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Dear Maggie,

The tendency to label books “women’s fiction” or “boy books” drives me completely bonkers. I dislike labeling books in general (both age categories and genres), though I can see the necessity of placing books in genres to make them easier to market and locate. But gender labels? They’re completely antagonistic and I end up turning away from the shelf/person/article, sputtering.

I remember going to the giant, two-story Borders in Santa Barbara (now, of course, shuttered) and marveling at the gloriousness of so many books. As I wandered around the fiction section, I was stopped in my tracks by a giant display pillar in the middle of the floor with “Women’s Fiction” blazoned across the top.

I immediately felt offended. It wasn’t that the books themselves were bad. They included everything from fairly mundane general fiction to classics like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. But every book was either romantically themed (chick lit abounded) or focused on “women coping with terrible circumstances” (misery lit). To me the sign implied that women’s fiction was the only section I, as a woman, would find interesting or consider reading. God forbid if a guy wanted to read something off the display.

The term “boy books” drives me crazy in much the same way. I’ve read and enjoyed many books from genres typically touting the label: Thrillers, Sci-fi, and Fantasy. What makes these boy books? Why am I not allowed in the clubhouse?

The topic of  “boy books” created an Internet firestorm earlier this year with a NYT review of the HBO show “Game of Thrones” (based on the book of the same name by George R.R. Martin). The reviewer believed all the illicitness of the show “[had] been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.” It got worse from there, as she went on to say:

While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to ‘The Hobbit’ first. ‘Game of Thrones’ is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

I have read Game of Thrones. I have no familiarity with Lorrie Moore.

Articles like this make me seethe. It insults women readers and also fantasy as a genre (a topic for a whole other post). The many responses to this reviewer were great, including one from George R. R. Martin himself, who in confusion asks, “if I am writing ‘boy fiction,’ who are all those boys with breasts who keep turning up by the hundreds at my signings and readings?” My favorite retort is from Geek with Curves:

[R]eviews are not for making sweeping generalizations about women. Generalizations that also happen to be incorrect. I understand that she may not personally know any geek girls. That doesn’t mean we don’t exist. One giant brush cannot paint all women the same color. It’s presumptuous for anyone to think they can do so.

How dare anyone say that Game of Thrones is ‘boy fiction.’ What a crude and useless phrase. I am proof that it is not the case, and I am not alone.

This is why I think GirlGeekCon so important (check out a great summary article of the convention here or click on the picture). It celebrates women in geek culture, a place where they are often overlooked. With the creation of this conference and the flourishing of geek girl sites (here’s tor’s top 10) this tendency appears to be slowly changing for the better, thank goodness.

I realize some genres/books have readerships that contain a majority of one gender or another (romances and video game tie-ins come to mind). That doesn’t mean the minority should be ostracized. At the same time, statistically women read more fiction then men, at 80%. As an article on women’s fiction concludes, “the only answer to ‘What kind of fiction do women read?’ is ‘All kinds. And usually in larger numbers than men.’”

No one, no matter what part of the population you ascribe to, enjoys feeling excluded. Let’s instead simply sing the praises of our favorite books to whoever has similar interests. If that tends to divide along stereotypical gender lines, so be it. Focusing on what we enjoy reading rather than placing arbitrary labels on books and genres creates an all-around more inclusive and happier reading community.