I read an interesting discussion on Reddit yesterday morning. It started with an article suggesting that most men are really reluctant to read female authors. The article’s author commissioned a poll comparing the readers of the top 10 bestselling male literary authors, and the top 10 bestselling female literary authors. The men’s readership was close to evenly divided – 55% men and 45% women – while the women’s readership was very lopsided – 81% women and only 19% men.
The article’s contention was that this imbalance is because men take women less seriously than they do other men. I thought the discussion raised some important points to clarify that while yes, there is an imbalance, it’s not as dramatic as the raw figures 81–19 make it seem, and may not be a “sexist” thing.1 The most important reason is that the majority of readers in general are women. A couple of commenters who work(ed) in book stores or as authors estimated that 75% of book-buyers are women, and while that number might be slightly inflated, it does suggest that both women and men are more likely to read authors of the same gender as them. And I’ll admit, I am one of those women who mostly reads women, so this possibility seems plausible to me.
So why does this happen? A few suggestions arose from the discussion, some of which seemed more valid than others, but they mainly boiled down to two points: reader preferences and publisher decisions. You could also think of this as the demand side vs the supply side.
As far as reader preferences go, one suggestion that made intuitive sense to me (despite being a generalisation) was that women are more likely to care about deep characterisation than men, while men are more likely to care about tight plotting and “big ideas” than women. Female and male authors are more likely to excel at the skills that women and men, respectively, consider the most important, and so their books are more likely to appeal to members of their own gender.
Now obviously, I’ve used the words “more likely” throughout because this generalisation isn’t going to hold fast for everyone, either as authors or readers! But I would guess that the correlation is stronger than just “random chance”. For me personally, I’d say that the brilliant books I’ve read that excel at everything (characterisation, plot, concepts) have been by both men and women. Similarly, the books I did not like, that I thought were kind of trash at everything? By both men and women. It’s when I look at the “middle group” that I think the correlation holds up best. I’ve read numerous books by men that I thought were technically really good with their sharp plotting and examination of “big ideas” (or at least interesting concepts), but I ended up rating them 3 out of 5 stars just because the characters didn’t grip me. I can think of some by women too, but plenty by men. And I’ve also read some books that I thought had really weak or generic plots that I rated 3 or even 4 stars because the characters just got me so invested, despite the flawed plot… and as far as I can remember, those were all by women. Now obviously, the books I’ve read aren’t a representative sample of all books everywhere, and I haven’t done any objective studies of my own into this topic. But I did just think, considering my own preferences for character-driven narratives and my opinions on the books I can recall reading, that there might’ve been something to this explanation.
Some people in the Reddit discussion took the “reader preferences” thing a step further, especially male readers who were suddenly feeling defensive about the lack of female names on their bookshelf. Some trotted out the line that “there just aren’t many women writing fantasy or science fiction, which are the genres I like to read”, even though the idea that there’s any shortage of women writing in these genres is an obvious nonsense. I think you could distinguish the men who genuinely believed it was true from the men who were just making excuses from their reactions when given a list of female authors they could try; the former group responded, “Wow, I had no idea! I’ll have to check some of those out!” and the latter group either went silent or responded back with some snotty line like, “Wahwahwah why do you even care what I read, why does everything have to be so PC and woke nowadays, I just read what I wanna read and I don’t care about minority representation on my bookshelf.”
There are some genres that are dominated by one gender or the other, particularly women in the romance genre. But I think it would be dangerous to over-apply this “rule”, when it’s also true that decisions about which genre different authors should be filed under is usually made by publishers, and those are driven by what they think will drive sales, rather than pure accuracy. Which leads me to my second major point: to what extent is this “gender segregation” in literature happening thanks to publisher decisions?
A few relevant examples of this point came out of the Reddit discussion. As far as genres go, the point was made that works are often assigned to genres based more on the gender of the author than the content of the book. For example, it’s a well-known phenomenon that female authors, especially in fantasy and science fiction, are often pigeonholed as “YA authors” even if there’s nothing particularly teen-centric about their work at all. YA is a huge market and this is probably why publishers do it, but I’d say it’s undoubtedly a genre that appeals more to girls and women than guys. (Indeed, logically I’d assume there must be books written for/aimed at teenage boys, but I don’t know of any and if they exist I don’t think they get classed as YA.)
Similarly, a lot of science fiction draws on not-very-scientific concepts like telepathy or ancient unknowable technology that ends up operating like magic (not to mention that many science fiction staples, like faster-than-light travel or time travel into the past, don’t actually seem to be viable by our current understanding of physics anyway). However, if you go exploring science fiction books on Goodreads, you’ll find it’s mostly the ones written by women that get tagged also as “fantasy”, while the male-written ones are less likely to have this happen. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy or SF-fantasy hybrids, of course, but I think it happens because some people believe that science fiction is a masculine genre, and therefore that women who write in it actually don’t. And then men who only like “hard” science fiction get this false impression that female SF authors are all “soft” (if not not even SF authors at all), when this is not true.
I’m sure this issue occurs with other subgenres, as well. As mentioned before, men do read fantasy, but that’s a huge genre with lots of subgenres within it. Someone in the Reddit discussion suggested that a story about urban werewolves might be branded as “fantasy action” if written by a man, but “paranormal romance” if written by a woman, which obviously have very different connotations and likely appeal. Someone else on Reddit said that in their local bookstore, there are hardly any female names on the store’s science fiction and fantasy shelves at all, to the point that they definitely believed there were just few women writing in those genres (until finding out otherwise online).
I know I’ve also noticed that blurbs for female authors’ books sometimes exaggerate and completely over-emphasise some romantic subplot that, when you read the book, turns out to be only a tiny part of the storyline. The example in the discussion was some Lionel Shriver book, and I vividly remember this happening with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. These kinds of decisions undoubtedly push many men away from books that they would otherwise enjoy, and I’m not convinced they actually do anything to appeal better to female readers – to me it just seems like a sexist assumption (quite common in Hollywood, as well) that “little lady brains” need some kind of romance to latch onto or else we’ll get bored.
Another thing, if you look at literary fiction, is the very existence of this category “women’s literature”… meanwhile, there is no category for “men’s literature”. As far as publishers are concerned, women’s stories are only of interest to women, while men’s stories are universal. Knowing that we live in a society where men feel social pressure to comply with gender norms just as women do… I feel like a man would be much more likely to pick up “women’s stories” if they’re all mixed in with literary fiction generally, and marketed the same way; it’s a much bigger ask for him to walk over to the “women’s fiction” shelves and have a browse there. Even online, so much of ebook-shopping depends on whatever some algorithm decides to suggest to you. I feel like these algorithms have a self-reinforcing divisive impact: algorithms make judgements about which books they will and won’t show you based on your gender, resulting in you never seeing some of them to even give them a try, “validating” the algorithm’s initial assumptions and making it continue to behave that way. Personally I discover a lot of books through human reviewers rather than algorithms, which I hope helps to break that effect for me.
Now look, as I mentioned, I do think there might be some validity to the idea that men and women prioritise different aspects of stories. Indeed, as far as the reviewers I mentioned go, I do often notice a divide between the male and female reviewers along the lines I noted earlier, where a man will rave about a book but a later review by a woman will be ambivalent, expressing disappointment about the generic characters or repetitive violent action scenes or something. But to me, this “reader preference” factor is the kind of thing that would explain a 60-40 split. It’s not the kind of factor that could explain a man reading male-authored books the overwhelming majority of the time – at that point, I think we have to point the finger at excessive market segmentation, to the point that (a number of) male readers are simply unaware of how many great books by women are out there.
A couple of other points came up on Reddit which were more about querying the conclusions of the initial poll. For example, because people were just asked about the “top 10 male literary authors” and the “top 10 female literary authors”, we don’t know what absolute numbers the percentages indicate. It’s generally believed that male authors sell better than female ones – this is, after all, why so many female authors have adopted gender-neutral pen names (or even, historically, masculine pen names). But all the article says in this vein is that of the top 10 bestselling literary titles in 2017, nine of them were written by women. Now, we don’t know that the “top author” lists also came from 2017 data. But if they did, that could also suggest that the gender discrepancy in what men choose to read is less than it first appeared.
Another couple of suggestions were that women are more likely to purposely seek out female authors, and more likely to pick up new releases. Men are more likely to “not care”, or to seek out classics, and given the overwhelming maleness of the literary canon, they end up reading more older books, and more male authors, by default. I can’t necessarily vouch for these but I suppose they’re plausible, too.
I guess the final thing to ponder is: How much does it really matter, anyway, if men don’t read many female authors (or vice-versa)? Why not just let people read what they want to read?! For me I guess the truth is that it doesn’t matter in and of itself – it matters in the sense that it’s yet another symptom of sexism in society as a whole. If you cast your eye over someone’s bookshelf and see mostly masculine names on it, I think it’s fair to ask them why that is (in good faith, that is, because it’s unlikely to be a purposeful slight), but the root of the problem isn’t individual readers’ choices. Publishers and booksellers’ decisions about how to market certain books and who to promote them to (or not) are a better place to start. And more broadly, there are a lot of aspects of society that we should be challenging in order to dismantle ideas about men and women living in different worlds or being so fundamentally different from one another that even each other’s stories are less relatable – things like the inequitable distribution of housework and caring responsibilities; notions of women having a “natural aptitude” for caring/nurturing activities, and paying women less to do “caring” work like teaching or nursing being justified because they derive so much natural fulfilment from it; the idea that women are “naturally” ill-suited for male-dominated careers like construction or engineering; or that it’s just natural for “the boys” to socialise together in one place and “the girls” to socialise together somewhere else. If we can tackle these more important divisions, I feel like the book-reading one will resolve itself.
At least, not beyond the baseline level of “we live in a patriarchal society, and have internalised certain attitudes about gender, whether or not we’re aware of them or agree with them consciously”. ↩︎