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This all started with an article in The Guardian titled Why do so few men read books by women? by M.A. Sieghart (the “M.A.” standing for Mary Ann). Her article (which she wrote to promote her recently published book) is quite short and her answer is simple. Men are sexist.
Author Gwenda Bond commented on twitter about this, but it wasn’t until I read the rebuttal on deus ex magical girl by D.G.D. Davidson (a guy) that I found out about it.
I don’t know if Ms. Bond’s interest in the topic was the same as Sieghart’s, but Davidson wrote a killer response.
The article just a little long, but it’s worth it. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it has to do with another issue of mine; how the entertainment industry keeps missing the boat as far as actually entertaining.
For instance, in Davidson’s article:
Given the monoculture of the publishing industry, the big publishing houses will necessarily have blind spots, and one of those blind spots is probably the average guy, someone overlooked by approximately 78% of editors. One likely reason that men avoid women writers is because they anticipate that, if they open a book by a woman, it will read like this:
That is an actual page from a published book. It’s the first page of a comic called Mother of Madness, and it’s by someone named Emilia Clarke, who is apparently a celebrity.
We could use this as a textbook example of bad writing. First, it abuses the comic-book medium by dropping a wall of text into a single panel. Second, it delivers a character’s life story as a checklist. Third, it delivers a character’s life story on the first page before we have a reason to care. Fourth, it reads like a Twitter profile. Fifth, it’s full of desperately trendy how-do-you-do-kids bullshit. Sixth, it’s condescending as hell, so condescending that the artist even gave the character a smug expression to go with the monologue. Seventh, it’s overwhelming—and overwhelmingly shallow—in its brand of feminism.
Davidson’s point is that Clarke isn’t writing for a male audience and probably isn’t a very good writer at all. Clarke is a poor example since, by profession, she’s an actress, not an author, and thus she does not likely represent women who have made writing their life’s works.
However, in some fashion, this does speak a great deal to the following meme, which I just love.
This also relates to fantasy writer Fonda Lee’s complaint on twitter that she has to compete for space on bookstore shelves with dead male writers.
I’m not sure what she wants. Some of those old dead men are incredibly famous and rightfully so. Of course Amazon is the great equalizer since it’s just one infinite virtual shelf. Comes down to marketing I suppose.
I say all this knowing I’m not the greatest writer in the world. but my focus has always been “I just want to write a good story.” I guess some of them are okay, but they could be better.
Going back to Sieghart’s original commentary (which seems to mirror Lee’s that women are unfavorably competing with men because “sexism”) and especially Davidson’s response, men aren’t evil if they don’t overwhelmingly read female writers. What that means is that many or most American (Western) female writers aren’t writing with a male audience in mind.
[This isn’t strictly true, and my putting photos of paperbacks by Andre (Alice) Norton and D.C (Dorothy) Fontana at the top of this missive is my wee commentary on this…plus see my mention of Martha Wells below.]
Read Davidson’s article because it tells you everything you really need to know about what’s going on, and in fact, how female Japanese manga writers have over-the-top numbers of male readers because they know how to write to them.
As I was collecting images for this post, I noticed Bond had replied to me, pointing out that I misspelled “sexism” (I made a typo). When I went to respond, I discovered she blocked me. Basically a cheap shot, but sometimes a cheap shot is better than no shot at all.
Really, did I say something particularly bad?
The irony is that if she hadn’t replied to me, the only reason I would have had to visit her twitter account would be to verify something for this blog post. I had never visited her account before (I’d never heard of her before), so I probably would not have returned.
It’s not sexism, it’s a readership wanting good storytelling and authors who know how to write for their audience. Even I, as an old white guy, still need to work on writing a good story, which I value higher than just about anything else as an author. I probably always will struggle with that.
I realize that I seem to be making a lot of negative statements about female writers, but that’s not my intent or point. My point is that men are not automatically sexist, evil monsters for not overwhelmingly reading female authors. It means that what is being written by many (but not all) female authors isn’t written or marketed to a male audience.
Oh, I’m still trying to swing back and read more of Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries. I thought All Systems Red was terrific.
Read the comments below, especially my reply to Ashley R Pollard, all of which refine the points being made.
15 thoughts on “Why Don’t Men (Supposedly) Read Books by Women? Hint: It’s Not Because of Sexism”
See Lois Bujold. She writes male-targeted fiction, male friendly fidti0on and romances targeted for women. And does all of it quite well.
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This ^ ❤ !!!!
I don't read chic-fic, I read good stories. Bujold is Good.
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I appreciate the term “supposedly” in your title. In point of fact, it has never entered my mind when purchasing a book to bother to note whether it was purportedly written by a man or a woman. My interest was the summary of the story on the dust-jacket or the paperback cover. On the other hand, I haven’t purchased one in years — so maybe if I had been stung by bad reading experiences from recent “woke” writers I might develop some hesitancy. But perhaps the summary might still alert me, because I presume that there are both men and women writing politically-charged screeds these days in the guise of fiction. Once upon a time there were women who used male-sounding pen names for fear that their work would be ignored or denigrated on sexist grounds, but I thought that was a relic of the past. Perhaps it has been resumed in the fuss over “gender”. Nonetheless, I seem to have on my bookshelves Ursula leGuin, Lois Bujold, and Anne McCaffrey, among others, and I wouldn’t have known about Andre Norton except that you brought her to light in some of your previous postings.
My point is to question the presumption of sexism in the reading public. Effectively that means I agree with you that the quality of the stories is paramount. Preachiness detracts from their entertainment value, even if one can appreciate their point of view academically and if the stories are otherwise well written. If in my personal history I’ve never chosen a story by the sex of its author, I must extrapolate that experience to others unless I am presented with sociological data that is more than incidental or anecdotal. Have you seen any actual statistics collected by a publisher’s marketing department or some other organization about the gender of book purchasers and their selection criteria?
The example cited about physical shelf space allotted to books may indicate marketing popularity, and it may indicate the degree of risk that a bookseller is willing to take where an unknown author is concerned. Online booksellers do mitigate that problem with their infinite shelf space and their opportunities to post comments from prior purchasers who are willing to post their own review (though the cynical skeptic in me wonders about the source reliability of those reviews). In any case I am skeptical about the entire complaint and accusation about purchasers’ sexism.
While I largely agree with the central premise, it seems to meet the minimum criteria for being rational, the offhand reference to who Emilia Clark is somewhat dismissive, and would be used against your argument; as in see, he dismisses this talented women, he is a sexist old white male etc. Ad nauseam. Don’t do that because it weakens your point.
I’m female, and write military SF, and so far most of my audience would seem to be male. I think I have a few female readers, but my target audience are readers who want plausible military SF: technology; military chain of command; plausible military characters etc. So far, the few reviews I have and have read (try not to read reviews) have confirmed I’ve hit my target audience.
Admittedly by audience is very small, in the thousand or so, therefore this tells me that while I write stories some readers like, I haven’t written a story that more people would like. I need/want to write better stories. Whether I can is another matter.
Anyway, like you I cam across this Twitter storm, and decided to mostly ignore it. The people arguing over it appear to me to irrationally attached to their central premise and unwilling to challenge their assumptions.
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I can see that this is a difficult topic to discuss and in spite of your comments, my intention was not to say that female authors are somehow less than male authors. Certainly not.
However, upon re-reading my source material, I think I can make my point more clear.
The general contention was that while women tend to read male and female authors more or less equally, men tend to read far more male authors than female authors. Is this because males are sexist and believe males make better writers?
According to Davidson, the answer is no. He suggests that men tend to read stories, books, and so on that interest them AND that many and perhaps most female authors don’t write for a male audience. He suggests that if female authors want more male readers, they should write content that would attract more male readers.
However, in receiving feedback here and on social media, men have sent me the names of scores of female authors they read, usually science fiction and fantasy. So that presents a puzzle.
Add to that the topic of the two source articles addressed books published by major publishing houses only, not indie publishers. I think if you include indie publishers and writers, you come up with a far wider range of preferences that won’t appear on Davidson’s and Sieghart’s radar.
Now here’s the really interesting thing. The topic Sieghart is actually addressing is NOT that men don’t read female writers, but that men don’t read feminist female writers.
This is all encapsulated in Sieghart’s newly released book The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it. She wrote the article, in part, to promote her book, which is perfectly understandable.
From her article:
Some key points from the above quote:
For a start, it narrows men’s experiences of the world. “I’ve known this for a very long time, that men just aren’t interested in reading our literature,” the Booker prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo
Ms. Evaristo continues:
“Our literature is one of the ways in which we explore narrative, we explore our ideas, we develop our intellect, our imagination. If we’re writing women’s stories, we’re talking about the experiences of women. We also talk about male experiences from a female perspective. And so if they’re not interested in that, I think that it’s very damning and it’s extremely worrying.”
What is “our literature?” Is it any literature written by any woman? The quotes make it sound more specific.
If men don’t read books by and about women, they will fail to understand our psyches and our lived experience. They will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default.
So this seems not so much about men being “sexist” by not choosing to read books written by women. After all, relative to my rather unscientific response, it seems like the men replying to my commentary really do read a lot of books written by women.
As far as I can tell from Ms. Sieghart’s and Ms. Evansto’s biographies, they are award winning, noteworthy, and important authors who focus primarily on social commentary.
I can’t read minds but I’ll try to read between the lines and believe that their concern is less about attracting men to read female authors for the sake of promoting female authors, and more about attracting men to read feminist female authors for the purpose of changing what they perceive to be a man’s point of view. There seems to be a blame issue involved when the majority of men don’t read what you might call “feminist literature” and it gets even worse when they consider that men don’t really want to read or be changed by feminist literature.
This really isn’t about female writers in general and certainly not about the credibility of female writers or the quality of their work. This seems more an issue of men specifically not reading feminist literature that imposes a feminist perspective on men and women both, with the idea that men should want and need to by changed by that specific form of literature.
I hope that clears things up. I suppose my blog post would have been different if this had been my lead. Thanks for commenting and expressing your concerns.
Idle curiosity: What do you think Sieghart and Evansto’s average readers read? Books that appeal to them or books that don’t, but help them to see the world through male experience (which one can make a fair assumption is something they lack and would broaden their worldview, and understanding)? Any bets? So: Do they want men to do what they don’t require of their own sex? That seems a trifle sexist to me ;-/
Apparently more than idle curiosity on your part, Dave. If you’re suggesting that I or men like me should or must read books because they will broaden our experience, well…we can certainly make that choice but I/they don’t have to. For instance, I’m currently reading “Cibola Burn” by (pen name) James S.A. Corey, which is the fourth in the “Expanse” series. The series was recommended to me by someone at work. I’m enjoying these books so far and they’re a lot of fun. What’s wrong with that?
No, James, you’re misreading me. I was plainly not clear. The woman being quoted said men ought to read her book (and that type of book) to broaden their experience, and so they would understand the point of view of women (that she cheerfully lumped and assumed she spoke for). My point is that sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander – and vice versa. Her audience read her work because they enjoy it (one reasonably assumes). She wants men to read her work so she can lecture… sorry, so they can understand women’s points of view, and was angry because they didn’t. There was no expectation of them enjoying it. I was pointing out that it was unlikely her audience would read books they didn’t enjoy in order to understand a point of view they knew little of. My ‘idle curiosity’ was how her audience would respond to being told they had to read books from a masculine point of view because it would be good for them and not because they’d be fun to read.
I’ve spent the better part of the last odd twenty years – since my first book came out (and thus people listened to my opinion on the subject) telling writers that books had to be enjoyable – ‘fun’ if you like, in order to appeal to readers. If you give me a great read, that I enjoy, and a small spoonful of whatever message, I’ll put up with the message for the story. You might even persuade me. But a dull read, that’s no fun, and a bucket of message (even one I might agree with) I won’t read, and certainly won’t buy.
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Thanks for clarifying, Dave. Yes, I agree. Science fiction has been used to communicate social commentary for…well probably ever since there has been science fiction. However whether it’s SF or any other form of literature (or entertainment), if I feel lectured to but not entertained, then being the audience becomes mere labor in the service of someone else’s priorities.
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I suspect you’re on to something, here, James. One phrase on which you didn’t focus is “male lens”, which is used as if there were something intrinsically or naturally wrong with it that must be changed. It falls into the category of what I called “preachiness” in my post. There is a difference in reading a story where the characters express themselves in a way that demonstrates a different “lived experience”, which may broaden a reader’s perspective, and a story that effectively insults a class of readers because of their presumed (not actual) gender stereotypes. Discerning readers cannot be blamed if in the aggregate they prefer not to be insulted by an author’s false presumptions.
There’s a lot going on in these commentaries. Yes, the “male lens,” in this context, is considered “wrong” and the purpose of Sieghart’s article is to point out that men need feminist literature to correct our “flaws.” She expresses frustration that men tend not to see it that way (some do, however, especially on twitter).
I think you may have taken my one observation the wrong way. My point, little though it was just pointed to the criticism of Emilia Clarke, argue against the problem, not the person.
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Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve misunderstood. Sorry.
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She had quite an assumption thinking that men won’t read a book written by a woman because there are sexists. Its like saying dogs and cats cannot live together…. or does she really mean her writing is sexists agonist men…
Her writing as in feminist literature. I think it’s fine for someone to read anything they want to, but they should want to, not be “guilted” into it because that particular author thinks men “should” read it.
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