“I don’t read books written by men,” is something you would never hear a woman say, however according to some, it is perfectly acceptable to not read books by women authors, and Heaven forbid if the cover was even remotely “girly” or “cutesy”. Today, the title of being “well-read” is something almost all of us would like to achieve and the truth is that it is also passed around quite easily especially if someone has read a bunch of classics and can talk the talk. Many male book readers are to known to have read a measly amount of female authors and though there are several who would count JK Rowling and Virginia Woolf as some of their favorite authors, it rare for a man to say that a woman author changed his life. A 2014 survey conducted by Goodreads reported that readers like to read authors of their own gender, however, the readers of a female author were 80% women, while readers of a male author were 50% women. This went on to prove that men have more of a bias towards women authors than women who read books by both the sexes.
Why do male writers only list male authors and have only read one or two women in their lives?
Though the notion of “great literature” is changing, what we consider as the greatest literature of our time has been shaped by men since many men consider other men particularly as worthy competitors in “the battle of the books”. In a New York Times Q&A, author Lauren Groff said, “I would invite every woman writer I have mentioned here, plus hundreds of others I did not have space to name. I would serve unlimited quantities of excellent wine and we would get blitzed and the conversation may eventually meander to touch on that most baffling of questions: When male writers list books they love or have been influenced by — as in this very column, week after week — why does it almost always seem as though they have only read one or two women in their lives?” To tackle this problem, #readwomen an ongoing campaign started by author Joanna Walsh in 2014, continues to this day on Twitter, see it for yourself. A place where people can share and review and recommend women authors, it received a tremendously positive response from Twitter users. Editor-in-chief and co-founder of Goodreads, Elizabeth Khuri Chandler said the whole point of this “was to stimulate conversation and self-reflection and to create a space for some friendly conversation about the subject.”
“Women have always done men the favor of reading their work and men have not returned the favor”
So, why do men avoid women authors while scouring to read their next book? One of the biggest reasons is the book cover, just Google Elena Ferrante’s books and you’ll know just why. A slew of “chick-lit” covers that have been called everything from horrible, atrocious, utterly hideous, to them being a great “disservice” to her, her novels are the epitome of a woman author being immediately branded for women only. Such misleading covers have been known to eschew male readers, because which one of them would like to be caught reading a book with such a cover while commuting. Another reason to avoid women authors is that male authors often cater to “male interests” and male-centered topics that women authors simply don’t. While many of these male-friendly books promoted gender roles of a sort, readers aren’t fully aware that that problem lies in their ignorance rather than arrogance. Author, poet, teacher, and political activist, Grace Paley said, “Women have always done men the favor of reading their work and men have not returned the favor.”
Women authors need to better marketed in the book cover, as being for all, rather than just women
From gender-specific book sections at bookstores and libraries to branding all women authors as chick-lit, women authors need to be better marketed as being for all. In 2013, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath underwent a redesign to commemorate the book’s 50th anniversary. Interestingly, the previous gender-neutral cover was replaced with a woman looking in her compact mirror putting on makeup. Cover art must reflect the theme of the book rather than just slapping a picture of a girl only because the story is about one. Women authors don’t publish books so that half the population will choose not to read it. On the other hand, some writers purposefully promote that women authors are subordinate to their male counterparts, like when VS Naipaul said of Jane Austen that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world,” and that even she couldn’t be his literary match. Brushed off as sentimental pish tosh, he has been known to criticize many Indian women authors for their take on colonialism, believing that he is “the fairest of them all”.
If one would skip Asian or African authors, they would not be regarded well-read, why bypassing women authors should be any different?
According to Google, there are over 129 million books published books in the world today. So, if an avid reader were to say, I don’t read Russian, working-class, or Asian and African authors, one would never regard them as well-read, so why bypassing women authors should be any different? While it’s understandable that many readers prefer fiction over non-fiction and vice versa, avoiding female authors is almost unforgivable since eschewing any other group will incur the wrath of fellow readers. While there is nothing wrong with reading whatever tickles your fancy, there is a problem with only reading the canon, since it is almost always made up of dead white men, with some Austen and Bronte thrown in. The New York Times bestselling author, Jennifer Weiner said that women writers “work in this pink-collar ghetto where our readers are women, where we’re getting read, we’re getting bought, we’re getting paid, we’re getting into the book clubs, but we’re not in the New York Times or getting discussed the way men might be.” Author Jen Michael says, “As long as the male experience is considered to be universal (and female experience alien), we’ll be missing a lot of good material.”
“We know from studies that men read men, and women read men and women. Perhaps if men read more women’s stories, they would be more likely to see them as fully human”
Tragically, the accusation against women authors is against their customary “sentimental nonsense” which is considered a crime among the so-called macho readers and thus doesn’t make it on their lists of favorite authors. A study carried out by YouGov in the US showed that in a top 20 list of All-time Favourite Authors of Men, there was just one woman author. In 2017, Hindustan Times published an article, ’10 books we want to read in 2018′ and only managed to mention one woman author. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi agrees that more men need to have a balanced reading list of men and women authors, saying, “I think men should read more stories by and about women,” she said at the annual Chatham House conference. “We know from studies that men read men, and women read men and women. Perhaps if men read more women’s stories, they would be more likely to see them as fully human and less likely to see them as objects that exist for the needs of men.”
The Oxford dictionary defines the term ‘well-read’ as ‘(of a person) knowledgeable and informed as a result of extensive reading.’ Furthermore, extensive can be defined as ‘wide, unrestricted, boundless, inclusive and comprehensive’, so surely this suggests that skimming over women authors cannot be synonymous with “unrestricted’ and “inclusive”. As readers, we all are guilty of preferential treatment with regards to certain genres and categories; there’s no fault in that. But bypassing women insolently and with conviction is surely nothing to be proud of.
Image credit: Harper’s Bazaar