A Dudely Challenge: Read More Books By Women

28 Sep

The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA), a national organization devoted to promoting “strong and active female perspectives and presences within the Canadian literary landscape” recently released a report looking at gender representation in Canadian book reviews. You can find the full set of numbers here, and an infographic explaining those numbers here.

Folks, the news is not good. I mean, it’s not terrible, but it’s also not great. It’s also pretty indicative a deeper gender imbalance in the literary world in general.

Let’s take a look at some of the numbers provided by CWILA, shall we?

First, the basics:

Out of the 5,613 book reviews studied, 56.9% were reviews of books written by men, 37% were reviews of book written by women, 5.02% were reviews of books co-authored by men and women, 0.14% were reviews of books written by non-binary individuals, and 0.93% percent came from “unknown author(s).” So far so good – I mean men are slightly outpacing women, but it’s not a big deal. 37% of the pie is still a lot of delicious pie (whenever I look at pie charts I always picture a big old steaming dish of apple pie, but your mileage may vary).

It’s when we start to look at who’s reviewing what (and how often) that things start to get a bit .. whacky? Out of all of the reviews written by women, 51% are of books authored by women and 43% are of books authored by men (with the remaining 6% being taken up by reviews of books that were either co-authored by men and women, were written by non-binary individuals or were written by unknown authors). Out of all of the reviews written by men, a staggering 69% were of books authored by men, while a measly 25% were of books authored by women (with, again, 6% of the reviews taken up by the same three groups mentioned above).

On top of that, while some publications (The Vancouver Sun, The Toronto Star, Quill & Quire) employ more slightly more female reviewers than male, reviews written by women still make up only 38% of the top 20 reviewers (those who wrote 50+ reviews last year) in the country.

Let’s just look at some of those numbers one more time:

25% of the books reviewed by men were written by women. 

69% of the books reviewed by men were written by men.

Men review nearly three times as many books by men as they do books by women.

If that’s not a huge indication of the problematic ways we view women writers, then I don’t know what else is. Women review nearly twice as many books written by men as men review books written by women. And it’s not as if there’s a dearth of women authors writing quality books – novels written by women won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, 2012 and 2010. Books by women won both the French and English Governor General’s Literary Awards in 2013; women also won in 2012, 2010, and 2009. Alice Munro won the Nobel Fucking Prize for literature last year. There are so many fantastic, internationally-recognized, award-winning books by women (many of them Canadian – CANLIT, REPRESENT) – so why aren’t men reviewing them?

The answer is, unfortunately, pretty simple: men don’t read books by women.

There are a lot of reasons for why this is true. Some men – like David Gilmour and all of his highbrow dudebro acolytes – just don’t think that women are very good writers. See, they only like the serious, classic stuff – stuff like Chekhov and Tolstoy and Proust. They like the good ole-fashioned, tried-tested-and-true Western literary cannon, which is pretty male-dominated for reasons that I’m sure have nothing to do with the historical oppression of women and everything to do with talent and know-how. Some men have shied away from books by women, worried that being caught reading Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights will somehow bring their masculinity into question. And some men have literally just never thought about it; they grew up with a toxic cultural mix of beliefs that taught them that real, serious books are written by men and only girls read books by girls. Which is tragic, and not just because every kid should should have the chance to read the delight that is Anne of Green Gables.

It’s this last group of guys who, I’m pretty sure, make up the majority of the male readers in this work. They’re guys who, in school, were told to read famous books by famous men as a matter of course. They’re guys who were never handed works of literature written by women because a teacher or a parent or a friend never thought they needed books they could better “identify” with. They’re guys who don’t question the fact that nearly all of the major works of fiction displayed at a bookstore or library are written by men. They’re guys who have never noticed that male writers are the status quo, because if you’re part of the status quo, why would you ever bother questioning it?

Women are, in many ways, treated as a special interest group. And sometimes that treatment is legitimate, like when we’re talking about reproductive rights or street harassment or workplace sexism. But that also means that literature written by women is viewed, often subconsciously, as being especially for women. And while we might praise the technical aspects of a book written by a woman, or laud its excellent storytelling or well-developed characters, we still ultimately view it in the category of other. It’s not regular a book – it’s a lady book. Probably with some kind of lady agenda. But books by men are just books. Serious, literary books.

Men aren’t encouraged to read books by women because on some level we don’t believe that those books were written for men. And yet no one ever questions why women would read books by men. It’s just taken as a given that books by men are the gold standard, and that everyone, no matter what their gender, should read them.

So here’s a challenge for all the men out there (including, but not limited to, the men who write book reviews): read books by women. Pick out a specific chunk of time – maybe a month, three months, or, if you’re feeling especially brave, a whole year – and during that period only seek out books by women. This challenge, by the way, doesn’t have to be isolated to literature – you could also have a month where you only listen to music by women, or look at paintings by women, or watch movies written and directed by women. If you’re struggling to find enough media to fill a whole month, then ask for recommendations; ask you’re girlfriend what she’s reading, or ask your little sister what she’s listening to these days. Ask your mom. Ask the woman who sits next to you at work. Ask that aggressively eye-linered punk chick who almost always ends up on the same bus as you in the morning. I mean, don’t be pushy or gross about it, and if they’re not interested in talking then back the fuck off, but still. Just try asking. I’m willing to bet that most women would be delighted to have a man ask them what they’re reading these days.

I have a friend who was recently explaining to me why she’d decided to end a blooming relationship with a nice, smart, funny man. There were lots of reasons why things just weren’t working out between them, but one red flag for her was this: he wasn’t reading any of the books she loaned him. See, book-talk was a big part of the attraction between them, and he was lending her plenty of books (which he expected her to read and which, diligently, she read), but apparently it wasn’t a two-way street. The books he gave her were, in his mind, important; the books he received were not. And before you jump in and tell me that not all men, let me say that I’ve seen this same dynamic play out in so many relationships. Men take it as a given that the women in their lives will read the books they recommend; unfortunately, they do not extend those women the same courtesy.

Guys, don’t be that guy. Read (and review, if that’s your bag!) books by women. If you consider yourself to be in any way an advocate for gender equality, then let that equality extend to the media you consume. Because women’s voices won’t get any louder if men aren’t helping to amplify them.

Not only that, but if you’re only reading books by men, then you are seriously missing out on some really fucking good books.

Photograph by Edward Steichen

Photograph by Edward Steichen

16 Responses to “A Dudely Challenge: Read More Books By Women”

  1. tinyorc September 28, 2014 at 9:01 pm #

    Whenever a dude, (often rather glibly) asks me what he can do to be a better ally to women, this is in my top three things – so thank you for writing this and laying it out clearly! I’m currently doing #ReadWomen2014 myself, because I’ve realised that four years in an English degree has absolutely skewed my perception of “important” books in favour of men and it was time to rebalance my bookshelf a bit.

  2. foxtaylor September 28, 2014 at 10:19 pm #

    Yes yes yes a couple years ago I started a book club to read only female authors for this very reason (FABClub on goodreads, if anyone wants to join) and have since read sooo many amazing books. In fact I just started a second female authors book club, this one meeting in person. If I discovered my partner wasn’t reading any of the books I loaned them I’d probably end it too haha.

  3. AmazingSusan September 28, 2014 at 11:58 pm #

    yes and btw in case you hadn’t heard of this relatively new project: http://www.shebooks.net/

    write on.

    • amonsn September 29, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

      emilybooks.com is also really awesome!

  4. genevieve y September 29, 2014 at 3:02 am #

    This is something I often discuss with people. I always ask people: when was the last time you wrote a book by a woman? I make a concerted effort to read books authored by women. I’m not saying I’ll never read a book written by a man ever again, but I think it’s so important to support female writers/artists/creatives.

  5. theresegivemepeace September 29, 2014 at 7:10 am #

    Good point. If you don’t read woman books you miss out on Harry Potter, The Colour Purple, Wuthering Heights, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Just William, I Capture the Castle, everything Agatha Cristie wrote (and that’s a lot, isn’t it 😀 ) .
    Anyway, great post. I want a Twilight bar.
    Love Therese

  6. theresegivemepeace September 29, 2014 at 7:11 am #

    Let’s not forget 101 Dalmatians, either.

  7. ellaindc September 29, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

    Oh goodness, as a woman and a writer this is an old soapbox of mine. Although the David Gilmours of the world (who seem to forget that the Great American Novel was written by a woman, and the ENTIRE GENRE OF SCIENCE FICTION was invented by a different one) always remind me of this one scene in Catcher in the Rye. Part-time misogynist Holden Caulfield is talking about how he bets Isak Dennisen is better company than Somerset Maughn, and I’m sitting there wondering if Holden (or, frankly, Salinger) knows that Isak Dennisen was a woman.

  8. Athena September 29, 2014 at 5:35 pm #

    You should avoid attempting to use statistical analysis to form arguments. The boys who passed 8th grade math aren’t going to take you seriously.

    • Kasey Weird September 30, 2014 at 8:19 pm #

      I seriously don’t know what this comment is trying to apply. There is nothing numerically incorrect in the analysis used here. The inferences aren’t statistically rigorous, per se, and it’s hard to be precise about what the implications of the undeniable gender disparity here are (whether women are reviewing more books written by women because they choose to or because they assigned more books by women is, for instance, irrelevant to the point that these numbers so indicate that books written by women continue to be seen as somehow of more interest to women, or more *for* women.)

      Also, if you are suggesting that the analysis is erroneous (and I would appreciate you pointing out the error if so), why is it just “the boys” who are going to disregard it? What in heck are you trying to say here? I am seriously lost.

      Or is it just “Hey, dearest lady-blogger, don’t try to use numbers when arguing with men, because regardless of whether you are correct they will assume your lady-brain can’t handle it, and that their 8th-grade math qualifies them to disregard you”? Because I’m pretty sure this post isn’t aimed at the dudes who are that far gone down the misogyny rabbit-hole.

  9. fjamesgreco September 29, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

    As an avid reader, I don’t think about the author’s gender before I choose a book. That said, I guess I’m in the minority, because I read a lot of works by female authors. I’m looking forward to seeing what Gillian Flynn, the first time screenwriter, has done with her excellently crafted “Gone Girl,” the topic of which makes excellent grist for the whole “male v. female” nature of your blog.

    More generally, I enjoy your columns. Keep it up.

  10. garence51 October 1, 2014 at 3:02 am #

    I just finished The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne. Great book. I often find that women authors give me a perspective on situations that challenge my normal thought processes. Also male characters written by women sometimes have more depth than female characters written by men. They are more understood.

  11. farreldee October 21, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    Reblogged this on Rounded with Facets and commented:
    “…they grew up with a toxic cultural mix of beliefs that taught them that real, serious books are written by men and only girls read books by girls. Which is tragic, and not just because every kid should should have the chance to read the delight that is Anne of Green Gables.”
    And not just because I love L.M.Montgomery’s work!

  12. Shaunte October 28, 2014 at 4:06 am #

    wonderful publish, very informative. I ponder why the other experts of this sector do not realize this.
    You should continue your writing. I’m confident, you have a huge readers’ base already!


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    […] Anne challenges dudes to read more books written by women. […]

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