Div­ing into the sex­ist, er, sexy beach read

The Washington Post - - STYLE - BY SOPHIE MCMANUS

If you’re a fan of con­tem­po­rary fic­tion, you know we’re neck-deep in beach-read sea­son. Lists of hot sum­mer page-turn­ers tum­ble from ev­ery magazine and cor­ner of the In­ter­net. But what, ex­actly, is a beach read? The cat­e­gory gained sea­sonal om­nipres­ence in the mid-2000s, as on­line shop­ping es­tab­lished list rec­om­men­da­tions as es­sen­tial to sales. “Ad­dic­tive” and “en­joy­able” are words in heavy ro­ta­tion on beach-read lists. So are “en­ter­tain­ing,” “es­cape,” “grip­ping,” “juicy,” “sexy,” “sweep­ing” and in one turn of phrase I’d like to scour from my mind: “erotic new­bie.”

Beach reads with “Girl” in the ti­tle prom­ise ladies go­ing rogue. Oth­ers — or do I mean all? — fea­ture a tem­pes­tu­ous af­fair. Cov­ers are de­signed ex­plic­itly for you-on-beach mar­ket­ing: Mary Kay An­drews’s “The Week­enders” fea­tures pink lug­gage stacked on a dock. Bikini-clad friends in Adiron­dack chairs grace Elin Hilder­brand’s “The Ru­mor.” All sum­mer, you’ll read about se­crets, heartache and mur­der. But there’s no risk of feel­ing blue. It’s all de­li­cious calamity, gulped down quick as an al­co­holic slushy un­der a yel­low sun. You’re on va­ca­tion!

So, you stuff your tote with the pa­per­backs you don’t mind get­ting wet. You fol­low the sign that says “Beach Reads Beach,” point­ing down the dunes. You pass through the gate of a high drift­wood fence. You lay out your towel and crack a spine. But some­thing’s not right. The beach is silent. Ev­ery­one is read­ing. And like the gen­der-seg­re­gated sea­sides of the Vic­to­rian era, ev­ery­one, as far as the eye can see, is a woman.

Where are the men? Per­haps it’s 1962,

and they’re at the of­fice churn­ing out snappy ad copy while their Bet­tys and Janes head to the coast a day early with the kids. Or maybe they’re at­tend­ing a re­me­dial lit­er­a­ture course, for if sum­mer book ad­ver­tis­ing is any in­di­ca­tion, men don’t read fic­tion.

As mar­keted ex­clu­sively to women, beach reads are pri­vate af­fairs for pri­vate con­sump­tion, es­capes from care, easy and dis­pos­able, un­like nov­els that might be called “am­bi­tious.” At the beach, book mar­ket­ing is right in line with con­sumer-prod­uct ad­ver­tis­ing, which still mostly sug­gests that women de­sire com­fort, con­ve­nience and at­trac­tive­ness, and where the idea that think­ing is a chore re­mains en­tan­gled with low ex­pec­ta­tions for how women en­gage with the world. You hear an echo of that clunky di­vide be­tween “lit­er­ary” and “com­mer­cial” fic­tion: To turn our brains on is work; to turn our brains off is fun. Head or heart? Think­ing or feel­ing? Male or fe­male?

When the novel first gained reg­u­lar cir­cu­la­tion in the late 18th cen­tury, the thought of a woman alone with one in­spired panic. She might be so se­duced as to cease dis­tin­guish­ing fic­tion from life. The novel’s pow­ers of sex­ual en­light­en­ment would thrill, then ruin her. Yet now, the prom­ise of to­tal im­mer­sion and racy, soli­tary in­dul­gence are the points with which sum­mer fic­tion is mar­keted to women. Search “sex­ist beach reads,” and the In­ter­net is cer­tain your lady fin­gers can’t spell. “Did you mean sexy beach reads?” Google asks.

Glance at the cov­ers spilling from your bag — like “The Guest Cot­tage,” by Nancy Thayer, “All Sum­mer Long,” by Dorothea Ben­ton Frank, or “Sun­shine Beach,” by Wendy Wax — and you’ll see views of beaches from fine houses. Many cov­ers fea­ture a clap­board sign or a lovely woman, glossy with fis­cal sta­bil­ity, ac­ces­sorized with goodqual­ity stuff in the col­ors of flow­ers and candy. The beach reads cat­e­gory flat­ter­ingly pre­tends you’re some­one with loads of dis­pos­able in­come and free time.

Some­thing else is trou­bling about the read­ers on this beach: They’re white as clouds on a per­fect sum­mer day. Though main­stream pub­lish­ing’s un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of peo­ple of color knows no sea­son, things are par­tic­u­larly monochro­matic at Beach Reads Beach.

Scan­ning 10 ma­jor pub­li­ca­tion’s “beach read 2016” lists, I found a to­tal of 236 books. Twenty were by or concern peo­ple of color. But the lists pre­dom­i­nately re­peated the same books by peo­ple of color; across all the lists, only 10 au­thors of color ap­pear.

Why is this the case, when, as the At­lantic noted, a 2014 Pew study in­di­cates that “the most likely per­son to read a book — in any for­mat — is a black woman who’s been to col­lege”?

Part of the prob­lem is that 82 per­cent of the ed­i­to­rial staff in pub­lish­ing is white. Are they un­der pres­sure to stick with a work­ing profit model? Surely, most peo­ple in the book busi­ness are gen­er­ous and egal­i­tar­ian. But as au­thor Rion Amil­car Scott notes, “Racism and white supremacy (like sex­ism and pa­tri­archy) in­volve a sys­tem­atic in­fra­struc­ture that seems to per­pet­u­ate it­self even in the ab­sence of any overt ill will by in­di­vid­ual ac­tors.”

At the book­store and on­line, books are cat­e­go­rized with in­creas­ing nar­row­ness for eas­ier search­a­bil­ity and bet­ter mar­ket­ing. That makes sense when the cat­e­gory points to the book’s sub­ject. Ve­gan Cook­ing, say. But some cat­e­gories point away from the book to the reader’s pre­sumed iden­tity, as with Women’s Fic­tion or African Amer­i­can Fic­tion. This looks as much like seg­re­ga­tion as it does speci­ficity. Such cat­e­gories im­ply that a work of lit­er­a­ture is not rel­e­vant to a reader if it is writ­ten by some­one un­like that reader, which would seem to vi­o­late the en­tire point of lit­er­a­ture.

Didn’t ev­ery­one first fall in love with read­ing be­cause a book took them into the life and mind of an­other?

Is that drift­wood fence meant to keep the white fe­male reader in, or ev­ery­one else out? Both? Ei­ther way’s no good. On the other side, there are all the books in the world to choose from.

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