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!)
- 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.
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?