Why don’t men read books by women?

I’m off to lovely Cambridge this Sunday to see a certain Mr Savidge Reads discuss the potentially contentious question…

Why don’t men read books by women? (and does it matter that they don’t?)

He’s in fabulous bookish company too with Persephone Books founder Nicola Beauman on the panel. Other speakers at the Women’s Word event also include Jil Paton Walsh and P.D. James, and one my favourite crime writers, Sophie Hannah will be there too.

Man Reading, by John Singer Sargent (Image borrowed from jssgallery.org)

If you’re interested in the event and would like to come along it would be great to see you. You can find details of Women’s Word here and see the panel members for the discussion of Why don’t men read books by women? here (you do need a ticket btw).

I’ve recently been pondering the fact that as a women I do like to read books by men, precisely because I enjoy the different perspective (favourite authors include Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, Fydor Dostoyevsky and Ian McEwan). If we assume that there is truth in the question posed, why wouldn’t men be interested in understanding the female brain better? Of course, that’s if you assume that there is truth in the question!

You could postulate for example that behaviour depends on the category of reader. When it comes to very popular fiction you could generalise that many women prefer chick-lit (mainly a female domain) and men prefer thrillers (where there is quite alot of female representation) and sci-fi / fantasy novels. These are very broad statements of course and I’m interested to find out what the assumptions are based on being someone who likes my arguments nicely backed up with evidence!

I’m also curious to see how many men there will be at this event to grill the panel as I’m anticipating that  participation at this event would naturally be biased towards the fairer sex.

In the meantime I’ll have to think up some interesting questions to pose to the panel.   Anyone have any good ideas?

31 responses to “Why don’t men read books by women?

  1. I’m skeptical of the question. Is there any actual data to back this notion up? I think there is a wide range of male readership, as you say. Men who read largely thrillers are probably reading male authors most of the time, true, but women have made substantial inroads into just about every other genre. Readers of detective novels, for example, hard boiled tough guy detective novels, read women authors because there are so many of them writing tough guy detective novels now.

    The same is even true for men who read only the sports pages and books about sports, at least here in America.

    Ask the women in the audience if they read many westerns. This is a genre with a traditionally male readership and one still dominated by male authors. I think it’s the rare reader who reads to find the perspective of others. Most readers look for themselves in the books they read. The most common reason for not liking a book that I see in the book blogoshere is some variation on the “I couldn’t identify with the characters” meme.

    • I don’t blame you for your skepticism and I think that’s a very wise point about identifying with the character. I wouldn’t naturally think to read a western (although I would probably read a swashbuckler!) but perhaps I should try this genre…

    • >> I think it’s the rare reader who reads to find the perspective of others.

      I definitely read in order to see the world through others’ eyes; it might not be my sole reason for reading but it’s one of my primary motivators! I do complain about characters in novels sometimes, but when I do it’s because they don’t seem like real people but rather tools for the author, not because they don’t share my opinions/etc. I’m not sure how I phrase it, though; I might say ‘I didn’t believe in the characters’ instead of ‘identify with.’ And I seem to see more complaints about writing style when a blogger is explaining why s/he didn’t like a book than anything else! But the blogosphere is a big place.

      Speaking of Westerns, I just read a VERY man-centric book that felt like a modern western to me; In Search of Snow by Luis Alberto Urrea. It was marvelous, and it was really neat to see him writing men since his other two novels are centered around women. If you haven’t read it, I wish you would, since I have no background in other westerns to compare it to! 😉

      • novelinsights

        Agree with CB above, that you are a rare reader in a lovely way. I think readers from the book blogging community are probably a bit unusual (*coughs* obsessive) anyway and proactively think about reading choices much more. You’ve made me curious about In Search of Snow now. Thanks for the recommendation and the thoughts.

      • While I’m skeptical of my rareity, I do agree that book bloggers probably spend more time thinking about their book choices, as a rule, than other readers. hehe After all, what else would we post about?! Urrea’s a great novelist, if you haven’t read any of his works. I loved them all, so start with whichever one sounds most interesting to you! (They’re all set in different time periods w different ‘themes.’)

  2. This sounds really fun – and I wish I’d been asked to speak on the panel!! But Simon S will do a grand job, of course. Have fun!

    p.s. obviously I read a lot of books by women…

  3. Oh, I wish I could come! If only there was time and money enough to leave my little home here in Illinois and fly on over…

    A fascinating subject, to be sure. But, I think you hit on something when you brought up mentioned chick-lit, or at least this is what occurs to me: maybe it doesn’t even depend on the sex of the reader as much as it does their intellectual capabilities? I have had people read my blog who’ve said, “You read much more sophisticated stuff than I ever would” which is hardly true compared with many blog writers I don’t even understand! But, on the spectrum, we all fall somewhere, and there are those who prefer mostly very light books such as those that American authors Danielle Steele and Nora Roberrts write (small scream of horror here), and those who prefer mostly thrillers such as Steig Larsson wrote (another shriek), and those who read as much quality literature as they can (us!).

    • novelinsights

      Haha, I loved the Stieg Larsson trilogy, although I wouldn’t say it was more thriller than classic lit. I do think that people who read more avidly will tend to read a wider range of fiction whether it be from both genders or different genres and I guess if you are reading for sheer vicarious enjoyment / quick read then you are probably more influenced by the marketing than making a conscious decision to expand your horizons.

  4. Do you think it has a lot to do with marketing? Jacket covers and such? I’m sure it’s going to be a very interesting event so will be looking forward to your write-up. Have fun with Simon S!

    • novelinsights

      Absolutely I think that has a big part to play. I’m so attracted by covers and more masculine or more feminine covers must appeal more to the different genders as a rule. For example, how many men would pick up Butterfield 8 from that delightful but incredibly girly Vintage cover that we had for Riverside Readers?!

  5. Wish I could attend! Silly ocean. 😉

  6. Consider clothing for a moment – a girl who wears ‘boy pants’ isn’t likely to get a lot of of strange looks, but a man who wears a skirt probably is. As a man, I will tell you, there is a great deal of pressure to conform to gender roles – in everyday life there isn’t an easy niche for gender non-conformance. This stretches to books, as well: if I am reading , say, a Nora Roberts book at work, I can tell you I’ll get comments about it. I’ve gotten comments about reading Charlotte Bronte at work, in the past. I am really curious to know if a woman with, say, a John Updike novel would get the same comments?

    • novelinsights

      Good point. And this is probably where the second bit of the question ‘does it matter’ comes in. I wonder if attitudes will ever shift in the way that they have in your clothing analogy. It was only a few decades ago that man pants were not considered ok for women at all. Perhaps the ‘man-bag’ is leading the way!

  7. I think Eva is a “rare reader.” I mean that as a high form of praise.

  8. Oh what fun! Look forward to hearing all about it!

  9. I’m a dude. And I read a lot of hard-boiled crime fiction. However, 28% of the books I’ve read this year are by women. Oh, and I actually picked up BUtterfield 8 based in large part on the cover in question, as well as, of course, the review on this blog. But to add to Jason’s point above, I once picked up a romance novel to see what all the hubbub was about, but I wouldn’t be caught dead reading it i public because of the cover and the title–I was dying of embarrassment when I tried to hide it amongst my groceries when I bought it at the grocery store. Hm. I’m going to have my own symposium: Why Do Publishers Think Women Want Such Silly Covers And Titles On Romance Novels? On an aside, women must be embarrassed of these covers, too, as the driving force of e-readers are women downloading their romance stories. Witness the beginning of the end of the printed book–Gah!

    • novelinsights

      Haha that made me laugh. Sometimes publishers get it just right but sometimes it’s just so awful. That said someone must be buying those books. For example Movie covers. why?

  10. P.S. What Sophie Hannah book to you suggest?

  11. It has never occurred to me about the gender of the author in the past. Since I have been blogging I have seen this question come up now and again and I still have to stop and think what have I recently read and who was it by.

    I still give some of my ‘chic-lit’ books that I have read to a work colleague of mine who has really got into reading Marian Keyes at the moment, and does not care about the girlie covers at all. I will point out for interesting observation that he is a Royal Navy Commander and was the man in charge of where I worked (he has subsequently retired and become my boss). This man had some power of the discipline of the forces and loves Marian Keyes!

    I am off now to see how many books I have read so far this year by men!

    • novelinsights

      I love that a Royal Navy Commander reads your cast-off Marian Keyes, how wonderful! Maybe that says something about how he’s comfortable in his manhood!

  12. Wow – what an interesting question and event! I look forward to hearing how it went. A huge area for discussion no doubt – on the whole i don’t really think about the gender of the author when I’m picking a book – out of interest I’ve just checked out the ratio for this year so far and it is 1/3 male, 2/3 female authors. Hmmm… food for thought.. Hope you have fun 0:)

    • novelinsights

      Interesting about the ratio. I think I’m going to have to do the same with the last year of my books on the blog or something…

  13. I am a long time feminist although inactive at this time and I am purposely reading only books by British women authors. I find it fascinating. It probably started with discovering Virago. I was visiting a large chain bookstore yesterday and was doing a skimming inventory of “classic” books and comparing the number of male to female authored works. The men completely dominate the list. Their books are considered classics far more often than women and then the question is “why?”. It’s a rhetorical question.

    • novelinsights

      Hi Elaine! I’m curious so sorry for the silly question but what makes you an inactive feminist? As in you are still feminist in the way you think but you don’t actively go out and promote your point of view?

      Have you discovered Persephone Books? I would think you would find those very interesting if you are a lover of women’s classic books. I think it will be interesting to see in another 50 years if the balance has shifted when you look at what books are considered classics now that publishing is arguably much more gender un-biased.

  14. Hi, it’s not a silly question but your assumption was correct. I used to be an active feminist many years ago now I guess that you’d describe me as a passive one. One of my interests in reading novels by women is to discover why their books are being neglected over time. I have been having a lot of fun researching reviews from the past for the books that I read.
    At the risk of sounding snobbish, I try to read only what is considered good literature and that’s where the discrepancy in the numbers of men to women really appears. I speculate that it’s because the people who are involved in the industry from publishers to book reviewers are predominately male. It’s the same in terms of films.

  15. Pingback: Why don’t men read books by women? The debate… | Novel Insights

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