Gender Bias

Recently there was a great discussion on the best platform for discussions – Twitter – about why men don’t seem to read more women authors. It is something that genuinely puzzles me. Please don’t expect to find any answers here, these are mere ponderings that ought to probe for reasons rather than reveal them. During my small trip to London last week I had the same conversation with everyone, the question being “Why don’t more men read books by female authors?”

I’m a man, [I double checked this morning] and I have my own views on this topic. I have frantically searched for possible reasons and have come up with the following to start us off.

  • Upbringing and childhood environments
  • Pure sexism (As also suggested by the wonderful Jane Harris)
  • Naivety

Now, before I start to explore these ideas let me lay out some things. When I choose a book I don’t look for the gender of the author. It bothers me none. To be honest it matters not whether a book is written by someone whose sexual organs dangle or not. If anything I lean towards reading more fiction that spills from the pens of women. As stated, I am a man, if I want to escape [which is why I read] I want to escape into the different. I want to read the inner workings of someone who may, quite likely, think differently to me.

This could be linked to my upbringing. I was raised by a single mother – my father having abandoned me before I was even forced through the birth canal. Does this leave me more open and susceptible to women and their opinions and/or feelings? Of course, I am connected quite strongly to my mum, nobody’s thoughts or feelings matter more to me. Does this sway my habits? I am also a married man and father to three girls [It would be hard to pump more oestrogen into my daily life]. I feel a duty (and a pride), in a way, to be more open to women and their creative output.  I want to set an example for my daughters to help them to grow into strong women [Maybe I’m also more open to exploring my emotions after the death of my eldest daughter?!], and as I said, I enjoy reading different approaches to certain topics. Would I think and act differently had I been raised with a male presence in my home or if I had a raft of sons rather than daughters?

I am not in any way attempting to justify those who don’t read fiction written by a woman. We all after all come from women; they raise us at the most tender points of our lives. So, maybe it is just sexism?

Of course this opens a whole new can of worms. I would let you make up your own mind about this. Let’s be honest, sexism is still rampant in our world in the same way that racism and homophobia lingers where it should not. If we open this can of worms, we should be opening the cans that are labelled “novels by people of colour” and “LGBT fiction”, also. I can’t delve into this world as I have no direct experience with it. So, let me just leave these quotes here that come from female authors on Twitter:

From D.E. Meredith (author of crime fiction featuring male protagonists) – “I had a man who said “I don’t read women’s fiction” about my books having no idea what or how I wrote.”

And from Jane Harris (author of literary/contemporary fiction) – “Men often tell me how much their wife/mother/aunt enjoyed my books with no sense of how insulting it is.”

Also, here is one from a female book blogger, Kate, who hits the following topic dead on – “Some men clearly have no concept that there’s a difference between books by women and books for women.”

Here is where naivety comes in [though some may have a stronger word for it]. Do men generally put off female writers because they believe they will always be reading the next Sophie Kinsella? Do they fear opening the novel and having to read “chick-lit” just because a woman’s name graces the cover? Should the publishing industry be doing more to push fiction by women into male hands? Do the covers of certain books put off a male reader who would actually be quite open to the story being told? Are men scared by what they might read? Guys, if you open The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, you won’t find a copy of The Female Eunuch inside!

The thing is some men are missing out on some wonderful fiction. The likes of Rebecca Hunt, Barbara Kingsolver, Maria Semple, Margaret Atwood, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Gillian Flynn, Lauren Beukes, Maggie O’Farrell, Daphne Du Maurier and Hilary “best current writer on the planet” Mantel – are slipping under their radars.

It all comes down to equality. Women can be terrific writers, as can men. Women can also write badly, as can men. Women think with their brains and feel with their hearts, as do men. [You can’t see, but I’m doing the “I don’t get it” shrug of the shoulders].

So, what do you think? Let us have a reasonable conversation in the comment section below. Why do you believe this divide exists? What can we do to change perceptions?

*U.S. podcast Books on the Nightstand also covered these ideas recently on episode #221 ‘The VIDA Count’

8 thoughts on “Gender Bias

  1. Heather

    I can add to the conversation with a lot of speculation, but no concrete answers. My husband doesn’t distinguish between men and women authors, either. He just enjoys reading good books, no matter who has written them. For some men it may be a masculinity thing–as you said, our society is still full of patriarchy. It’s everywhere–on TV shows, in commercials, in music…”this is what a man should be and this is how he should act”…and maybe that spills over into which books some men choose to read.

    1. Dog Ear Post author

      I agree, I think the emphasis needs to be on reading good books regardless of author. The idea of women writing about women’s things and vice versa just puzzles me.

  2. naomifrisby

    I think there’s something in the sexism angle and this idea that seems to perpetuate that women write ‘kitchen sink dramas’ and men write books that shed light on the world. If Franzen’s books were published under a female pseudonym I’m pretty sure you’d assume they were written by a woman and they wouldn’t have garnered the level of attention they’ve received.

    To that end, I think the publishing industry has a part to play here – you only need to follow a handful of female writers to see them talking about how they avoided having a pink cover on their work.

    And the media – how few books by women are reviewed? How few of those reviews are written by men?

    We also need to place value on female writers in schools – there are fewer women on exam lists, probably as a consequence of being late additions to the canon. Teachers need to stop saying that boys won’t read books written by women – there are lots of fabulous YA books written by women that boys love. And there’s no reason why they can’t progress to the likes of Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood at A level.

    We need to tackle this from all sides.

  3. Ellie

    *cough* I know several straight men who have enjoyed books by Sophie Kinsella. She’s an entertaining writer, just as many other chick-lit writers are.

  4. Lizzie Newell

    I think it’s a bit more subtle than sexism. Most people relate most readily to people like to themselves. Walk into a room of strangers and most of us will gravitate toward others of the same age, same gender, same race, or dressed in a similar style. it’s not that we find anything particularly wrong with people who are different. It’s more likely that we feel this other person who is like me will be more receptive to the way I think. We’re more likely to have something in common to talk about. I think our culture asks girls from a very young age to identify with males. The Hanna Barbara cartoons tend to have all male characters, or at least they did when I was growing up. As a three-year-old I identified with Tweety Bird. Boys on the other hand are seldom asked to identify with female characters, so when they become adults they have little experience of feeling commonality with female characters and authors.

  5. Leah

    As a few others have said, I think part of the reason some men tend not to read books written by women is that they falsely connect women writers with chick lit, and so much of our media reinforces the idea that it isn’t “manly” to enjoy the things women like or act in any way like women. Telling a man he “throws like a girl” is meant to be an insult; I’m guessing some men don’t want to read like girls, either.

  6. RC

    I think there is a stigma against some women writers that is sort of sad. My dad has enjoyed books by women writers (he especially likes Dana Stabenow and he enjoyed the Hunger Games) but he wouldn’t be caught dead reading Jane Austen because she supposedly wrote romance when in reality her books are much more.

    When it comes to contemporary authors, I think men don’t tend to care whether the name on the cover is male or female but are turned off by overly feminine covers. I don’t really like them either as a matter of fact. Maybe this is a way in which e books can be good because no one can see the cover of the book that you are reading.


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