Friday, September 3, 2010

Is This What Gender Bias in Reading Looks Like?

Our last post about the Weiner/Picoult/New York Times fracas got us thinking about our own reading choices, as we are the breed of primate to read the kinds of books reviewed in The New York Times. If it's possible that the Grey Lady expresses some selection bias in its reviews, might it be possible that your humble, opposable-thumb sporting Ape has some bias in his reading selections?

Unfortunately, the short answer seems to be yes.

After we finish reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom sometime this weekend, The Ape will have read forty-five novels/short story collections this year, most of them new titles. Of these, only eight are by women. Even more startlingly, none of the women writers were of color.

We are not happy about this. It seems that if we reading according only to our taste, we overwhelming choose writers like us: white, male, and American (though we go out of our way to cover contemporary American writing, so that last one is not a surprise).

Some gravitation towards sameness is neither shocking nor undesirable, but the imbalance here is dismaying and is cause for some self-reflection. How did this happen and what is to be done about it?

Some of this is contingent: burning through all three of Stieg Larsson's books and and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy perhaps skewed the numbers. Still even last year, of the sixty-one novels/story collections we read, only fifteen were by women, somewhat better than this year, but still not a ratio we're comfortable with.

Perhaps as Picoult and Weiner charge, there is a bias in mainstream book-reviewing and that bias, paired with whatever our own biases are, materially affects the authors we read. Perhaps we've overlooked some serious, talented women for reasons that are not fully realized.

Perhaps the genre itself is skewed; perhaps it is dominated, for reasons either related or not to our own biases, by white men. Here are the female writers of American literary fiction with new books (either paperback or hardback) we've read this year: Julie Orringer, Lorrie Moore, Hilary Thayer Hamann, Amy Greene, Jennifer Egan, Aimee Bender, and Michelle Hoover. Who have we missed? Jane Smiley has a new book, but we've always been lukewarm on her. Is that the smoking gun, our relative lack of excitement for Jane Smiley?

For comparison's sake, here's a gender breakdown of The Millions' most anticipated books of 2010: forty-two total, eight by women--a ratio that seems oddly familiar. And yet not at all comforting.

We're going to thinking about this further, but are also interested to hear what others make of this. We're particularly interested in titles we might pick up to fill in whatever gaps we've missed from women writers over the past year.


  1. I'm afraid I have nothing insightful to add except to say that the vast majority of books I read are by men. But my favorite novels of all time - you know, that special list of transcendent or prophetic books - include Wharton, Cather, M. Robinson, and E. Bronte. So while I'm likely to read a novel by a man, I'm a hell of a lot more likely to re-read a novel by a woman. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be on a super select list of pure, unadulterated awesomeness. Have a good weekend. Cheers, Kevin

  2. It's very gratifying to me that not only can you recognize your own biases but you're willing to change them. I've got a few suggestions:

    She's not American, but Isla Morley's new novel "Come Sunday" is really fantastic. I'm writing a review about it next week.

    I also suggest anything by Louise Erdich, but particularly Plague of Doves.

    Kate Atkinson and Tana French - both great for literary mysteries

    Also, anything by Jennifer McMahon is worth a read.

    I also noticed in looking at my own reading that I tend to read more literary fiction writen by men, and the "easy" stuff is mostly by women (including most of the YA I read). Not sure why but perhaps it reflects my own biases as well (or the biases of publishers and how they market and acquire fiction).

  3. I don't know the numbers, but I feel like a greater number of male authors write the sorts of books you're interested in. From January through May of this year, 14 of the 36 books I read were authored by women, but in looking at that list of 14, I'm not sure you would want to read most of them.

    I am all for choosing books based on what I'm interested in reading, rather than striving for gender equity in my list of authors. But I guess I'm just shallow that way. ;)

  4. My reading splits about 50/50 by gender, so I have plenty of ideas, although I don't know your tastes well and also don't know if you're looking specifically for American women with new books out. Right now, I'm reading and enjoying Julia Glass's new book and Nicole Krauss has a new book coming. If you're not looking for upcoming or 2010 books, no one tops Marilynne Robinson in my mind, and Barbara Kingsolver won the Orange Prize this year (though she's not a favorite).

    Outside the U.S., there's Helen Garner, Andrea Levy, Margaret Atwood, and Sarah Waters. And I second the Kate Atkinson recommendation. I just discovered her this year, and she's now a firm favorite. I believe all of these women have been considered for or won major prizes. I've reviewed books by all of them this year, so pop over and take a look if you like.

    You might also want to look at the Orange Prize list for ideas. I gathered from reading the blogs of people who were reading the long list that the contenders were uneven, but it would be a good source for generating ideas.

  5. I have actually found over the past few years that I read a very balanced mix of men and women authors. Perhaps this is because I read widely, and while I will read things the NYT review, that certainly isn't the sole pool from which I'd select my reading material.

    If you're looking for some interesting female novelists to try out who have recently published, here are some suggestions:
    Eleanor Catton - The Rehearsal
    Isabel Allende - Island Beneath the Sea
    Nicole Krauss - Big House (coming out in October)
    Andrea Levy - The Long Song
    Room - Emma Donoghue

  6. I'm afraid I don't know your tastes well enough, but I'd need a good understanding of what you consider to be literary fiction. I'm pretty sure there have been more than 8 by women released!

    Great post, though..brave. :)

  7. Damn you, Ape, for bringing me to the uncomfortable realization that I, too, am very (subconsciously) biased towards men authors. I guess I have to stop making fun of Weiner and Picoult. I've read 30 books this year, only 5 by women (Lorrie Moore, Zadie Smith, Amy Greene, Rebecca Goldstein and, [cough, cough] JK Rowling).

    That said, the book I'm most excited about this fall is Nicole Krauss' Gate House.

  8. I read a lot of books written by women, but perhaps a minorities reading challenge might be something we should do?

    I was thinking about this whole gender bias just the other day. I was reading What is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman. It was highly praised by all the critics, Oprah, blah blah blah. I eagerly started reading it. OMG what a piece of junk. It was SO boring. I had to wonder if it was so highly praised only because it was a book by an established male white male author and not because anybody actually liked the book. I started feeling a little bit sympathic towards Weiner/Picoult.

    BTW I'll be posting my review of that book sometime next week.

    From the TBR Pile

  9. Even as a female I have a very strong male writer bias to my reading. But that hardly worries me, because some of my favorite authors are women despite said bias and to me, it seems more a case of the type of lit I like, not some willful ignorance of the production of my sex.

    However, I do have biases that do bother me - when I've look at what I've read this year, or what I've read throughout the years I have a huge focus on British and American lit - my forays into works in translation are random and far between; a recent read of Oscar and Lucinda's Australian-ness felt foreign, despite being an English-language novel.

    Oddly, of the meager 4 books by women I've read this year, 2 were in translation. The men - all Anglo-American.

  10. I'll join in the self-flagellation (where did I put that cat-o-nine-tails again?)--over at The Literate Man, we've reviewed 29 books/authors since March. Only four have been women. It's shameful, I'll admit.

    I did really love Lauren Belfer's new book, A Fierce Radiance, however, as well as her previous novel, City of Light.

  11. I also don't know your tastes well enough to feel confident about recommendations, Ape, but I liked Julia Holmes's Meeks quite a bit and thought Sofi Oksanen's Purge was good. (I wrote about both on my Other Bookshelf blog.)

    Oddly, when I read in Russian, I seem to read more male writers, but my English-language reading seems fairly evenly split.

  12. I tend to read Kirkus Reviews because they seem to have a better balance of male-to-female authors, plus they often agree with my reviews, which makes it easier for me to determine what I should avoid. Unfortunately the only way to reasonably read them is at my nearest university library because the subscription cost is uh, prohibitive.

  13. Would you be willing to read more female writers? Do you think you should, if they don't really appeal to you? Certainly there are biases in the way we view literature, literature that should be valued, and so forth. All of these ideas, concepts, etc. are socially constructed. We have been taught time and time again to value what has been created by the White male and that that is art and that things that look like that are art with a few exceptions, after lots of people started complaining.

  14. I'm flattered to have made your admittedly short list of women writers, especially with the far more famous company on that same list. May I recommend a few other recently released American authors, some as unknown as myself?

    Story Collections
    Belle Boggs Mattaponi Queen; Tiphanie Yanique's How to Escape from a Leper Colony; Tara Masih's Where the Dog Star Never Grows; Laura Van Den Berg's What the World Will Look Like When the Water Leaves Us; Lori Ostlund's The Bigness of the World; and Jennine Capo Crucet's How to Leave Hialeah.

    Nami Mun's Miles from Nowhere;; Lily King's Father of the Rain; Allison Amend's Stations West; Stacey D'Erasmo's The Sky Below; and Jennifer Francis Kane's upcoming novel The Report.

    Admittedly, I know at least half of these authors, though sometimes loosely. The writing world is a small one. And I'm sure I'm forgetting dozens. Nonetheless, these are all tough, beautifully written works regardless of the gender of their authors. They deserve attention.

    Michelle Hoover

    (p.s. Many thanks for the wonderful and honest reviews)

  15. I'm ashamed that as a female reviewer, my reading habits are rather close to yours. I might recommend Marilynn Robinson (Gilead, Home) - she was one of my (disappointingly few) 2009 female authors read and I loved Gilead (haven't read Home yet).

    This post is also reminiscent of the controversy surrounding PW's list of best books of 2009, in which not a single female author was highlighted. This led to the Willa list, a Wiki in which people could "nominate" books by female authors -

  16. Thanks to all for commenting; I'm going to have to respond in one chunk since I'm mostly away from the computer this holiday weekend.

    Kevin- No doubt that there are many, many women writers I love and read again and again. That's not the question so much for me. The question is am I missing some writers I would like because of some combination of systemic and personal bias? Frankly, I don't know the answer.

    Homebetween- Louise Erdich does have a new book out and it's on my TBR list; she's really fantastic. I read CASE HISTORIES by Atkinson, but haven't picked up Tara French. I've looked at her new one, but didn't pull the trigger. I don't know why---and I find that interesting.
    I do wonder if the giant chick lit and YA markets have taken some women writers away from literary fiction---certainly the financial rewards are different there. Not sure I know enough about this, but it's an interesting hypothesis.

    Kathy- Maybe that's true. I wonder at what point "taste" equals "bias"?

    Teresa- Thanks for the ideas. I've read Robinson, Krause, Glass before and am looking forward to the new releases from Krause and Glass in the coming weeks. I have to admit I've never read Kingsolver, though she is a big deal. Another one to ponder.

    Steph- Thanks for the recs. I hadn't heard of Levy before, so that's a new name.

    Amy- Sure there have been, and there have been way more than 35 lit fiction books by men this year. What I'm really interested in is finding out if there are women writers out there that I would love, but are missing somehow.

    Greg- You're welcome, I guess. Looks like we've got some self-reflection to do.

    Autumn- I've been against challenges, but maybe I need to reconsider what one might do for me.

    Gastrologia- Since I study and teach literature by Americans, this focus doesn't really bother me, though I do try to keep an eye on major figures in international contemporary fiction.

    Patrick- Ah, Belfer! Good catch, I really want to read City of Light.

    Lisa- Thanks for the ideas; I'll check those out.

    Amy- God, I know about those subscription prices. I've always wanted a Publisher's Weekly subscription, but it is incredibly expensive.

    Trina- What I am worried about is missing great books I would like (by both men and women, but women seem to be overlooked in my own selection). My concern is that there are writers out there I would love and want to support that I pass over for arbitrary reasons.

    Michelle- Well, thanks for dropping by and for the recommendations. Lots of new-to-me names in your lists and some familiar names. I'll take a serious look at these.

    Kerry- Robinson is probably one of my 5-7 favorite living authors, so I'm right there with you. And that's an interesting data point from PW. I think I might have to do some more spot-checking of this kind of thing.

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  18. Funny--since I tend to read a lot of women (although not the super-popular ones like Picault). I love AS Byatt, Susanna Clarke, Kingsolver, etc. So I've been putting together a list of books by all those white men that I've never read. We all seek balance in some way, don't we?

  19. Hey there Ape, new follower.

    Great post, as someone who has been constantly disappointed by the professional reviewers I took special notice to this whole fiasco, but from a different point of view. I don't think there is biased against women, even thought it might seem that way - but as well all know corralation doesn't point to causation.

    I read mostly books written by males, but as a male they speak to me more, however the best books I've read this year are by women - so go figure.

    Anyway, here are my thoughts on the subject:

  20. Ape:

    I am enjoying your recent recommendation by Annie Dillard. And I second the recommendation of Kingsolver.

    I don't know if this counts, but Jose Maria Arguedas' Deep Rivers (Los Rios Profundos), written by a male but translated by a female, is excellent and ranks up there with Garcia Marquez.

  21. great post. as i've been thinking about the weiner/picoult/franzen thing, i've also noticed that i read a lot more books by men than women. and i'm not sure where this comes men have a certain "style" of prose (strong, masculine? eh) that women lack? i guess what i wonder is whether there's something about men's writing i'm drawn to, or if i read more men because they're the ones who crop up more in reviews and best of lists. if nothing else, i'd like to try reading more women, because i suspect i'm not reading them simply because they're not getting attention.

  22. Wonderful post - I have noticed this trend in my own reading and this is doubly shameful because a) I am a woman b) I tend to read a lot of cultural studies/women's studies material that points out exactly this kind of behaviour and STILL I am guilty of it. I have some book recommendations by women writers I think you will enjoy (at least based on the books you have reviewed on this blog), however they are not recently released.

    [but they are freaking amazing]

    Classic must-reads:
    Iris Murdoch - The Sea, The Sea
    Ursula K. Le Guin - The Left hand of Darkness
    +Should I dare suggest Toni Morrison's "Beloved" or does it go without saying?

    A book I find myself recommending a lot lately: Helen de Witt - The Last Samurai (not in any way related to that Tom Cruise movie ) This is the writer's debut, it is shamelessly good and was released sometime in 2006. In other words, I think you might like it.

    +if you enjoy short stories definitely try Katherine Mansfield and Alice Munro. I also find I can appreciate Virgina Woolf's talent in short story form much more than in her novels (where she can sometimes drag on)

  23. Yes, an interesting and current posting. Thank you, Michelle, for mentioning my short story collection on your list of recommended reading (and congrats for making the blog's list). I'm commenting because I just did a reading a few days ago, and when we got to the Q&A portion, one of the male professors asked me what the reaction of men had been to my collection. Luckily I was able to say that it had been "surprisingly positive." That many of the top reviewers who had reviewed it well had been men. But in hindsight, I kicked myself for not asking why *he* had the need to even ask that question. And why did I myself use the word "surprisingly"? Was I unconsciously submitting to his underlying message?

    We all have a proclivity for fiction that speaks to us personally, in whatever form that takes. But in the same way that men will not take on female attributes or wear female clothes (we wear men's all the time), many seem reluctant to even try to read female fiction, as if it is some reflection on their masculinity. I've had male readers buy my book and ask me to sign them over to their wives/female friends. Rarely does a man ask me to sign a copy in his name.

    I often wonder if they then read it privately, in the dark, under the covers :-).

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