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 appeared in the 1990s as a marketing catch-all. It 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.
Any Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographies lying around? Ah, well.
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.” Novels that, as Cheryl Strayed writes, comment “upon social structures, institutions and experiences that are universally relevant and resonant to us all” are marketed to women and men both. Their importance and prestige are signaled by the fact that they are worth men’s time.
At the beach, book marketing is right in line with consumer-product advertising, which still mostly suggests that women desire comfort, convenience, stability, domestic assistance 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, and offers list after list of sizzlers.
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 and fine houses from beaches. Many covers feature a charming clapboard sign or a lovely woman, glossy with fiscal stability, accessorized with good-quality stuff in the lush colors of flowers and candy. (The parts of her you can see, anyway: a pair of legs beside a suitcase; some sunglasses sliding down a nose. She’s detonated just enough that she might be you.) The beach reads category itself flatteringly pretends you’re someone with loads of disposable income and free time. All those lists sing in buttery harmony: You, sweet pea, vacation. All summer!
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.
Part of the problem is that 82 percent of the editorial staff in publishing is white. Are they biased toward the familiar? Under too much 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 — on and off the beach — first fall in love with reading because a book took them into the life and mind of another, revealed how it’s possible to transcend the limits of self?
Is that high 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.
Sophie McManus is the author of the novel “The Unfortunates.”