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?