Reading habits: Male vs Female Authors

Elle wrote a thought-provoking post a few days ago titled Am I a Sexist Reviewer? about how she actually reads a fairly even split of female:male authors, but doesn’t blog about all the novels by men, as she finds more to talk about in general in novels by women.

It got me thinking about the balance between the sexes in my own reading. That was easy to check thanks to my huge spreadsheet – time for a quick chart…

Note: 2012 was skewed by having hosted Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week.

*NB, before I go on to ramble about the subject, I want to apologise for any sweeping generalisations I may make below!*

I like to think that I choose the books I read in a gender-neutral way – choosing mainly by perceived content. Even if I consciously opt to pick a particular author, I don’t select them because they are male or female, I strongly believe that the author’s sex doesn’t come into it.Yet, I usually read more books by men than women, and often considerably more by men in a year. Am I subconsciously favouring male authors?

As a teenager, I read as voraciously as I still do now. I devoured fiction including a lot of novels by Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy et al, but what I enjoyed most were thrillers; Alastair MacLean, Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley in particular, how I loved these manly adventures with token women. At the same time at school, I discovered SF through Brave New World, Day of the Triffids, 1984 and their ilk.  In fact the only book I can recall by a female author that we read in class was To Kill a Mockingbird.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m nothing more than a reading enthusiast. I have no literary qualifications beyond English Language O-level. My senior school at the time (1970s) had a progressive attitude towards English Literature. We still read lots of it, mostly classics, modern classics and plenty of Shakespeare, but didn’t over-analyse it in that way that off-puts many teenagers – we didn’t do the English Lit O-level, freeing us to find what we each liked reading the best. I chose Maths and Sciences for A-Level so never went further studying English, bar a journalism option in 6th form general studies.

I went on to study an applied science at a university college with twelve male students to each female one at the time. I was the only girl engineer in the factory in my first job and was the first female scientist on the team in my second, so I’ve always been happy operating in a male-dominated world – seeing myself not as a token woman, but rather as helping to break the mould (although I have exhibited some ladette tendencies on occasion, *ahem*). It’s more unnatural for me now working in a school with more women than men on the staff!

Am I set in my ways?

I still tend to pick a novel promising a good adventure; lots of intrigue; a black comedy; or something techy over domestic dramas. Give me dystopian societies, spies, quests, science (but not necessarily SF) and literary thrillers etc. These are all types of plot-driven novels that have tended to be dominated by male authors (although that is changing, as is the balance of male over female protagonists?), and these form a large part of my reading.

Conversely, when I do take a punt on a domestic drama or novel of family life, I often find myself picking an older one from my TBR and I admit it does make a refreshing change, although I won’t deny that they can be harder for me to write about. Although I can live without reading any more Anita Brookner novels – I was entranced by the Barbara Pym I read a couple of years ago, I want to read more Edna O’Brien and Penelope Fitzgerald too, and still have quite a few ‘Beryls’ yet to be read, to name but a few. There are still acres of female crime and suspense authors to explore – types of books I do really enjoy too.

Where do I go from here?

As I skewed the figures towards equality in 2012 by reading loads of Beryl Bainbridge, so my male:female reading ratio will likely be strongly male this year due to my (nearly) monthly dose of Anthony Powell, and multiple reads like the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer; I’m about to start my third Simenon in a week too.

Having subjected my reading habits to some navel-gazing regarding gender bias, I still believe that I don’t consciously choose male authors over female ones. Instead it’s the world I’ve grown up in and as a resolutely non-girly girl I feel comfortable there. I don’t plan to make any big changes in how I pick the books I read, but I do have good intention to select more great books that challenge my preconceptions now and then, which should include choosing some more women authors.

26 thoughts on “Reading habits: Male vs Female Authors

  1. litlove says:

    Such an interesting analysis, Annabel! I know I read a lot more novels by women, and on the whole that’s a conscious choice. Not that I would ever turn down a novel by a man if it intrigued me, far from it! But I love the psychological approach, and purely empirically, more women (that I know about) seem to write from that perspective than men. If the men would like to step up to that particular plate, I will be delighted to buy their books! But like you, I’m also very happy to challenge any preconceptions I have. And like you, my time for Anita Brookner has passed…..

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      Thanks Victoria. I read plenty of brilliant books by women, but don’t seem to gravitate towards them naturally. Every year when I do my stats, I’ve worried about not reading enough novels by women – even feeling that I’m letting the side down so to speak, (I’m avoiding using the ‘f’ word). However, Elle’s post provoked me into trying to explain that it’s not deliberate, but it’s largely the way I’ve grown as a reader. I would have called myself a reading tomboy, but that word’s changed these days!

      • litlove says:

        Oh yes, and I’m agreeing – I tend in a different direction, but it isn’t a deliberate gender decision either. I can’t imagine you letting any side down when it comes to reading! 🙂

  2. winstonsdad says:

    I maybe read more men then I am a man and most translations seem to be from men which is sad I wish it was different bit more books translated would equate on some level to more females being translated and I’m not want to sub divided this as so few books get translated

  3. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. I tend to read more books by male authors but I noticed recently that I had read a number of books by female authors one after another; this wasn’t a conscious decision, just chance, but out of interest I went through my GoodReads bookshelf and marked up the books as male author and female author. Now I knew it would be skewed towards male authors but I was surprised by just how much: 1,719 books by male authors against 198 by female authors.

    Now, I refuse to read books based purely on the author’s gender, ethnicity, nationality, politics etc. as I find that quite ludicrous, but maybe, as there are quite a few books by female authors already on my TBR pile, there is something to be said for me trying to bias my selection a little towards more female authors in the future.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Very intriguing Annabel. I don’t keep that kind of statistics, but looking down my list I probably read marginally more men than women. But I don’t consciously make decisions about whether to read men or women, and I read a fairly wide selection of genres. I’d rather choose a book just because I fancy it, and the sex or race or whatever of the author is irrelevant.

  5. susanosborne55 says:

    Fascinating post, Annabel. I’ve just checked my own reading for this year which, I suspect, is an average one for me – two-thirds of the books I’ve read have been by women and one-third by men. I’m not sure that I can explain why that is. I know that I prefer to watch thrillers and crime on TV which may be part of the reason which is not to say that there are many excellent women writers in those genres. Leading on from your post, Simon Savidge over at Savidge Reads has written a very thoughtful response to Kamila Shamsie’s piece in the Guardian arguing for publishers to publish only women for a year.

  6. Elle says:

    So delighted that you took up the cudgel on this! I have to recommend for you, as well, Young God by Katherine Faw Morris. It’s like Winter’s Bone (set in Appalachia, really violent, young female protagonist), only there are prescription drugs involved. The writing is beyond belief–it was the first thing I thought of when I was trying to come up with counter-balances to the whole “women writers = domestic fiction” category. (There’s also Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel. Lord have mercy.)

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      In my defense I did apologise for the generalisation of ‘domestic dramas’ but wanted to get a point across that there has been a gap until recently for darker, more speculative literary fiction by women.

      I have read some great post-disaster novels by women recently- Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship for instance, and Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days is still the best thing I’ve read this year. Your mention of Winter’s Bone has sold me on Young God instantly. (Woodrell is a writer I really admire).

      • Elle says:

        Yeah, definitely–it’s a gap that’s only just being filled, you’re right–but couldn’t resist the chance to plug Young God. It’s just so good. Best book of 2014 for me, hands down.

  7. Jeff says:

    I tend to agree with you that the types of books you read are more usually written by male authors. My growing taste for dystopias has led to a few recommendations that I read something by Margaret Atwood. She gets put forward as a ‘dark’ writer, something that’s supposedly less typical for a woman.
    But isn’t there possibly a strong socio-economic factor to this? Are women’s books still less marketed and sold than men’s? Prominence and notions of cultural significance will surely play a part in our choices, whether we notice or admit it or not.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      Hi Jeff, I love Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction – she’s a real mould-breaker – do give her a go (The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx & Crake). I do believe that we’re beginning to see more literary fiction with the themes I enjoy written by women and actually published (see my comment to Elle above), thanks to Atwood and co. so it’s a case of watch this space I hope.

  8. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I keep meaning to read the Southern Reach trilogy and then forgetting about it at the library! Argh. It sounds so gooood.

    In re: gender breakdown, I read way more women than men, which I’m not consciously trying to do. Right now I’m at something like 75% women for the year, like it’s not even close. I do sometimes think I should read sliiiightly closer to an even number of men and women, but it’s not a huge priority for me at the moment.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      Although the third book isn’t as good as the first two, the Jeff Vandermeer was a bit different and I really enjoyed it.
      It just shows how different we all are as readers that some people naturally gravitate towards more women writers. The good thing is we all support great literature.

  9. Claudia says:

    I’m also at about 75% women authors. I’m older, and have discovered over many years of prolific reading, that I just enjoy their perspective more overall.

  10. sakura says:

    I never even thought about choosing a book by an author’s gender (and didn’t realise people did that) until I started reading book blogs. Like you, I suspect I read more books written by men, although I’d like to think it’s about even. But I tend to choose books if it sounds interesting to me at the time so there’s no deep reason why I’m reading a particular book.

Leave a Reply