Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gender Bias in Reading

There was a bit of a stir in the literary world recently. Esquire published a list of 75 books every guy should read. Esquire is a men's magazine, so it stands to reason that such a list would be dominated by male authors. A lot of people have taken umbrage with the list because it includes just one female author, Flannery O'Connor. Even for a men's magazine the list seems out of whack.

This got me wondering about gender bias in our reading habits. Are we more likely to connect with books written by someone of the same gender? My guess is that we are, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn't mean guys should only read books written by guys, and women should only read books written by women. Not at all. I guess that's my problem with Esquire's list. By including only one book written by a woman, the message seems to be that guys shouldn't waste their time reading books written by women. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hell, I checked out three books on my last trip to the library with the girls, all written by women.

Esquire's list got me thinking. If I were to create a list of 75 books that I think everyone should read, how many of those books would be by women? I know the top spot would go to a woman, Harper Lee. I know books by Katherine Dunn, Kate Atkinson, Geraldine Brooks, and Toni Morrison would make the list. I'm sure there would be other books written by women, but I have a feeling a considerable majority would be books written by men.

My list would certainly be more inclusive than Esquire's, but there would still be some gender bias. Some degree of gender bias is probably unavoidable when it comes to our reading choices. I may be putting this too simply, but guys can relate to a male point of view more easily, and women can relate to a female point of view more easily. I don't have a problem with that. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule of course. I hate to break it to the people over at Esquire, but Flannery O'Connor isn't the only female author their readers should be checking out.

All this begs the question: do you think it's easier to connect with books written by someone of the same gender? And if so, is that a bad thing?


  1. I don't know if it makes much difference to me. I can't really say I connect more with women writers than males. I read both about equally. Do men really not like reading novels by women?

    Geesh, Esquire, broaden your horizons a little. You won't turn into a woman just cuz you read a novel written by one. :P

  2. Squilla's AuntMay 31, 2011 at 5:54 PM

    I would like to understand why Esquire thinks the books on the list are ones "every man should read". Is it because they illuminate the male experience from a male point of view? Or because it's a gender version of cultural literacy (e.g. 80% of the men you'll run into will know these authors/quotes/concepts)?

    I think in general that women are more likely to read male authors than men are to read female authors. There's some macho fear out there.

  3. This is very balanced and eloquent. I totally agree. I don't think Esquire really did anything wrong but they did miss out on some terrific female writers.

  4. Hmm - not sure - having recently read quite a bit of Edith Wharton, Willa Catha and Charlotte Bronte, some of these novels seem very engaging for guys. In saying that I have never quite been able to get into Jane Austin.

  5. I don't usually read a lot of contemporary literature and women are much better represented in literature now than 50 years ago and beyond so that is definitely part of the bias for me. However, despite my wishes to read the best authors of all time I've still refused to pick up Jane Austin because she's so associated with being an author that women absolutely love. Out of the books I've read that were written in the last 20 years or so the majority were indeed written by women which is sort of interesting.

    I am cognizant of my bias, but I'm working to overcome it.

  6. LG: I have to borrow from Squilla's comment here. I think women are more open to reading male writers than men are to reading women. It's not a hard and fast rule, but pretty close.

    Squilla: I'm not exactly sure what Esquire's rationale would be, but whatever it is, I think they missed the boat. The last part of your comment is right on Jody. That thought was in my head, but somehow didn't make it into the post.

    dbs: I know you're well read, so I'd be curious to know which female writers you would recommend dbs.

    David: I'm right there with you on the Austin.

    Chris: You make some great points, and your last statement fits me as well.

  7. Oh - I read books by men and women.....and I read a good deal. Just in the way I like to speak and spend time with both men and women, it wouldn't occur to me to do anything else but read books written by great writers of either gender. Interesting though. I did hear recently on a random radio programme, though, that men read fewer books written by women than women read books written by men.

  8. So, one of my friends (a man) and I have thought about reading the 100 "best" novels according to various reputed lists - New York Times 100 best list, TIME magazine's list, etc. I said we should just - for fun - count the number of books by women. We both knew the number of books by men would far outstrip the books by women. He guessed it would be about 20-25 percent. I guessed it would be more like 5-10. He told me he was trying to be optimistic. Sadly, I was right.

    Obviously picking the 100 best of anything is subjective - biased by gender, class, age, nationality, etc. - but I guess what I find irritating is how little this is actually acknowledged. There is still a pervasive blindness to the way that gender, as a particular example, dramatically affects what we list as the "great" works in whatever media. I say, pick what you think is great - explain why - and acknowledge the way that gender has affected the creation of the criteria for greatness.

    I think I'm probably preaching to the choir here; I imagine you probably have similar feelings as a teacher. To me, it feels especially important for young adults to create lists that are truly inclusive of amazing literature from multiple perspectives because simply putting forward a list of greats with no women or no non-white folk, etc. sends a message about whose perspective and experiences we value as a society. Also, related to adults, women have long been expected (in school) to read and be interested in books by men. The date I've seen recently show women are also the biggest buyers (in the US) of all fiction - including by men. I kind of think it's important for people to be expected (especially in school) to read books by people unlike themselves, but I also totally don't care what individual people tend to read, you know. I am more concerned with what our public, larger scale choices communicate to young people about whose voices are listened to in our culture.

  9. Hi, I'm Munk, I play a tough guy in real life...

    Personally, I get more amped about the subject and story telling than the author's name (i.e. gender). I'll resist giving examples, but a quick review of my recent reads proves the point.

    Something else to consider... Are your musical tastes gender biased?

  10. Kate: I read a lot too, and I'm sure I read more women authors than the average guy. I wouldn't say my bias is strong, but it is something I'm aware of, and something I'm working on.

    Margaret: WOW! Thanks for your thoughtful commentary. Everything you said is spot-on. As a teacher, you're right, I need to be aware of my own bias. If I'm aware of it, I can deal with it. I believe in exposing kids to diversity in literature, and for that reason, I think it's important for me to be honest about my own reading habits.

    Munk: Oh man, music! If I'm being honest, there's an even bigger disparity in my musical tastes. I'm a work in progress my friend.

  11. With you on the music thing, Tim.