Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The gender politics of book buying

Think fast, guys: If I gave you a recent bestselling novel written by a woman, would you read it?

If you answered yes, would you be inclined to do so on an airplane, on the beach, or in some other public venue?

Or would you feel compelled to peruse the pages while huddled in the privacy of your own bedroom, fearful that showing your face in public shoved between the pages of “women’s fiction” would somehow blunt your manhood?

This summer, Esquire published its list of 75 novels “every man should read.”
One woman author made the list.


Flannery O’Connor.

I know it’s a men’s magazine, and I certainly have nothing against Ms. O’Connor (or any of the men on the list). But still. I have to wonder if her gender neutral name helped her make the editor’s cut. Just as I wonder if J.K. Rowling went by the nickname J.K. before she published the first Harry Potter book.

Consider: Esquire couldn’t even offer a nod to Margaret Atwood, the long-reigning queen of literary dystopia? Or Alice Walker, for the brilliant and unfairly controversial Color Purple? Not a single title by Nobel Winner Toni Morrison?

These women do not write “chick books.”

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I did a quick and utterly unscientific survey, and asked some of my male contemporaries to name the last good book they read by a female writer. Every one of them had to go back to high school, where the most common answers they came up with were To Kill a Mockingbird and Uncle Tom’s Cabin - both brilliant books. Indeed I’ve heard their titles mentioned by English professors as Great American Novels, alongside the work of Steinbeck, Twain, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

The most interesting part of my inquiry came when I asked the guys to name the best book they’d read recently.

Most popular answer, in a landslide: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a 562-page tome that brashly demands recognition as The Great American Novel of Our Time.

Don’t think the writer had such lofty accolades in mind? Please. You could design a drinking game around the number of Tolstoy references in his book. And his use of the family as a microcosm of society lends the work a certain Shakespearean undertone that will give the novel a certain measure of well-deserved staying power.

But here’s the bottom line: Mr. Franzen, in his signature brash but wordy style, writes about family dysfunction, people and the causes they hold dear, and relationships between those people, especially when their chosen pursuits cause conflict. He’s not working in the traditional male-dominated spheres of war, spy craft and violent crime. Indeed, he’s tackling subjects normally lumped under the overly broad heading “contemporary women’s fiction.”

I have to admire this about Mr. Franzen: the man shoots for the moon and makes no apologies for it. Many women writers I know could learn something from his strident confidence.

Yet Mr. Franzen famously freaked when no less a personage than Oprah endorsed his work, saying he didn’t want his books labeled as “women’s fiction.”

Really? First of all, let’s deal with the gift horse bit. Here’s what you say when Oprah Winfrey announces that she wants to endorse your work: Thank you very, very much. Period.

Women account for the lion’s share of fiction sales, a fact Mr. Franzen’s PR people no doubt internalized, since the author subsequently went out of his way to make nice with Ms. Winfrey. According to Goodreads.com, a book lovers’ site with 6.5 million members, women are twice as likely to read and review work by male writers as men are to do the reverse. So their buying choices matter to writers of both sexes.

Yet among the ranks of professional reviewers, men outnumber women by about 2 to 1. It’s not hard to understand why. Those are plumb jobs. One who aspires to review books for a household name newspaper basically has to wait for a reviewer to croak for a job opening to arise.

Male readers could argue that they just happen to hear about books by men more often. It’s true: male authors get the majority of coverage, particularly from the prestige publications. The New York Times boasts one of the closer gender ratios. Last year it gave about sixty per cent of its review ink to male authors, rendering its books section far more egalitarian than those of many other highly regarded papers.

Of course it’s a feather in any writer’s cap to receive coverage in a major national publication. But I believe women writers face a hurdle their male counterparts aren’t asked to negotiate.

Virtually every woman author I know has been asked, more than occasionally, if her books are “for chicks.” That’s code for: Is your protagonist female, and do you write about families and relationships? I’m not aware of a male writer being asked if his work is appropriate for female readers. (Please, if I’m wrong, gentlemen, write and set me straight.)

Biases in gender take generations to change. Acknowledgement that an issue exists is just the first big step, one that several periodicals and booksellers are tentatively taking.
But I can offer one modest suggestion for the immediate term future.

Ladies, when shopping for the guys on your holiday list, consider stuffing their stockings with the work of your favorite woman novelist. Measure recipients' delight. Report back here.


  1. The NYT best seller list has 2 books by women in the top 5 right now (#1 & #5). I'd consider reading both (one author has 2 in the top 13, both with decidedly male friendly titles). Nicholas Sparks has the 9th spot, does he count as a guy?
    Maybe it isn't the sex of the author, just the sex of the target and the content.

  2. 2 of the top five best sellers is obviously nothing to sneeze at, and really not so surprising when you consider that women purchase the majority of all fiction titles. What is surprising to me (and maybe it shouldn't be) is that when women write about touchy feely topics, guys tend to steer clear (it's women's lit after all). Yet when men write about the same themes (the fabulous Ian McEwan pops to mind), it's contemporary literature.
    And while I completely understand the sentiment, Sparks doesn't count as a gal in my book.