Karen Rivers

Happy International Day of the Girl. But...

Karen Rivers

Today is International Day Of The Girl.  Let's celebrate.   Where shall we start?   

Let's start with why I've been feeling angry lately.  

It's as good a place as any. 

I was reading a cringe-worthy interview with Jonathan Franzen yesterday, which I won't link to because he says what he says exactly so that we will pass his words around and keep his name fresh on our tongues.  I don't want his name on my tongue because while he doesn't consider women to be valid, as writers or as humans, we also make up the bulk of his readers, the highest percentage of people who are taking our hard-earned money and placing it in his outstretched hand.   "I only really consider men to be competition," he says, scornfully, and I feel the tidal wave of rage, rising.   (Can you imagine a world in which men are sidelined and women walk around, confident in everything about themselves, laughing at the cute inadequacies of men?   No.  Of course, you can't.)  Franzen demands attention, he never apologizes, and he got to where he is thanks mostly to the women who buy his books and to Oprah, on whose back he originally stood to proclaim himself above us all.  


Let's take Oprah.  Why not?  She's done well, no one will argue.  She is a powerful, successful woman.  She has a voice and she uses it, yet her magazine is financed almost entirely by advertisers who are selling women ways to look prettier.  It is your job to look prettier.  It is our role to look prettier.  We want to look prettier!  Smoother!  Younger!  Thinner!   

My daughter takes my powder brush and rubs it on her cheek.  "Do I look pretty?" she says.  "Prettier now?"

My daughter is 8.  She likes dinosaurs and sports and building tall towers using magnetic blocks.   She wants to be an artist when she grows up, or an archaeologist.  Or both.  

I spent too much money at Sephora last month, it's true.   I have a tendency towards rosacea, a condition I spend more time thinking about than I'd like to.

Cobble all those sentences together to find a truth that I'd rather not see.

Here's a fact:   What I look like matters for my job.  It matters for every woman's job.  Even as writers, laboring away in our pyjamas at home all day, it counts.  Our photos always accompany our work.  Our photos ask the world, "Am I pretty enough? Am I worthy?"

I've been trying to think of a way to write about how it's so different for a man to write a novel than for a woman to write a novel.  This is what I've come up with:  A man writes a novel and it explodes onto the litererary scene.  A woman writes a novel that quietly develops an audience.

A woman writes a novel.  She does it the same way that a man does.  She sits down at a keyboard and types.  She sits down at a desk and writes.  She thinks and plans and deletes and rewrites and revises.   She is fastidious, intelligent, hard-working.  She does her research.   She makes her novel sing: her characters resonate, her story transcends.  The novel does not know if the writer is a man or a woman, it is simply in the process of becoming a book.  

It emerges into the world, blinking, waiting, not knowing what to expect next.   


The designer puts a woman on the cover of the woman's book.  The woman is beautiful and standing in the wind and she is silhouetted in front of sky or sea or trees or shadows it doesn't really matter what.  The font is wispy.  A more intense woman's book might zoom in on her lips or her eyes, the font may be heavier, rougher, more serious.   Well, it's what sells.  The woman's book is marketed to women because men buy women's books infrequently.  "That's for girls!" their inner boy says, recoiling.   Well, really, women are the largest percentage of book buyers.  So why is it a problem?  It's a market reality.   Settle down.  It's how it works.  Women write books, women buy books, women supporting women, isn't that positive?  

But the book is made to look like every other women's book, much like we are meant to want to look like every other woman:  smooth skin, shiny long hair, a slender (but curvy) body.    

On the front of the man's book in bold font: his name, the title of his book, nothing extraneous. Something about the size of that font indicates the seriousness of the novel you are holding in your hand.  The novel looks strong, important, intelligent.  This novel is not about what it looks like, it is about what it contains, yet it IS also about what it looks like.  It looks manly.  It looks like it has tenure.  It is grey around the temples.   Wise.   Sexy.  The novel has been working out at the gym, five days a week after spending 8 solid hours writing, reading dialogue out loud in a soundproofed office.  The novel is not occupied with things like making dinner for the family or cleaning the bathroom floor because the novel is serious and cannot be interrupted by such trivialities.  Trivialities are pink and are, after all, a woman's work.  How fortunate.   Trivialities can be very intrusive. 

On the front of the woman's book, someone adds a butterfly.  Some whimsy.  A scattered bunch of blooms.

Not all publishers.   Not all men.   Not all covers.  (Thank God.)


Book covers, on average, tend to be the childhood bedrooms of the authors:   The boy's room is blue or even (daringly) black, sparsely furnished, a few posters of things he loves and is passionate about; his shelves are full of models that he built or mechanical items in various states of being taken apart.   The girl's room is pink, perfectly presented, tidy and clean, sparkling with rainbows and unicorns and photos of herself and her friends taken at just the right angles so that she looks perfect, or as perfect as she can (but she has years to keep trying!)  On her shelf, dolls made to look like her, dressed perfectly, cutely, adorably.   Her dresser is where her makeup is, the layers of the mask she will learn how to apply, to look pretty, to be pretty, to matter, to be seen.  

My daughter is on her way to buy a dinosaur poster at the school book fair,  her money clutched in her hand.  She stops and comes back to where I am standing.  "Most girls are buying the puppy-in-a-teacup poster," she whispers.  "I should buy that one.  Dinosaurs are probably for boys, right?"   

"Wrong," I say.   

She buys the dinosaur poster but her hesitation is why I'm so sad.  

A man produces a book and it is assumed to have literarary merit.  A woman produces a book and it is assumed to be a "beach read".  

Not by everyone.


I write largely for middle grade and young adult readers.   Maybe the space is different.   Maybe it isn't.  

"Is it a boy book or a girl book?" well-intentioned people ask before buying.

"It's a human book," I say, trying not to wince.   

But I won't lie:  Earlier in my career, I thought it was necessary to differentiate and I'm ashamed of that.  

A woman writes a novel under a man's name.  Everyone knows it is a woman but the name on the cover is a man's and the book receives more reviews and is taken more seriously than had she used her own name.  Here is a woman, presenting as a man, so we will consider this man-named woman-written book.   There is no photo of the author on the cover.   Not even on the inside back flap.   What she looks like is irrelevant now that she is presenting as a man, even though we know she is a woman.     

Look at all the books out there today, written under an author's initials, which omit the author photo.   We are voluntarily un-gendering ourselves to be more palatable to our audience.  Here's a secret:  I'm no exception.   A book without an audience does not pay the mortgage, no matter how extraordinary it might be.

Let's put it this way, it's something I'm considering for my next adult book, if by "considering", I mean "have already decided to do."  And I promise you this:  I will fight tooth and nail against having a woman in a beautiful dress silhouetted against the moonlit beach on the cover.   


Here is a story that I've probably told before:   I am at a writer's event.  The event is for booksellers.  I am a woman who writes books.  I am talking to a bookseller about books and writing.  "Do you do events at your store?"  I ask.  "I'd love to participate, if you do."   

"No," says the bookseller.  "Not so much anymore."  

A male writer approaches us.  The bookseller to whom I'd been speaking turns to him so quickly that I am almost knocked over.  "We'd love to have you for an event," the bookseller says.   "We can't wait to show you our new space."

A man reading this might dismiss me as "bitter".  Jonathan Franzen would.  Well, he wouldn't read it.  What women have to say is largely irrelevant to him.   I am a woman.  I have things to say.   Do you know who is listening?  

Other women. 

I am not, in fact, bitter.  I recognize many ways in which I have been very lucky with my book covers, my publishers and my audience.   I am still here.  I am still writing.   I am still selling.   I am still lucky.  I am very happy to be doing what I'm doing, and with the people I am doing it for.  

Really, there is no difference between me (a female writer) and another writer who happens to be male.  


"Happy International Day of The Girl!" I say to my daughter who is wrapped in a pink blanket on the couch, playing a Jurassic Park game on her phone.  I painted her room pink when we moved to this house.  I can no longer remember why I did that. 

I'm sorry, I want to tell her.  I didn't understand until now what it's like, what we've done.   But listen, this is important.  You are more than pink.  You are all the colours you want to be.  You are serious and blue and your name and your title should be written in huge steel words on a concrete background because you are here and you matter and you ARE the competition and you are valid and you are so much more than beauty and you are so much more than they will ever let you be, and I'm sorry for that, for everything, for all the pink everywhere and for the way that International Girls' Day sparkles with rainbow-writing on a glittery backdrop, your silhouette framed in a pretty white dress blowing against your body in front of a beach-blue sky.