Thursday, December 31, 2009

Girl Talk

My friend Julianna's made a bit of a stir with her Washington Post opinion, The Key to Literary Success? Be a Man--or Just Write Like One. Julianna has written a lot of decidedly female books, from poems on motherhood to a novel called Girl Talk, but her children's books have a male name on them:
But when I invented the pen name N.E. Bode for "The Anybodies," a trilogy for younger readers, I had to choose to be a man or a woman. The old indoctrination kicked in. I picked man. The trilogy did well, shortlisted in a People magazine summer pick, alongside Bill Clinton and David Sedaris. I was finally one of the boys.

Bode is, first of all, a terrific example of an intrusive narrator--a coherent character who lives, breathes, and whinges as he tells his Dahl-ish story. The Anybodies are shapeshifters and when Julianna does school visits she shows up with a rabbit in a cage and explains that Mr. Bode is someone else right now. It's a great conceit, and I recommend the series a lot for voice.

I considered taking on initials for my fantasy series and opted not to--my name's my name, and "A.E. Ursu" just doesn't have a good ring to it (with apologies to Mr. Housman). I knew, though, that there's a perception in kids publishing that fantasy is more readily accepted from men. Ms. Joanne Rowling's publisher famously suggested she take on initials because boys wouldn't read books written by women. The secret is out on that one, and the books seem to be doing okay. We're also told that boys don't read fantasy books with female protagonists--which I've found is completely not true. But whether or not boys will read female-authored and starring books isn't the point; what matters is whether the gatekeepers--sales muckety-mucks, buyers, critics--think they will.

Which is Julianna's point. Whenever this discussion comes up, people find themselves in the position of arguing that the "best" books can be objectivity defined. Publisher's Weekly, whose completely-male top ten books of 2009 list raised some eyebrows, shrugged that their list was not "politically correct," a response so obnoxious I keep writing and deleting sentences about it. (Here's a very considered essay by Salon's Laura Miller about the whole episode.)

A quick glance of the comments on Julianna's essay shows that it's really better never to read the comments. Most people are shocked, shocked that someone might posit that there's a gender bias in publishing, and if women aren't well-represented, they should simply write better books. (Trying to exonerate Julianna, one person said that a scan of her pictures on the internet proves that she's "ogle-worthy." A great moment in feminist history, to be sure. ) That response was inevitable, and I'm proud of her for sticking out her ogle-worthy neck, and for her new fantasy, The Ever Breath, which carries her own name.

Meanwhile, I'll say a good-bye to 2009 with this illustration from The Oatmeal's "Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling."

Happy New Year, all.


  1. Woe be to the pundits who mount one more reason that authors not pen another word.
    Thank heavens for little girls like Anne who is still Anne in person and in print and for all the girls and boys who don't give a rip about the politics of authorship and just want a great story.

    Happy New Year to that!

  2. And don't you suppose The Kidz figured out the initial scam a long time ago?