Are Our Reading Habits Sexist?

If you study the numbers you might notice that the publishing industry is dominated by male writers. The cold hard statistics are right here. And they’re a little bit alarming.

The VIDA: Women in Literary Arts have been crunching the numbers for three years, and each year has shown that publications regarding male writers are significantly higher than those about women (in some cases, up to five times higher – The New York Review of Books, I’m looking at you!).

I don’t think that these numbers necessarily reflect our individual tastes, and I’m sure there are those of you who are saying, “But my favourite book is by a woman!” (Yeah, me too*).

What these numbers do prove is that the publishing industry has a tendency to favour men. This may be a subconscious act or something that is slowly being reformed after years of sexism and hasn’t quite hit the mark yet; but whatever is going on with the paper-pushers, it needs to be recognised and dealt with.

Joanna Walsh recently wrote an article about the #readwomen2014 project, encouraging us to pick up a book by a woman once in a while. And while that’s all well and good, and may bring this inequality to light, it doesn’t entice me on a personal level.

Personally, I feel that I read plenty of books by women. But I also read plenty of books by men.

When I buy a book or add something to my ‘To-Read’ list it’s not because of sex or gender. It’s because the story sounds interesting and the writing looks good. There are lots of others who do the same and this is a good thing.

And although that’s just how I roll, it still begs the question: what’s up with the crazy stats on Men vs. Women? Writing isn’t a man’s game and men aren’t always better writers than women. So if people like me aren’t buying books based on sex then why on earth is there such a discrepancy?

I shudder to think that there are readers out there who would pick up a good book, see that the author is a woman, and put it back down. I’d like to think that our society isn’t stuck in the fifties. I’d like to think that this is the fault of deluded publishers, and not the general public.


*Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad.


6 thoughts on “Are Our Reading Habits Sexist?

  1. Your last line is integral, and in my opinion, the truth. Like you, I pay little attention as to the gender of the writer’s whose books I place on my “To Read” list. I think that it’s more than reasonable to assume that there is still a certain level of sexism in the publishing industry.

    In a related note, in my studies as a Literary Studies major I’ve had class discussions on whether there is a thing as “feminine writing” or “masculine writing” and how we, as readers, interpret/understand that. Not exactly sure how that relates to this particular post, but I’m sure that there it is something to be investigated when discussing this question.

    I guess my question is this: Do you believe that there is an innate difference between the way men and women write? If so, does it affect the way readers/publishers decide what is popular?



    • Great question!

      I debated with myself as to whether to include experiences from my gender studies classes, where we often discussed the set text lists being ‘too masculine’, and whether our university should’ve had a ‘Women’s Writing’ subject, but I wasn’t sure where it fitted in with the topic either.

      As I understand it, there has always been a lot of reference (especially in academia and literary feminism) to writing styles/books as being overtly masculine/feminine (Philip Roth, for example, has been described as ‘a masculine writer’ in my classes), and while I can see this perspective when it is pointed out to me, it’s not something that I notice while I’m reading.

      While I’m reading I may notice a minimalist style, or an image-heavy description, but I don’t associate these as being male or female. So, in short, no. I (personally) don’t see an innate difference between the way men and women write, though I understand that other people (and literary academics) do. That doesn’t really answer your question, but it’s all about perspective, and that’s just mine 🙂

      As for the second part of your question, I have no idea! Not being in the publishing industry, I have no idea what they deem ‘marketable’ or popular. All I can do is hope that they’re not as deliberately sexist as some of the numbers suggest.

      I’m curious now – what do you think about your question? Do you think there’s clear male/female writing?

      Always interested to hear other people’s opinions 🙂

      • Much like yourself, I tend to be able to recognize minimalist or image-heavy writing style but nothing that blatantly points towards a gender association. What I DO tend to notice is a personality-based writing style. I think that Edward Abbey is a perfect example of this. Many people and literary scholars say that he writes in a way that is swaggeringly “male.” I would tend to argue that he simply writes with swagger – something that a female is fully capable of as well.

        I don’t know if that answers your question, but I definitely enjoy discussing these kinds of things!

      • Yep, I agree!

        I actually spent a lot of my English lit classes feeling like I read books ‘wrong’ because I read first for the story, then had to be prodded into thinking about the book in an academic/literary sphere.

        There are a lot of things that I don’t pick up on, and I’m glad that gender isn’t one of them.

  2. I’ve found myself thinking about the same question quite often lately. From my list of favourite books (quite a long one), only two are women. As a feminist, as well as an avid reader and writer, I’m quite disturbed by this fact. I wonder if it’s a matter of education… Many of the novels I’ve read are due to a university reading list, a school criteria, etc. Perhaps we need to look to these institutions to ensure balanced exposure to literature when it comes to male and female writers?

    Another thing I’ve been grappling with lately is the divide between ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ – for some reason, a work seems to be ‘less literary’ if it is a) written by a woman, b) focused on a female character or c) domestic life. Yet when written by a male (say, Jefferey Eugenides’ ‘The Marriage Plot’, or Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’), it’s literary fiction again. Author Meg Wolitzer has spoken about this on various occasions. Definitely worth having a look at some of her interviews. If a work is by a woman, about women, somehow it becomes ‘chick-lit’, yet only recently has there been talk of the equivalent, dubbed ‘dick-lit’…

    Concerning yours and Connor’s question about whether or not there is a difference between men and women write. I believe there was a study/computer program created not too long ago that was able to determine whether a man or woman had written a certain text… Similar to the program that could supposedly determine whether or not a manuscript would be successful. I’d like to believe that this is wrong, and that everyone, no matter their gender writes differently.

    • I have to agree with school and university institutions needing an overhaul on set texts. I bought far more books by men in my English literatures classes than women (I heard of one modernism class that didn’t contain any books by women at all, not even Woolf – what a crime!).

      I definitely see your point about the discrimination against chick-lit (very thought-provoking article on Writer’s Edit, by the way! ). I thought it was interesting too, what Joanna Walsh brought up in her article about book covers, and how books by female authors are given overly girly covers when they might not necessarily have girly content at all. And you only have to think of J.K. Rowling, who was advised to use initials in her name rather than ‘Joanne’ because she might not appeal to a young male audience.

      I’m starting to think that books should be anonymous! It would be an interesting experiment, to say the least.

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