Alex Crow - January 30th, 2013
This week it emerged that a colleague’s male friend confessed to not really reading fiction written by women. I say confessed – I don’t think he felt embarrassed about it. It got a few of us to thinking; do men read books written by women, and if not, why not? Who are all these sexist swines we’ve be hanging out with, and why aren’t they kicking it with our literary sisters?
After some scientific and thorough research amongst my peers (Twitter and Facebook shout-outs), it emerged that the colleague’s friend was not alone. Of the twenty five males who sent responses with the last five or so books that they’d read, about 15 were written by women, which, using my GCSE maths qualification, is around 20%. And this was hugely increased by someone who had only read books written by women in the last few months (I like to call him ‘the Pioneer’). The average was one or none.
In the interest of fairness, I asked my female peers to send in their lists. Of the same number of respondents, there were 30 female authors mentioned – around 40% (hey, I’m a marketer, not a mathematician). So this might imply that maybe there are just less books being published by women, surely? Nope. At the time of writing, 12 of the top 20 bestselling fiction books in the UK were written by women. Admittedly, three of them were written by E. L. James, and are about as helpful to the feminist cause as wet-look leggings are to most women. But still. They are there. Being published.
Alright, so there’s less good books being published by women? Nope. 2012 saw Hilary Mantell win the Man Booker Prize for the second time, and half of the authors shortlisted were women. Lovereading’s ten books in the week of writing featured six written by women, none of which featured the words ’50 Shades.’ In the 2012 Costa Awards, every category was won by a woman. Six of the ten books on the Richard and Judy Spring Book Club list are by women.
So what on earth is going on? Well, a couple of theories have arisen. One is that a lot of people who sent me their last five books were reading backlist titles; catching up on some classics, ticking off some literary lists and finally trying to read War and Peace, and historically, men have been published more than women. Remember 100 years ago when women didn’t have a voice? Sadly, it’s still ricocheting on to our modern day reading lists. In many ‘100 best books of all time’ lists, women feature far less than men – the Guardian’s definitive list , for example, has only 14. The slightly more modern Time magazine list (which includes only that published after 1923) has 22. Thank you, men of yore, for suppressing our female writers. Who knows what unbelievable stories have been lost?
Secondly, reading outside of your gender is probably a little bit (a lot) down to publishers. We create very different covers, write very different back cover copy and market and place books in different places according to who we think will like them. A bit like Facebook does with its ads, but not as accurately because we haven’t stolen all of your information (yet). This especially apparent in so-called chick lit – they’re simply not designed in any way to appeal to men, and pretty much all of them are written by women. I’m not saying men should read them (I’m not saying anyone should read them…) but it might account for why the women in the brief survey had read more books by women. By the same token, genres which have traditionally been seen as ‘male’, such as sci-fi and crime, have more ‘masculine’ covers and would be placed differently in advertising and publicity. In both these genres though, times are fortunately a-changing. The success of Scandicrime, following Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, has created a boom in crime novels and a nod towards slightly more gender-neutral marketing. Hey, look at that – you don’t need a penis to enjoy a good murder investigation. It would seem though, that most crime bestsellers are still written by men, and similarly sci-fi/fantasy is mostly a male-only author camp.
Literary fiction is seemingly streets ahead in avoiding these traps – books sold on the value of their story, voice and that appeal to people regardless of gender, not because of it. Recent successful examples include Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, or The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. The covers are gender-neutral, and the stories appeal to us as humans, not men or women. No one really notices or cares if it’s a male or female author. Obviously, not all books can appeal to such a wide audience, nor should they, but it’s pretty obvious that women are writing some fantastic fiction that we’re not all picking up.
It doesn’t help that gender divisions in other areas of our entertainment lives are alive and well – you only have to open an issue of Cosmo to be bombarded with fashion and make up and increasingly devious and ridiculous new ways to stay thin like the celebrity du jour. Even those magazines designed to be for the ‘thinking woman’, such as Stylist, still hammer home the messages: wear more make-up, buy more clothes, cook like Nigella, have a great job, get married, have kids. It’s no wonder there’s a market for chick lit, where these lives are built into accessible, well-written, enjoyable stories, even though for most it’s for escapism.
It would seem that perhaps this woman isn’t giving men enough credit. They suffer the same literary sexism as us – if you love crime or fantasy novels, chances are it will have been written by a dude, so it’s probably not an active choice to avoid that written by a woman. Similarly, a lot of our talented female writers are writing books which appeal solely to women for whom the socialised ideal of the perfect women is desirable. The solution? We branch out from our comfort zones and take a literary risk, once in a while. That, or change all future authors’ names to George Elliot, and confound the system from within.
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