One for the Ladies
From time to time, we are reminded by the media and research that girls and boys have different preferences and values in many aspects of life. The issue is sociologically very interesting; we will see equality as an optimal target politically and socially, but at the same time it is generally accepted that we simply do have some qualities that are defined by our gender. What qualities might that be? Physical strength is probably not the only difference. What about choice of entertainment and cultural preferences? Is it, for example, possible to think of a kind of literature specially written for a female audience, without being accused of being prejudiced? Well, it seems that the issue is not as far-fetched and predisposed as we may think.
In an inquiry published in the Norwegian paper, Bergens Tidende, seven randomly chosen readers of different age and gender were asked what they associated with “female literature”. They mentioned such characteristics as romance, intrigues, happy ending, emotions and love. The design and colour of the cover were also suggested as typical indications of a book written for women. If this is true, it would perhaps be equally feasible and legitimate to identify literature designed for men. So it seems likely to assume that our reading habits to some extent really are defined by our gender. But do the authors think of this when they compose a plot and write a novel? Are some writers consciously addressing a female audience with their books?
The American writer Cecilia Samartin puts it like this: “I am well aware of the fact that most of my readers are women, and I am proud of it. But I don’t aim to write about what we may call female interests; I try to focus on general issues like what is important in life and the ambition to have a good life.” She admits that her books are commercial entertainment, but adds that as long as her literature can provide some self-insight and reflection for the reader, female or male, she has succeeded. If she should come across a male reader who has picked up one of her books, she would admiringly say that he must be very safe with his own masculinity.
Another American female writer, Jennifer Cody Epstein, says that she does not think of her books as aimed at a female audience in particular. “I was a bit surprised when my last book was labelled “female literature”, but I can understand why the book appeals to female readers because it is about a strong woman who is up against hard times.” She sees that the American publishing business is hyping the female touch by giving what they consider books for women a very female lay-out and presentation, with certain illustrations and colours on the dustcover.
What the two writers have in common is that they don’t write for women specifically, but appreciate that their books are read by a female audience. Traditionally, books for women were about home, family and romance, but according to the two American authors, this is not the case any longer. They both see the limitations of categorising a certain literature as female, since it suggests that a woman is only occupied with herself and the little things around her. They want to expand the focus, because women are also interested in social and political issues, not only romance and emotions.
Literary sociology is an interesting field for theorists and literary scholars. They follow the market and do in-depth studies to find out who reads what. Their research and conclusions are important material for the publishing industry, which must be aware of the trends to meet the commercial demands of the market. But when it comes to our gender-related reading habits, the question remains if this kind of research manifests attitudes that we actually would rather have ditched.
Interview material used with kind permission from journalist Siri Økland, Bergens Tidende, Norway
Tasks and Activities
- What does Cecilia Samartin mean by saying that a man who reads her books must be safe with his own masculinity?
- In what way can the “female label” be an obstructive classification?
- Explain what is meant by the last sentence of the article.
2 Discussion (Groups of both boys and girls…)
- Discuss what qualities we have that are defined by our gender.
- Is feminist literature the same as female literature?
- Are the differences between the genders still reflected in film and literature, or is that just an outdated issue?
- Can you mention examples of books or films that you think are aimed at a female or a male audience? Discuss the characteristics that will identify such books / films.
- Google “female literature” and see what you can come up with as a definition.
- Ask the school librarian if there is a difference between what books boys and girls borrow.
- Visit the nearest bookstore and check if you can spot some typically female books. Do you see any similarities in the way books by female writers are presented? (Design, illustration, colour, title.)
- ENGLISH – PROGRAMME SUBJECT IN PROGRAMMES FOR SPECIALIZATION IN GENERAL STUDIES