Why are you reading that?

McDowell, NigelToday’s blog was written by Nigel McDowell, the author of TALL TALES FROM PITCH END, which will be published in June 2013. With this month marking the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR, Nigel got to thinking about his experience with the book and the issue of “gendered” books.

Blue for a boy and pink for a girl.  (Books for boys and books for girls).  When I was sixteen I bought a book with a purple cover and a portrait of a young woman with yellow hair and pearls, the author’s name in a red handwritten font, like lipstick scrawled on mirror.  At the counter I suffered a look from the bookseller that stays in my memory – his eyes skywards, and a small smirk.  ‘Enjoy that,‘ he said.  I wish I’d said back, ‘Oh I will.  I really will.’  The book was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

Now, I doubt I was the ‘target audience’; I doubt I knew what ‘target audience’ even meant.  In my English class I was asked: ‘Why are you reading that?  It looks like a girl’s book!’  A friend, well-read, said to me, ‘She’s okay, but Salinger is better – that’s just Catcher in the Rye for girls.’

Fifty years since publication – and since Sylvia Plath took her own life – there’s been much talk about the influence of The Bell Jar on girls.  There’s been some fuss too about the jacket of the reissued 50th Anniversary edition of The Bell Jar – too feminine, too commercial, too gaudy.


But Plath described her novel as a ‘pot-boiler’, saw it as something commercial, seductive, funny.  I think she may have quite liked the new cover.  The Bell Jar resists classification; can’t be crammed into any genre nor nailed to the ground.  Where I found it, at sixteen, was in the Classics section.  It would fit just as well into Teenage Fiction, Romance, Literary Fiction, Memoir, even Poetry.  As a novel it’s a slippery creature, a cunning changeling – satire, social comedy, slice of stale Americana, swan-song.  Esther Greenwood (the protagonist) is possessed of a voice that is witty, profound, scathing, grim, beautiful…Like all great stories it is for everyone, always.  I grew up in rural Ireland: a boy who’d never been to New York, I’d never suffered from depression, I didn’t know what a ‘pocketbook’ was, but somehow I knew what Esther meant when she said: ‘The silence depressed me.  It wasn’t the silence of silence.  It was my own silence.’  The Bell Jar awoke the writer in me, and I don’t know where I’d be without it.  Great fiction is a startling mirror, its reflections uncompromising but essential: this was a book for adolescent girls, I was told, but in it I saw my own teenage self.

I’m wondering if things are different now for young readers?  I imagine a sixteen year-old boy taking that new Anniversary edition to school, showing friends…I hope this happens.  I hope that boys pick up a Jacqueline Wilson and see themselves in the complex worlds of angst and humour she creates, and not think, ‘This is good, but it’s just for girls’.  Or that girls decide on an Anthony Horowitz or an Artemis Fowl as readily as a Meg Cabot.

I am glad that at sixteen I didn’t know about things like ‘target audiences’ or ‘demographics’ (or that I did and ignored them through stubborn pig-headedness).  I hope today’s children and teens are just as pig-headed about what literature they enjoy.  Let them read just what they want, and be changed by it.  Let a boy of sixteen carry a bubblegum-pink book if he wishes; or a girl a cover of scarlet and silver, flame and frost.  Let someone say to them with that same look, that same small smirk: ‘Enjoy that.’  And let them reply, I hope, with a smile of their own, words: ‘Oh I will.  I really will.’


5 responses to “Why are you reading that?

  1. As a small person, I remember reading pretty much everything and anything that my sister read, which resulted in a strange combination of Stephen King, Bunty, Point Horror, the odd Babysitter Club and a rather terrible Ballet series I can’t remember the name of.

    I don’t think I thought very much of the girlier stuff at the time but I’m glad I did read it, as it’s a good thing that kids (and grown-ups) read outside their “set” materials.

  2. Such a great post! I devoured Artemis Fowl, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett when I was younger (but equally loved Animal Ark). Boo hiss to anyone who questions what you want to read because it’s ‘not for someone like you’. Here’s to Sylvia.

  3. I had two older brothers to filch reading material from. When I was 9 my 14 year old brother gave me The Catcher in the Rye to read, and … well, it didn’t really do anything for me. (Apart from that I remember identifying with his younger sister, Phoebe.) But it did when I read it again at 14. So I suppose, as much as you can grow into and out of books, you can grow into and out of ‘gendered’ books as, gender aside, they can speak to you at different times of your life.

  4. I find that the girlier the book, the less likely I am to read it. It took a really quite insatiable curiosity to read Stargirl because the cover was such a bright girly hot pink. I am getting better, but I instinctually prefer more masculine (oddly enough, morst likely to be) sci-fi books or more neutral ones than those marketed more for girls. Maybe I’m just not a very good example of a girl? 🙂

  5. whyarentyoureadingthat

    Re:BooKa Uhu’s comment, I’m cynically unsurprised. If maleness is neutral, then of course young girls and women are supposed to read male-centric books, or watch male-centric television and film. The point is, it makes women “others” it makes our issues “women’s issues” (which, with the exception of the anatomical differences, is incredibly patronising and pointless), it makes “chicklit” with no apparent accompanying phrase to describe the current trend for the pseudo-psychological male sadsack study (Breaking Bad; Mad Men; every cop or crime based TV show with a male main character ever etc). My little sister would gladly read a book about a boy hero, but my brother snubs them, and all things with any female prescence as “too girly”. And that seems not to change through growing-up, at least in my experience.

    So frankly, I am not surprised at all that not just men, but other women, seem to regard things of the “feminine” with less respect or interest, although preferences for either hardly determine one’s worth as a ‘woman’ (over person or reader?) :/

    I do hope more boys, men – and girls and women – open their readership to what they might be told is “too girly”. I hope more boys and men come to see “women’s books” as just books, the way a book all about a man is seen just as “a book” without qualifier.

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