If you were to walk into your local bookstore in search of a new book to read, you might make your decision with relatively little thought.
In many cases, advertising allows us to choose the books we read by just looking at the cover. Besides the art that adorns the front of a book, we are influenced by other aspects of the book itself, from its apparent genre, the size of the volume and, quite often, the name and gender of the author who wrote it.
If you are reading a romance novel, you might expect to find a warm and pleasant-looking cover with the author’s cute name scrawled across the bottom. Many of us will assume that the authors of romance novels are all women, and looking at the statistics, this is mostly true. Female authors and readers make up the majority of the genre.
However, just because the majority of romance writers are women doesn’t mean that there are not any men out there writing romance. It also doesn’t mean that the ratio of male to female writers in the field can’t change over time.
One very successful male romance writer was named Tom Huff, who wrote under the pseudonym Jennifer Wilde. Others include Vince Brach (Fran Vincent) and Mike Hinkemeyer (Vanessa Royall). All of these men challenge the stereotypes associated with romance novels. But the fact that each of these men wrote under a female name shows that readers still find it strange that men are capable of writing romance.
The same could be said about women writing science fiction. There are relatively few science fiction novels out there written by women, and even fewer that make their way into popular literature. While the number of female sci-fi writers has more than tripled since 1948, there are stereotypes regarding female authors of the genre.
Of the 29 people who have won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s lifetime achievement award, only four of them have been women (Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Connie Willis and Andre Norton), and three of these women have won the award in the last five years.
While the gender stereotypes in popular literature are changing, their presence is still felt. The assumptions about men who write romance and women who write sci-fi have a way of impacting sales and determining which books within these genres become popular. If readers pick up a book that doesn’t seem to fit their initial expectations of a genre, that book can be seen as too ambitious or simply too strange, and readers won’t end up buying it.
That doesn’t seem right, does it? Why should literature be so exclusive? Who says that guys aren’t awesome romance writers or that women aren’t capable of writing some really badass science fiction?
Why should authors feel obligated to change their names or write under pseudonyms in order to get their books read? Why was Tom Huff unable to write under his legal name, and why did J.K. Rowling not publish the Harry Potter series as Joanne Rowling?
While it might seem unfair to those writers and more, this underlying sexism in modern literature is deeply ingrained in our subconsciouses. We want it to be an easy fix, but it’s not that simple. If we can stop and think, we may finally realize where these stereotypes begin. Then we can begin to challenge them.
We can begin to look at why we are drawn to female romance authors and male science fiction writers. We can begin to take apart the preconceived notions that we associate with certain genres of literature, and maybe we can finally start to look at literature in a more gender-neutral way.
Maybe five, 10 or 50 years from now gender inequality in literature won’t be an issue anymore. But if we ever hope to get rid of the underlying sexism that still permeates our society—which is reflected in literature and popular media—the first step is to realize that it is there in the first place.
By challenging the stereotypes that have such an impact on the way we look at specific genres of literature, writers who truly deserve to be part of their respective fields might finally get their day in the spotlight, and writers who chose to never write for fear of rejection might realize their true calling.