Random Thoughts: On gender bias in my reading habits (a sort of Women Read Women update)

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In 2016, I decided to actively increase the number of women authors I read. I blogged about it for a bit, using the tag ‘women read women’. I’ve made a bit of headway over the past couple of years, shifting the gender bias in my reading habits from 34% female to 40%. I’d like to be closer to 50-50, but I think I’d have to stop reading books by men entirely for a while.

I don’t want to do that, and here’s why.

I’ve started reading The Crimson Petal and the White. It’s a book about the variety of life experiences and opportunities in Victorian London. The principal character is a prostitute, necessarily a woman given the setting of the book. The author, Michel Faber, is a man.

Reading Faber’s opening descriptions of Victorian London, of Caroline and Sugar, of William Rackham, made me reflect on how I often prefer the writing of male authors over female. It saddens me to say it, but it’s true. I wonder whether it’s down to the choices made by publishers, who think that female writers should have a particular voice on the page, or whether it’s down to the type of books that attract female readers and sell well. The thing that struck me about Faber’s writing style was its similarity to that of my favourite male authors, such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Murakami, Carver and Auster. There is an appreciation for humanity and a sympathy towards their gender opposites, but they write with the detachment of the observer. It’s a different type of male gaze, one that describes with interest but not judgement, that doesn’t seek to traduce women by depicting them as a generalised mass of air-headed creatures who only exist for male pleasure. Often when I read a book by a woman writer it’s a story about female existence told in terms of what society has us believe concerns women. There are plenty of books I’ve read by male authors that are stories about male existence told in terms of what society has us believe concerns men, of course. Updike springs to mind. It’s more common, though, for male authors to write about life as it applies to people. At least, it seems that way to me. Of the female authors that I love, I think Carter, Cather, O’Connor, Smith and Atwood successfully do this. They’re writing about women, of course they are, that’s how women get published, by writing about what publishers think they know best. But they’re also writing about humanity, men and women, and the choices and behaviours that impact equally on both genders. The writing produced by the women I love best is akin to that of the men I love best. I suppose that means that I’m not a gendered reader. I like stories told well in which I can find myself but also discover things about life that I hadn’t considered from my own experience. That my list of everything I’ve read so far is 60% male authors, 40% female suggests that it’s easier to find the type of books that I enjoy if they’re written by men. It’s only 60-40 because I’ve spent the last couple of years actively seeking out literary fiction by women to try to redress the balance. Which brings me back to my initial wondering: is my reading balance the way it is because that’s the publishing balance? Should I replace the word balance with bias?

I dug around. In May 2018, The Guardian reported on a study of the pricing of books which revealed that books by women are routinely priced 45% lower than books by men. One way of viewing this statistic is to say that books by women are seen as being of lesser value than those by men. Even if you think about it charitably, with the lower price point being there to encourage readers to pick up more books by women, inherent in that pricing is the belief that women authors will only be read if their works are cheaper than those of men.

The authors of the report made allowances for women writers dominating the romance genre, the genre with traditionally the lowest price point, and men dominating scientific non fiction, a genre with a high price point, and still found that books by female authors were sold at around 9% less than those by male writers.

The discrepancies that exist within genres is explored in this analysis I found from 2017, that starts with the New York Times Best Seller lists between 1950 and 2015. In literary fiction, at least, the bias seems to have evened out since the 1990s, sitting at 54% male to 46% female in 2010, which is closer to my own reading bias. But when the author of the analysis looks at gender within genres, it makes for less edifying reading. Female writers have made inroads into genres like horror and mystery, and now dominate the historical fiction genre which used to be more balanced. Domestic and romance are the bastions of women writers, which is why I read more male authors than female, I think, because the genres I typically enjoy are dominated by men: crime, political thrillers, science fiction, and suspense. This backs up my sense of women mainly being published in genres that the publishing world thinks women know about and are interested in, and they’re not genres that top my list of what makes a good read.

The other thing that both the academic report covered by The Guardian and the analysis on The Pudding refer to is the bias found in reviews.

According to [VIDA‘s] most recent study, in 2015 books by women made up less than 20% of books reviewed in the New York Review of Books, 30% in Harper’s, 29% in the Atlantic, and 22% in the London Review of Books.

That’s closer to what my reading bias used to be. If male writers are pushed at the engaged reading public more often than female writers, no wonder I developed a habit of choosing more books by male authors in my teens and early adulthood. And no wonder it took me a while to pay attention to that. Praise for male writers over female has been normalised by the industry.

In an article in the Financial Times from September 2018, the gap is also found to be present in the books put forward for literary prizes, which is another way that I find out about books that I end up reading. The author of the article finds more positive news in the fact that more books by female authors topped The Bookseller’s best seller lists for literary fiction and for all genres in 2017. And yet, an analysis of the reader submitted By The Book column in the New York Times reveals that men tend to read and recommend more books written by their own gender than women do. As the article’s author says:

I’m beginning to see the gender imbalance in books and writing more clearly — that even as some biases are corrected, even as women write more bestsellers, what’s at stake is who gets to take up space and media attention.

And an interesting aside to all this is that each of the articles I’ve cited was written by a woman. Make of that what you will.

I’d like to see a change in the way publishers take on female authors, and in the way they submit novels for prizes. I’d also like to see a change in the way the media review literature. Wouldn’t it be great if women writers got equal opportunities across genres and in exposure in the press?

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13 thoughts on “Random Thoughts: On gender bias in my reading habits (a sort of Women Read Women update)

  1. This is a really interesting idea you’re pondering here. As I’ve been tracking my own reading, I tend to have a pretty near 50/50 split according to gender, but I’ve also made the effort to read the entire catalogs of specific female writers over the past couple of years. I wonder how that will change when my focus in on a male author. I think you’ve hit on something with the issue being a multifaceted one of what women are encouraged to write and encouraged to read and that, perhaps, being different from what men are encouraged to write and read. The publicity for both must also be different, and I wonder how much book clubs being predominantly women affects that. It’s a lot to think about and I’ll be paying more attention to the gender division of my own reading with all of this in mind. Thanks for a really thought-provoking post!

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    1. That’s a great point about book clubs. I hadn’t considered whether the increase in book clubs over the last decade or so has positively influenced the literary fiction that’s published. I’ve been focusing on new or new to me female authors recently, mainly through the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Women in Translation month. I’ve also been actively seeking out crime fiction and science fiction written by women, because if I and other women enjoy reading these genres, women must enjoy writing them. I think they deserve our support.

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  2. Okay, I’ll try again. In summary – this is a fantastic post. You know that it’s something that I think about a lot. It strikes me as identical to the pattern of gender inequality ore broadly (occupational segregation in the categories and the gender pay gap in the pay point differential!). Fortunately, there are some amazing women trying to redress this, like the Stella Prize here (which goes into schools as well as does the book prize) and the Vida count. I do make a conscious effort to read more women that men, but I am in the minority of most book readers I speak to.
    Having said all that, I’ve just reserved a copy of the Michael Faber book. It sounds fascinating.

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    1. The Faber book is very good. I had a day to myself yesterday and read 150 pages of it. The day before it sent me scurrying off to look at the Booth maps of poverty in London.

      I hadn’t made that connection between the publishing pattern and the pattern across all employments, but you’re right. Same type of segregation into ‘traditional’ male/female roles, same lack of equal pay because ‘women’s work’ isn’t as valued as the rest of what (arguably) keeps society functioning.

      I feel like I’ve settled into a pattern where I read what I fancy and it’s increasingly written by a woman. Every so often, though, I need to hear a male voice for balance. I’ve also noticed that most of the women writers that I seek out aren’t English. I’m tired of reading the thoughts of upper and middle class white English women. The women I enjoy reading have bite because they’ve not had entirely comfortable lives, and so they don’t write about Tamara who simply must have the latest Chanel/Prada/Kors/Vuitton bag to go with her latest himbo. And even when they write literary fiction, a voice in the back of my head tells me that there are probably better writers of literary fiction who don’t already know someone in the business who can jump them to the top of the pile, writers who are probably working class.

      I look forward to your reviews of books nominated for the Stella Prize because I know I’m going to pick up on something good and meaty.

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  3. This is a fascinating post Jan – for many reasons, but its being the time it is (ie 3am) I can’t quite get my head around all the issues to fully comment. I have read Faber – when it came out – and enjoyed it a lot.

    I have, for thirty years or more now, actively sought out women writers. Time to redress the balance, I decided back in the 1980s when I got seriously into women writers, past and present. Over that time I have discovered so many fantastic women writers – none or few of whom “write about Tamara who simply must have the latest Chanel/Prada/Kors/Vuitton bag to go with her latest himbo”. That sounds like chick lit and I don’t read chick lit.

    But I am happy to read women authors who write about women’s experience of the world – I love it in fact because so often women’s experience has been passed over as not important, not of the real stuff of life. Jane Austen is a good example. Far fewer men than women read her, because men think she’s about romance and marriage. Nothing could be further from the truth. The plot lines may be that, but if you asked me what her novels were about, I’d say some very different things – the overall one being they are about human (all humans) nature. Jane Austen knows people’s hearts and motivations and behaviours better than most, and she skewers it every time (and makes me laugh while doing it.) However, they are also about society, and the way society of her time treated women – their lack of economic power, of agency in their lives, and so on. This is important too – even if simply as a reminder of why we must keep fighting for equality in all ways – legally, politically, economically, socially, educationally, etc.

    Overall, I find that women writing in the literary fiction area write smart, clever, often innovative sometimes fierce writing that also has heart and commitment to humanity. What more could I want? Oh yes, the occasional man for balance! Seriously, my reading has been perhaps over-skewed towards women in the last couple of years – 70%. I’m happy to be skewed in that direction rather than vice versa, but there are some men I want to catch up on!

    Oh dear, I do hope this has made sense. It’s not really a good time to be writing something thoughtful and rational.

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    1. It does make sense, and I agree with you, particularly about Jane Austen who is wonderful.

      I take your point about reading women authors who write about women’s experience of the world. It’s important that more women feel empowered to do that in a way that goes beyond chick lit. It’s possible to make an argument that chick lit is about women’s experience of the world, as are the bonk busters by the likes of Jilly Cooper, Jackie Collins and Shirley Conran that my mum and her friends would avidly read. All literature written by women is about women’s experience, naturally. I think that I, particularly with chick lit, regret that it sometimes seems as though this version of women’s experience of the world is aspirational or the only valid expression of women’s experience, because it fits with what men think about women. Similarly, the novels by white women from privileged backgrounds frustrate me because they’re not my experience and yet they seem to be the majority experience in the novels that cross my radar. I’m frustrated by the media coverage women writers get, by the stock buying choices of my local library service, by what gets pushed at women readers by the industry as being about women’s experience.

      I’m curious about my own gravitation towards male writers. I’m possibly disappointed in myself that I feel their pull, when I ought to be focusing on championing women. Subconsciously, I might have written this post to give myself permission not to get so hung up on it!

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      1. Thanks Jan. I guess it just sounds to me that if they are the main women you see you are not looking in the right places? Don’t look at, say, Liane Moriarty or Jodi Picoult whom I haven’t read but suspect are firmly middle class albeit they explore issues. Have you read The Astley for example? Gutsy challenging writing, admired by Patrick White. I could give you a woman- focused reading list… Haha. I think we should read diversely but I’m always sorry when women feel they gravitate to male writers!

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      2. Ha! Ain’t that the truth?

        Thanks for the offer, but there’s no need for a list. I’ve got Madeleine Miller, Muriel Barbery, Alena Graedon, Yei Theodora Ozaki, Lauren Elkin, Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock and Pat Barker, who are new to me, and a return to Donna Tartt, Margaret Drabble, Tracey Chevalier, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Miriam Toews, Hilary Mantel, and Angela Carter (among others) on my reading list for this year!

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      3. I was partly joking! But, I’m glad I did because it’s good seeing your list. A good one. Just needs some Aussies in there… Haha!

        It’s a good list. I haven’t read all those, and some, like Barker, Barbary, Drabble and Adichie, I haven’t read since blogging. Others I’d like to read too. My daughter loved Miller.

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      4. Hannah Kent’s on the list. I got an Amazon voucher for Christmas and I fully intend to use it to buy as many of the Aussie books I’m itching to read but that haven’t been published in the UK as I can.

        And I know you were (partly) joking 😉

        I’m starting my Miller immersion with Circe. I’ve had an email from the library, too, to say that Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy, the Miranda Kauffman book about Black Tudors and Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) have come in for me, so those have added themselves to the list.

        I checked my reading for last year, too, and I nearly made it to a 70% female list – better than I thought.

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