is.

    Like I said, this was no surprise, a man not liking/enjoying a woman’s writing — even if the book is about at man. I hear this all the time. Literally, ALL the time from most of the men I know. I think it bothers me most when it’s a boy or a young man, but I bet they would argue that me and my women-folk don’t read that many books by or about men, either. So there you go.

  3. amyg

    ugh…this topic drives me crazy—this and the whole “women aren’t funny” argument—because i know that there is little that can be done about it in the present (versus in the future with sons who have been taught that good writing is good writing and being a reader means reading it all).

    i think what gets me most is that i can’t help but take it personally. and there is a part of me that can’t help but think that whatever male says or thinks such things must have a hang-up of some kind. but again, that could be me projecting. (but, i don’t think so. if i can wear shoes and carry a purse designed by a man, they can pick up a freaking book written by me!!! i mean, once i find an agent and get a deal and it actually comes out.)

  4. MacDougal Street Baby

    I’ve been thinking about your post for the past day, trying to decide if it applies to my life. I’ve decided, after careful introspection, that you’re right. My 9 yr old and 8 yr old, respectively, would not give stories driven by male characters a chance until Harry Potter came ’round. I’ll be interested to see if he is the catalyst for more testosterone riddled reading. Then I was thinking about my husband who, it seems, does read a majority of male authors. This morning I noticed he had out a Margaret Atwood novel. From your post to their ears, perhaps things are changing.

  5. MacDougal Street Baby

    A quick follow up:

    I just read my comment to my husband and he notes “Well, I heard Margaret Atwood was a good author and there were boobs on the cover. How could I go wrong?”

    Perhaps the secret lies on the book cover.

  6. lisahgolden

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach this. Initially, I used the cheap lure of sex to develop an audience for my blog. Some got hooked and stayed. Others have come and gone, especially after I dropped the DCup moniker and began blogging about life under my real name.

    Would those guys have followed me back to my blog if I called myself something with the word Mommy in it sporting not a trampy avatar, but a pretty flower or a drawing by one of my kids? Not likely. Will they buy any books I might be lucky enough to publish? Perhaps. Will they read them? Now there’s the question.

    I want to rage at the fact that even now, in 2011, we’re talking about this. How is this still an issue? The institutionalization of it is clear based on the evidence in this post and my own observations. I had the same experience in poetry class at Ball State. Not a single female voice. I took French poetry classes at I. U. I’m embarrassed to tell you I can’t name a single female French poet.

    I’d say it’s up to us to transition the next generation out of this mindset, but there I’m a total hypocrite. I can’t even get my son to read a novel. I am doing an end run though. My husband loves the Sara Paretsky novels so he and Nate listen to them during their long daily commute. And they did listen to Water for Elephants and Ape House by Sara Gruen. Both stories had male main characters. Huh.

    I’m rambling. Between the deadly sins of writing about feelings and rambling, I may as well just stick to writing on bathroom walls.

  7. Downith

    Yup. My daughter is desperate to read “boy” books. My son isn’t up for the reverse. Why??
    I read to them both together for years – books about girls,boys,cars,puppies,aliens…the same books forboth
    andnow it’s all beast quest and big nate for him and fairies, brownies and big nate for her-she draws the line at beast quest

    and amy i hearyou on the women aren’t funny front-drives me mental

    lisa-you are not a hypocrite- you can lead a horse to water…

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