Why do so few men read books by women?

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From The Guardian:

The byline at the top of this piece reads MA Sieghart, not Mary Ann. Why? Because I really want men to read it too. Female authors through the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt obliged to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary? The sad answer is yes.

For my book The Authority Gap, which looks at why women are still taken less seriously than men, I commissioned Nielsen Book Research to find out exactly who was reading what. I wanted to know whether female authors were not just deemed less authoritative than men, but whether they were being read by men in the first place. And the results confirmed my suspicion that men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman.

For the top 10 bestselling female authors (who include Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readers are men and 81%, women. But for the top 10 bestselling male authors (who include Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split is much more even: 55% men and 45% women.

In other words, women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women. And the female author in the top 10 who had the biggest male readership – the thriller writer LJ Ross – uses her initials, so it’s possible the guys thought she was one of them. What does this tell us about how reluctant men are to accord equal authority – intellectual, artistic, cultural – to women and men?

Margaret Atwood, a writer who should be on the bookshelves of anyone who cares about literary fiction, has a readership that is only 21% male. Male fellow Booker prize winners Julian Barnes and Yann Martel have nearly twice as many (39% and 40%). It’s not as if women are less good at writing literary fiction. All five of the top five bestselling literary novels in 2017 were by women, and nine of the top 10. And it’s not as if men don’t enjoy reading books by women when they do open them; in fact, they marginally prefer them. The average rating men give to books by women on Goodreads is 3.9 out of 5; for books by men, it’s 3.8.

Turning to nonfiction, which is read by slightly more men than women, the pattern is similar, though not quite so striking. Men still read male authors much more than female ones, but the discrepancy isn’t so large because women tend to do the same in favour of female authors. But there is still quite a difference. Women are 65% more likely to read a nonfiction book by the opposite sex than men are. All this suggests that men, consciously or unconsciously, don’t accord female authors as much authority as male ones. Or they make the lazy assumption that women’s books aren’t for them without trying them out to see whether this is true.

Why does this matter? For a start, it narrows men’s experiences of the world. “I’ve known this for a very long time, that men just aren’t interested in reading our literature,” the Booker prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo told me in an interview for The Authority Gap. “Our literature is one of the ways in which we explore narrative, we explore our ideas, we develop our intellect, our imagination. If we’re writing women’s stories, we’re talking about the experiences of women. We also talk about male experiences from a female perspective. And so if they’re not interested in that, I think that it’s very damning and it’s extremely worrying.”

If men don’t read books by and about women, they will fail to understand our psyches and our lived experience. They will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default. And this narrow focus will affect our relationships with them, as colleagues, as friends and as partners. But it also impoverishes female writers, whose work is seen as niche rather than mainstream if it is consumed mainly by other women. They will earn less respect, less status and less money.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

As PG examines his own reading habits, he believes that he doesn’t care whether a book is written by a woman or a man. In many cases when he hears something about a book that makes it sound like he is likely to enjoy it, he may not even pay attention to the author’s name.

(PG understands that many people, especially authors, will feel that PG’s lack of attention to the author’s name is exceedingly disagreeable and even worse than it would normally be since he has and does represent a number of authors, but it’s an old habit that long predated him marrying an author or representing any. If he’s going to point to the source of this habit, he’ll mention a childhood lived largely in book deserts a long way from any libraries in a family which owned a few books, but couldn’t afford to buy any new ones very often. Under those circumstances, PG read any book he could get his hands on that was not vastly above his reading abilities. Rereading books he liked several times was something he always did as well. He read the poem, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes so many times that he still remembers most of it from memory.)

As an adult, when PG finds an author of any gender he likes, he tends to read every book the author wrote. Dorothy Sayers comes to mind as an example as does Vera Brittain on the prose side and poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson.

Plus almost everything J.K. Rowling has written and close to everything that Barbara Tuchman published, including The Guns of August, The Zimmerman Telegram, Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century and The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890–1914. (Listing Ms. Tuchman’s books has made PG realizes that he wants to reread all of them again.

17 thoughts on “Why do so few men read books by women?”

  1. And then, conversely, there are those of us who use initials for other reasons. I’m old enough that my first few publications — as one of eight, ten, a dozen “authors” in a research group, but guess who did most of the writing? — in scientific journals were under my initials because everyone’s were. And so I’ve kept that authorial identity for four decades…

    Notwithstanding whatever my gender happens to be, which for this kind of writing is utterly irrelevant. (Actually, it’s almost always irrelevant to the writing; in some categories, “marketing geniuses” might disagree, but they’re wrong even if they’ll never admit it.)

  2. The reason why men don’t read female authors (and I admit that I don’t have a lot of female authors on my shelf) has nothing to do with a failure to respect female authority or what have you.

    In fact, how the author frames this accidentally discloses why more women read men than men read women–male authors, particularly the ones writing literary fiction, generally do not feel the compulsion to treat the opposite sex as somehow defective for not being like them. Female authors, on the other hand, especially the ones writing literary fiction, do have this tendency, and most men, like most women, do not have the desire to read something that will tell them that an immutable characteristic of theirs is problematic.

    Therefore, since life is short and there are piles of books to read by authors who they know won’t spend their time talking about how terrible they are, men don’t tend to read female authors.

    (If the OP wants to know how to get men to read female authors, she should probably look at how women who are popular among male readers write. Elizabeth Moon would be a good place to start.)

    • Well, the vast majority female authors don’t waste time on sexual politics. But sometimes it does seem as if the ones who do are the only ones the literary establishment reads and promotes.

      In the meantime, the rest go quietly about their business raking in the currency.
      I strongly suspect that if we tally revenue (or reads) by sex the ladies come out ahead by a mile. Romance and mysteries *consistently* outsell most everything out there. Safe bets, if oft ignored by the literati.

      What can’t be ignored is that the list of top selling authors in history is female heavy at tbe top.

      The literati really really need to study economics and the market before opening their mouths.

      • Bluntly: Fiction is the dog’s tail. Category fiction is fleas on the dog. And there is still an extensive gender gap in nonfiction, particularly “serious nonfiction” and those areas of “specialized” nonfiction that sell the best. The specific example of “history” in Felix’s note does not match sales lists once one gets out of mall bookstores (and their… questionable… sales reporting).*

        Here’s an illustration: More new copies of just the Norton Anthology of English Literature were sold in 2019 than all but about a dozen novels… and four of those dozen were published more than a decade ago. If there’s a single volume more devoted to dead white guys (and “edited” by a live white guy) than the Norton Anthology of English Literature, I’m not familiar with it.

        tl;dr Contrary to the pipe dreams of the literati, fiction is not the dominant (or even largest single) one of the thirteen publishing industries; and we’d all be better off if we dispensed with that pretense.

        * Do not get me started on “but we can just adjust for Amazon sales ranks.” We can’t. They’re noncomparable for determining total sales, especially once one gets into subcategories. The various “decoding methods” out there look persuasive, but they are only valid (when they are valid at all) for apples-to-apples comparisons… and my point is that we’re using apples to draw conclusions about the entire frickin’ orchard.

        • How many people actually *read* the Norton Anthology of English Literature, though?

          I suspect the answer is “Not nearly as many people as bought copies.”

          • Conversely, the same for most of those novels being bought to look impressive on the coffee table. You can take a man (or woman) to the library — even all the way to the checkout stand — but you can’t make him (her, them) read.

            And, frankly, many of those bestselling novels were less worth reading (but more difficult) than the extended extract from The Faerie Queen in the Norton Anthology. Which, when I had to use it more decades ago than I should admit to, I actually read.

  3. The author of the OP makes a lot of assumptions from the small bit of data gathered. Isn’t this really a function of what genres certain genders write and what they read? For example, I looked at the last 20 books on military history I read. Only one was written by a woman, the aforementioned Barbara Tuchman. Is that problem that I like to read military history or is the problem that more women should write military history? Perhaps the real point the OP author wants to make is that we should already a wide swathe of genres.

    • How dare you read a genre in which hardly any women like to write? Why, one would suppose you hd permission to have your own interests instead of reading what the Times tells you to read.

      You have to read your quota of Womyn Auffers, and you shall enjoy it whether you like it or not. Now get busy, you defective male thing!

    • Margaret Atwood, a writer who should be on the bookshelves of anyone who cares about literary fiction, has a readership that is only 21% male.

      Oh my. We must all read this woman’s torture porn? Really?

      • I think calling her work torture porn is a bit over the top, though maybe no more so than the OP calling “The Handmaid’s Tale” – which is undoubtedly what got her onto the list – literary fiction. Presumably she’s still a devotee of the old “if it’s any good it can’t be science fiction” school of thought.

      • Well, that’s the answer. I’m quite content to acknowledge I don’t give a hoot about literary fiction. I suspect most don’t know what it means, starting with the people who claim they write it.

    • We’re talking about the Guardian here. The expression ‘real world’ does not compute.

      Douglas Adams could have been talking about almost any present-day newspaper, but especially about the Guardian, when he said, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.’

      • For all of the Grauniad‘s flaws (and there are many), it’s got closer congruence with reality than any other paper in England. Americans simply do not understand that the English newspapers resemble American newspapers in… well… the grade of paper generally used and the way they’re folded. (One need not even cite Page Three.) English newspapers have been, ever since the Sargent-inspired changes of the 1830s, archly and overtly political-faction publications — far more so than Fox News is Over Here, and the closest equivalent in newspapers is probably the WSJ or perhaps CSM. But even those papers are nothing on the overt partisanship of the Daily Telegraph, the hysterically-amusingly-misnamed Independent, or The Times (let alone the regional papers like the late East Anglian and the “tabloids” that make the National Enquirer look a bastion of journalistic integrity).

        Again, this is an apples-to-kumquats comparison… when we’re actually arguing over the meat dish.

        • I fear you are being overly kind to the Guardian. But then I may be prejudiced by my feeling that it is so convinced of it’s own moral superiority that it lives in a kind of liberal fantasy land where it cannot conceive that alternative viewpoints could possibly be valid and from where is looks down with condescension on the rest of the country.

          • Funny, that’s how I’d describe The Daily Telegraph (except for the word “liberal”). And if you really want to see “condescension” and “innate sense of moral superiority,” try reading The Mail on Sunday past the headlines and first couple of paragraphs!

            My point was that there really isn’t a comparable-to-the-damned-Yanks’-tradition of “journalistic balance” among the English papers, so reading them with that expectation is a bit futile.

  4. I tend to be with PG on the ‘not notice the author name’ bit when choosing a book. The title and art draw me in; the description and opening pages hook me and make me choose it. I often notice the author well after that point, mainly for reference so I can find them again if I want more of their work. I’m sure there are a few books in my Kindle that I know I enjoyed but STILL cant tell you who wrote them
    About the only time I look for author names is when I’m hunting a specific one for their new release which I’ve been anticipating, otherwise, it’s more about the story than the author.
    I get very tired of proclamations from on high that I might not be reading enough authors of color, or women, or LGBTQ or refugees, or disabled, or whatever – let me read what attracts me and if it happens to be by one of those groups, great that’s a bonus. But, choosing what to read to fit some agenda beyond the enjoyment of the work is just stupid for the reader.

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