Covers and gender

Not sure what’s in the air, but there’s been an awful lot of chatter about covers and gender lately. Lauren just sent me a link to this piece, and then there was this, which reminded me of this.

I’m forever fascinated/disturbed by the accepted wisdom that boys don’t want to read about girl characters, but girls will read about anything. First, I’m just not sure it’s true. I don’t think we have the marketing information to back it up. But second, and more importantly, if that is the case, what the hell are we all doing wrong in raising our boys? Are we still such a sexist society that for girls to read about boys is acceptable, but for boys to read about girls isn’t manly?

The pieces above raise interesting questions, and I’m curious to hear how you think this affects you. Do you think your audience is limited by a gendered cover? And do you find yourself writing for one gender or the other purposefully? If so, what do you think that means for our culture?

12 Responses to Covers and gender

  1. Joelle says:

    Both of my YA books have a female main character. Both are on the cover. Neither are photographs of headless females. :-) Thank, God!

    I would say that the fan mail I’ve received for the first book, Restoring Harmony, has been almost all from boys around twelve or thirteen years old. I know? Wild, eh? My MC is 16, but the book seems to have found its place in the MG market rather than YA (fine with me).

    My second book has not generated a ton of reader emails, but a few adults I know have given it to teen boys who really liked it. Whether they would’ve picked it up if it wasn’t given to them is completely different, though.

    I ran this question by my Grade 6 & 7 writing students and ALL the boys said they have no problem reading books about girl MCs as long as the books are good. They just want good books, that’s what they said, and they were quite adamant about it. They started naming books with female MC that they love, starting with the Hunger Games, of course.

    As for covers, sometimes I think they can hurt your chance at an audience. I know a female writer who’s written two books from a teen boy’s POV and both were very good books. But the first one had a cover that looked like a romance. Even if a boy did want to read it, he wouldn’t want to be seen carrying that around!

  2. Siri Kirpal Kaur Khalsa says:

    Sometimes, I think the problem is in the conventional wisdom and not in the reality.

  3. Kellie Lovegrove says:

    I do believe that many boys are made to feel that if anything, not just books, has the potential to be seen as “girly” then they are immediately put off by it. I even went as far as to ask my husband if he would be more willing to read a book based on the cover. He told me no, but as our conversation continued there were some statements he made that leads me to believe he might have not been completely honest, whether he realized it or not. And then one thing he said caught me off guard. He admitted he was more likely to read a book if the author was male, which I have to admit made me want to strangle him just a little bit. His justification was that he liked the male writing style better. Then I mentioned Lian Hearn (who, if you don’t know, is actually female). Let’s just say he couldn’t really explain that one.

    But I do think it shows what many in society may think, female authors write for females and male authors write for everyone. Which can then be related back to cover art. The story’s main character is female so the story is written for females so it needs to be marketed that way. Get a blonde model, stick her in a ball gown, and then make her look lost somehow. Or, make the entire thing bright pink with hearts and flowers and then add in a puppy dog for good measure. It doesn’t matter if it relates to the real story or not, we just want female readers to buy it and this is how to do it. (If you didn’t notice, I’m using extremes here. I’m not saying this is the what is always done.)

    When I write, I usually do so in third person so that I can give attention to all of my main characters; male and female alike. However, with what I am working on now, I have to admit that I tend to focus more on my female character’s part of the story. I can’t help it. For reasons that are completely personal and extremely opinionated, she is the reason that I started mapping ideas in the first place. It isn’t that I don’t feel as connected to my male characters. One of my favorite characters is male, and he’s more of a supporting character. But the fact that the main character is female makes me nervous because I do not want my writing marketed strictly to female readers. Which then upsets me because I have been made to believe that female characters might not be able to make it in a male world.

    I don’t think this is something that society is ever really going to get over. It isn’t just American society, it is world wide and has been this way for a long time. I’m not saying that there hasn’t been progress made, the fact that so many female authors are best sellers instead of having to write under male pen names to even get their stuff looked at shows that. But there are always going to be boys that refuse to read “girly” books. Because the cover is what is visually related to a book, whether boys would like the story or not, they aren’t going to be caught carrying it around or with it in their room. It sucks but, I believe, is a fact nonetheless. Just my opinion though.

  4. Joelle says:

    Makes you wonder what the Harry Potter covers might’ve looked like had she used her whole name…Joanne, I think. And how might have history been changed?

    • Kellie Lovegrove says:

      I actually watched a show on TV about her and it covered that. Apparently she was pretty much told that boys would not read a book written by a woman and since they wanted to target boys she needed to come up with a more masculine name to use. As it was a TV show, I don’t know how truthful it is but I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t close to what happened.

  5. Melissa says:

    “But second, and more importantly, if that is the case, what the hell are we all doing wrong in raising our boys?” << I love this question. Hooray for thoughtful parents who will raise kids to know that girls are people AND boys are people, and that both girls and boys have interesting stories to tell. Because what messages will our kids internalize about themselves, if we (and they) buy into the idea that only boys' stories are of interest to the wider world?

  6. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    It’s natural that covers attract readers who identify with the images portayed; in high school Scarlett O’Hara was my favorite “tuff girl”, but Clark Gable’s picture on the cover was my enrty point and Rhett Butler gave me a style image to work on, although it was years before I was anywhere near that cool. These days, it’s not the cover so much as the content; smart, resourceful girls are YA gold, and boys are relegated to companionista ride-along status, or as poster kids for fashionable disabilties and victims in the latest bullying infomercial. Not surpisingly, most self-respecting boys seek political asylum in Manga and Fantasy and most writers with any sense don’t waste time trying to even think of them as a reading (or, alas, paying!) audience. As for the gatekeepers who routinely pretend to be concerned about this, I’m reminding of a qoute from a famous short story of about a century ago: “Mrs. DeRopp would never in her honestest moments have admitted that she disliked Conradin, although she might have been dimly aware that thwarting him “for his own good” was not a task she found particularly irksome.” Enough of this tiresome subject, I’ve got a YA heroine to cultivate….

  7. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    I suppose it’s only fair to add that Intermediate is still a place where gender equality still exists, (sort of) as Jeff Kinney and several other authors do quite well at displaying. But YA is pretty much a girls-only zone, (and I’m right in there playing it that way)which we may as well chalk up to social climate change. And as for all you 15-year old guys who want positive ( or at least fun) role models,
    the Fantasy Embassy is across the street on the left…

  8. D.C. DaCosta says:

    What are we doing wrong in raising our sons? Maybe…not giving them enough books with strong male characters who lead, protect, and teach others.
    Boys want to be heroes and leaders. But so much of kids’ and YA lit seems to be about “empowering” girls…so little or nothing is left for the guys. I think that’s where the Harry Potter series succeeded: a tale about a boy who persevered and overcame.
    (Got a 16-year-old son who reads everything his sister does….)

  9. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head here. I’m all for powerful girls, (after all, I’m selling one) but there seems to be an inability on the gatekeeper end to promote the one image without defunding the the other. ( Maybe most editors and agents are moonlighting Congressmen, God help us all) I’ll be the first to claim that strong, hip, resourceful girls are YA gold, but most agents and editors have the same attitude about boys as the Colorado prospector in the 1850’s who famously complained that “The gold in these parts would be a helluva lot easier to find if all this damned SILVER wasn’t in the way!!” And so, Prince Charming remains in protective custody in a remote monastery in 12th Century Europe, and no, I’m not going to tell you where, so there……..

    • Steve Means says:

      Check out the cover of Steven King’s new book Joyland and see if it’s not retro pulp––aimed at young male readers. He wouldn’t feel ‘girly’ walking around with this book in high school.

      • Kevin A. Lewis says:

        Absolutely, because Steve-O (a nickname he hates, by the way) was raised on EC horror comics & etc. The YA world lost a big player when he decided to take over the horror universe, although when he started out, there really wasn’t any YA market to speak of.

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