Subtitles

7 May 2016

Galileo’s Middle Finger is in the New York Times again this week, this time featured in Paperback Row, a special Book Review section dedicated to books of note just out in paperback. (When first out, the book got a great review in the Times from David Dobbs, and was named an Editors’ Choice.) The occasion has made me look back at the start of this blog about the gendered and genre-ed experience of this book, in part because of the subtitle change that occurred from hardback to paperback.

Wait, the subtitle changed? Yes.

The hardback subtitle was: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science.

The paperback subtitle is: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice.

What happened? And why did the cover change, too, from an image of Galileo to a text cover with a vague hint of chromosomes in the background?

First off, they’re not chromosomes, they’re wincing vulvas. At least that’s what I tell people. It makes much more sense if you read the book.

Second: When the book came out, some readers, including the reviewer for Salon, said the packaging made it sound like a book about Galileo. So Penguin Press decided it would be a good idea to shift for the paperback.

Along with the image shift from Galileo’s time to our time came an attempt to make the subtitle a little clearer about the content. It’s close to what it originally was, pre-publication, as coined by my fantastic agent, Betsy Lerner: “Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Truth.”

Just before publication, that subtitle was changed to the non-memoir one. I remember being a little relieved when I was effectively removed from the subtitle. For one, I wanted people to read the book not as about me, but about all of us—about our collective responsibility to the pursuit of truth and its twin, the pursuit of justice. I’d long been jokingly describing the book as “a memoir of other people’s lives”—but it wasn’t a total joke.

Also, as I wrote in the first post of this blog, I knew the truth: men don’t read memoirs by women unless they are celebrities, and even then, men usually don’t. Even women don’t read memoirs like this woman’s memoir. Women will read memoirs about being women—mothers, daughters, wives, women pioneers in men’s fields—but most won’t be interested in a memoir of being an investigative/activist historian of science and medicine.

Who would want to read a memoir of a woman historian they’ve probably never even heard of? Before I won the lottery and landed Betsy, another agent said as much to me—that no one wanted to read “your Nancy Drew detective story.” (Ouch.)

Gender, genre, audience, sales…

I’ve thought about all this a lot as I’ve watched the growing success of Hope Jahren’s fantastic memoir, Lab Girl. I first became aware of Hope via women-in-STEM Twitter, and quickly became addicted to her blog—incredibly feminist and funny. I was thrilled when she sent me a pre-print of Lab Girl last year. I swallowed it whole.

Besides being exquisitely written, Lab Girl is a deeply compelling story of balancing creative genius and the mental health problems that sometimes come with it (and hers is not the only case in the book). It is also the story of the love we grow around our work.

But the “girl” in the title. Hmm. What’s it doing there?

On the one hand, hers is a title that is concise and honest about being a professional memoir by a woman—exactly what my title wasn’t. I love that about it.

Her book’s title also mashes up what we’re told so often don’t go together—science (lab) and femininity (girl). I love that.

But I’ve spent so much of my energy over the years trying to convince young women that we need to avoid calling ourselves “girls” because men don’t call themselves “boys”—because “girl” infantilizes and also sexualizes us in a way that means we won’t be taken seriously, as we should be. (Can we imagine a memoir called Lab Boy?)

Moreover, I worry that the title marks Hope’s amazing book as being not just a memoir by a woman, but a memoir-for-women, and thus something that won’t be read by men. I really want Hope’s book read by men, especially men in science and men partnered with creative, brainy women like Hope and me.

But maybe the “girl” in the title makes it less scary and more sexy to men—makes men more likely to read it?

I don’t know. Here’s what I do know:

I would love it if some folks would unpack this gender/genre stuff for us by having courses that involve reading a whole bunch of memoirs about vocations in STEM-related fields and telling us what they learn about gender, genre, and work-life in STEM.

Right now, there are not very many memoirs by women in STEM. In fact, when I searched for “memoirs by women scientists,” all I got was a blog post by my friend and colleague Sari van Anders talking about how few there are! Sari’s post came in response to a blog post by Carl Zimmer about memoirs by scientists, almost all by men.

Here’s one more thing I know: Thinking about all this just makes me all the more grateful to Betsy and Ann Godoff of Penguin—and everyone else at Penguin who has helped, especially Brooke Parsons, Tessa Meischeid, Casey Rasch, Jeff Alexander, Ben Platt, and Alan Walker—for seeing Galileo’s Middle Finger through.

This book doesn’t fit a well-known genre (though I sometimes fantasize it could start one). It doesn’t come down on one side of a simple debate. It’s not about a profession people know much about. As such, it’s a hard book to explain to people, and a hard book to sell.

That they’ve sold it so well—that so many men, along with many women, write to me about how they have been moved and inspired by it to pursue truth and justice—that makes me really grateful to all the people who made it happen for this woman.

 

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