Lefa Singleton Norton wrote a comment piece along similar lines for the news section of Australian broadcaster SBS’s web site today. I don’t respond to every such piece, but this time I took the bait and wrote a response in the comment section which I’ve also posted below. The first four paragraphs will be familiar to those who’ve read my recent posts, but I’ve made some new points in the subsequent paragraphs, which I thought were worth sharing on this blog.
There are so many wrongful assumptions and misrepresentations of my argument in this piece that I hardly know where to start. I’m not at all “put out” by the failure of men “to dominate the modern publishing industry.” I’m arguing for gender-balance and against gender domination by either sex.
On page 12 of my COOL not CUTE essay I wrote this:
"I’d like to stress that I don’t believe that men are any more suited than women to these gatekeeper roles. If anything I think men are generally less suited, for reasons I’ve outlined in my separate article, NATURE and NURTURE. Individuals of both sexes inevitably bring some degree of subjectivity to their selection of reading material; it’s simply that male gatekeepers would generally bring a more boy-centred subjectivity."I think we need more men in gatekeeper roles in UK picture book publishing, for exactly the same reason that I think we need more women in the UK Parliament and in the UK judiciary - because these groups ought to represent and serve both sexes equally!
I’ve always acknowledged that men are to blame for this problem. Here’s the penultimate paragraph from the conclusion of my COOL not CUTE essay:
"Over the 17 years I’ve been working in the industry, I’ve met hundreds of wonderful people in schools, libraries and publishing houses who are doing their utmost to engage children of both sexes in reading picture books; many of them do so on a voluntary basis. The overwhelming majority of these “wonderful people” have been women. As I said earlier, outside of writing and illustrating, few men seem to want to be involved with picture books. So let me make this clear — if one demographic group is chiefly to blame for the state of affairs I’ve outlined, it is adult men, for failing to take sufficient interest in what young children are reading."So, yes, men are to blame for the problem, but does most men’s lack of engagement with the problem justify turning a blind eye to it? As Mary Curnock Cook, the head of UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service commented recently, if we want a gender-balanced society, we need to encourage men to get involved in areas traditionally dominated by women just as much as we need to encourage women to get involved in areas traditionally dominated by men.
|VIDA's gender analysis of US|
Children's Book Awards.
Female authors are shown in BLUE,
male authors in RED.
Yes, there is a gender-balance problem with picture book protagonists, with male protagonists outnumbering females. I confess that I was not aware of the scale of the problem when I wrote the COOL not CUTE essay and, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s probably the one “missing ingredient” listed in the essay that I would omit if I were writing it today. One of the people who brought the protagonists issue to my attention is Liza Miller who wrote a dissertation on the subject and has since become my editor at Walker Books. The under-representation of female characters is clearly an issue that needs addressing, however I don’t think a bias towards male protagonists can be taken to demonstrate a pro-male bias across picture book content as a whole. While I’m sure we might not agree on every detail, Liza and I don’t see our two arguments as being in conflict; we both believe the world of picture books would benefit from being more gender-balanced, both in protagonists AND in gatekeeper roles. Singleton Norton is not the only commentator to rubbish my call for gender-balance and I’m indebted to Liza for voicing her support for my argument in this post on her blog.
Singleton Norton concludes her piece with the claim that my “belief that profits and sales shouldn’t come before gender equality only applies to the one very narrow count where women are statistically overrepresented.” Singleton Norton knows nothing of my wider opinions, so on what evidence is this claim based? Her argument seems to be more rooted in ideology and assumption than evidence.