We Need To Talk About Lionel

When it comes to literature men in the UK, US and Germany are reportedly in a tiny minority, reading just 20% of all fiction. Or so, writing in the Guardian, says Lionel Shriver. I don’t know if this is true. I know lots of men who read lots of fiction. Perhaps they are not representative. But then I assumed Lionel Shriver was a man.

It’s an easy mistake to make. Shriver, a woman who changed her name from Margaret Ann, and won the female-only Orange Prize for Fiction for We Need to Talk About Kevin, offers what starts out as an excellent article about sexism in book marketing and cover design. She argues that despite the content of her novels having appeal to both sexes her publishers insist on trying to market her books to an entirely female audience using covers more appropriate to chick lit.

Shriver describes one proposed cover, which she managed to veto, thus: ‘A winsome young lass in a floppy hat, gazing soulfully to the horizon in a windblown field – soft focus, in pastels’. Lionel adds, ‘…publishers presume that women only buy a book that looks soft and that appears to be all about women, even if it isn’t. Yet women, unlike men, buy books by and about both sexes’.

So having castigated her publishers for one sexist presumption, Lionel immediately spoils it with another, insulting and alienating half her potential readership. The very half of readers Shriver complains her publishers ignore in their marketing of her books.

I’m a man. I have bought and read lots of books by women. Some of them are about women. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans is the most gripping biography / autobiography I have ever read. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein is the best book about politics and economics I have encountered in years. One of the finest novels it has been my pleasure to enjoy recently was Affinity by Sarah Waters. Admittedly I’ve not read any books by Lionel Shriver, and the thing is, now I don’t feel inclined to. As Lionel says, men don’t buy books by and about women. The message for writers – don’t insult your potential readers if you want to sell books.

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