Recently there has been a lot in the news about gender identity and on another of my mind wandering days it made me think of We Need to Talk About Kevin.
I read this book when I was in fourth year of high school so I was sixteen and it was suggested to me by the head of the English department. I can’t remember why I decided to chose this one over the pile she was handing me as we stood in her office – which could only be described as a tiny library – while she plucked various books from her shelves and gave me a quick summary while looking for the next one. I read it, I loved it and I wrote about it. It was for my personal study so I don’t know what my score was – in Scotland the structure of the final English year is that we complete a certain amount of essays demonstrating different skills (such as a discursive essay, a reflective etc) and, as well as the final exam and such, we have to do a personal study on a book. This means that we read it, write an essay on it, using quotes for each point, but the essay is to be written under exam conditions without the book and with only two sides of A4 notes as an aid.
Anyway, we can prepare essays before it and have them marked, that way we can chose to commit the essay to memory and use the paper as cues for the essay we’ve already written. For this reason and many more, our actual exam attempt at it is marked by another teacher in the department and when mine came back to me it had red pen all over. For one reason.
I had referred to Lionel Shriver as a she throughout the essay.
Shriver is a she?
This is what I saw at the sides of paragraphs all the way through the essay. Except the end. At the end there was a note to ignore all past notations on the subject. The teacher marking had no idea that Lionel Shriver is a pen name for a female author and, after seeing that this was not just a one-off mistake I had made in passing but something consistent throughout, he asked the department head about it and was set straight.
Not only did this make me think about how much we know (or don’t) about the faces behind the names it made me think about the assumptions we make based on a name. How much do we assume based on them? Not even just gender but class too. Do we expect something akin to Dickens or Shakespeare from a name we consider posh and your average erotic novel from a common name? What about religion or sexuality? Do we assume characters are not straight because the author isn’t?
I couldn’t think why Shriver would consider the need for a male name to change the reader’s perception of her. But then again, I couldn’t think why the author should reflect on the book at all. This is where I’m reminded that J. K. Rowling dropped her name to initials at the suggestion of someone in the publishing process so as not to dissuade male readers.
I think people forget that we judge all of the time, without even realising. I guess however much we try we will never be able to stop judging, for better or worse. For instance, if I saw an Ian Rankin novel, I’d pick it up, purely because I love his work. Even if it turned out to be an erotic novel, I’d have to at least look at the blurb to see if I fancied it because of how much I love the way he writes. Similarly, if E.L. James started writing crime books I’d probably just pass them by because I can’t let go of what she’s done with 50 Shades.
And it might seem immature but can you honestly say you haven’t done it? Picked up a movie in a shop because you’ve seen the actor before or passed one by for the same reason? Music, TV programmes? If you buy an iron by a certain manufacturer and it spontaneously bursts into flames you’re not likely to buy from them again, are you? In the same way that I had a HP laptop for 5 years without hitch and I went on to buy a HP after it finally died on me.
I still have trouble wondering why gender would affect your perception of a book but then again, I watch TV and wonder why woman are being paid less money, why black people are being gunned down for their skin colour, why children are being abused, why animals are being murdered for fun and why everyone hates Piers Morgan. That last one isn’t as serious as the others but no one seems to be able to answer it properly all the same.
I guess for now, I’m glad to have a gender neutral name but that’s pretty much the equivalent of not wearing a skirt so I don’t get raped. The problem isn’t in the name, it’s in the prejudice. So, if you’re a female, thinking you should just initial your name or change it, that’s up to you, but if you can find it in yourself – wear that skirt with pride.