Some thoughts on #readwomen2014

For those of you not familiar with it, #readwomen2014 is a campaign started on twitter by writer Joanna Walsh intended to get people reading more books by women.


The concept of the campaign is a simple one, female writers don’t get the same critical attention as male. That’s odd, women read more than men (proportionally and in aggregate) and they get published in much the same numbers. So if women are published equally and women read more, why are they reviewed less?

Part of the answer seems to be that a disproportionate number of professional critics are men, and men famously are much less likely to read books by women than women are books by men (which is both bizarre and frankly depressing). Another part is marketing and perception.Women’s fiction is often given “girly” covers with pastels and sometimes cute taglines. If you’re male those covers are profoundly offputting.

Equally, it’s sadly true that all too often when a man writes a novel of middle-aged depression and marital failure it’s considered a meditation on aging and loss. When a woman does the same it’s seen as a domestic novel. As Joanna Walsh said in an article at Berfrois:

It’s not whether women are published (because they are) but how they are published. Are men more likely to write what’s considered ‘important’ literary fiction, or could it be that more are regarded that way? I’ve heard female writer friends grouse when their books are given flowery covers though their writing’s not, when reviews, even press-releases, describe their work as “delicate” when it is forthright, “playful” when it is experimental, “delightful” when it is satirical, “carving a niche” when it is staking a claim (none of these examples is made up).

So, one response to all this is women only literary prizes, which is deeply problematic for a number of fairly obvious reasons – it’s intrinsically sexist, smacks of women needing protecting from market realities, is arguably as logical as a prize for authors with red hair, there’s the question of how bad can things really be with authors such as Eleanor Catton and Hilary Mantel winning the Booker and so on. My response to all those commonly made points would be that prizes exist to focus attention on authors who might otherwise be overlooked, and with a few high-profile exceptions there’s a lot of evidence that women are disproportionately overlooked.

Anyway, back to #readwomen2014. Joanna Walsh wrote an article in the Guardian about her campaign, here, and it caught my attention.It got me thinking about the proportionality of my own reading. I haven’t gone back and checked through my past reviews here to do a gender breakdown, but it didn’t take long to look at my kindle and work out roughly what proportion of the authors on it were women.


When I first mentioned that I might write this piece, in the comments under my 2013 wrap-up, leroyhunter responded:

LibraryThing tells me I own about 1300 books by roughly 650 writers, of whom only 12% are women. That shocks me, as I percieve myself as reading in a more balanced fashion (certainly nowadays compared to when I was younger).

Leroy’s on 12%. I’m on 14%. Pretty much the same proportion for each of us, and like him I was surprised how weighted towards male writers my own numbers were.

So, what’s going on? I don’t discount the possibility of unconscious bias, but I don’t think it’s just that. I own a fair few classics and there are reasons one would expect a significant majority of those to be by men. Few women historically had rooms of their own, or in other words men had the financial independence needed to write far more than women did (if we looked at percentages of working class authors to middle or upper class I suspect the percentage would be even worse than 14%).

On top of that though there’s the systemic issues of the publishing and reviewing industries. If books are marketed in part by gender, and they are, and if professional critics skew heavily towards reviewing fiction by men, and they do, then serious male readers are likely to find themselves mostly reading books by men for the very simple reason that those will be the books that they’ll be aware of.

Critics are still essential for bringing new books to the public’s attention. Bloggers have a place, of course they do, but even the best and best known bloggers have a tiny fraction of the platform of the most mediocre newspaper reviewer.

So, what to do? Well, you could do worse than decide to read more books by women. In other words, #readwomen2014. I admit, I have mixed views on that because the idea of consciously letting author gender influence what I read suggests that the books I then choose need special treatment, that they wouldn’t otherwise be worth reading on their own merits. 14% though.

The other obvious concern of course is that if I spend 2014 assiduously reading books by women, 2015 will inevitably be the year of reading men, as I’ll have far fewer unread books by women and still a vast pile of unread books by men.

There isn’t a good answer to all of this, and certainly not a single answer. I don’t plan to exclusively read women in 2014, but I am being more aware of what I am reading and I have been looking to see if there are writers I may have overlooked perhaps because of their gender and perhaps because of how they were marketed. So, Eleanor Catton whose The Rehearsals has a cover that makes it look like a teen romance; Anne Enright whose The Forgotten Waltz has a cover that couldn’t make it look any more aimed at women if it had a sticker on it saying “men, not for you!”.

Anyway, there it is, #readwomen2014. I don’t ultimately think it’ll change much, but if it gets a few of us discovering some writers we might otherwise have overlooked then for me that’s a success. More importantly, if it helps raise a debate about the issue of women writers being pigeonholed and sidelined, that’s definitely a success.

We live in an age where increasingly we are an audience of one. Google filter our search results by our past search histories. We have news channels dedicated to our political perspectives. Amazon tailors recommendations by past purchases, leading us always to deeper exploration of what we already know.Children’s toys have never been more aggressively marketed on strictly segregated gender lines (leading in 2011 to the cancellation of the US kids show Tower Prep on the basis that too many girls were watching it and it was designed to sell toys to boys, see here).

This is part of that. I want to be surprised. I want to read what I haven’t thought of yet. That can’t happen in a world where we’re sliced and diced by race, class, gender, age, political affiliation, sexual preference, religion or lack thereof, people who viewed “x” also viewed “y”. That’s why ultimately I agree with #readwomen2014, because being aware of your own choices matters.


Filed under Personal posts, Publishing

106 responses to “Some thoughts on #readwomen2014

  1. Ironically, the Anne Enright cover says “Winner of the Man Booker Prize.” Ha ha. Ha. Eh. No, I agree. I compared, using British Amazon, the covers of Anne Enright and Ian McEwan covers, and the differences are pretty obvious, even though these are authors of comparable prestige.

    Having said that, the cover of Enright’s The Wig My Father Wore is hilarious, and likely to appeal to men, or at least 8 year old boys.

    Anyway, 8 to 10% women is the typical figure for me, or at least it has been for a while, largely because of your first reason. My magazine reading includes a lot more writing by women, although I cannot guess at a percentage. And my book blog reading – that’s probably 80%, maybe 90%, women.

  2. Your piece made me go back and look at the balance of my reading in the last year. Of the 49 books I read, 24 were by women. That’s a pretty good percentage but I’m not sure it would be representative of other years. I’m not a fan of so-called ‘chick lit’ but have found that I have been guilty of avoiding some authors, Anne Enright and Maggie O’Farrell for example, because the books are designed and marketed like chick lit when they are anything but.

  3. The Enright cover I have is of a woman in bed looking sad, her hand descending down into the centre of the cover.

    I probably overstated on that one, it’s not actually that bad, though it is plainly aimed at women. The Catton cover was much worse, I was glad I had it on kindle.

    Still, it has nothing to do with the book which features a female protagonist not remotely prone to lying languidly on beds.

    The Wig my Father Wore cover is great, I just checked that out. Have you read the book?

    Good point on Enright v. McEwan in terms of covers.

    The historical bias towards men is a major point – I think if a reader was entirely gender blind they’d still read more men than women because for so much of history women had so little access, but I don’t think for someone like me who reads a lot of more contemporary stuff it would be as skewed as it seems to be. It’s an explanation of the past, but not really an explanation for where we are today (save as with you for readers who mostly read classics of course).

  4. Hey Cathy,

    I’ve no interest in chick lit (though I don’t look down on it – it’s basically light comic fiction with a romantic slant and I’m sure some of it’s very well done). As you say though a lot of stuff is marketed that way when it’s dealing with much heavier topics, or where structurally it’s much more complex.

    Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (reviewed here, I liked it) has a cover that makes it look like a slightly wistful novel of sunwashed afternoons and languorous desire, but in fact it’s a spiky novel with fractured narratives that deliberately sets out to challenge the reader.

    Similarly, the Beryl Bainbridge I reviewed here has a cover which is positively misleading in terms of the content of the book. Again, it makes it look chicklitty.

    Maggie O’Farrell I don’t know to be honest.

  5. I’m not going to go through my kindle and count as the thing is packed full. Something to consider though: do we tend to read books that we can relate to on some level? Not all books of course, (leaving crime novels out of the equation).

  6. Well, you certainly have ventured where I would fear to tread. But, as usually happens when this issue is raised, I did do some checking on my own recent reading.

    I don’t keep a file of my library, so I can’t report on those percentages. I can say that so far in 2014, male authors have a 7 to 6 edge — but the current read is by a woman, so it will be a tie in a day or two. And my 2013 reading showed just under one third were by female authors — in previous years when I have been moved to check, that seems to be my norm.

    Your post did move me to check out a few other comparisons. My project last year was to reread 12 Canadian authors who influenced me as a youth — five of the dozen were female (Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy). I suspect that says more about Canada being a home to excellent female authors than it does about me.

    Perhaps most revealing in the brief search you inspired was my review of the five top 10 annual lists that I have posted since I started blogging. There was a remarkable consistency — four of those lists featured only two women authors, there were only three in the fifth. Whatever my gender percentage of books read is, I do seem to end up with a strong tilt to having books by male authors on my “most impressed” list.

    It also seems to me that some of your genre interests probably create a male tilt in your library — noir, modernism and translated fiction would all seem to feature more male than female authors.

  7. Possibly Guy, but I’m not sure it’s easier to relate to fiction by men just by virtue of being male. What’s interesting on that front is that women tend to read men and women equally, whereas men tend to read men. It suggests men discounting women’s work as less relevant, or alternatively that men lack the imagination to put themselves in the other gender’s place while women have that ability, but I don’t believe that (for all some male author’s female characters might well argue for that hypothesis).

    Kevin, I actually thought you’d be an exception, just an impression from your blog. I’m not therefore surprised by your rough numbers. Interesting point on the best of lists though.

    The genre point is also interesting. Noir and SF are definitely male dominated. There are some excellent female writers in both fields of course, but they do skew genderwise and SF in particular has always been predominantly male (as opposed to fantasy which has a much more even gender split). Modernism and translated fiction though, that I’d query. Translated I think if it does it’s an example of what Joanna Walsh is talking about – the industry sidelining women rather than women not writing the works. Modernism I think is no different to any other form of literary fiction, the women are there but get less attention.

    Experimental fiction you could say that of too – plenty of women trying it, but to less attention.

  8. Just checked my goodreads for this year and I’m running about 27% women. I’m working on a review of a book written by a woman that I KNOW will have more appeal to women readers because of its subject matter, but the book really is phenomenal.

  9. I have not read that Enright book. Now I am tempted. I saw someone comparing it to Flann O’Brien.

  10. Most years I don’t do too badly, somewhere between 30-40% of the writers I typically read are women. This year I am consciously trying to skew the balance in the other direction though probably running closer to 50% at the moment.

    My intentions are driven more by wanting to see the world from as many different perspectives as possible, which is one of the many reasons why I love to read. My chance to see the world through dramatically different filters is limited by reading a preponderance of middle-aged, middle-class white blokes, whether they are writing from Hungary or America, particularly with the increasing homogeneity of our society. Tilting my reading toward women, and increasingly toward non-white cultures offers greater opportunity of that dramatically altered perspective.

  11. Your post prompted me to have a look at my own reading for this year and I am quite appalled – 3 female authors out of 26 authors, and that’s probably quite representative of my overall reading habits. I’m a woman but I don’t think that in itself should make me more inclined to read more female authors.
    To the reasons you put forward (male reviewers, and book covers) I’d suggest perhaps choices made in what to translate are also a factor. It’s only anecdotal evidence but on my blog I review mostly books in translation from Central and Eastern Europe and they tend to be written by men. Not that CEE countries don’t have good women writers (because they do), they’re just less visible. I’m talking about translations into French here, since that’s the language of my blog, but I’m pretty sure it can apply to translations into English too (I’m aware the issue of how much gets translated into English is a can of worms in its own right).
    Fortunately, French publishing tends to be less gendered than English when it comes to covers because, yes, those girly covers, embossed letters, hazy pictures of rose gardens etc that I see on the shelves when I visit an English bookshop certainly put me off. But I’m sure it’s not limited to women’s writing. Some of the covers for Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy are pretty awful and reductive, for instance (I remember because for a long time I was put off buying it for exactly that reason).
    The long and the short of it is now I’m going to have to give serious thought to whether I’ll want to make my own, CEE version of readwomen2014.

  12. Guy, I do wonder if we broke it down by area (as Kevin suggests) if we’d find some fields much more female-friendly than others.

    Crime generally I suspect is very open to female writers, noir tends to be more male dominated though as a sub-genre. SF is male dominated, fantasy not. Romance I’d guess is male dominated, but I imagine male writers tend to assume female aliases so who knows? Modernist fiction I think has a good representation by women, but they get less attention, middlebrow literary fiction is equally written but the men get a far better press, and so on.

    It may be our reading tastes do indeed tilt our numbers, among other factors.

    Tom, the Wig or Waltz?

    Anthony, I touched on that in the piece. The percentage for working class voices is I suspect much worse, and harder too to correct since you can’t guess class by name most of the time as you can with gender.

    Race is a tricky one. I’d query how different a perspective you’ll get from a comfortably off middle class middle aged guy from Rajasthan and another middle class middle aged guy from Nairobi and a third from Bangkok, assuming each has the background and advantages necessary to become a writer. I’m not saying there would be no differences, that culture doesn’t matter, but I think there’d be plenty in common. We can kid ourselves sometimes how different we are – if the we in question is relatively financially independent professional types then “we” often have more in common with each other than we do with our own less well off compatriots.

    Mohsin Hamid is good on that point in his Reluctant Fundamentalist now I come to think of it. It’s a key problem in modern politics, the professional classes generally have more in common with each other than they do with the wider populations and so not only legislate in their own interests but fundamentally don’t understand that there are other interests. Hence the death of the workers’ movements in the UK in large part – how can a movement be led by people who have no experience of or connection with the lives of its members?

  13. Passage, I think you’re right on translated fiction. If there’s a presumption that works by men are more serious, and if one only tends to go to the trouble of translating the more important works, the result will be more men in translation than women. Visibility as you say then becomes an issue.

    The heavily gendered covers seems more an English language phenomenon, though I could easily be wrong on that.

    Do let me know if you try your own version, and if so how you approach it.

  14. Interesting stuff, Max. I haven’t conducted a review of my own shelves but I would expect it to be similar to your and leroyhunter’s split. Curiously, I have noticed that on my blog this year I have been writing mostly about women authors – 9 out of 12 posts so far this year are about women writers – but they’re all new releases I’ve been interested in, so I take that as mere chance. (And there were also some women writers I’ve read but been unable to write about, such as Deborah Levy, Willa Cather, Judith Schalansky and Clarice Lispector.) The new releases I’m most interested in for the next few months are mostly by men, so no doubt the balance will shift.

    Two other thoughts occur. It is probably natural and normal for people to gravitate towards writers who are most like them, whether by gender, race, nationality or otherwise. Certainly, some readers actively seek out different viewpoints and angles on the world, but lots don’t.

    Also, you say above that women “get published in much the same numbers” as men. Do they? I’m not saying they don’t, but I have no information to say one way or the other. I was surprised when I saw a piece in the New Republic a few years ago which did a (necessarily partial) survey of US publishing houses’ catalogues and found that for most of them, the male-female split was 70/30 or worse. This means that newspapers were actually representing the split of books published pretty well in their review pages. I’d like to see someone do something similar for UK publishers. I suspect that there would be a split along fiction/non-fiction lines, with fiction publishing being much more evenly balanced than non-fiction. That’s certainly true of book reviewing in the UK, where the Guardian’s survey last year showed that non-fiction was heavily male-dominated, whereas fiction was, with a few exceptions, pretty well balanced.

  15. A quick tally reveals that, over the last year, I read approximately 44% female writers, 56% male writers… however, my concern, like you, is that I’ll spend more time focusing on gender than the work itself. I’d still be tempted to give it a try, though, just to see how my reading patterns change.

  16. Kevin makes a good point about the types of books we read perhaps helping stack those numbers in a certain direction. I bet genre, or whatever term we use has a lot to do with it.
    I also think that how a book is pitched makes a huge difference, and I’ve stumbled over a few instances lately where the pitch does the book no favours in the long run.

  17. What would the numbers look like if we drew up lists of our favourite authors, I wonder?

  18. Although I’m a feminist, I’m against positive discrimination in any form. I’d rather have a competent male boss that an incompetent female one. Same for writers. So I’m not going to check the proportion of women writers I read.

    That said, I totally agree with Passage à L’Est. There’s a problem with the Anglophone publishing industry. Covers of books by female writers are ugly: flowery, full of women with check or flowery dresses and no head, with embossed letters in pastel tones. It hurts the eyes, really. Just by the cover, they look cheap, unintelligent and girly. So, female writers have to fight against this and pay attention to the covers, if they can. In France, covers are a lot more neutral. Paperbacks often have paintings or photographies.

    PS: That corny-girly problem affects other industries as well. Try to buy a woman sport jacket without pink or purple. I tried last week, failed and bought one in the male section. Same for snickers.

  19. My ratio for 2014 is 11 books by women and 17 books by men with my next review being a book by a woman. One thing I have noticed is that there are a lot of underappreciated British woman authors from earlier in the Twentieth century just waiting to be re-discovered, writers such as Rosamond Lehmann, Barbara Comyns, Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth Taylor (a great favorite of mine), Stella Gibbons, and on and on.

  20. I don’t read to achieve balance of any kind but I have been monitoring gender balance for some years now (just using the WordPress categories function), and it consistently hovers around 45% female, 55% male. That makes sense because I read a lot of classics, and I don’t read female dominated genres like chick lit, or romance.
    What’s interesting to me, however, is the other stats I get from WordPress: for today’s views, there are 933 views of male authors reviewed on my site, and 376 views of female authors. So even though the content on my blog is reasonably well-balanced, my readers are making their own choices. It would be very interesting indeed to know the gender of those readers!

  21. I don’t do statistics but I’m pretty sure it’s 50% in my case or slightly more women.
    However I read less literary fiction because the literary fiction I really love is not often written in English and all of my favourite female German writers, with the exception of Birgit Vanderbeke, have not been translated.
    I was planning on writing about that – the fact that I read much more in English because the writers I love are not translated.
    I still think that in numbers women might sell more books. There are huge markets – romance and the like – which sell astonishing numbers and the writers and readers are female. Obviously these are also mostly reviewed by women.
    I think the problem really are the literary books.

  22. Just read this article and it contains an interesting take on the topic from an Italian perspective.

  23. I’ve been keeping lists of the books I read for the last few years (since I started blogging, basically). In the earlier years, roughly 35% of what I read was by women; the proportion has increased with time, but still wasn’t 50% last year. Interestingly enough, when I made my list of top 12 books read in 2013, it had an even gender split – but four of the top five were by women.

    This year, I committed to reading more translations, but I knew this could create a significant skew towards male authors, which I didn’t really want. So I’m also attempting to structure my reading in a way that creates a gender balance; a period of award-shadowing has meant I’m reading more books by men at the moment, but I should be able to balance things out. I wondered if I might find all this too restrictive, but quite the opposite – it creates an interesting engagement with the process of choosing what to read.

    I think you’re right, Max, that it is ultimately about being aware of your own choices. Too often, the choice to read a male author doesn’t feel like a choice (because reading men is the cultural ‘default’), and it’s those unconscious choices which are particularly worth examining.

  24. John,

    Regarding the numbers, I took them from Joanna Walsh’s original piece so of course they may be inaccurate. I suspect if we drill down to individual genres or divide between fiction and non-fiction it will all get much more nuanced. Within non-fiction some areas may be skewed to one gender (cookery more women, military history more men) just as in fiction that’s likely the case (romance more women, thrillers more men).

    If you’re right (and you likely are) that what’s happening is that fewer women are being published that’s interesting, and raises the question why? A room of one’s own is likely still a factor – men are still more likely to have the income and free time to write than women, just not to so pronounced a degree as was the case a 100 or so years go. It won’t just be that though.

    The question I’d have (and this would require much more data) would be how they’re being published too. Are the women being slotted into entertainment disproportionately rather than serious literature? Are similar books being treated differently as a result of author gender, as with say Enright and McEwan to take that example?

    Regarding reading those like oneself, I do query that. There is a fair bit of evidence I understand that women read with relative indifference to gender, but men strongly prefer books by men. That to me suggests not that people are reading stuff by people like themselves, but that many men have an issue with women’s voices (or, since they’re not reading them, more accurately with their perception of women’s voices).

    Then again, I read the Guardian, so I would think that wouldn’t I? I have though many times seen men in newspaper comments threads say they won’t read books by women, and never the other way round.

  25. Literary, that’s the interesting bit isn’t it? Though 44% sounds to me like you’re already at a pretty even split. If my count had come out at 44% I doubt I’d have written this post.

    Guy, definitely re genre. How it’s pitched though, that’s something which is extrinsic to the book and which I think should be addressed. As I said at the close of my piece, I’d rather not have my choices made for me on the basis of marketing-driven segmentation. It does the book no favours as you say, and it potentially robs me of the opportunity to find great books and robs some women writers of the chance to reach a wider audience (though there’s evidence too that the pastel-type covers sell better overall than the more neutral ones, so query that).

    Emma, I don’t think I’m positively discriminating here quite since I’m not reading anything I wasn’t already considering reading, but that said there’s clearly an element of it and things like women-author book prizes are definitely positive discrimination.

    I do understand why one might object entirely to positive discrimination, which by definition after all is discrimination and which can lead to people or works being promoted beyond their merit. I see it as a necessary evil for the various reasons you’ll I’m sure already be familiar with since we all know the various pro and anti arguments on positive discrimination. It’s not a slam dunk though, I’m not happy with it, I just see it as better than leaving systemic discrimination unchallenged. I don’t think those who oppose it are wrong though, it’s just an area of disagreement (there’s plenty of areas where I disagree with people and I do think they’re wrong, this just isn’t one of them because it’s not that clear cut for me).

    I agree it’s particularly an anglophone problem, or at least not a French one. You describe the covers female authors tend to get in the UK pretty well there, and I do think they’re one of the reasons men don’t read those books. You look at the cover and firstly it would be embarrassing as a man to be seen reading something looking like that and secondly and more importantly it looks like it wouldn’t be worth your time to read.

  26. Anoka, excellent point on early 20th Century British authors. That’s when this really kicks in. In the 19th Century there are simply fewer female authors. In the twentieth there’s a lot of them doing some really interesting work, but they get overlooked and are less likely to be brought back once (like most authors) they slide out of public view.

    Lisa, yours sounds pretty gender-blind, but your blog stats plainly aren’t which is fascinating. Did you review The Sense of an Ending? That gets so many hits for me it probably skews the stats on its own…

    Caroline, thanks for the link which I’ll take a look at. I’d love to see the post you mention on reading more in English because writers you love aren’t translated.

    I agree the problem is the literary books. It’s ambitious fiction I’m concerned with I guess, rather than the more commercial stuff.

    Apparently this blog post is going to be Freshly Pressed, i.e. promoted by WordPress, so I may not be able to give individual replies to everyone once that hits if I get a lot of comments. I will be reading though and if anyone is browsing and reads this comment please do feel free to comment – comments are the lifeblood of blogs so they’re always welcome.

  27. David, absolutely. It’s a more general point but I’m coming to the view increasingly that it’s the choices we don’t realise we’re making that harm us most.

  28. Good question re The Sense of an Ending, and a quick trip to my Stats summaries explains all: my top five most persistent views (i.e. popular over a long time with thousands of hits) are Voss by Patrick White, The Ladies’ Paradise by Zola, The Slap by Christos Tsolkias, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey and (phew, one by a woman) Tasmanian Aborigines by Lyndall Ryan. (It’s a setting-the-record-straight history). Lately The Concubine by Elechi Amadi is a daily favourite; Potiki by Patricia Grace is a steady favourite too. These favourites, (and others I won’t list here) are either books that have been turned into TV series or they are regulars for academic study. So (if this miniscule sample is any indication) this issue may be much more complex than a matter of gender bias in reviewing or otherwise: it’s a matter of who’s choosing what for study at universities and schools, and who’s choosing what makes good fodder for TV series. And why. If there are patterns to the kind of writing that men and women do, which of those patterns are conducive to being turned into film, TV and academic deconstruction? Maybe women need to attend more to these broader issues of marketability? (But then, Jane Austen didn’t, and look what’s happened to her books!)
    (BTW I am referring only to literary fiction, though I hesitate to include Jasper Jones in that category).

  29. PS to the above:
    I review very little YA because it doesn’t interest me much, so it’s interesting that the few review posts I’ve done of YA titles have very high rates of viewing. This suggests to me that there’s a youth demographic that’s searching for reviews (school essays, I suppose) and that would distort the stats a bit because these readers are not choosing what they read for themselves.
    (It’s a kind of received wisdom in schools that boys won’t read books by or about females, so in the interests of having the boys pay attention and behave in class, teachers (who are mostly female) make their choices accordingly).

  30. I realized early last year that, quite unconsciously, I’d been alternating a book by a woman with a book by a man for a couple of months. I then consciously decided I could continue that pattern, but came up against a reading challenge I’d accepted that then led me to read five more works by that (male) author and related works by other male authors. By then I’d forgotten about my resolution – so much for sticking to principle. if one simply relies solely on the wind for direction, that direction, for a number of reasons highlighted above, is likely to be male.

    A well-meaning but ill-conceived directive for addressing this gender divide was put forth several years ago by the San Francisco public school district, which proposed a gender and ethnicity quota for choosing authors of the ten works of fiction it required high school students to have read before graduation (that only ten works in four years was and is required is a separate topic that warrants addressing). Fortunately the quota – not entirely dissimilar to the targeted marketing to specific audiences by publishers – was not adopted, but the debate generated discussion similar to the above: how to increase readership of more works by women and underrepresented minority writers? As the victors in that debate pointed out, literary quality should trump “experiments in sociology,” which is akin to the argument for the much-misunderstood and unfairly maligned Affirmative Action policies in the U.S. (which have nothing to do with “quotas”). That focus on quality is critical, but equally critical is active avoidance of unconscious bias or underestimation of quality strictly due to gender or ethnic considerations (as Max puts it nicely, “it’s the choices we don’t realise we’re making that harm us most”). It requires effort to reject the status quo. Fortunately, such effort is almost invariably rewarding.

  31. My books on my shelves, collected over the last 60 years, including reference, study and professional reference works, are very skewed in favour of male authors, but my e-books are much more heavily biased in favour of female writers. I like to think I am getting more discerning with age…..At the moment I am discovering the wonderful insights and creativity of Jane Gardam.

  32. The imbalance in the industry is a problem and I think the marketing of books particularly chick lit and “women’s fiction” is at the heart of it – people judge books by their covers a lot more than they think they do and publishers know this.

  33. V

    Interesting! I tend to read a more balanced list, but I think part of that is me returning to my favorite authors like Atwood, Toni Morrison, Jane Austen. So while the number of books is balanced, as far as variety of authors is concerned, I’m exposed to more male authors.

  34. I hope you don’t mind my having a contrary opinion to yours. I know that it will be in the minority here.

    It’s just that I have two sons and two small grandsons (granddaughters too) and have had a chance to watch them close up. No matter how I tried to shape their love of literature, my sons who loved The Faraway Tree stories and the Secret Seven series preferred nonfiction. These days they read everything nonfiction that comes their way.

    I read stories to my grandsons now and it’s the same. They like the stories and even ask for repeats of favourites, but if you give them books about cars or dinosaurs they are on it like a shot. Women may read more fiction than men do but men are equal in the reading stake when it comes to non-fiction. Ask my sister the librarian, she says there’s not nearly enough aimed at the male reading market.

    I love Jane Austen, Lindsey Davis, Kerry Greenwood, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot. My opinion is that if you give readers what they want they will put their hard earned money down every time. Forget about what the critics male or female have to say, just ask J.K. Rowling.

  35. Like many people, I am conscious of this disparity, but despite that I’m sure my reading history skews more toward men. It’s another example of structural issues that influence our culture in ways that disadvantage certain groups, even if personal bias isn’t involved. I think it makes total sense to be aware of these dynamics and consciously work to undo them. I’ve done this a lot with film as well since so few women directors get enough attention, but they’re making great films.

  36. Reblogged this on The Search for Peace from Under a Butterfly's Wings and commented:
    My goal remains:
    Ever since I was a little girl I have wanted to write, to be an author and all of the little girls within us will continue.
    Despite the past we move forward – many of us with our fathers cheering us along.

  37. Pingback: Why you should #ReadWomen2014 | Better Writing Now

  38. This year I have issued myself a challenge, 52 books in 52 weeks. I am trying to be quite balanced as far as male and female authors go and I am trying to read more female Australian authors – not for any particular reason apart from I wanted to see what kind of talent my country has 🙂

  39. As soon as I read this, I checked as to how many females have won the Nobel prize for literature. There were just a handful when compared with their male counterparts.

    Booker does better for women. The ratio is better than the Nobel prize winners.

    The Jnanapeeth award (The highest literary award given in my country – India) it is even more skewed. You have to literally search for women achievers.

    I don’t know the reason for this imbalance.

  40. I had never thought of that! Time to make some changes in my reading list!!!!

  41. manasapinky

    Reblogged this on ManasaPinky and commented:

  42. Lisa,

    I think school and book club picks tend to dominate what gets read on blogs, because it pulls in the more casual readers who are searching for stuff on those particular books. We were discussing something similar at Emma’s blog recently.

    That does then raise a question though about gender, in that if women are getting less serious critical attention (which it seems they are) they may be less studied in schools, and so their books would get fewer hits on blogs. Against that though is that book clubs tend to be mostly female, and schools tend to consider diversity issues more than most. Still, on the specifically literary side we’d expect to see the male authors getting more hits in terms of blog posts given that the critical economy as it were focuses more on men.

    YA stuff I suspect is due to being read in schools and possibly book clubs too for the less literary book clubs or because someone in a book club wanted a palate cleanser. Your point on received wisdom is an interesting one – that the perception that boys don’t read books by women becomes self-fulfilling through then catering to that.

  43. Scott, that’s interesting. Yes, if one just relies on the wind as it were that blows mostly male, but then it would be sad not to follow one’s interests (and possibly self-defeating). I can’t really criticise reading a book by an author and being excited to read more by them, that has to be a good thing.

    The San Francisco public school approach seems clearly a bad idea. I can see people reading say Maya Angelou so they can simultaneously cross female and African-American from their list, which would be an insult to her and her work (I don’t actually rate her work, but that’s not the point).

    The debate that followed that idea though, that’s useful. I don’t personally support quotas, but I do strongly support conscious choices and being aware of one’s own and systemic biases (within reason, I don’t want people shouting check your privilege at each other every five minutes).

    It’s as you say, we must focus on quality above all else. The concern is that quality is in fact being discounted due to other factors such as gender or ethnicity, so that while the quality is there it doesn’t come to our attention.

    Away, we all like to think we get more discerning with age, and it’s probably true (I hope it is anyway, because we’re not getting slimmer and fitter with age as a rule). Jane Gardam is definitely on my to read list, I was planning to start with Old Filth which seems a good one to get into her with.

    A Little, absolutely, the marketing is I think the key issue, and perhaps the hardest also to address. I don’t actually think it’s unfair to judge by cover, after all if you don’t know the author and are casually browsing a bookshop at least initially the cover is literally all you have to go on. If it’s all pastels and outline drawings of slim 20somethings kicking one kitten heel in the air that’s not going to make the more serious literary reader (of whatever gender) pick up the book to check what it’s about.

  44. V, part of my hope with this is to get some new favourite authors. If I just prioritise the female authors I already own then as I say in the piece after I’ve done that my ratio of unread male to female authors would logically be even more skewed, as I’d have a pile of unread men and few unread women. The only way this works is if I find new favourites, which would then give a better balance going forward.

    One unavoidable point is that given I have a large unread book pile at home which is already skewed towards male authors, whatever I do my numbers will skew to men for years to come simply because of what I’ve already bought. Tricky stuff.

    Mary, I’m very pleased to have a contrary opinion. If I didn’t want a discussion I’d turn off the comments after all.

    There does seem in English language cultures at any rate (I can’t speak to others) a factor that men tend to prefer non-fiction to fiction when they read, and tend to read less than women as well. Your point on that is I think well made.

    Where I’d differ is on your last paragraph. I actually agree that if you give readers what they want they’ll put their cash on the table – I trust people to know their own tastes. Where I think that can fail though is people can only put their cash down if they know about a book in the first place. If female authors get less critical attention then readers may not hear about their books, and so may never know that they wanted what that author had to say.

    Secret Seven, I read those when I was small. I dimly remember something about a magic mountain. I think I preferred the Famous Five, but it’s been so long it’s all a bit misty now.

    Kerry Greenwood? I didn’t recognise that name. I’ll google her.

    Rebecca, structural issues, precisely. I hadn’t thought of it in the context of film, but that makes a lot of sense. If anything I’d expect it to be worse in film, where there’s a certain macho cult of the auteur which I would think would make things even worse.

  45. Tobey, good luck with the writing.

    Ditch, good luck with the challenge! I don’t think one needs good reasons, interest is its own justification after all. I have a bunch of Hungarian fiction here and did a Hungarian reading month and that was mostly just because I felt like reading more Hungarian novels.

    Rohit, I’m not a huge fan of the Nobel, and I’m not surprised to learn it skews badly. I am interested in the Jnanapeeth though. India has so many languages and as I understand it multiple literary traditions expressed in different languages. How does the prize work with that? Does it judge say English language works, works in Urdu and works in Tamil? I wouldn’t have thought a single judging panel could do that.

    We get here in the UK quite a distorted view of Indian literature, and here and even more so in the US there’s a tendency to describe writers as being Indian writers when in fact they’re (typically) US writers of Indian descent which isn’t the same thing at all. Of course the issue is publication in English – pretty much by definition we mostly see authors who wrote in English since there’s nobody much doing translations of say Tamil literature into English (not that I have the faintest knowledge of how much or what kind of Tamil literary tradition there may be).

    I have reviewed some Indian authors here, and have more yet to read at home. All of them male though now I come to think of it. Recommendations welcome.

    Hipster, it’s always good to shake up one’s to-do list, whatever kind of list it is.

    Thanks Harsha!

  46. mowkward

    Reblogged this on MoWKWARD.

  47. dawnangelica

    Reblogged this on dawnangelica.

  48. yiyingggg

    Reblogged this on thatingenue.

  49. Reblogged this on willytamma and commented:
    Sehat itu penting,jaga kesahatan terutama.yg pengen hidupnya awet ya jaga kesehatan

  50. At first, I wanted to disagree with this because the majority of the books on my bookshelf are by women authors. However, when I look at those written by men, I see two things in common: I chose them because I liked the movie or TV show they were based off of or they are non fiction books written by professionals in one field or another.

    I think you are right that it is a question of marketing. Most of my favorite women authors were discovered by word of mouth.
    Personally, I think you don’t need to do women only reviews. Instead, make a conscious effort to create suggested reading lists that are heavy with women authors. If people have more access to such lists, they are more likely to read them, and more likely to spread the word.

  51. I don’t plan to do women only reviews, one of those coming up is by Mark Fisher and that’s post my starting this but it was a book I wanted to read. I’m just prioritising for a while in the hope of finding some new favourites that then helps to correct the imbalance.

    Good point on lists, though while my blog gets a reasonable number of hits I’m not sure many people look to me to recommend what to read to them – it’s much more about what I thought about the books I read which others may or may not take an interest in. I guess in that way prioritising women writers for a while is a way of creating a list.

    That said, Jean Rhys, I totally recommend her. I’ve reviewed a couple here, and she’s a genuinely great writer who doesn’t get the attention she merits.

  52. Reblogged this on 4strongwomen and commented:
    My first thought is that this has to do with a few things: marketing and gender bias. In fact, one of the commentors on the article states, “I’ve no interest in chick lit (though I don’t look down on it – it’s basically light comic fiction with a romantic slant and I’m sure some of it’s very well done). As you say though a lot of stuff is marketed that way when it’s dealing with much heavier topics, or where structurally it’s much more complex.”

    So, which is it commentor? Is it that “chick lit is basically light comic fiction with a romantic slant,” or is marketing the problem? Judging by the fact that you’ve used the term “chick lit,” and assume that women only write “light comic fiction with a romantic slant,” I’m going to lean in the direction of gender bias in your case.

    But, what about the rest of the reading population? Do they all think it’s “chick lit”? Are books written by women marketed in such a way that men don’t gravitate to read them? It’s thought provoking to say the least.

  53. Really enjoyed this post! Follow for follow?! 🙂

  54. 4strongwomen,

    I’m the original writer and that was my comment, but I think you’ve misread it. I wasn’t saying that women only write light comic fiction in the slightest, that would be ludicrous, and something of an insult to several of my favourite authors (Jeanette Winterson, Jean Rhys, Ann Quin, none of them remotely writers of light comic fiction).

    I was saying that the genre, chicklit, is a genre that “comprises basically light comic fiction with a romantic slant”, in the same way that crime is a genre that comprises investigation or outcomes of violent events, or thrillers are a genre that comprise high-action plot-driven stories with a tendency to favour situation and hardware over character. I don’t assume chicklit is written solely by women , though practically I suspect the bulk of it is.

    My point was that a lot of fiction written by women is marketed as chicklit solely because it’s written by women, even though it isn’t remotely part of that genre. It’s as if novels by men were routinely marketed as SF regardless of whether they’d ever seen a spaceship.

    The problem therefore is precisely the marketing. To take a concrete example, I really enjoyed (and have reviewed at my blog) Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. It’s a spiky and structurally challenging novel which I think is genuinely exciting and interesting, but the cover makes it look like relaxing and perhaps slightly sad light fiction – not chicklit quite but not a million miles away either.

    The cover for Moon Tiger is misleading, it misrepresents what is a distinctly literary novel interested among other things in issues of memory and narrative. The marketing may or may not increase sales, I can’t speak to that, but it does misrepresent the seriousness of the work.

    My comment was phrased as it was as it was in response to another commenter who had already used the phrase chicklit, so I was speaking specifically to that point rather than to a view of women’s writing in general. To be clear, I don’t think one can say anything of women’s writing in general, because I don’t believe there are biologically-intrinsic (as opposed to potential cultural) gender factors in how people write or what they write about.

    Thanks for the comment and challenge, particularly since if I did inadvertently imply that I think women only write comic fiction that’s something I definitely want to correct.

  55. You state that their is only 14% women authors on your Kindle. That is when this campaign struck me. I never thought about gender equality in authors, but I know that when a women hits the New York Bestseller- it is huge. Most of the authors on my kindle are women, just because I am mostly attracted to a book with inspiration. But, most authors on the NYTBS are men. Another showcase of gender equality. #readwomen2014 is a great campaign and I’m excited to see more campaigns such as this.

  56. Thanks for posting! I haven’t really been aware of this issue, I want to make a point of making my own reading selection more balanced now!

  57. Hi. I’ve been already addressing the #readwomen2014 issue few times on my blog. I’m being very negative about it. I don’t read too many books by women, nor I find the idea to choose based on sex too appealing.

    3 out of 14 writers I read this year were women. When I take the book from the shelf, I don’t care about the author’s sex. Maybe the title or the description, or the excerpt from inside will get me interested.

    I’m not sure about reviews or who gets promoted, I rarely read reviews before reading the book. I had no problem with buying/choosing women’s books in Indonesia. Short stories collections (also with the L topic), novels, etc.

    I disagree with the 50/50 men/women division. For example how many “T” writers are reviewed and promoted? There are lots of groups that don’t get reviewed, just crying about women is kinda lacking… and a slap to others. The problem is diversity. Even when the reviewers would review more books by Rowling and Collins what would this change? I’d prefer reading more ground shaking men’s books than those ladies’ books.

    I’m aiming with my own “challenge” called Diverse Reading 2014 to broaden my horizons much more than just reading what someone decided is lacking visibility. Next year, I won’t be reading more men books because I neglected them. I’ll still read a lot of various books by authors with different backgrounds and views, women included. I’ll expand the diversity to other media. It’s happening already, with music, and with time, film will be included. I’m quite confident that my way of doing things will give me more perspectives than those who will focus on the petty “sex” balance. For May I completely drop USA & UK culture, I think there’s way too much of it appearance anyway.

  58. pumpy9

    Reblogged this on pumpylee9.

  59. Thanks for this. I had never though about gender based publishing and book marketing issues before. I was recently in a book store that had books sorted by gender – a female fiction section and a male fiction section. There did seem to be obvious differences in the types of books on each shelf. The men tended to violent, adventure themes and the women towards relationships. I was definitely drawn to female section as it seemed much more interesting. But I wonder what a count of my own book shelves would show me.

  60. Ashley, I agree it’s a great campaign. I tend to be attracted to books that are ambitious, sometimes difficult. Women write such books just as much as men do, but they don’t get recognised for them in the same way which makes them very easy to overlook. That’s what I’m particularly concerned at.

    California, good luck!

    Kama, I’ll return to your comment later as it merits a fuller response and I’m a bit pressed for time right now. I am glad there are comments that disagree, as it permits debate.

    Tandi, gender based sections is bizarre. I’ve never seen that so openly. I’d be drawn to the female section myself there. I’m as fond of a bit of pulpy action as the next person, but I couldn’t read a whole diet of it.

    Besides, it’s so reductionist. Men like things, women like people. Nonsense. It’s a rigid distinction created because it makes it easier to sell product if you can readily differentiate the audiences.

  61. Reblogged this on Brainfluff and commented:
    I found this post on Freshly Pressed and thought it sufficiently important to share with you…

  62. Kama,

    Returning to your comment, I’d note that every book I’m choosing is one I planned to read at some point anyway. I’m prioritising, not applying quotas.

    When you take a book from the shelf you don’t care who the writer is, naturally, but how does the book reach the shelf? You note that 3 of 14 writers you read this year are women, which suggests that the women don’t reach your shelf.

    The title, the description, absolutely the cover, these are all aspects of marketing. My argument is that marketing may be affecting which books reach your shelf, to then be picked to read on that gender free basis.

    I note your points regarding other groups and don’t necessarily disagree, but I think it’s important to avoid “whataboutery”. There’s a problem of women being rendered invisible, but what about gays? Gay voices are being sidelined, but what about the transgendered? The transgendered are ignored or worse, ridiculed, but what about Blacl-British writers? And so on.

    Saying what about group x can be a good way to stop discussion about group y. That way nobody gets their problems addressed.Of course the flipside is the one counterculture feminists complained of in the ’70s – being asked to put your issues on hold while some larger issue takes precedence, and your issue never actually being addressed, but I think here whataboutery is the greater risk.

    Also, as individual readers this is one we can address. If I wanted to read say more Black British fiction my main challenge would be to help bring through more Black British writers. They exist, but relatively few are actually being published. To support women all I need to do is read more women. To support Black Britons I’d have to somehow find some way to help people into publishing, and if I knew how to do that I’d have every aspiring writer at my door trying to give me money.

    Finally, while you say going forward you’ll ” still read a lot of various books by authors with different backgrounds and views, women included”, on your own statistics right now you don’t actually seem to be reading that many books by women which suggests your choices may not be as blind as you think.

  63. Really interesting observations. I think the trend of men reading books predominantly written by men begins in childhood; hence JK Rowling’s use of initials so that her gender was indeterminate.

  64. That would chime with marymtf’s comments above Delia. I suspect you’re right.

  65. oceangirlontheouterbanks

    There are so many wonderful well written works by women out there that go unnoticed .. it’s time we put the spotlight on women author’s .. because not so long ago, women had to take on male pen name to be published.

  66. oceangirlontheouterbanks

    Reblogged this on oceangirlontheouterbanks and commented:
    There are so many wonderful well written works by women out there that go unnoticed .. it’s time we put the spotlight on women author’s .. because not so long ago, women had to take on male pen name to be published.

  67. Interesting when we start to analyse what we thought of as independent, balanced choices. I am sure that the books I read are more balanced across gender and country of origin since I started blogging and using bloggers for recommendations rather than the press, it also changed when I moved to live in a non-English speaking country when I realised that half of fiction offered in French bookshops is translated and that the selection in the English bookshop was very different to that offered in English bookshops in the UK.

    I decided this year to analyse my reading from 2013 and this is what I found if you are interested:

    What Do We Read?

    Great post, thanks for sharing and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  68. This starts early for boys because of the perception that boys won’t read books with female protagonists. Here are a few interesting thoughts on the topic:

  69. Reblogged this on MindyMinix and commented:
    Check out this article by Max Cairnduff. Did you know there is a Twitter campaign going on to promote gender equality in book reviews? I didn’t either until I read this. Enlightening.

    Happy Reading,

    Mindy Minix

  70. Max, 3/14 writers (books usually borrowed from library) tells nothing about what’s on my shelves. Those were mainly books from the library. I usually don’t add comics, but I also read them. Some of them get on my list (when I remember about it) which you can see here: This still doesn’t correspond with my shelves. 😉

    It’s funny for me how you try to prove me I’m biased or whatever. Yup, I’m so biased that all the books I bought this year (4) were written by women. And next 2 books I plan to buy are written by women too. What it tells you about my shelves?

    What means that only 3/14 writers were women is that the topics that interested me/things I wanted to read about were written by men. If you’ll find me a fiction book set in Siberia written by a lady travelling decades ago through Siberia, then I’ll read her book. But I had the chance to read such a book written by a man.

    If you mean by marketing influencing me on reading and meaning that the book was published, then it’s too funny. Sure, you can argue somebody bought that book to the library, and that was because of the marketing, but umm… it’s just desperately trying to prove your point. And I still have the books on my shelves.

    As for the books based on title, they were selected for a challenge. And even then I read some paragraphs to decide if I like it or not. Failed miserably with just one book, USA male writer, which was an extra because at that time I had 2 goals – reading books by writers from Polish neighbours.

    If the books gets a lot of coverage and pushing, that a person usually not reading reviews (me) gets to hear about it a lot, then it means I’m less likely to read that book. Unless somebody whom I trust specifically recommends it to me.

    By showing you “whataboutery” I tried to show the stupidity of putting peoples into labels (groups). I tried to show that world is more complicated than just women and men. It’s not enough if for example only women books will be reviewed more. A diversity is needed. Why not promote a book by a man (for example) who writes about a happy life of Muslim woman (women) instead of another book by a Western lady “I was living in harem” or another book by a Muslim (or from majority-Muslim country) that was so mistreated by a culture/people. Those kind of books by ladies gets constantly published, which come on, is kinda lame. Promoting them further is a stupidity. Btw, women get mistreated in Europe/Christian-majority countries, but nobody makes it a selling point of the book and promote it. It’s better to promote “The reason I jump” than “City of Bones” etc. Just filling the quota of gender (remember about T) is not enough.

    My friend reads majority of women, but it’s usually ya/na or fantasy or mixed. Very narrow selection. I don’t judge her, whatever works for her. In the eyes of #readwomen I’m worse than her… But I’m happy with various topics and points of views I get.

    Btw, I remembered one thing. If we divide books written by men and women how do we actually count that? What about co-authored books? What about books by a “team” (mixed genders) with a main editor woman or a man? And finally how do I get to count the T-writers? Seriously, isn’t it too much of a hassle to divide it like that?

    If you want to promote more Black British authors (yikes, sounds bad) then: you can review those books already published, you can suggest some media which books they should review, you can suggest the libraries that they should buy those books (we have this kind of system in Poland), you can invite the author for the book club discussion, or his/her book for it, you can recommend it to your friends, you can recommend it online on forums, reddit, etc. You don’t have to exactly help them with publishing, reading them and talking about it is enough.

    Btw, I’d never call a person ethnically African Black something. I’d just use their nationality, who cares about the skin colour? Do you refer to other British as Caucasian British in daily talks? It sounds so lame. Sounds like just being British is not enough, and people are further divided.

    As I wrote earlier, my choices are gender-blind. You just trying hard to prove otherwise is funny. I choose my books based on topics/interests, not the author’s gender. Btw, I finally start reading more in foreign languages (outside English) so I’ll be even more free from the “translators bias”. Tho it’s often problematic to get those books (import).

  71. Never really thought about this fact, but very true. Most of my favorite authors are male; when I think of a list of authors, most are male; but surprisingly, many of the books on my Nook are by women. We have read many books by female authors this past year, not consciously, but just because they sounded interesting. We’ve had several favorites and delved into their canons. Most of us chose not based on the covers at all, but instead based off of the topics, other books that the women (and few men) had written, and, surprisingly, the fact that several were being turned into movies (and what cast was starring in said movies). I have enjoyed them all, and none stood out as more feminine or masculine than the others. All just good literature and entertainment.

  72. Thank you for this post. I couldn’t agree more with its content!

  73. God, I never thought of this but you are so right. I haven’t calculated my percentage of male vs. female authors but I’m sure there’s only one Nora Ephron or Jane Austen for every 8 Hemingways and Sedaris.

  74. sendra

    It starts early. ‘Boys only read about boys, girls are not concerned about gender . . ‘ At primary school age, children are not aware of the writer particularly. They only know that his/her name will provide them with what they like.

    Ingrained sexism bleeds through in regards to reading choices at secondary school. We are taught the classics. The classics were mostly written by men. We know the reasons why. But that is the point when even the thinking student will become snared. And the forms of redress are inadequete. Gender-balanced prizes, articles, initiatives. They’ve been around. They come and they go. They do little.

    If we could somehow tackle sexism and understand it to an almost neurological degree then we might slay the beast. But sexism is mysterious, Perhaps there are old caveman instincts that do not marry with the Modern World. I posit that Max (hello) has given us something to think about, but that a year from now, all of us will be directed by our old ways. Reading is a deeply personal matter. We do not want to shove politics or conscience into our literary decisions. We might feel we should and, in a way, resent the pressure to do so even more.

    I think I’m reasonably blind when it comes to gender and the novel. My ‘score’ is 64% in favour of women writers. Is that a sign of my feminism? Only in the old sense. I admit I like good chick-lit. The genre is my go-to release, my, God help me, Andy McNab. I’m not directed by a sense of fairness or a need to be seen to be politically correct.

    When I think of classics that I love I think of Dante, Virgil, Tolstoy and that Bard we all become accquainted with. It’s probably too late for us. We are locked in whether we acknowledge it or not. But it is that 14 year-old who can learn. It is that kid who is flexible enough to understand that Austin, the Brontes and Wharton were abberations only in the restrictions of their times.

    Target the youth and that will result in healthier percentages. Or not. When it comes to sexism, we snatch at mist.

  75. oceangirl, exactly so!

    Claire, thanks for the link. I’ll leave a comment at yours.

    Certainly I do think the analysis is useful. It’s easy to assume we’re making balanced choices, but our assumptions can easily be very wrong. I think your point about relying on bloggers rather than the press leading to better balance is a good one.

    Charlene, thanks for the link, and yes, I think that’s a good point.

    Thanks Mindy!

    Kama, I’m not trying to prove anything about your choices. I don’t know you. I picked up on the 3/14 as you’d mentioned it is all. Obviously there will be individuals who are balanced, individuals who skew towards men, towards women, towards writers of a particular ethnicity, whatever. That’s not really what this post is about. My interest is in how female writers are being systemically under-recognised in the English speaking book markets, not whether each individual reader of the blog is themselves underrecognising them.

    Put another way, my interest is in how the literary world devalues women, not whether a given commenter does or doesn’t. Saying the literary world is doing something doesn’t mean every individual reader is. I didn’t write this blog post as a comment on your personal reading and you don’t need to defend it to me. I have no view on it.

    dalyle11, I think you raise something interesting which is how we often follow chains of reading. So, you’ve got more female writers on your nook presently from the sounds of it because you’ve discovered some new female writers you like and are exploring their back catalogue. That’s largely what I’m hoping to achieve for myself. It’s not that I want quotas, it’s that I don’t want my options in terms of good literature and entertainment foreshortened by wider market choices.

    Annabelle, thanks!

    Marilyn, I think the canon will long be male heavy because of the much smaller numbers of women writing in the 19th Century and before compared to men, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Exclusion of women from the canon though is a whole other blog post, and one I’m not sure I’m best qualified to make.

    I do like Hemingway though, even if he does seem somehow to have gone out of fashion. I’ll have to google Sedaris.

  76. Hey sendra (hello back), great comment.

    For me the point of this is hopefully to find some new favourite authors. The only lasting and practical way I can see to rebalance even a bit is that – I’m not going to try readwomen2015 and readwomen2025 and so on and I’m not sure I’d be doing female writers any favours if I did.

    Being aware though can I think help, even if not much, and making an effort for a reasonably extended period can help perhaps reset you a bit. That said, of course the odds on any given blog post changing anything is pretty remote. If though I become say a fan of Nicola Barker’s writing then that’s one more woman in my personal canon, and more importantly it’s a great writer that I might otherwise have overlooked (not that I’ve read Barker yet, but she’s on my reading list for this year).

    Ironically my next two posts won’t be of female writers – I agreed to do a guest review of Michael Bishop (sf author) in May for another blog and to take part in a Gary Romain in May thing. So it goes. After them I’ll be back to this.

    Re Chicklit, I don’t see anything remotely wrong with it (not that I expect you’d care if I did). It seems to me much the same as reading SF to relax, or horror, or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with good escapist fiction and we all need a break from time to time.

  77. sendra

    No, I see your intentions and I think they make good sense. People do get rather wound up when discussing sexism and they talk in terms of ‘solutions’ and if they were easy or even there, we’d all be ‘better people’. Simply being aware that you could benefit personally from a wider catchment area is a smart step and reallly the only step.

    Chick-lit is simple, disposable and I don’t mind it when I want to self-indulge, but it is limited and often plays out a very grim story of women’s aspirations. Horror might be more imaginative and SF has a much broader remit, ranging from the Dan Dare silly stuff, (less so, nowadays), to the much more interesting. As I get older, I find myself leaning more towards SF for light reading, even though it can be anything but. Another example of inexplicable predujice that I can recognise, but somehow utilise to some benefit. BTW, I’m sure you know about the rumours concerning Arthur C. Clarke. In some of his earlier work, it shows. This shouldn’t make him harder to pick up, but it does. There is no perfect reader, no perfect writer.

    I don’t imagine you’d think it the right fit for your blog, but I’m told that computer games are becoming an art form, that they are aiming higher and have better narratives. Do you think you’d want to review a game along those lines? Thinking about SF, it has got me curious about how immersive future games will become and whether there will be some sort of hybridisation between it and the film, the novel, even possibly with our own direct experiences/memories. So far, the only form that gives me that telepathic link is the novel, but what will the options be when we’re strapping armour or a gumshoe’s mac onto our frail bones and heading for that castle, that case as our grandchildren tut and turn the pages of something they think they’ve discovered called the book?

    Who has written about such artistic possibilities? I’d like to find out.

  78. leroyhunter

    87 comments! I take it you have enjoyed the “freshly pressed” experience Max…

    Always a risk with this issue that there’s a heat / no light response. It’s interesting to see the range of ways people have added to the discussion.

  79. Max, if you meant that you’re not interested in personal stories/book count, you should have written it in the beginning after getting any comments about how many book people read by women. I wrote that I read 3 from 14, and you made a comment regarding my shelves with just that info even though I said about “blind” selection based on topics of interests. So please, don’t write now that you’re not interested in personal stuff since you started it by yourself. I just commented back, to explain you just this number doesn’t mean anything. It might be the same with reviewers in whatever newspapers, they just pick out the themes that they’re interested in. You can’t always wish for a balance, doesn’t matter in which way.

    Secondly, if you were just interested in English-speaking book market you should have wrote it in the beginning too. So we readers from MAJORITY of the countries in the world that don’t speak English as first/official language, wouldn’t bother with any discussion with you and bore you about “the world”. Why did I wonder even with writing those few lines about Indonesia? I’m so sorry, please forgive me!

    I don’t even dare to ask you for explanation of the English-speaking book market. Do you include Nigeria (official language – English), Australia, New Zealand and so on? Because VIDA is only for USA and UK and there are around 60 sovereign countries officially using English. Don’t you think that speaking about 3% of the countries and market in them is too little to cover the book market in English-speaking countries? Did you get into account that for example Australia officially recognized “three” sex choices? Tho still limited, it’s a fact. Surely, they wouldn’t be able to pull a “balanced” reviews statistics aiming for 50% male and female, no?

    I’m waiting for a cry that LGBT or feminist magazines don’t cover enough white hetero males’ book reviews. 😉 Because “balance” should be going both sides, no?

    You didn’t even bother to answer my questions about the count for the statistics. Since you advocate the balance in book reviews based on people’s sex, I asked you how to count a book co-authored by a lady and a man or count books by multiple authors and with editor? How do you want to assign people by sex? What takes precedence – entry in ID or the person’s identity? What about people who write before transition or coming out? How do you count them? You won’t possibly count “John Smith” as a woman if he didn’t make transition yet, but in his own eyes he’s a woman writer. What about post-transition? Like the case of Lana Wachowski. Do we all previous awards of Larry Wachowski rewrite in statistics as “female producers/directors/screenwriters who got awarded” or leave it as a male one? Seriously, an answer on the T writers question is important to me and lots of people. Why in such a way they’re omitted and shown “no place for you”?

    Please, seriously answer me those questions if you want to have any real discussion about the “gender balance” of writers. And please explain it to me why the whole stuff is limiting only writers to either male or female when even for decades people are aware that there are transgendered or intersex people, and moreover groups/societies?

    For me it seems like USA and UK markets (or if you want to widen it to English-language book market, but it’s stupid) puts too much importance on dividing everything and labelling it! That’s the root of the problem! African American / Black British, Asian American, chick lit, chick noir, young adult, new adult, paranormal romance, erotic romance, mommy porn etc. When the hell will the labelling stop? When there’ll be a quote for the genres to be fairly reviewed otherwise some readers will claim there’s a discrimination? For me it looks like it’s something superficial and plainly idiotic. You know what? I never knew those labels before I started reading English-based blogs, book reviews, etc. For example I heard of “chick noir”, because somebody made a fuss about it (I think it was in The Guardian). I don’t understand why don’t leave it as a thriller. Trying it to label narrowly as something is actually turning down broader audience. Is it done systematically? Dunno. it’s probably done out of the stupidity and the the belief in “niche”.

    The whole problem with the marketing, and why men don’t read books by women, etc., is labelling based on “sex” stereotypes. Boy liking “My Little Pony”, dressing in pink is getting laughs, shaming, etc. How is the possibility that later on he’ll read a well written book labelled as “chick noir” so just some publishers could sell it to women, who make majority of the readers? Oh yeah, but with this kind of marketing they could be putting off some women readers too, but looks like they not care.

    And “one label fits all” like labelling “Stieg Larsson’s successor” any Scandinavian crime books writer, no matter the differences, just cause they are from Scandinavia and got some recognition. 😉 What is the possibility that you’ll read another Scandinavian crime story if you didn’t like Larsson’s style but every other author is labelled as a “successor”? How many successors there might be? It’s boring and lacks of originality, diversity. Sorry for mentioning the “diversity” word, I know you don’t care about it al all, you just want to see 50% balance to feel better for a bit.

    I think the labelling craze got more out of hand with the growth of Google/FB statistics. But of course it’s better to claim it’s done systematically and there’s some “shadow work” pulling strings and preventing poor women writers from gaining recognition. 😉

    I really wonder if this time you’ll finally answer the questions I’m asking for quite a long time, instead of writing excuses that you don’t care about something and you wanted something else from the post. Lack of elasticity? It’s really a shame you don’t want/can’t have a discussion with me.

    Btw, I’m interested which book would you pick for review if it’d break the balance. A man’s book on happy life of a Muslim lady or another one “Muslims hurt me so much” by a lady? Explain.

  80. sendra,

    Less to say this time as I agree with all your points. I do view computer games as a valid art form, but I don’t play them much anymore due to limited free time. I prioritised books, film and music and while I regret not being able to properly engage with computer games as I used to one just can’t do everything. rockpapershotgun might be worth your checking out. 90% of the articles won’t be what you’re looking for, but if anyone does do what you’re looking for it’s them (very occasionally).

    Leroy, absolutely, in every sense.

    Kama, you keep putting words in my mouth. I didn’t say I wasn’t interested in the wider world, I review a lot of books in translations here. My point was that this post is about how particular markets devalue women writers. I’ve no idea if (for example) the Chinese literary market has the same issue, so it’s not what the blog post is about not because Chinese literature doesn’t matter (sticking with that example) but because I can’t sensibly talk about the Chinese language literary market. Similarly I can’t properly speak to transgender issues not because I’m not sympathetic, but because I don’t know enough about it and because it’s beyond the scope of a literary blog.

    I haven’t said I want strict 50/50 parity, that’s really important, I’m not looking for that and it’s not in my post. My concern in this post is the systemic diminishing of the value of women’s literary fiction. It’s quite a specific point. Making it doesn’t mean there aren’t other points that can also be made about other groups.

    With respect to transgender authors, it’s a question of self-identity isn’t it? Lana Wachowski is a woman as far as I’m concerned, it hadn’t occurred to me to consider her a third gender, though that may reflect my lack of familiarity with the issues. In the case of your John Smith obviously it’s more a practical question, if he’s not come out and he’s pre-transition I simply have no way of knowing he’s not a man so of course I’ll treat him as male. If a writer’s career spanned a gender reassignment I’d probably treat them as whatever they self-identified as at the relevant time to the extent I knew that, but as I’m not seeking absolute parity to be honest I probably wouldn’t worry too much about which group they fell into at any given point provided of course that I treated them now as they now self-identify.

    With respect to co-authoring, I’m not sure how I’d treat that. It’s not a science. There will always be cases that don’t quite fit. What about a book written mostly by a man but finished by a woman? A book written by a woman but substantially edited by a man? If I wanted parity I’d care about those questions, but I don’t. There will always be edge cases. The point again is readwomenmore, not readonastrictlygenderparityadjustedbasis.

    As for labelling, the labels exist in the markets I’m discussing. I’m not creating this stuff, I’m responding to facts in the world. Your paragraph:

    “The whole problem with the marketing, and why men don’t read books by women, etc., is labelling based on “sex” stereotypes. Boy liking “My Little Pony”, dressing in pink is getting laughs, shaming, etc. How is the possibility that later on he’ll read a well written book labelled as “chick noir” so just some publishers could sell it to women, who make majority of the readers? Oh yeah, but with this kind of marketing they could be putting off some women readers too, but looks like they not care.”

    is precisely my point. That’s what I’m talking about, that and your preceding paragraph – I agree with both of them. I think you’re seeing other points that I’m just not making. The labels exist and are relevant to the points I’m making, but I’ve not argued for labelling.

    I don’t entirely understand the question in your last post. It’s based on a false premise though. To repeat, I haven’t called for a strict balance. I’ve not called for quotas. You’ve introduced that stuff, it’s not in my post. Both books sound terrible though so I doubt I’d read either.

    Your correction on my referring to the English-speaking market was a good one so thanks for that. That was sloppy of me, inaccurate and indeed rude. I was talking about the first-world English speaking literary market – ie UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I’m not competent to speak to for example the Nigerian market. Still, I shouldn’t have implied that the English speaking world ended with the European diaspora. In a way it helps illustrate my primary point though, I didn’t realise I was excluding a swathe of the world in that comment, just as many men don’t realise they’re excluding women writers by the way the publishing industry selects, markets and reviews books.

  81. This was a fascinating read and I shared on my social media outlets. What stood out for me is that professors can transmit the gender gap to their students by not assigning female scholars as part of the curriculum. What’s even more interesting is that both the professor and the student are unaware. I also loved that the article included helpful tips for female scholars. After reading the article, I took stock of my personal library and as a young scholar, I will read more women in 2014 starting with “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg.

  82. Reblogged this on The DRB Scottish Women's History Group and commented:
    Reading Women 2014 we also read 19th century authors Marriage By Susan Ferrier 1818. A must for all self respecting women. It is extremely funny warning do not read in public places people will wonder why you a laughing so much.

  83. As a random FYI and note to your earlier post: It appears that 2014 has been declared “The Year of Reading Women.” I just got an email from Anansi, who is now putting on a contest – “win all the books by women we publish this year!‏” All very good ideas, with good intentions, but it does seem a little funny that this meme has become a tool for retailers. Ah, good ole capitalism. Nothing is safe. 🙂

  84. The revolution may not be televised literary, but it sure as hell will be monetised.

  85. Hi Max,
    I meant to comment on this post some time ago, but found myself deep in the middle of a busy period at the end of April, and it slipped my mind – apologies.

    You make excellent points on how some books by women writers are marketed, including the image and perception created by the cover image. And I agree with your observation that when a man writes about middle-aged depression it’s considered a meditation on life’s challenges, whereas when a woman writes about similar issues it’s viewed as a ‘domestic’ novel (and less ‘serious’ somehow). I wonder how Knausgaard’s My Struggle series would be received if penned by a woman? Similarly, James Salter’s All That Is.

    Anyway, I’ve been keeping a log of my own reading over the past 18 months – last year’s gender split was 69% male authors: 31% female, and this year I’m currently running at 34% (which is lower than I’d like). I’m supportive of the #readwomen2014 campaign, and I’m certainly more conscious of what I’m reading this year. Like you, I’m trying to consider writers I may have overlooked in the past (Penelope Fitzgerald, Angela Carter), and I’m keeping an eye out for others, particularly translations (Elena Ferrante, Yoko Ogawa, a few of the Peirene novellas). Perhaps I’ll try to alternative my reading: a book by a male author, followed by a female author, and so on, although my stash of unread books is quite heavily skewed towards male authors, especially on the noir/crime front.

    A very interesting post – it’ll be interesting to see how we fare by the end of the year.

  86. I think this is a fantastic idea – to make a conscious effort to read female authors as they are consistently completely side-lined. When I was studying at university, English Literature, I was told not to answer all my questions on women authors because ‘that would seem limited.’ Of course the other way round is normal…

  87. Good question on Knausgaard Jackie, I think it would be seen as self-indulgent and possibly get quite a hostile reaction. I don’t know that Salter.

    The problem I’m really running into is the more I prioritise women writers, the more my TBR pile becomes skewed towards male writers (as I’m reading fewer of them), unless I go on a buying binge, which makes no sense given how many unread books I have,

    As I mention in the post the only solution to that is to find new favourite writers, ones who become part of my personal canon. That’s the real challenge, otherwise it’s just a spike one year which gets smoothed out in later years as my TBR pile asserts itself.

    iRate, there’s a fundamental point that the straight white middle class male Western experience is seen as the default experience, the norm, the expression of the universal. It’s not, it’s simply the expression of a dominant viewpoint. Your anecdote from university is a perfect illustration of that.

    Late comments by the way are always welcome. If someone responds to this years from now I’d still be happy for the comment.

  88. I’m running into the same problem, Max. If I try to alternate my reading this year – one male, one female and so on – I’m going to end up with a high proportion of males in my ‘unread books’ pile. I’m trying to buy a few more books by women writers, though, despite the fact that I already have more than enough unread books.

    I’m also with you in the need to find more favourite women writers to add to my personal canon. Out of interest, which women authors would you place in that group? I’m pretty sure you’d have Jean Rhys and Jeanette Winterson in your set, but I’d be interested to hear about others. I want to read more Rhys – After Leaving Mr Mackenzie was excellent, another of your recommendations.

  89. Ann Quin leaps to mind – I’ve reviewed two of hers here and really liked both.

    Otherwise, I really enjoyed The Incident Report by Martha Baillie and Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro both of which are waiting on my review pile. Don’t know if they’re canon though having only read one by each. After that I’m not sure, which is of course part of the point of this exercise.

  90. Thanks, Max. I’ll check out your reviews of Ann Quin’s book – I’ve heard the name, but haven’t read anything by her. Martha Baillie and Claudia Pineiro both sound promising and I’ll watch out for your reviews of the books you mention. Cheers.

  91. Having just finished Play It Where It Lays, and having previously read her Miami, Joan Didion is looking pretty good for the list.

  92. Oh, excellent. I’ve just had a quick look at the blurb for that Didion, and it sounds like my kind of thing – looking forward to reading your review in due course.

    Berg is the one I’d heard of in connection with Ann Quin, and I’ve added it to my list.

    I’m planning to read another Ferrante next month (Days of Abandonment, I think), so I’ll keep you posted.

  93. Pingback: nothing makes you jealous like something you didn’t actually want in the first place | Pechorin's Journal

  94. Pingback: Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year | Pechorin's Journal

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