Books were her great escape, and Elizabeth had her father’s mind. Early on, her father made a house rule that as long as you were reading you could stay up as late as you wanted, provided you were on your own bed. She read everything she could get her hands on. Her parents traveled to used-book stores just to feed her growing appetite….she learned from the books that gradually filled her house.
- The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene
My books usually come from a place where I’m trying to explore and/or challenge the socially ingrained ideas and expectations we have of girls. They’re a response to the anger I feel about double standards in fiction, the way girl narratives are subtlely and overtly dismissed, how we penalize girl characters for either being too much of a girl or not enough of one, and the many questions I have surrounding all of this. I write my books with more questions than I have answers for, if I have any, but to me, that’s the point.
One of the things I do while I work on a book is I’ll try to anticipate its reception. Will it be embraced? Rejected? That’s something completely out of my control and I’m happy to leave it there, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I think about. Love my work or hate my work, it’s all good. Mostly, as a female writer, writing female narratives from a place that wants to challenge and explore, I wonder how certain elements in my novels are going to be received based on the gender of my main characters.
Most of my readers know I wrote CRACKED UP TO BE because the book I’d tried to get published before it got rejections highlighting the unlikability of its main character as The Issue—as if a girl can’t be unlikable and still lead the way. This remains one of its biggest problems for some of the people who have contacted me about it; they express disappointment when they discover Parker’s story is about a Mean Girl Who Falls from Grace and Gets Meaner, as opposed to a Nice Girl Who Falls from Grace and Finds Her Way Back to Niceness. Some people really struggled and are very uncomfortable with the concept of a girl being more than sugar and spice at any given moment.
SOME GIRLS ARE is about girl-bullying and how girls internalize and externalize violence. I was told girls do not behave the way I was writing them and I’m still told this. Too extreme, too unladylike. Even in the wake of more and more news stories about girls being bullied to death by other girls. Both Regina (from SOME GIRLS ARE) and Parker have been accused of not being “good enough” for the male characters who express romantic interest in them. This sentiment followed me to FALL FOR ANYTHING, a book about a girl trying to find the answer to her father’s suicide. I got an email telling me Eddie was too selfish in her grief, thus making her less worthy of the male love interest.
THIS IS NOT A TEST is probably my least criticized book in a way I can draw these kinds of lines, but I’ve seen Sloane, who suffers from PTSD related to a lifetime of abuse at her father’s hands, accused of being whiny and why can’t she get over it or better yet, kill herself already? And while that might not be related to her gender and could have everything to do with my execution, it’s hard not to wonder how her trauma would be received had she been a boy.
There are some people who need to see a girl a certain way and if she is remotely outside of that box, they dislike it. The general worthiness of a female protagonist as a love interest is a biggie—male characters can be cold, flawed, and present behaviors bordering on abusive (emotionally and physically) without ever compromising their potential as a love interest. Girls who experience trauma are often dismissed as melodramatic, though a traumatic past will often add to the mystery and desirability of a male character. These particular responses are not really surprising. You can find them in just about anything that features a female protagonist—movies, television, books.
The response that broke my heart, though, was this one. Before CRACKED UP TO BE was released and ARCs started rolling out, a person in publishing shared their thoughts of it and left me sucker-punched enough that I never forgot it. The person had issues with the writing and characters (fair enough!), but wound up their take by suggesting YA fiction already had a book about a girl who was dealing with rape so why did we need another?
It’s amazing how many different ways you will hear this kind of sentiment leaving the mouths of a disappointing amount of people. Another book about a girl falling in love. Another book about a girl with trauma. Another book about mean girls. Oh no not another book about a girl that is breathing and alive and on and on and on. Why write them? When is enough enough with these girl stories? I think I was ready for just about anything in terms of push-back relating to the questions I hoped my work was asking about gender expectations and stereotypes relating to girls, but I was not prepared to hear those questions weren’t worth asking in the first place.
If you follow me on Twitter, maybe you’ve seen my recent Twitter rants about girl characters and the expectations surrounding them (here, here, here, here, here, and here). It’s all been on my mind lately, because ALL THE RAGE, the book I’m working on now, is about rape and rape culture and violence against women. This is obviously a subject I have approached before in my work, but it’s one I have so many questions about and so I keep coming back to it.
I got this wonderful email from a reader a little bit ago. The subject line was, When I read your books, its like reading my life. I have printed out and saved a comment that showed up on Angie Manfredi’s review of SOME GIRLS ARE: Nobody gives a shit . They never will. This is what really goes on. This is my life. I get messages like these in my Ask Box.
I think about all the ways a girl can be devalued in fiction and in life, because she is a girl. I think about that years-old review of CRACKED UP TO BE, that, whether consciously or unconsciously, implied it would have rather had no story than another story about a girl.
I wonder what would have happened if I had taken it to heart. I think of all these readers, most of them girls, who have reached out to me because they’ve connected with the girls in my novels. These girls often tell me they are writers, they have stories of their own. The world being what it is right now, there is no doubt in my mind those girls will come across similar sentiments to the ones I’ve experienced and shared with you here. What if they take them to heart?
And that’s the question I’m asking now.
Except I already know the answer.
They always call depression the blues, but I would have been happy to waken to a periwinkle outlook. Depression to me is urine yellow. Washed out, exhausted miles of weak piss.
- Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn
So, on the one hand, I love this - of course I do. Maureen Johnson’s piece is excellent and the flipped book covers are a powerful visual reminder of marketing double standards and of how women are perceived and treated as a “special interests” group.
My only concern is that we’ll become so focused on making things super safe and comfortable for anyone who wants to avoid anything tinged by its association with stereotypical femininity that we’ll end up communicating that these things should indeed be avoided, not only by men but also by any smart and sophisticated women.
As someone was just saying on Twitter, we’re all conditioned to think of anything coded male as gender neutral to begin with. I don’t, by the way, believe for a second that interests, colours, aesthetic sensibilities or whatever are inherently gendered, but we do perceive them as such, and that affects how prestigious they are.
In my dream world, we’d completely dissociate all interest and subject matters from gender, and then we’d re-examine the ones that currently have low status because of their association with femininity and collectively decide that actually they’re not inherently inferior and it’s okay to like them.
I don’t have any solutions, by the way, only questions, and I do love all the conversations around #coverflip I’ve seen in the past 24 hours. But I really hope there’s some way to avoid pigeon-holing women writers without simultaneously reinforcing the notion that we should despise anything overtly coded as “girly”.