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Beall: Prejudice in the library

BY MIKE BEALL | JULY 25, 2013 5:00 AM

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Robert Galbraith wrote the well-received The Cuckoo’s Calling earlier this year. Robert Galbraith didn’t sell all too well, but his was nevertheless the great literary début. Robert Galbraith doesn’t exist.

In recent weeks, it has been revealed that this was a pseudonym for JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter franchise. Rowling has been keen to move into adult literature and released the novel The Casual Vacancy in September 2012. The Casual Vacancy received mixed reviews but was a bestseller because of Rowling’s fame.

Most media have focused on the revelation of Rowling writing under a new pen name as her testing the waters to see how critics and readers truly feel about her writing ability without knowing her identity. But this isn’t the only story.

For the second time in her career, Rowling has used a pen name, a male pen name. JK is not her real name. Before Harry Potter was released Rowling was asked to create a pen name because Joan, her real name, wouldn’t sell to young male readers.

I have to ask, did we really almost miss out on one of the best-selling and most popular book series because the author is a woman? No one really knows how Harry Potter written by Joan Rowling would have been received, but women authors certainly know they have it harder than their male counterparts.

Sexism in literature is a complicated issue that it is endemic in every area of the literary world, from publishing, reviews and lit magazines to readers themselves. I see these trends manifest themselves even in my own reading.

I consider myself to be a pretty progressive individual, but I before I noticed my preference for male authors the ratio of what I was reading was probably close to 10:1, men to women writers.

I was missing out on basically half of literature and here is one reason why: covers.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, we’re told, but I don’t know anyone who actually follows this advice. I work at the Public Library, and I know that when displaying books, books will almost always be chosen based on the appeal of their covers. A boring, drab-looking book will stay on the display forever while a cover that looks like it could fit into a fine art museum will be snatched up quickly.

A cover is important and women authors are often stereotyped into the category of “chick lit” based on the covers they are given. These are covers with light colors and “feminine pictures” and don’t only ward off men but literary critics (who happen to be mostly men).

I admit that this is completely silly, and I try not to choose books or display them based on their covers, but it can be difficult not to discount books that have pictures of wedding cakes or high heels on them.

But biases against women may not simply be cover-deep.

Recently I did an experiment at the library, and although it was very unscientific and merely done for personal inquiry, the results were interesting. 

Twice I displayed books only by women writers in the recently returned fiction section of the library. The first time I chose books with those stereotypical “chick lit” covers. The second time I only chose female authors who I knew were critically acclaimed and winners of prestigious awards.

I waited a few days at which point it is normally expected that most of the books would have been picked up or shelved. Both times, almost every book remained in the exact same spot.


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