Reading Gender

image credit: the guardian

We all know that the literary canon is represented by white, male writers to a disproportionate extent. But there are many exceptions, and diverse writers are gaining more exposure all the time. Women read about 50% female authors and 50% male authors. But for men that ratio is about 80:20 in favor of male authors. Why? I think there are a lot of reasons having to do with how our society at large sees and defines masculinity. But The Guardian recently put out a list of Books By Women That Every Man Should Read. The list included contributions from the likes of Ian McEwan, Richard Curtis, Salman Rushdie and more.

On one hand I don’t want to criticize The Guardian for seeing the discrepancy between male and female reading habits and trying to rectify some of the imbalance. But something about this article doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s the authors who are left off. The omissions include (but are no means limited to) Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, any of the Bronte sisters, Agatha Christie, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Highsmith, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Shirley Jackson and that’s just off the top of my head! But there’s no way a list like this could possible be comprehensive. They asked a handful of men to name a favorite and these are the ones that came up. That’s fair. If they’d been asked to list favorite books by male writers there would be many gaps and omissions as well. That’s the nature of such a list.

10 Powerful Female Authors (list and collage by Bookstr)

Maybe what doesn’t sit right with me is the idea of a bunch of men telling other men that these are the books by women that are “acceptable” for them to read. I’m aware that’s not the intention. The intention is the highlight great work by female authors. But it’s how it comes off.

This article also spurred me to think about my own reading habits. Looking at the books I’ve read so far this year, I’ve read thirty eight books so far. Nine were by men. Clearly I gravitate toward women authors in my own reading. My TBR looks more or less consistent with that proportion. So am I in any position to criticize men for reading things are they feel are in line with their own experiences of the world? Maybe not.

I think the take away is that we should all try to step outside our comfort zones. That goes for gender, but also for race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and any other category you can think of.

Do you gravitate toward books that reflect your experience/identity? If so do you think it’s worthwhile to try to read outside that comfort zone?

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6 thoughts on “Reading Gender

  1. This whole kind of discussion annoys me so much that if I didn’t know you really well and trust you quite a bit, I wouldn’t have clicked on your post.

    I do not ever choose a book based on the demographics of the author. Ever. I go by the book’s genre, title, theme, cover art, blurb … in short, whether it interests me. Being told that I have to choose books based on the author (or that maybe I already do!) is one of the more insulting things that have ever been said to me (and I don’t mean by you. I have gotten this kind of thing before in the literary world).

    Similarly, I don’t even know what the question means “Do you gravitate toward books that reflect your own experience/identity?”. I gravitate towards books that INTEREST ME. That’s it. Often, these books are set in times and places far removed from my own, because reading is escapist and helps us explore. Would I pick up a book about a middle-aged, working-class, white mom of three? Sure, IF the blurb sounded good and the writing on the first page or two pulled me in. But I don’t look for books that “reflect my own experience” in the sense of being exactly about something I have also gone through down to the last detail, because that would be either boring or upsetting.

    And I can’t gravitate towards books that “reflect my identity,” because WTH is that? I am an individual. No other person out there knows what it’s like to be me. Of course, we all hope to find characters we can identify with in books, but that has very little to do with the character’s demographics matching ours, and also, of course, it’s impossible to tell how relatable or non-relatable a book will be until you’ve read it.

    I have enjoyed books by men with characters that I don’t relate to much. An example would be the Jack Reacher novels. I wasn’t sure whether my novels would appeal to men too, or only to women, but I’ve had at least one male reader say that he thought I had a good balance of elements that appeal to both sexes. That wasn’t on purpose. I was just trying to write something realistic and interesting.

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  2. You make some excellent points! We’re all individuals first, and I think most people do what you do: pick books that interest them. Sometimes that means we read books by people very different (in terms of demographics), sometimes it means we read books by people similar to us, and sometimes it’s somewhere in between. With some people trends sometimes emerge from that though. We don’t intend it, but sometimes our interests tend to draw us to authors from similar or different demographics.

    Take me for example: like you I read primarily books that strike me as interesting/appealing in some way. I never really thought about the gender of the author until I read that article and took a look at what I’d read this year. I noticed that the authors I’d read so far – authors whose books I was interested in for some reason – were predominantly female. That’s not really good or bad. I like to read from diverse (in many senses of the word) authors so in the future I’ll be a little more aware of that. The article just provoked some thought on my part, so I wanted to share it: sort of the blog equivalent of thinking out loud. Apologies for any offense I might have caused!

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  3. I find that—while I have lately been reading more female authors than male, and more male authors than non-binary—gender isn’t the main thing I look for when picking up a book. (I started making a point of noticing the gender of the authors I read and trying to be more inclusive, but that hasn’t worked so well with gender yet.)

    However, the thing that I *DO* intentionally gravitate toward is racial diversity. When I was young, nearly all of the books I read featured white main characters. As a half-Asian reader, that meant that the side of myself that I saw represented in fiction was only the white side. In more recent years, finding non-white characters in fiction has been incredibly good for my self esteem in ways I hadn’t even realized I needed.

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    • It’s definitely not the first thing I look for either. But not that I’ve noticed such a discrepancy along the gender divide I want to at least make an effort toward being a bit more inclusive of male and nonbinary authors.

      I also make an effort towards racial diversity in my reading. That’s gotten easier to do in recently years. It’s interesting that you’ve seen a boost in self esteem. It makes sense though!

      None of that is to say that trying to read books by diverse authors means I read things that don’t interest me! It’s just more of an awareness that I’m trying to have.

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      • Oh, absolutely, I totally understand. It’s the same as how I’m cis and straight, but I’m trying to read more LGBTQIA+ authors and topics to broaden my awareness and understanding of others.

        The other interesting thing I find about reading about characters whose racial mix is closer to mine is that I’ve been self-identifying in my head as a half-Asian person. When I was young, I saw myself as fully white because that’s what I saw in fiction, even though society didn’t see me that way.

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      • Exactly. I like to read widely and when I notice a discrepancy I look to that demographic for books that sound good to me.

        That’s really interesting that books have played a role in how you self identify!

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