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>Does J. K. Rowling get less respect than Philip Pullman because she’s a she?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. gnomicutterance says:

    >That article makes some valid points about sexism in treatment of fantasy and science fiction authors. However, it chooses a bad prime example. Comparing JK Rowling to Philip Pullman is — to turn the gender binary on its head — like comparing Tom Clancy to Margaret Atwood. One writes literary fiction, the other doesn’t. Whether the literary or non-literary fiction is better, more accessible, more valuable, more readable, is an argument that, well, I’m not willing to get into. But whether the Philip Pullmans and Margaret Atwoods of the world are going to get treated differently by literary critics than the JK Rowlings and Tom Clancys of the world is a given.

    Of course, the spectrum is rarely so binary in children’s fantasy as it is an adult’s fantasy. JK Rowling and Philip Pullman are clearly identifiable, but the point to some of the other authors listed in that article: Diana Wynne Jones manages to be literary without ever writing hefty metaphysical tomes and killing off God. Tamora Pierce’s prose never falls in the “literary” bucket but she is certainly more experimental characterization arcs and tropes and many other authors in the field.

  2. >Yes.

    (Although I do think Pullman writes better than Rowling, but does Rowling get less respect because she’s a woman? Absolutely. So does every other woman. Sorry this answer is so simplistic. It’s a simple issue. Regarding the previous comment, many critics have claimed Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro write “domestic fiction.” Wonder what that means?)

  3. gnomicutterance says:

    >Kelly —

    I don’t disagree that female authors get less respect, and you are right, even “literary” female authors get less respect. I get sent into seething rage every time newspapers waste space on disparaging so-called chick lit in a way they would never waste space on disparaging, say, thrillers.

    I only think that it is a bad comparison to hold up Philip Pullman against JK Rowling in order to discuss critical reaction and gender. Pullman is a critic’s author, and Rowling is a popular author. Some of the same issues which make Pullman so popular with critics make him *less* popular with other readers. It throws too many red herrings into the mix to use those two is the basis of comparison.

  4. >gnomicutterance: I completely agree with you. The comparison doesn’t make sense at all. (Lazy journalism.)

  5. Anonymous says:

    >I wish that when people wrote things that I basically agree with that they would do a better job. Yes, I think that women’s writing is undervalued. No, I don’t think JK Rowling is a good example. I think she’s just experiencing the backlash of being so irrationally beloved for a time. I hope she was prepared for it. It was as inevitable as people waking up from the seventies and saying, “I wore what? Bell-bottomed what?”

  6. Anonymous says:

    >Also explains why she hasn’t gotten a Caldecott!

  7. Roger Sutton says:

    >I DO wonder if we’re seeing another variation of the Caldecott problem, wherein bigness, ambition and (some say) egotism win the prize, and that these themselves are culturally coded as male virtues. This then calls into question our distinction between Pullman as “literary” and Rowling as not, because that distinction is itself already gendered. I don’t know if I believe this argument but I think it needs to be entertained.

  8. Anonymous says:

    >I was trying to think of a male version of Rowling, someone who has written a story that has swept the entire world. I am sure I am forgetting someone obvious, but in recent history, the closest parallel I could come up with was George Lucas and Star Wars. Was he treated better or worse than Rowling? Did he get invited to give the commencement address at Harvard, or something similar? Does anybody know?

  9. Melinda says:

    >One of the Salutatory addresses from Harvard — in Latin — mentioned a bunch of Star Wars characters. Would that work?

    (Too bad I don’t speak Latin or I would tell you what the speaker was saying about them.)

  10. Anonymous says:

    >Lucas is a good example. He rakes it in, but the critics give him no love. R. L. Stine — at least in his heyday — also comes to mind. And though he’s lately getting some respect, for much of his career this applied to Stephen King, too. And so on. And so on.

  11. fairrosa says:

    >Dan Brown might be a fitting counterpart here, although his genre is more suspense than fantasy. He’s immensely popular but definitely did not receive high praises from the critics. No one in their right literary mind would mistake his books for fine writing or deep philosophy. And he is definitely not a female writer. The Guradian article is just a poorly argued and supported opinion piece.

  12. Christina says:

    >I wonder at the difference between literary and commercial fiction, at least where Pullman and Rowling come in. Didn’t Pullman get a movie (albeit one that didn’t do very well)? And I’m sure I read somewhere that the Potter novels have their own serious-minded classes at schools like Yale and such.

    I’m honestly not sure where I would fall in considering where these two authors belong on the literary-commercial scale. Do scholars/critics consider CS Lewis as literary or commercial?

    What would other examples of literary children’s fiction be? Classics like Alice in Wonderland, or Shiloh, or Island of the Blue Dolphins? I mean, obviously not the Babysitters Club or anything.

  13. Elizabeth Devereaux says:

    >In a slightly different vein, i have sometimes wondered if Rowling’s American editor would have been awarded so much attention for his contributions to her work if their genders had been reversed, especially considering that the English edition of the first book succeeded without him. And yet there were interviews in the New Yorker, on radio, in newspapers, focusing on his editing and sometimes crediting him to a degree for her American popularity. Can anyone think of a female editor or publisher who has ever been put quite so much in the spotlight, for working with any author, male or female?

  14. Anonymous says:

    >Really? I don’t even know who her American Editor is.

  15. Andy Laties says:

    >Thomas Wolfe’s editor Maxwell Perkins comes immediately to mind.

    As for Rowling’s American editor that would be Arthur Levine, yes?

  16. Andy Laties says:

    >As for FEMALE editor, of course Ursula Nordstrom seems a big answer(sorry my prior Max Perkins response ignored the gender question which was after all the whole point).

    In fact in the world of children’s lit I would say that Susan Hirschman gets a ton of credit for the work of the illustrators inside her Greenwillow stable…

  17. fairrosa says:

    >And there are so many women editors who had and still have their own imprints, bearing their names. (Genee Seo, Frances Foster, Wendy Lamb, etc.) Of course there are their male counterparts (such as Arthur Levine, mentioned here, Richard Jackson and Walter Lorraine, for example.)

  18. Anonymous says:

    >It’s a mans world-Just ask Hillary Clinton. Perhaps Hillary and Chelsie will get a deal from Harper/Collins!

  19. Anonymous says:

    >Roger asked:
    “Does J. K. Rowling get less respect than Philip Pullman because she’s a she?”

    Does a bear poop in the woods?

    Should we really expect that Rowling be accorded any better treatment than any other female author or illustrator? It is the same old bias that rears its ugly head at Caldecott picking time.

  20. Anonymous says:

    >I am rethinking my earlier assertion that women writers of YA and children’s Fantasy get disrespect. I was thinking of adult SF and Fantasy where I have certainly seen the opinion that women can’t write SF and they can’t write epics. I also think that evidence bears out a claim that there is SOMETHING unfortunate going on in the Caldecott selection.
    But what is the evidence that something like that exists for women writers of YA Fantasy and SF? In the long discussion about Caldecott’s, I thought there was general agreement that the bias didn’t hold true at the Newbery level. Tamora Pierce, Melissa Marr, Justine Larbalestier, Jeanne DePrau, are they somehow not getting the love they deserve?

    Anon 11:27 and 3:48

  21. Roger Sutton says:

    >Well, they haven’t been getting any Newberys, but most writers, male or female, don’t. But wouldn’t you say there is more critical oohing-and-ahhing at Neil Gaiman, Pullman, or Scott Westerfeld than any of these women?

  22. Anonymous says:

    >Is there perhaps a negative correlation to EARNINGS? Rowling makes more $$$ than Pullman (and her movies do better) therefore she has less class?

  23. Anonymous says:

    >I still think Rowling is a red herring. I’m not sure Gaiman is representative either- he comes from the world of adult writing and got his fan base somewhere else first, didn’t he?

    It was Larbalestier, not Westerfield who won the Andre Norton Award– received from the adult SF community that I just called biased against women.

    I have to think about this more, but it is quite literally about to rain on my parade and I have to go deal.

    Anon 11:27

  24. >Consider the grandmammy of female SF writers, Mary Shelley, and the persistent assertions that she couldn’t possibly have written her masterpiece, that it must have been the work of her husband.

    There seems to be a need to believe that women are not capable of penning anything of depth or lasting value. Margaret Mitchell’s authorship of Gone with the Wind is unassailed because it can be dismissed as a woman’s book, while it is insisted that Truman Capote is largely responsible for the genius of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that can’t be dismissed in the same way and therefore, could not be the work of a woman.

  25. Anonymous says:

    >It didn’t rain on my parade! I am home and dry.

    I don’t disagree with you about the bias against women or “domestic fiction” as kelly named it. Look at the Caldecott and I think you do see a bias for big and splashy and a bias *against* the quiet and thought-provoking. “Rollicking” seems to get awards at that level. While at the Newbery, “meaningful” gets the prizes. I might care less about the gender of who produces which kind of writing, and more about awarding different kinds of excellence and not having the “typcial Caldecott” and “typical Newbery.”

    When it comes to YA SF and Fantasy, I’d like to think that things are different and better than they are in the adult world (maybe that’s just wishful thinking). I *don’t* see women as being at a disadvantage. But, I don’t know what measurement to use. Sales? Ratio of books by males vs. females reviewed in the NYT? I don’t think you can convince me that if a twelve year old walked into my local library the librarian would push Westerfield instead Larbalestier because, “he’s a guy, he must be better.”

    anon 11:27

  26. Anonymous says:

    >Err. Taking off the rose-colored glasses, it may be that women aren’t at a disadvantage in the YA field because the whole field has already been dismissed. Women are allowed to be successful in it exactly because it isn’t “real” writing.

    Anon 11:27

  27. Anonymous says:

    >For my money, Pullman writes the better sentence but Rowling writes the better series, by far. That Joanne get bashed and Phillip doesn’t is probably more a function of reflexive snobbery than sexism. And I’m sure she’s smart enough to not worry much about it.

  28. >I have no doubt that Harper Lee wrote TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but I believe the reason for the Truman Capote rumors is that she never wrote anything else (and that she was a childhood friend of Truman Capote’s, and he appears as a character in the book). I don’t see how gender enters into it. Why is Shakespeare’s authorship questioned?

  29. Anonymous says:

    >”But wouldn’t you say there is more critical oohing-and-ahhing at Neil Gaiman, Pullman, or Scott Westerfeld than any of these women?”

    Roger, that’s you isn’t it? You are the man. Does HB ooh and aaaah inappropriately? If so, are you doing anything about it, or are you an evil collaborator, busy with world domination and keeping Jeanne DePrau from her rightful acclaim?

  30. Roger Sutton says:

    >Well, I’m a man, but of the four names you mention I’d say that the Horn Book has only oohed-and-aahed at Pullman, although we’ve had nice words for all the others (including DuPrau). I think Pullman is a far more interesting writer and thinker than Rowling, but she is the more interesting phenomenon.

  31. Anonymous says:

    >Oh, you talk the talk, but it’s all about the world domination, isn’t it?

  32. >Margaret Mitchell never wrote anything else, either, and nobody questions her authorship.

    The questioning of Shakespeare’s authorship is a class issue rather than a gender issue. How could an uneducated, lower-class man from a rural village who had never traveled outside of England have written about the things he did?

  33. Anonymous says:

    >Dora: Maybe he made them up.

  34. >I’m not personally questioning Shakespeare. Just explaining why he was questioned to emay, that it was a different issue than is being discussed here.

  35. Roger Sutton says:

    >I might be a guy but I once wrote an editorial–about Pullman and Rowling–where I speculated that my mother was right, and Gone With the Wind just might be the Great American Novel.

  36. Yulianka says:

    >I am absolutely convinced that women writers encounter sexism–and women-oriented genres face even MORE sexism (see: the lack of critical interest in romance novels, even really excellent ones written by authors like Georgette Heyer)–but such an inflammatory, poorly-written article is unlikely to change things.

    And, while I know I shouldn’t argue specific examples, Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’ got more critical love and attention than any fantasy release I’ve read in years.

  37. Anonymous says:

    >JK Rowling and Philip Pullman can’t win the Newbery because they’re not American. Many of the other authors mentioned in these comments aren’t American, actually.

    The Caldecott and Newbery go to Americans, the Printz can be won by anyone.

  38. Anonymous says:

    >Not the point of the discussion, anonymous 2:47.

  39. Anonymous says:

    >On the other hand, Jane Yolen (author of 240 books – I THINK they said) has just been interviewed in TIME on her thoughts on worthy books. Now THAT’S real celebrity! She tops Both Rowling and Pullman in the eyes of the one who really count!

  40. Anonymous says:
  41. Anonymous says:


    coming back in after a long time (and some spam, i see) to say that i thought rowling rocked the harvard commencement speech.

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