“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?