A few days ago, I came across an interview that Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings (check out Greg’s SUPERCUT here), did with The Nervous Breakdown. At one point, the conversation turns to the question of gender and reading habits. Here’s what Wolitzer said:
What matters in a big way is subject matter and men with very few exceptions, won’t read books about women. Something nebulous and thought-based – a book of ideas – people seem much more willing to have that from a man than a woman.
If you’ve written a powerful book about a woman and your publisher then puts a “feminine” image on the cover, it ‘types’ the book. Serious books with ‘dreamy’ covers – many with women in water, floating or swimming, as though what’s contained within is a kind of dreamy inessential thing – the covers themselves are off-putting. Very few men want to go into what appears to be this sort of dream world. I’m known as a writer of stories about women but I wanted to write a pretty co-ed book this time.
These thoughts were of no small interest around Book Riot HQ. What follows is the conversation fellow rioter Jodi Chromey and I have carried out over the last couple of days.
Josh Corman: OK, so when I read the headline that drew me to the interview, I wanted immediately to get indignant at what felt like an unfair generalization. Then I, um, you know, actually thought about my own reading habits. My shelves do reveal a pretty sizable male-to-female ratio. Now, Wolitzer says that men won’t read books about women, but I think it’s fair to expand the discussion to include books by women. There’s obviously a distinction there, but I would bet that there’s some overlap regarding men’s responses in both cases. I definitely read books by women, although when I think about it, some of those authors – Flannery O’ Connor and Margaret Atwood and Marylinne Robinson, for example – are canonical authors I’ve encountered largely because of the presence they already had in the collective literary consciousness. I was aware of them well before I read their work and I didn’t have to really seek them out as distinct from the canonical male authors I read. But even with “new” authors, I find that there are as many female authors (and therefore maybe just as many books about females?) occupying the landscape of my mind. I feel no less aware of or interested in Téa Obreht or Karen Russell when compared to, say, Adam Levin or Gary Shteyngart, and yet the sizable male-to-female ratio still exists. So while I don’t feel like I fit neatly into Wolitzer’s observation, the evidence doesn’t exactly avail me.
Jodi Chromey: I think you’ve identified the crux of the issue here: what male readers think they read and what they actually read. As you said your shelves are pretty heavily skewed toward books by men, and you’re not alone. I did a cursory count of the books discussed in our Buy, Borrow, Bypass column. In the posts written by men they discussed thirty-one books by men and five books by women. In the posts written by women they discussed thirty-six books by men and thirty-eight books by women. I should note two things here: one, Book Riot has way more female contributors than male contributors and two, the BBB column is self-directed, books are not assigned.
So what gives? What is it that keeps men from reading more books by women? I have a few theories but I’m curious about your experience.
Josh: The “Buy, Borrow, Bypass” stats are interesting. My entry fits the general mold, although one of the books I reviewed was a biography of Flannery O’ Connor, so I’m going to claim a split there (small victories, you know?). Seriously though, I think that the much-discussed coverage disparity between male and female authors accounts for a lot of the skewed reading habits. That’s certainly possible in my case. I read a lot of reviews to get a sense of what I might be on the lookout for in bookstores, and so if fewer women (or books about them) are reviewed, then my collection could end up reflecting that. Another culprit is the canon itself. Looking at my shelf, I see a couple of Hemingways, a Faulkner, a Graham Greene, two Nabokovs, a Hardy, and a Dostoevsky. If I want to read what our culture has deemed “great” (which I do), I kind of have to deal with what has been handed down. Obviously, the canon contains female authors too, but it’s composition is unquestionably imbalanced. The closer we get to 2013, the more my shelf evens out. I recognize, by the way, that this all sounds suspiciously like buck-passing, so here’s one more idea: guys are – consciously or not – hung up on others’ perceptions when it comes to books. Shocking that men would worry about how their choices affect the perception of their masculinity, I know. I ran into a former student of mine who told me that he had read Pride and Prejudice over Spring Break. Before I could even respond, he held his hands up in a gesture of defense and said, “I know, I know,” as though I was going to mock him for his choice. This kid is really bright and level-headed, but even he was clearly on guard against his fellow male’s potential reaction to the book by a woman, about women.
Jodi: Fair warning, I am going to drop the P-word here. It’s the word that makes men flee from arguments about sexism and misogyny, but here goes: The patriarchy hurts everyone. It does. It props up these ridiculous ideas of masculinity that affect men in real ways. The fact that your former student is ashamed to say he read Jane Austen is just a small example of it. At the same time it’s really frustrating. Here we have a member of the literary canon you talk about, and still because she’s a woman adored by women, reading her is considered “less than” or emasculating. If Jane Austen can’t catch a break, how can any other woman? And it makes me curious how a woman becomes the kind of writer a man can read without feeling ashamed? Does it go back to those reviews? The ones we already know are ridiculously skewed toward male authors and written by male reviewers? I have lots of questions apparently.
Josh: I wish I had ready answers to them! There’s obviously a cyclical effect at play here with respect to what men read. A personal recommendation counts for more than any review when it comes to choosing what I’ll read or purchase next, and those recommendations are undoubtedly affected by these larger trends. The first Ann Patchett novel I read came at the recommendation of a female friend, the first Zadie Smith at the behest of a female teacher. Would I have read them otherwise? If not, I would only have myself to blame, because it isn’t as if either of those authors have been marginalized by the media. Other female authors have been, and it feels disingenuous to claim that I’ve somehow remained unaffected by that. The only answer I can really give, then, is to say that it comes down to guys recognizing how we’re influenced by these cultural undercurrents and making an effort to swim against them.
Jodi: While I completely agree with you here, forgive me if it doesn’t fill me with too much sunshine. We’ve been waiting for-freaking-ever for men to not only examine their own reading habits but to also break the cycle of reading, celebrating, and reviewing books written by men. We’re three years post VIDA-count and still nothing. And, like we said, there’s a huge gap between how many books by women men think they read and how many they actually do read. However, before I am consumed by the doom and gloom, you have offered me a sprig of hope. Hearing that personal recommendations count for a lot is reassuring. If there’s one thing I know how to do it’s to recommend the hell out of books by women about women — Amy Bloom! Aimee Bender! Gina Frangello! Mary Gaitskill! Jean Thompson!
So now what? Where do you go from here?
Josh: To a bookstore to buy The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, of course. Hope that helps your doom and gloom a bit! As frustrating as it can be to watch the gears of progress grind slowly forward, reading cannot be moved in the right direction by legislative or judicial means (except maybe by the Pulitzer or National Book Award), and so we’re left with a sea of individuals who will have to change their habits in large enough numbers to move the crowd with them. The good news is that there’s an exponential quality to that kind of change, so that the more men we have who are more deliberate in altering their habits, the more quickly down the hill the ball will roll, at least in theory. If that’s true, then book bloggers like us should feel empowered to effect some of this change, right? We have a position of some value, and if our reviews and recommendations affect our readers’ choices even a little, then the fact that we’re even having this conversation in a public forum should make us feel a tad better about the eventual results.
Jodi: The idea of reading being moved forward by legislative or judicial means scares me more than next year’s VIDA-count. Shivers of horror! Your enthusiasm and optimism regarding this problem is catchy. You have brightened the countenance of this cranky old troll. You have spread good news and hope throughout the land! And now you get to go read Aimee Bender. Top notch work, my friend.
Josh: Great news! Hopefully others will be similarly buoyed. As you said before, it’s in the best interest of readers everywhere to engage with a greater variety of books, and discussions like these can cause the reflection that leads that to happen. Not to be too self-congratulatory, but it looks like we’ve solved the world’s reading problems. Take a bow! *brushes off shoulder*