When I found out I’d be reading with Cathi Hanauer for Lip Service #29 The “Modern Love” edition, I searched through my pink books for her second novel Sweet Ruin in order to get it signed. Yes, my books are shelved by color; shut up. You might know Hanauer as the editor of the excellent non-fiction collection Bitch in the House. Bitch in the House is one of those books which brought my mother and I closer together, and because I enjoyed it so much I read the first page of Sweet Ruin (I don’t read jacket copy or plot synopses; it’s like reading a description of an episode when you’re binge-watching a TV show on Netflix – can’t you just trust the storyteller?). That page piqued my interest so I took it home.
The fact that I’d read Sweet Ruin threw Hanauer for a loop.
“I can’t believe you read my book,” she said, smiling. “It’s so -”
I believe she wanted to use the word “girly” but rejected it as something I might take offense to. Or possibly she decided calling her work “girly” might seem dismissive of herself as an author.
“… pink,” she finished.
We talked for a bit about the politics of gender in publishing – which can be summed up by the whole Jonathan Franzen vs. Jennifer Weiner thing – and I said something like, “I don’t care who the book is meant for; if it draws me in then I read it,” which is exactly what happened with her book.
I should have just said, “I read girly books all the time.”
[Before I talk about gendered reading, I’d like to offer five reasons you should read Sweet Ruin.
Hanauer’s prose borders on poetic without ever being cloying, which makes her descriptions a joy to read.
Elayna Leopold’s narrative is real and immersive. Her thoughts reveal who she is, what she’s going through, and provide backstory in a way that feels so natural it’s as though Hanauer took dictation from a friend’s diary.
A compelling question drives the novel – will Elayna’s grief send her into an affair with a young artist, or will she remain true to her husband, a man who drowns his own grief in work? Since the book is called Sweet Ruin and the word “adultery” appears several times on the dust jacket, you can pretty much guess that Elayna hits what she’s headed for. But the dance that gets her there is feverish. You devour pages at a time before you realize they’ve gone.
The B-story, a shaky reconciliation with her photographer father, is too rich to ever feel like an excuse to draw out the Elayna / artist-Kevin / husband-Paul triangle.
The promise of sex. The longing for sex. The rebirth of passion after a fallow season. And some hot sex.]
Anyway, my penis has many fine qualities but the ability to read is not one of them. It doesn’t have opinions on literature (at least, none that it’s shared with me). Maybe it’s because I don’t think that what’s between your legs defines how you act, or who you should love, or what you should like, but I don’t understand trying to force demographics on a story. Sure, it’s an unfortunate side effect of capitalism: if a family with a boy and a girl are sharing a ball, why not make one blue and one pink so they “must” buy two? Divide the genders, double your profits. But does that apply to the arts? Isn’t the whole point of fiction to see the world through someone else’s point of view?
The idea of gendered writing hits me at my job in many ways. The customer who says her husband loves mysteries and “won’t read books written by a woman” (followed by the employee who recommends Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Chelsea Cain’s Heartsick, and Kevin Leman’s Have a New Husband by Friday). The customer looking for a books for “a twelve-year-old-girl” or “a twelve-year-old-boy” (and they always emphasize the child’s sex over the child’s age). The publisher worried about “crossover appeal” who wants an opinion on which title, font, or cover works best.
Publishers want to maximize sales and interest by pushing books toward their “target” audience, but isn’t that limiting?
And I want to be absolutely clear on this – the best fiction builds empathy for our fellow humans by being good, not by being good for us. If my son didn’t like broccoli, then he’d never eat it; the same thing goes for broccolit. A good story is always more important to a reader than a “significant” story. If you’re not entertained, then why bother? Sweet Ruin taught me a lot about a woman’s perspective on marriage (specifically, the divide between the safety and security a wife feels towards a long-time husband –a feeling which is more conducive to recipe sex than passionate sex– and the desire for a mind-blowing sexual experience), but would I have cared about any of that if Elayna’s narrative wasn’t enjoyable to read? Would reading a self-help book on keeping marriage “hot” have had the same impact on my perspective? I’m going to answer both questions with a firm “no.”
I’m also going to invite you to stop trusting what some copywriter or marketing guru thinks you should like; just pick a book up and start reading instead. If it fails to draw you in, then grab the one next to it. Keep going until you find one that makes you forget where you are and what you’re doing; that’s the book for you. Take it home, whether it’s pink and sparkly, blue and bleak, or designed by an insane person.
Remember, you’re not a “target audience;” you’re a reader.