TThe signature at the top of this piece says MA Sieghart, not Mary Ann. Why? Because I really want men to read it too. Authors over the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot and JK Rowling, have felt compelled to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really necessary yet? The sad answer is yes.
For my book The authority gap looking at why women are still taken less seriously than men, I commissioned Nielsen Book Research to find out exactly who was reading what. I wanted to know if the female authors not only considered themselves less authoritative than the men, but if the men read them in the first place. And the results confirmed my suspicion that it was disproportionately unlikely that men would open a book about a woman.
For the top 10 best-selling authors (which include Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readers are male and 81% female. But for the top 10 best-selling male authors (which include Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split is much more even: 55% male and 45% female.
In other words, women are ready to read men’s books, but far fewer men are ready to read women’s books. And the top 10 author who had the most male readership, suspense writer LJ Ross, uses her initials, so it’s possible the guys thought she was one of them. What does this tell us about how reluctant men are to grant equal authority – intellectual, artistic, cultural – to women and men?
Margaret Atwood, a writer who should be on the shelves of anyone who cares about literary fiction, has a readership that is only 21% male. The male Booker award winners, Julian Barnes and Yann Martel, have nearly double that (39% and 40%). It’s not that women are less good at writing literary fiction. The five of the five best-selling literary novels in 2017 were written by women, and nine of the top ten. And it’s not like men don’t enjoy reading women’s books when they open them; in fact, they marginally prefer them. The average rating that men give to books written by women on Goodreads is 3.9 out of 5; for men’s books, it is 3.8.
As for non-fiction, which is read by slightly more men than women, the pattern is similar, although not as striking. Men still read male authors much more than women, but the discrepancy is not that great because women tend to do the same in favor of female authors. But there is still a big difference. Women are 65% more likely to read a nonfiction book of the opposite sex than men. All this suggests that men, consciously or unconsciously, do not grant authors as much authority as men. Or they make the vague assumption that women’s books are not for them without testing them to see if this is true.
Why does this matter? For starters, it reduces men’s experiences of the world. “I’ve known this for a long time, that men are just not interested in reading our literature,” Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo told me in an interview for The authority gap. “Our literature is one of the ways in which we explore the narrative, we explore our ideas, we develop our intellect, our imagination. If we write women’s stories, we talk about women’s experiences. We also talk about male experiences from a female perspective. And if they are not interested in that, I think it is very damning and extremely disturbing. “
If men do not read books written by women and about women, they will not understand our psyche and our lived experience. They will continue to view the world through an almost exclusively male lens, with the male experience as the default. And this narrow focus will affect our relationships with them, as colleagues, friends and partners. But it also impoverishes female writers, whose work is seen as a niche rather than a mainstream if it is consumed primarily by other women. They will earn less respect, less status, and less money.
Novelist Kamila Shamsie has sat on various award judging panels and has witnessed exactly this asymmetry. “Women judges are presenting both men’s and women’s books,” she told me. “And male judges are largely introducing other men’s books.”
Dolly Alderton is a highly successful writer, whose memoirs All i know about love won the 2018 National Book Award for best autobiography. However, in Britain, at least, it had almost no interest from men. Every newspaper and magazine journalist sent to interview her was a woman and, as she told me, “I was marketed, perceived, and received as incredibly specialized by dint of my gender. However, a female experience is not a niche experience; it is a universal common interest. “
However, when he went on a publicity tour to Denmark, it was quite different. She told the reporter who had been sent to interview her that he was the first in the story. “I couldn’t believe how strange that was. He was 20 years old and said that he and his friends read women’s memoirs or fiction as well as men’s. ” can be different. And it is a very easy problem for men to solve. All they have to do is actively search for authors’ books.
If men doubt that women write about subjects that interest them, they could judge Pat Barker in World War I or Hilary Mantel in the machinations of Henry VIII’s court. Once they get used to it, they may even find that they become human stories rather than specific female stories, and that they enjoy them.
Men can gain a lot by broadening their minds and tastes. The fact that a book is written by a woman or is about women does not mean that it has nothing to offer them. It opens their eyes to what it is like to live as a woman in the world, the first step in learning empathy. And it can help to pop the bubble that many men have been living in without realizing it, allowing new thoughts and knowledge to germinate. Isn’t that what the arts are for?
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism