Why don’t men read books by women? The debate…

Man reading by Paul Signac (picture from intofineart.com)

The other weekend I went along to a discussion at Lucy Cavendish College Cambridge which asked;

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

Of course, there is a clear assumption within that question that men definitely don’t read books by women – obviously with the aim of provoking discussion.

A provocative and interesting discussion it was. I’ve highlighted a few of the discussion points below

  • Men seem to read more factual books as a rule (I wonder how many of these are written by women), but in the realm of fiction, women have a strong influence on the market (buying power!) which is why marketers target women readers.
  • A brave marketer proffered the suggestion that perhaps they continued to target women with particular book jackets because it was working…
  • And further to the above point if the marketing works and people are buying them isn’t that helping people to read more (the greater good)?
  • There was the feeling that male authors do tend to be feted more (e.g. Alan Hollinghurst) but there are fewer female literary behemoths and those that do often have ambiguous names on the book jacket (e.g. J.K. Rowling). Could this be because books by women are reviewed mainly by women but books by men are often reviewed by both in newspapers. (Since the discussion I have actually noticed this!)
  • Interestingly S.J.Watson (a male author) has recently done the opposite with an ambiguous name and a book about a female protagonist. I did a bit of googling and it was very difficult to find out his gender! I like this ‘stealth’ approach and I wonder what would happen if all books had ambiguous author names and covers?
  • Surely women can also be selective about what gender they read on occasion?
  • There was some definitely snobbery about ‘books with pink covers’. I’m not a big reader of chick-lit usually but I have read the odd Adele Parks novel in the past and I don’t really see what the problem is. Yes arguably a classic book or ‘quality’ current novel can be more mentally stimulating but equally I read because I enjoy the content of a book and I think it’s easy to be superior for the sake of it. Savidge Reads picked up on this (as he was a panelist) I feel that there was a bit of a ‘them and us’ ‘sophisticated readers v plebs’ approach which I don’t think is overly helpful. I believe most people primarily read for enjoyment and if you learn something along the way then so much the better but if you just want to switch off and be immersed in a fantasy or thriller then so what?!
  • What will the future look like? Haven’t we already come along way in the last half-century? Won’t it be interesting to ask the same question 20 years on…?

One thing that could have made the discussion better was if there was more representation of men’s views in the audience and on the panel (sadly the other male panelist couldn’t make it and Savidge Reads definitely does read books by female authors!)

My conclusions:

  • You can make generalizations with a view to a positive change but all people are different.
  • I like the ‘stealth’ approach of ambiguous names as it doesn’t bring the novelists gender into it.
  • The best thing would be if everyone regardless of gender would make an effort to read outside of their comfort zone now and then and avid readers like us should encourage that in others.

Sometimes I just buy them because they're pretty...

I was also too much of a chicken to ask ‘what’s the evidence’ so I had a little look around to see if I could deny or confirm that men don’t read books by women. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of scientific research on this topic but from keeping my ears open while this question was in my mind and some brief internet research, the assumption doesn’t seem too off the mark. Here are some resources if you’re interested in further reading…

  • Guardian article from 2005 – findings from a survey of 100 academics.
  • Huffington Post thinks perhaps publishing is alienating men?
  • Why women read more than men from NPR.
  • In 2010, of all the reviews posted by male users on Goodreads, only 18.3% of them were of books written by women. In contrast, 38.6% of the reviews posted by women were of books written by men. Full piece here
  • Reading lists targeted at men still favour male authors. Not just a bit, but heavily: Esquire’s list and I love the idea of the Well Read Man challenge and I’m so chuffed to see Jane Eyre on there but why are only 4 out of 50 books chosen by women authors?

Thats it from me. Over to you… what do you think?

26 responses to “Why don’t men read books by women? The debate…

  1. Overall, I think the topic makes for interesting discussion, but I’m not sure they’re it much to it. Like you said, where is the scientific evidence. It all seems to be anecdotal to me. And there is the question of non-fiction. If we agree that men tend to read non-fiction far more often than fiction, I suspect this is true, then we have to take this into consideration.

    But at the end of the day, as long as book are still being published that I want to read, I’m not that concerned with what others are reading.

  2. novelinsights

    It’s definitely a funny old subject and agree with you that I care mostly that the books that I want to read are published. I consider myself to be some one who reads widely but I don’t often read factual books and I also don’t often read sci-fi / westerns which are typically considered to be read mostly by men. I want to put aside more time to read things I wouldn’t normally. I love being a member of a book group, because I do end up reading gems that I wouldn’t have picked myself!

  3. I’ve never heard a man decline a book suggestion, saying, “Ugh. No. I don’t read books written by women!” Purely anecdotal, but men of my acquaintance that read fiction read the books that interest them. I don’t think they pay any conscious attention to the sex of the author.

    I do think there are subconscious cues in the marketing, in the cover, how the book is presented. And I think the genres that appeal to men sometimes have a lot of (apparently) male writers because men write the types of books they would like to read.

    I also think there’s some of the reverse that goes on… how many men are writing genre romance under pseudonyms because nobody’s gonna give “The Baron’s Secret Baby” by Mark Manly a second look?

    As far as male authors being feted more than their female counterparts? That mirrors the world at large; the work of men is, by and large, considered more important than the work of women across the board. This problem is not exclusive to literature.

    I do agree with the point that we should try books outside our comfort zone. 100%.

    • Really good points Frankie and I do think it’s rare that people actively choose on gender as oppose to responding to what subject / perceived themes of the book. I would love to see ‘The Baron’s Secret Baby’ by Mark Manly on the shelf lol.

    • “The Baron’s Secret Baby” by Mark Manly… thats genius!

  4. I don’t consciously choose my books according to gender unless I want to read more about a particular viewpoint. However I do find that as I get older I am increasingly alienated by the unrealistic portrayal of women by male authors (and it probably goes the other way too) but that’s more to do with the quality of the work. I never used to think about the gender gap much except during prize season every year when there’s a media frenzy about why women don’t win the big prizes or even shortlisted but it’s something that I am becoming more aware of.

    • Very good point about the quality of the work. I do believe that an excellent male writer can write a fantastic female character and vice versa (Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Any of Wilkie Collins’ fabulous heroines etc…). I never really noticed the hoo-ha now but I’m kind of intrigued now.

      • The Man Booker long list (which even has MAN in the title, heeheehee) is announced tomorrow Pol, just keep your eyes on twitter and see what happens, though I actually think its going to be a very strong year for women this year.

  5. I haven’t really thought about that but after reading your post I went to check my father’s bookshelves and there is very few books written by woman. The bookshelves have about 15o books, 30 of them are non-fiction, 2 written by woman, the rest is fiction, most of them written by man. Compared to my mother’s bookshelves, where there’s no nonfiction and an almost equal number of men and women authors (though there’s more woman authors), my father’s book shelve really lacks gender diversity.
    I think man don’t buy more books by women because they must think that an woman author only writes romance books.

  6. To answer your question about the Well-Read Man Project’s limited female representation: It’s all about the experts. The project’s list of candidate books was built up from other existing lists of great books, and those lists had only a small percentage of female writers. For those books before my birth year, less than 12 percent of those on great book lists are from women, although it rises to 25 percent for those during my lifetime. Here is the article that breaks down the statistics: http://wellreadman.com/2011/05/25/candidate-list-complete/
    Tim Patrick
    Reader for The Well-Read Man Project

  7. The majority of male friends that I’ve made over the years tend to read fantasy and science-fiction books, where the emphasis is generally less on the author and his/her gender, and more on the various sub-genres that the books fall into. Although I haven’t seen or heard of any of them reading any “paranormal romance” books (largely written by women) simply because of the romance getting in the way of the plot, which I can understand. Maybe there are different ratios of men to women depending on genre which would affect the market?

  8. Pingback: Why don't men read books by women? The debate? | Novel Insights « Technology Crossover Ventures

  9. I wonder how e-readers will factor in anyone’s book-buying decisions- male and female? It will be interesting to check the statistics in a year and revisit the debate.

  10. I read many books by women writers, Polly, though I accept that I am far from typical and would concur that many men read SF/Fantasy type fiction, most of which is indeed written by men. I must confess that it never even occurs to to consider the gender of the author before selecting a book, though I do tend to be very turned off by anything that is obviously chick-lit – but then I am by anything blokeish as well. Oh dear, maybe I’m just an incurable mis-fit.

  11. Great post Polly, and you have put me to shame for not writing mine up sooner which is very bad of me (I am still waiting on some pics), I thought the discussion was really interesting and was thrilled to be a part of it. I personally wasnt sure how realistic the question/statement was but it certainly got some debate flowing, the organisers said they thought it should have been two hours.

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  13. Greetings from Sydney, Australia. I most assuredly read books by women. Several are in my top ten [Brookner, Taylor, Pym, Sarton]. Have just discovered your splendid blog…what a find! Thank you.

    • Hi Norman, glad you enjoyed the post and my blog and that you also are prolific reader of top lady novelists!

  14. because women take too long to get to the point

  15. Kimbrell Scheunert

    Please tell me the publisher on the beautiful stack of books with the byline of . . .sometimes I just buy them because they are pretty. . . I would love to buy those books! Please let me know where to purchase them!

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  18. Hi, I am arriving to this party late. I happen to read more books by men then women because the subjects that they write about and the way the story moves and is constructed interests me. However I have read a chick book this year, just to read one. It was hysterical. I read for 6 chapters waiting for the story to start. Then it occurred to me that there was no story. Each chapter was about the women thinking about the man, a chance meeting, the man thinking about the woman, a chance meeting. What did she mean? What did he mean? Finally making love and happy ending, after it looked like all was lost. It was a hoot but I do not wish to read another one of those.

    What I was hoping to find was a list of books by women authors which men enjoy to read. JK Rowling’s is one sure one. I read every one of the Harry Potter books , listened to them all on cd and saw every movie. I also read One For The Money and liked it, but I hated the second one and I tried number 11 and hated that one too. Somehow the first one captured something that interested me as a man, but the later ones lost that edge and were uninteresting. Perhaps it is the fact that the character never seemed to develop, nor did her relationships with her two lovers, past the first book. And eating donuts does not interest me in the least.

    It would be real helpful if someone, perhaps you since you have become knowledgeable about this, would take a shot at making a list of books written by women that men love to read. All I can pretty much get one line in my search is a bunch of complaints that men do not read women authors. Yada yada yada. I would like to read more women and am looking to do so. But I need authors that write stuff that I as a man am interested in reading with a story that moves in a way that grabs my interest. Plus someone to help me to the gems.

    At least there are always librarians to ask.

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