Saturday, April 16, 2011

girl books and boy books

Some of my friends (Kat Howard, Morgan Dempsey) have been discussing Gina Bellafante's review of the new HBO adaptation of "Game of Thrones."

Let me first say that I agree that it's an oddly unpleasant, completely unenlightening piece of writing. There is a weird aggression and resentment in sentences like:

"Game of Thrones" is a costume-drama sexual hopscotch... The imagined historical universe... gives license for un-hindered bed jumping... The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

And while I, as a lady, a woman alive, am offended by the assumption that (firstly) I wouldn't want to watch a gritty fantasy epic without being thrown a juicy bone of gratuitous and graphic sex, and that (secondly) because I am inescapably female, I am only capable of truly appreciating quiet and spare novels that do not involve anything so dirty as magic, I must say that I do believe there are such things as "girl books" and "boy books." Not in broad, sweeping genres. I don't think that women, by virtue of their biological lot, can only enjoy cozy mysteries and cannot be excited by wicked books with flashing guns. I don't think that men, because of their one-legged chromosome, are barred from falling in love with Jane Austen, or have a monopoly on a predilection for spaceships.

However. In my head, there are "girl books" and "boy books." Not all books fall into one or the other of these categories, and they aren't labels that automatically come to mind, but sometimes I read a book and find it definitively male, or definitively female. It's a characteristic of the book itself, not of its possible or deserved audience. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the gender of the author, or even the gender of the characters. A book just is, sometimes and to me, a girl book or a boy book.

GIRL BOOKS (off the top of my head)
How to be Good/Nick Hornby
The Golden Compass/Philip Pullman
White Teeth/Zadie Smith
Atonement/Ian McEwan
Swamlandia!/Karen Russell
The Baron in the Trees/Italo Calvino

BOY BOOKS (off the top of my head)
High Fidelity/Nick Hornby
Saturday/Ian McEwan
Oryx and Crake/Margaret Atwood
The Autograph Man/Zadie Smith
Kafka on the Shore/Haruki Murakami
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel/Susanna Clarke
(my sister would like to add: "Anything by Chuck Palahniuk... Not that girls can't enjoy them too. But, definitely, BOY BOOK.")
It took me a little while to write this. In the meantime, someone pointed me to this essay by Neil Gaiman: "All Books Have Genders." Which articulates what I'm trying to say, about the gender of books as opposed to the assumed gender of their audiences, much more gracefully.


Anonymous said...

Great post.

I think there are books geared toward a certain audience, either accidentally or on purpose (because sometimes, those things happen organically). I think reading that Gaiman essay helped to solidify that (I'd never read that before -- thanks for linking it).

And that Times review (and her subsequent defense, which might be MORE maddening) still makes me twitchy.

Megan Kurashige said...


Yeah, I really liked that essay as well. Thought it was interesting.

And that Times review... I want to email her and ask if she knows no one who has read Karen Russell or Aimee Bender or Jonathan Safran Foer or Jose Saramago or Mark Helprin... Surely, surely she knows people who read fantasy; she's just calling it by another name.