Books and bookmen (mostly)

Here’s an article from Salon by Laura Miller about the “literature gender gap”, and I don’t quite know what to make of it. The standfirst is pretty blunt: “women are under-represented in literary publishing because men aren’t interested in what they have to say”. Really?

There are some data in the article, and some speculation. Here are the data, which are partly derived from what Ruth Franklin says here in the New Republic:

  1. In literary publications, the majority of contributions are by men;
  2. In literary publications, the majority of reviews are by men;
  3. In literary publications, the majority of books reviewed are by men;
  4. The majority of books published are by men;
  5. Women read and buy far more books than men.

Now, (1) and (2) are depressing but familiar findings, mentioned at the beginning but not really addressed in the rest of the Miller article. (4) is her main focus. It is cited as a reasonable explanation of (3), and the question then is, why does (4) happen when (5) is the case? Wouldn’t one expect women to want to read books by women, and thus, wouldn’t one expect the book trade to publish at least as many books by women as by men?

Using a mixture of anecdotal and survey evidence, Miller then says that women in fact tend to read books by men and women more or less equally, while men tend to read far more books by men than by women. Thus, a publisher can be reasonably sure of selling books by men to both men and women, but a book by a woman is more of a gamble, since only half the potential market is at all likely to buy it. So publishers, being risk-averse, mostly publish books by men. Therefore, the problem — the reason why publishers mostly publish books by men — is that men are not interested in what women have to say.

There is something fishy about this argument, I’m sure. But what, exactly? If, for example, women buy far more books than men, why does publishing a book by a woman represent a significantly higher risk? That seems rather weak reasoning.

Most speculatively, I wonder if there’s a difference between two claims: men are not interested in what women say (publish), and men are not interested in what women have to say (would like to publish). Based entirely on my own reading of novels and reviews of them, it would seem that women tend to publish more in the way of realist, domestic novels, in which truths of modern life are revealed indirectly by the study of some set of protagonists. Men do publish some of these, but are far more likely to publish Big Novels with Big Ideas and all sorts of stylistic, formal, technical innovations (I’m talking, by the way, about literary fiction, in some loose sense that contrasts with commercial fiction and genre fiction — and I’m assuming that the points I’m making would apply also to literary non-fiction and poetry).

That’s all very generalised, of course, but bear with me. It may be the case that men are more likely to read big abstract novels, and to not much care for the domestic stuff; and that the audience for the domestic stuff is thus mostly women. Again, pure anecdote seems to support this; women I know read both sorts of novel, men tend to just or mostly read the abstract stuff. There is a lot to be said about why these differences in taste emerge, and I won’t go into that here. The point I was wondering about is this: do women publish more domestic novels because they want to, or because they are encouraged to? That is, are men not interested in what women have to say, or what they do say? Because it seems to me quite unlikely that there are far fewer women than men who are able and keen to write big, abstract, technically clever books. So, in slight contrast with the conclusion that Miller draws, I would be tempted to say that men are uninterested in what women do say, but not in what they have to say.

This is about male readers, obviously. The remaining question is why women are perhaps discouraged from writing the kind of stuff men might like to read. Here, perhaps, we might in fact end up blaming men’s bias. As Franklin mentions in the New Republic, the first step to a book contract is often publication of something short in a journal of some sort; and women write just one third of such publications; and the ‘gatekeepers’ tend to be men. So it could be that the blame should be apportioned, not so much to the curious male reader browsing in the bookshop, but more to the men at journals, and publishing houses, who select which women get to the bookshop, and who perhaps tend to favour more stereotypically feminine subject matter from women writers. Perhaps these places should adopt an anonymous review system? Or do they already do that?

None of this seems quite satisfactory, though. As Miller says, the problem seems to be peculiarly entrenched. I suspect that what we have is a complex pattern of biases and imbalances that reinforce mutually, to the extent that it’s hard to single out one group, or one bias, and say that that is the cause of literary gender gaps. But I’d be interested in what other people think. Can we blame, for example, publishers, or readers? Do men really, actually, ignore books simply on the basis of the author’s name? Is any of the speculation about tastes and so on that I’ve indulged in accurate?

(Thanks, M and S!)

17 thoughts on “Books and bookmen (mostly)

  1. Is who is to blame really the best place to focus? I suppose it’s related to the question of what’s the best way to improve the situation, but there are ways to look at the latter question directly (are there any subfields where things are less bad? What do they do differently? Is it possible to manipulate this or that factor on a small scale, and does it improve things locally when you do that? etc.) Furthermore, the ways of looking at the latter question directly actually seem more likely to produce answers than the project of trying to figure out who to blame. Though of course your question about who is to blame could be used as a way to identify factors it might be worth trying manipulating.

  2. I found myself wondering about sub-genres too. The two that first came to mind as areas in which women write and men read were crime fiction and sci fi/fantasy. But those are both areas that are often thought to fall shy of the label ‘literary fiction.’

  3. I’m finding myself puzzled over the idea that women don’t write innovative novels of ideas. Much as I love the domestic tales, there seems so much more in, e.g., Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates, Beryl Bainbridge, AS Byatt, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, E. Annie Proulx, Alice Hoffman and many others. And I haven’t tried to include the often brilliant women from India who are in the States and England writing wonderfully complicated novels drenched in ideas.

    This list could pretty easily be extended. This is just some of those who come to mind first for me.

  4. Not that there’s necessarily any connection between author gender and character gender, but this reminds me of a study about reader preferences. The study found that female readers tend to identify well with both male and female fictional characters, whereas male readers prefer to identify more exclusively with male fictional characters. (This points to Rowlings’ wisdom in writing about Harry, rather than Harriet, Potter — girls often identify with both Harry and Hermione, but how many boys identify with Hermione?)

    Some have used this finding to support a claim that women are more naturally empathetic than men, but I think it can be explained just as well by noting that it’s important to understand both those who are like you and those who can wield power over you. Perhaps as more women are seen with authority in domains beyond the domestic, male readers will be more likely to begin to identify with female characters too?

  5. I don’t know about literary fiction. But I do know a woman who is a spectacularly successful author of romances and thrillers (“success” being defined here in terms of very high numbers of books sold). She publishes her thrillers under a male pseudonym because, her publisher believes, “men won’t buy thrillers written by women”. The idea is that a woman could not possibly have the expertise and the outlook that would enable her to produce that kind of fiction.

    I don’t know whether it is true that men won’t buy thrillers written by women. But the existence of the *belief* indicates that the situation is self-perpetuating: If publishers believe men will not buy books by women, then publishers will be far more likely to publish mainly books by men–or by women writing under male pseudonyms.

  6. I’m an author – currently writing a series of historical spy novels based in the Roman era; the first is set around the events leading up to the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. My publishers, having been happy to have my (obviously female) name on the Boudica:Dreaming series, advised a change to something entirely gender-neutral (MC Scott) for the new series on the grounds that ‘most men won’t knowingly buy a book by a woman.’ There followed a re-write of my biography to erase all gender notations and of my website, ditto (the blog I keep as my own and there’s nothing subtle about that)

    Sales of books pre-change were around 80:20 – and are across the board from crime writers to poets to non-fiction writers – which is to say, 80% sold to women, 20% sold to the enlightened men who don’t care. If the men don’t know the author is a woman, then sales shift to 50:50. This applies to everything except women’s romantic fiction in which any man attempting to write has to change his name to something more female or they won’t sell.


  7. I ignore books based on cover, title, and and author’s name (not gender, but based on what I’ve either read before that’s crap, or what’s associated with the name). (Back-cover summaries too, but that’s a different story.) To be fair, the fiction I read is mostly historical (set in either the Roman period, or preferably during the Saxon or Viking invasions) or fantasy. Both genres are cluttered with garbage (I’d say about 85-90% of the works in these genres are subpar), a lot of it produced under male names (although, I suspect, written under pseudonyms or ghostwritten under a template), quite a bit under female names. You can avoid most of the garbage in the genres by excluding novels based on the criteria above (e.g. if it’s got a dragon, king/prince, or sword on the cover or title, it’s going to be garbage; if it features elves, goblins, or orcs, it’s garbage; if it’s by certain authors, it’s garbage, etc.).

    The very best living authors (at least IMO) in these genres do happen to be male (I’d say there are about four). Interestingly enough, however, these authors usually devote the same amount of time to developing female and minority characters, and their novels seldom revolve around a primarily male (or stereotyped) cast. Many of the good and very good authors do not, and that’s actually an easy (and accurate) way to separate the two.

    I can’t really speak to other genres very well, since I’ve limited the scope of my fiction-reading in the last several years, but I would expect that in thrillers/detective mysteries, Holmes, Poirot, Arsène Lupin, and Maigret, have had far more influence on public perceptions and expectations than Miss Marple (or other female detectives–I can’t recall many, unless we go down a rung) did. So I expect that there’s a strong historical influence at work there. Curiously, however, that genre probably owes as much or more to Agatha Christie than Doyle or Leblanc or Simenon.

    So yeah. Just some thoughts. Make of them what you will.

  8. Lots of interesting stuff here. Couple of quick comments, mainly clearing up sloppiness in my original post:

    1. Aaron: point taken, expressing it in terms of blame rather than cause perhaps introduces an unwelcome element of moralising or some such, especially if the biases at issue are unconscious.

    2. Genre fiction: I didn’t really mention this, because a) the original articles are about, mostly, literary fiction, and b) the only sort of genre fiction I read much of is crime/detective stuff (which is not to say I don’t like other genres, just, you know, so many books, so little time). Interesting to see the comments on this stuff, though. Seems to indicate the problem extends beyond the literary field.

    3. JJ: Big ideas and all that. I could (should) have expressed that much better. I was making sweeping, general claims about tendencies and preponderances, not: women never publish novels with big ideas etc. I would have thought engagement with big ideas and themes is more or less what sorts the literary from the commercial in fiction. I had in mind the idea(s) that men publish far more of the following (though I could be just displaying my ignorance here): a) literally big novels — doorstop-size monsters; b) novels that are, as it were, self-consciously Big Idea novels; c) novels that are highly innovative in terms of literary form, style, and so on.

    Again, generalisations; I can think of female writers who’ve published novels in all those three categories. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a) and c) are solid enough claims about preponderances. Maybe not so much b), which is perhaps the claim that your comment targets. About b), I wonder if I’m unduly influenced by how books are talked about and reviewed. For instance, I recently read a novel by a man who was praised in the quoted reviews on the cover for ” making large gestures… going for the hard stuff… taking chances… [being] shamelessly ambitious”. Now, I can see why the book was so praised; but I can also think of similar novels I’ve read by women that were described in quite different terms. Which perhaps reinforces the point that there are several factors here; what is actually published, what is said about what is published, the things that influence which books male and female readers go for… it all seems quite a web of influences.

    4. Iga: Miller mentions similar research about children, and speculates that male children’s preference for male characters somehow matures into male adults’ preference for male authors. I don’t really know what to think about that.

  9. cornsay: I can certainly vouch for the fact that as a child, my preference was for male characters in the fiction that I read. I’m not sure why, but part of it probably had to do with the fact that much of the fiction I read was written in the first person (although the sentiment extended to third person perspectives as well), and the general sentiment among my playmates was that girls were icky and we should stick to our own. I started getting past that as a teen, however, and think I’m quite open now. But I do think that there’s something to that intuition.

  10. In light of this very interesting discussion, I wish I had paid more attention to the New Yorker’s somewhat controversial signalling of the important young authors. The gender distribution may reflect how women do write when they can be recognized for what they want to do. From the NY Times:

    There are 10 women and 10 men, satirists and modernists, from Miami and Ethiopia and Peru and Chicago. And none of them were born before 1970.

    Book Review Preview: How Old Can a ‘Young Writer’ Be? (June 20, 2010)
    Times Topics: The New Yorker | Writing and WritersThe New Yorker has chosen its “20 Under 40” list of fiction writers worth watching, a group assembled by the magazine’s editors in a lengthy, secretive process that has provoked considerable anxiety among young literary types. The list will be published in the double fiction issue of The New Yorker that arrives on newsstands Monday. All of the writers were told two weeks ago that they had made the cut.

    They are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32; Chris Adrian, 39; Daniel Alarcón, 33; David Bezmozgis, 37; Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38; Joshua Ferris, 35; Jonathan Safran Foer, 33; Nell Freudenberger, 35; Rivka Galchen, 34; Nicole Krauss, 35; Yiyun Li, 37; Dinaw Mengestu, 31; Philipp Meyer, 36; C. E. Morgan, 33; Téa Obreht, 24; Z Z Packer, 37; Karen Russell, 28; Salvatore Scibona, 35; Gary Shteyngart, 37; and Wells Tower, 37.

    Interestingly enough, the New Yorker’s fiction editor also has an exceptionally distinguished mother, quite famous for her work on perception, who founded Oxford’s first child care center. Perhaps women can act and be seen differently when viewed through equitable lenses.

  11. Very interesting. I am writing my first book of an eight book saga. Book one 140,000 words written in first draft spontaneously to Dec 2010. Since then have looked at ” how to write ” advice. Per Stephen King “On writing” need to cut to about 125,000 words. Mixed genre fact, fiction and fantasy in setting of family history with dark secrets, visitors from outer space and a different social political and technological world history. Story teller a pseudonym was a man but now a woman. After reading this should I reconsider?

  12. #4 is pure seism and nothing else; it makes very little commercial sense in the current publishing environment.

    Since the corporatisation of the publishing business, houses ave vastly increased their focus on best sellers; so-called “mid-list” writers have been falling in numbers and in sales, as the market (itself composed of large, bulk-oriented corporate retailers) pours resources into the best sellers and ignores the rest.

    On that background, statistically it should make sense for publishing houses to go for the potential huge mega-seller like a JK Rowling or an Agatha Christie (the biggest-selling English language novelist of all time), but instead they gamble on the next Dan Brown time and time again, despite the fact that experience should show them he is a less likely proposition.

    This is doubly true in genre fiction actually; women routinely change their name in crime fiction, horror and SF/F to fit in with a stereotype of men having an aptitude for those genres that women lack – despite the fact that they are currently mosre or less dominated by women. It’s a bit like Terry Pratchett’s “Monstrous Regiment”, in which (spoiler) everybod turns out to be a woman in disguise.

    As for women being able to identify with male characters “more easily”, the research shows correlation and nothing more; the fact that even some of the best female authors like Rowling or Annie Proulx write primarily about men would ten to indicate that causation should be looked for in necessity rather than empathy; our reading list would be seriously limited if we insisted on female protagonists, a problem that men don’t share.

    Speaking of which, I have no ready example fromt he literary world, but in Hollywood it’s an article of absolute faith that men don’t identify with women protagonists. No amount of huge blockbuster-leading Sarah Connors or Ripleys can change their mid; the confirmation bias induced blindness is overwhelming and absolute. Which is to say, I think men probably have a wider emotional spectrum than this interpretation of teh findings allows for; as usual, normative expectations of masculinity are deeply offensive to the whole sex.

  13. Marina, I agree that the conventional wisdom is insulting and inaccurate with respect to men. I certainly do enjoy fiction with strong female protagonists that I often have no trouble identifying with, and while I might just be particularly enlightened, as you note some of the examples of such characters seem to have managed to appeal to quite a lot of men besides myself.

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