I’m still grappling with gender issues in fiction. You’ll have seen I hadn’t even thought about the fact that there was a gender divide until I discovered in a personal way that many men don’t read women authors … perhaps because of a perception that women authors write “women’s fiction,” which seems to mean different things to different people. It’s a many-tentacled beast, this topic.
It is also, shall we say, fraught. (Adjective: causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension; uneasy.) It might be easy for some to shrug off the commentary … if it weren’t for that pesky VIDA Count, which annually highlights the literary gender imbalance in the top literary magazines:
The Atlantic, Boston Review, Granta, Harper’s, London Review of Books, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Poetry, The Threepenny Review, The Times Literary Supplement, Tin House, Paris Review, and The Nation (2011 Count only) are widely recognized as prominent critical and/or commercial literary venues. Publication in these magazines and journals furthers the careers of writers by bolstering applications for grants, residencies, employment (academic and otherwise), graduate programs, awards, and more. Winning/earning/receiving these types of honors affords writers the time and resources needed to continue/advance their careers.
Numbers don’t lie. And when a woman looks down the table of contents in the New York Review of Books—a list of book reviewers and critics—and sees twenty-six men and just one woman reviewer … what’s she supposed to think? Particularly when only one book written by a woman is reviewed by those twenty-six men. Author Jane Vandenburgh was outraged, and, frankly, so am I.
I mean, again, how can we expect male readers of literary fiction to even know female authors exist if they’re not being reviewed in the important literary outlets?
One might say, Well, no wonder …!
Then again, one might say, Dude, what the heck?
In spite of the fact that women buy more books than men in this country—you can check out Bowker’s Annual Review at the library, but I’ll reduce it to this: women represent 60 percent of book buyers, 65 percent of units (books) sold, and 58 percent of dollars spent on books in 2011, and those numbers are little changed in 2012 and ’13—Slate points out, “men still dominate the major outlets as tastemakers, reviewers, and authors whose works are deemed worthy of review.”
At the [London Review of Books] last year 16% of reviewers were women (29 out of 184) and 26% of authors reviewed (58 out of 221); at the New York Review of Books 21% of 254 reviews were by women, 17 of 92 authors reviewed were female and 13% of 152 articles were by women. Of 1,163 reviews in the [Times Literary Supplement] in 2011, 30% were by women, and of 1,314 authors reviewed, 25% were women.
So even though women are buying more books, they’re being exposed to significantly more male authors than female authors.*
How does this happen? Women read more … but …
Hold that thought.
I’m an agnostic when it comes to gender in fiction, as you now know. I choose books by my interests; I read reviews from a broad range of sources (mine are a little more populist—I see Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, Time, even People magazine regularly, though I do seek out reviews on the NYT as well), listen to recommendations from friends (both men and women), and choose what appeals to me. In recent years I’ve been blogging about my favorite book from all the titles I read in a given year, and back in January I announced my favorite for 2013 was Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. The previous year it was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. It tends to work out pretty close to fifty-fifty, just by happenstance.
But I’m a woman, and it’s men we’re talking about. It seems some choose their fiction—consciously or unconsciously—based on the gender of the author, excluding female authors. Still, I’d be willing to wager there are plenty of men who read women authors—and, in fact, so would Slate magazine, in this sassy article from last year, which points out that Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary were read by men in great numbers (Agatha Christie, too, for that matter), although I am tempted to say, you know, That was then, this is now. So let’s not get lost in the past—I think Gone Girl has been read by quite a few men. Wolf Hall (and Bring Up the Bodies), The Goldfinch. But this is a short list. Can you name other contemporary female-penned novels men have been reading? I have no data but I suspect that Goodnight Moon is as beloved by boys of a certain age as it is by girls. My editor friend from across the pond, Robert Doran, suggests there are plenty of boys who’ve read Enid Blyton, whose books for children are still best sellers, though they were written in the 1930s into the 1960s.
This was my thesis when I started out—sort of a surely-you’re-joking-guys reaction. But we’ve seen, now, that many men just won’t choose books by women. Why?
What if it’s just that many of the books that appeal to men’s interests just happen to be written by men? That would make sense, right? (But actually, it’s more than this. I’ve had several men—men I respect, love, think well of—tell me they don’t like “being in a woman’s head” in the case of female protagonists, and that male protagonists written by women don’t ring true to them. Which makes me feel a little stupid, since I can think of only once instance in which a woman written by a man felt “off” to me.)
So what if it’s more what society teaches little boys (and little girls) early in life, rather than boys per se? Doran thinks it runs pretty deep:
If society continues to see the female gender ‘role’ as weaker and desirable only insofar as it can be dominated and owned (strong terms, I know, but we certainly aren’t in a place where femininity is valued in the same way as masculinity, or seen to be as useful and productive), and if boys, naturally and through conditioning, want to be strong and powerful, why would they want to associate themselves with a female perspective? I think many men and boys unconsciously feel the weight of this societal influence even as they choose a book.
Some parents try very hard to avoid planting biases in their children, of course. There is even a discussion in the UK to move away from gender-specific children’s books, as reported by Publishing Perspectives:
A petition calling on children’s publishers to “stop labeling books, in the title or on the packaging, as for girls or for boys” because “telling children which stories and activities are ‘for them’ based on their gender closes down whole worlds of interest,” has received more than 3,000 signatures.
This is interesting, I think, because by the time those boys are in school, at least in the States, the attitude changes:
Recently, when the novelist Mary Gordon spoke at a boys’ school, she learned that the students weren’t reading the Brontës, Austen or Woolf. Their teachers defended this by saying they were looking for works that boys could relate to. But at the girls’ school across the street, Gordon said, “no one would have dreamed of removing ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Moby-Dick’ from the syllabus.”
It’s because by then it seems boys are starting to lose interest in reading fiction. So many other forms of entertainment compete for their attention. Publishing journalist Porter Anderson notes,
Every time you say “Oh, guys don’t read,” you can hear the books in boys’ hands snapping shut. These guys will fulfill your assumption if you even hint that reading may not be “manly.” Be careful what you say.
So perhaps the question isn’t why don’t boys/men read women, but why don’t they read, full stop. And how do we turn that around?
I believe the answer is the same as it always was: If your children see you reading a book, they will want to copy that behavior. If you make books available, they will pick them up, sooner or later. As I’ve noted in another post, although I read while I was nursing him and every moment I got after that, too, the Boy wasn’t interested in reading … until he was. And after he finished working his way through the Michael Crichton canon, he worked his way through Mary Stewart’s Merlin series.
Children whose parents modeled reading for them tend to grow up with a reading habit. Now if the stodgy ol’ literary establishment will admit to itself and to us readers that women write some damned fine books,** we’ll be at the races.
* There is another aspect of bringing books to the public’s attention that we might consider: the buyer—the person who decides which titles a store will stock. Unlike reviewers, buyers—often the store owners—do know who is buying books and are aware of her tastes. The buyer shapes store inventory. In an email conversation with me, Doran noted: “Buyers are considered industry tastemakers. They have the power to create presence and to react to or ignore review coverage and other publicity. They are much more focused on the woman with a dollar in her pocket than the reviewers are and ultimately their power is comparable.” The problem being, of course, that with fewer and fewer physical bookstore, there are fewer and fewer book buyers to wield influence.
** Some damned fine women authors (fiction) that men should read (this is just a start; I could go on):
Isabel Allende Maile Meloy
Kate Atkinson Alice Munro
Margaret Atwood Joyce Carol Oates
Emily and Charlotte Brontë Flannery O’Connor
Geraldine Brooks Ann Patchett
A. S. Byatt Louise Penny
Louise Erdrich Marilynne Robinson
Kaye Gibbons Lionel Shriver
Ellen Gilchrist Lee Smith
Nadine Gordimer Muriel Spark
Barbara Kingsolver Donna Tartt
Jhumpa Lahiri Anne Tyler
Doris Lessing Eudora Welty
Hilary Mantel Virginia Woolf
Alice McDermott Meg Wolitzer
Tweet: It’s Hard to Catch Up When You Start Out Behind (Gender in Fiction 3/4)
Tweet: Gender disparity in the literary world? See the VIDA Count. Numbers don’t lie.
Tweet: How can we expect male readers to know female authors exist if they’re not being reviewed?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”