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Stella Count shows gender bias in book reviews is changing

19 September 2019

From The Guardian:

Researchers have praised most Australian publications for reaching gender parity in their book review sections last year.

Of published book reviews in Australia in 2018 49% were for books written by women, according to research published on Thursday by the Stella Count.

The Stella Count is Australia’s answer to the Vida Count for literature, which surveys women’s representation in major literary publications and book reviews. The count was established in 2012 alongside the Stella prize for books by women to highlight gender disparity in Australian literary culture.

Conducted with academics from Australian National University and Monash University, the Stella Count involves researchers combing book review sections of 12 major Australian newspapers and book reviewing publications, tallying the number of books reviewed and the gender of the books’ authors.

The Stella Count also notes the gender identity of the reviewer, and the space given to reviews of books by women compared with those by men.

. . . .

Julieanne Lamond, from the Australian National University, who leads the analysis of the data with Melinda Harvey from Monash, told Guardian Australia the count was an important way to measure what kinds of stories were making their way into the public consciousness.

“If we think about our ideas about what men and women are, what kinds of stories can and can’t be told, and what kinds of stories are considered important, whether books by men and women are getting equal access to those pages is really important,” she said. “It’s a really important way that cultural prestige is created.”

. . . .

Analysis also showed that more women than men were employed as reviewers of books in 2018. This corresponded with an increase in the number of books reviewed overall, suggesting both books and reviews written by women had been added to review sections, rather than taking the place of those by men.

Women also received more access to what Lamond called “the big name-making reviews” – that is, reviews of 1,000 words or more – in 2018 than in any of the preceding years, with 47% of these dedicated to women authors compared to 36% in 2017.

. . . .

Of continuing concern was the trend of “partitioned criticism”, in which men tended to review books by men and women tended to review books by women. “There’s a gender essentialism at work – the idea that books written by women are just for women and books written by men are just for men.”

The impact of “partitioned criticism” was particularly significant for women writers.

“Books by men can often be considered more serious even if they’re about the same subject matter that women are writing about. So Jonathan Franzen writes about family and it’s a serious book, and for every woman writer that does the same it’s considered a woman’s book. I think there’s still some work to be done there.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG is interested in what happened to the number of online reads for various reviews and reviewers. He also wonders if one is permitted to keep one’s gender a secret via the use of a pen name or if gender disclosures are mandatory.

What would George Eliot or Andre Norton do if either were still alive? George Sand? Isak Dinesen?  How should Robert Galbraith or J.D. Robb be counted if they chose not to reveal their gender? SK Tremayne or SJ Watson?

A Goodreads Survey in 2014 reported that women are predominantly read by women – 80% of a new female author’s audience is likely to be female.

Is a male author permitted to write a book with a female narrator? What if an author wanted to assume a different gender and gendered pen name for the purposes of writing a particular type of book?

From a purely commercial standpoint, a fiction author might be advised to write as a woman.

From National Public Radio:

A National Endowment for the Arts report found that only 57 percent of Americans had read a book in 2002 a four percentage-point drop in a decade. Book sales have been flat in recent years and are expected to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Among avid readers surveyed by the AP, the typical woman read nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. Women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography.

When it comes to fiction, the gender gap is at its widest. Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada and Britain.

By this measure, “chick-lit” would have to include Hemingway and nearly every other novel, observes Lakshmi Chaudhry in the magazine In These Times. “Unlike the gods of the literary establishment who remain predominately male—both as writers and critics—their humble readers are overwhelmingly female.”

Book groups consist almost entirely of women, and the spate of new literary blogs are also populated mainly by women. The Associated Press study stirred a small buzz among some of those bloggers.

“I’ve read at least 100 books in the past year. Seriously. Probably more like 150 to 200,” a user named Phyllis wrote on the literary blog Trashionista. “My husband? I’m guessing zero, unless you count picture books and comic books he has read to the kids.”

“We see it every time in our store,” says Carla Cohen, owner of the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. “Women head straight for the fiction section and men head for nonfiction.”

“I know that we certainly have more women than men customers,” concurs Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, an independent bookstore in the Miami area. “But I don’t have any wisdom about why that is.”

. . . .

Theories attempting to explain the “fiction gap” abound. Cognitive psychologists have found that women are more empathetic than men, and possess a greater emotional range—traits that make fiction more appealing to them.

Some experts see the genesis of the “fiction gap” in early childhood. At a young age, girls can sit still for much longer periods of time than boys, says Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain.

“Girls have an easier time with reading or written work, and it’s not a stretch to extrapolate [that] to adult life,” Brizendine says. Indeed, adult women talk more in social settings and use more words than men, she says.

Another theory focuses on “mirror neurons.” Located behind the eyebrows, these neurons are activated both when we initiate actions and when we watch those same actions in others. Mirror neurons explain why we recoil when seeing others in pain, or salivate when we see other people eating a gourmet meal. Neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons hold the biological key to empathy.

The research is still in its early stages, but some studies have found that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men. That might explain why women are drawn to works of fiction, which by definition require the reader to empathize with characters.

“Reading requires incredible patience, and the ability to ‘feel into’ the characters. That is something women are both more interested in and also better at than men,” says Brizendine.

Link to the rest at National Public Radio

When PG checked the Barnes & Noble list of its Top 100 Bestsellers of 2019 (fiction and non-fiction), seven out of the Top 10 Bestsellers were written by women: Delia Owens, Michelle Obama, Tara Westover, Rachel Hollis (twice, #5 and #10), Harper Lee and Marie Kondo.

The Amazon Charts – Most Sold – Top 10 Fiction List for the week of September 8 included seven women authors – Margaret Atwood (twice, #2 and #4), Delia Owens, Donna Tartt, Patricia Cornwell, Fiona Valpy and Lisa Gray.

For the Most Read books on Amazon Charts Fiction List, all ten were written by women. Delia Owens was #1, J.K. Rowling was #2, #3, #4, #6, #7, #9 and #10, J.D. Robb was #5 and Louise Penny was #8.

Since The Guardian story was focused on Australian authors, PG took a trip to Amazon Australia. He couldn’t find Amazon Charts for Australia, so he checked out the best-selling new fiction releases – five out of the Top 10 were written by authors with female names and six out of 11-20 best-sellers were female. For best-sellers in the Kindle store, seven out of the Top 10 were female.

 

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8 Comments to “Stella Count shows gender bias in book reviews is changing”

  1. I guess I’m just an outlier. I read over 100 books a year, a great many of them nonfiction. Out of those top ten in the B&N list, I’ve read only one, To Kill a Mockingbird, and that was many, many decades ago. The others? No interest, whatsoever.

  2. Analysis also showed that more women than men were employed as reviewers of books in 2018.

    Employed? Does that mean full time jobs or contract payments for individual reviews?

  3. As a young woman, almost all of the books I read were from male writers and it was often problematic because those books were generally written *for* male readers. Now, I probably read 2/3 female authors to 1/3 male in mostly mystery/suspense, sci-fi and fantasy genres. If I read much romance, that would probably change a lot. How many men even read romance?

    • More than is publicly known. 🙂

      When I was a kid, I read pretty much anything I could find.
      Sure, I scavenged for SF&F but I never turned my nose up at Victoria Holt, Heyer, or Alistair MacLean. Biographies, encyclopedias, or world almanac would do. Mostly I drew the line at dictionaries because the plot was too thin… 😉

  4. How many men even read romance?

    I have no idea, and even less data. All I can offer is that I have never seen a romance floating around a military barracks or construction camp. Lots of other books.

    I read a Harlequin once to see what they were. I finished it. Now I have one data point.

  5. Sisters in Crime has had a review monitoring project since 1986. In fact, one of the reasons for its founding was the lack of parity in book review coverage between men and women.

    https://www.sistersincrime.org/page/MonitoringProject

    NB: I just went looking for this to post the link and read the latest summary just now. I’m not sure I agree with eliminating electronic review sources, but I do imagine it’s harder to vet those.

  6. Is a male author permitted to write a book with a female narrator?

    PG hasn’t been keeping up with SF for a while. Lots of men are writing kick-ass heroines.

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