Illustrated initials from a German fairytale book (1919 edition)

Books by Women

I have recently come across a Twitter thread by the wonderful Joanne Harris where she quoted a review of her own book, Chocolat, where the author of the review chose to describe it as a tale of a a single mother who liked chocolate. I kid you not.

That prompted an extensive conversation and wide-spread mockery of course, focused around how women’s books are often misrepresented simply because they are written by women. There’s a reason why Robin Hobb and JK Rowling chose to stay gender-neutral on the covers. Books by women are perceived differently. Let’s start with the sad fact that a lot of men will glance over a book written by a woman, assuming straight off that its intended audience are women. Nobody makes a similar assumption about books written by men.

It made me think about all the wonderful, nuanced titles by female authors which have been overlooked or miscategorised because of their authors’ gender. If a book is written by a woman and it has a hint of romance in it, the entire thing can be conveniently dumped in a “romance genre”. If it portrays family relationships or female friendships, it can be chick-lit and nothing more.

But when a man writes about the exact same subject we often automatically bestow an assumption of gravitas onto the work.

Now I’m not trying to be overly critical of the romance genre at all. There are some wonderfully written books in that genre, just like everywhere else. But it is undeniable that most men will not touch anything that has been dumped into that category with a ten-foot pole.

My favourite book of all time, one which I reread once every year or two, is The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I would argue it’s a tremendously sensitive portrayal of loneliness and the habit-forming resignation to a life of social exclusion and anonymity. It shows the crippling fear of poverty, and female poverty especially, which has such power that it can stunt personal growth and thwart even the most modest of personal ambitions. It also describes the strength and determination required to break free, and the exhilaration which follows it. 

But The Blue Castle is by no means a terribly famous or popular book. It’s seen as a romance and the subtlety and charm of it are stripped in the descriptions of it. You can buy it in paperback generally, with tacky, pastel covers usually reserved for Harlequin editions. The kind of covers which instantly signal “This is for women only”.

And all I want to ask is “why”? Not just why are women authors thus undervalued and misrepresented, but why are we depriving men of what could be, without a doubt, an oft wonderful reading experience.