Tuesday, April 24, 2007

He Reads, She Reads, Part Two

When it comes to the genders’ reading habits, I’ve been operating on antidotal evidence so far. But Steve ran down an interesting article from the May 29, 2005, issue of the GUARDIAN we vaguely remembered reading: “Women are still a closed book to men: Research shows men mainly read works by other men.” It seems that when a couple of academics from Queen Mary College in London researched the topic, they found that four out of five men said the last novel they’d read was by a man. Interestingly, none of the men would actually admit that the gender of the author had any influence on their choice of a book. Yet many of the men couldn’t even name an important book written by a woman.

In a more recent article, “Men Dominate Waterstone’s Favorite 100,” Hon Howells, spokesman for Britain’s largest book chain, Waterstone’s, says, “Women read more than men—the core customer is a woman aged between 35 and 55—but what they read is right across the board: chick lit, crime fiction, biographies, heavyweight novels, and they don’t care about the gender of the author. Subconsciously, I think men stick to male writers. They think that what women write doesn’t appeal to them.”

In a subsequent study, when the academics from Queen Mary College asked men and women to list the books they found most influential, six male authors made it into the women’s top 20. Only one woman made it onto the men’s list: Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. It turns out that Ms. Lee’s androgynous first name led many men to mistake her for man.

Tess Gerritsen tells a story about a booksigning at a Sam’s Club where her media escort approached a male customer picking up a stack of thrillers and suggested he try one of Tess’s thrillers. The customer’s response? “Naw. I don’t read books by women. I don’t like the way they write.” The kicker in this tale is that when Tess looked at the books he was buying, she realized that two of them were actually ghostwritten by women. All of which suggests that it isn’t so much that men don’t like reading women’s stories. Many men simply don’t like reading books with women’s names on the cover.

Yes, I know this isn’t true of all men. Steve reads books by women authors. And just as I find macho strut male adventure stories unreadable, I can understand that men wouldn’t find chick lit or romances enjoyable. I can’t read most of them either. But women write many other kinds of books, and these studies suggest a level of knee-jerk prejudice that I find troubling.

From a practical standpoint, it’s also made me very glad I’ve chosen two male pseudonyms.

7 comments:

liz fenwick said...

I think you are very wise for the areas that you are writing in. The one thought that struck me was that in children's books the sex of author doesn't matter. I watch my two teenage boys choose books purely on the blurb.....if its fantasy they could care less. Obviously JK Rowling fits this bill but I was thinking about Diana Wynne Jones, Cressida Cowell, Kate Thomson.......the list could go on. In fact I placed my old copy of Johnny Tremaine by Ester Forbes in to the 12 yr old ds's hand before a train journey and he devored it. I think kids don't have the preconceived mind yet.....the question is what age does the cut off arrive or will this new reading group blow the old prejudices away?

cs harris said...

I'd heard JK Rowling used initials because she was afraid boys would be less likely to read a book written by a woman. Given the popularity of her books in an entire generation of up-and-coming male readers, she may have done much, single-handedly, to wipe out that prejudice.

Charles Gramlich said...

For me, it's about the genre. If a woman writes SF, Fantasy, Horror, thrillers, then I will read her. (Although I haven't so far gotten into the supernatural romance genre). When I first started reading, it wouldn't have mattered to me if Andre Norton or C. J. Cherryh had written under female names. I think it would have mattered more if the lead character of those books was female. Even today, I still think there is a big genre influence on this issue.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Charles's comment on this one has significance for me. Will men read books with women as central characters? It's all important as I head toward writing a fifth "Misfit Lil" novel with the name, as usual, in the title. Are the guys who're reading my 14 non-Lil westerns going to shun her books?

Too early to tell yet, but one promising sign is that the softcover, large-print rights have already been sold for the first two Lil books. I presented more of my thoughts (and research) on the topic of heroines in westerns at the Black Horse Westerns website, last September's edition, so it sits there in the archives if anyone's interested.

cs harris said...

I think men will buy a book with a female protagonist if there's a man's name on the cover, Chap. Incidentally, I just ordered two of your Westerns from England. One of them is a Misfit Lil--Misfit Lil Gets Even.

Chap O'Keefe said...

You're a darling, CS! Hope you enjoy the books. Many thanks.

By the way, I didn't have an email address for you, so without permission (naughty) I've gone ahead and plan to re-run your piece "Let's Do the Twist" in the next Black Horse Extra as a fine sample of the advice/discussion writers can enjoy at your blog.

I figure it will also help BHW writers, including self, to improve their work.

cs harris said...

I don't mind at all, Chap. I'd be interested in hearing their ideas.