April 14, 2007

"Male authors outnumber female writers by a staggering 66 to 27..."

... on a list of the top 100 books, based on a survey of 5,000 employees of Waterstone's bookstore who were asked to name their favorite books written since 1982. (Waterstone's, Britain's largest bookstore chain, opened that year.)

Is this disparity in the sex of the authors really something that should stagger us? Do you demand an explanation? What do you think of this one?
Jon Howells, a spokesman for Waterstone's, ... said: "Women read more than men - the core customer is a woman aged between 35 and 55 - but what they read is right across the board: chick lit, crime fiction, biographies, heavyweight novels, and they don't care about the gender of the author.

"Subconsciously, I think men stick to male writers. They think that what women write doesn't appeal to them."
Yeah, blame men! You sure don't want to just give men credit for writing better books! It's got to be men's fault somehow that the list came out this way. Start with that premise, then work out an answer. You know what you've got to do to get along in this world. Whatever the results show, it means that women are superior. Your job is to say why.

35 comments:

Pete the Streak said...

'Staggering' to me would would be more in the area of 90-10, not 66-27. And: "Women read more than men ......and they don't care about the gender of the author" indicates it's WOMEN that are choosing more male authors, and it's not simply men's choices skewing the proportion. I have no idea, of course, what the preference breakdown is for either men or women, as no data is given.

I'm just an avid reader, however; what would I know anyway?

BTW - who/what wrote the other 6%? Groups? Pairs? Hermaphrodites? Enquirring minds want to know.

Ann Althouse said...

Pete: You mean 7%. Presumably, some authors are represented more than once. But I'm surprised it's so few.

Omaha1 said...

Hmmm, my tastes in reading seem to be much more pedestrian. I've only read a couple of the books on that list. My favorite authors are Patricia Cornwell and Mary Higgins Clark. I probably spend much more time reading on my computer now, than actually turning pages in a book. My tastes on-line are pretty much 50-50, since my favorites are Althouse and Reynolds. Althouse seems to have a lot of male readers & commenters, for a blog written by a woman. I don't know if that means anything.

vet66 said...

More men get in trouble with the law so have to send their thoughts to the print media to make up the loss of income and pay legal fees.

I like Mary Shelley and Joan Didion..

echidne said...

I have a book about poetry at home, and at the end of the book a large number of poets and writers mention their two or three most preferred books of poetry.

I once did a statistical analysis of that appendix, by the gender of the people doing the choosing and found out pretty much what the person quoted in that study said. The male writers chose poetry written in the vast majority of the cases, whereas the female writers chose poetry written by both men and women, roughly in equal proportions. If you mixed those two samples you would get numbers close to what this survey found.

echidne said...

"Chose poetry written by men" that should have been.

Mindsteps said...

Professor Althouse:

What personal experiences helped shape your negative views of feminists (and possibly feminism) and your preceptions that liberal men tend to possess some of the negative characteristics of Bill Clinton?

Zach said...

Leaving out the truly spectacular books that would make the list if it were 90-10 either way, I notice that the men pick up more idiosyncratic books:

God Delusion

Short History of Nearly Everything, A

Stalingrad

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil

Trainspotting

American Psycho

Watchmen

Neuromancer


In contrast, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (great book!) is the only book written by a woman that would be a surprising choice for a typical book club.

Synova said...

I only recognized six or so of the names, had only read two, AFAIK.

I think that having the top 100 determined by a survey is questionable. Why not by sales? And I think that genre fiction is probably under represented. The women who read far more than men also read a whole lot of romance (the largest genre sales by far) which is either written by women or by a few men (or partner writers) who carefully use female pen names.

Better to go by sales or by income, even. Which writers are the most financially successful?

I believe that male writers do tend to be more successful than female writers but that the difference begins with a generalized difference in approach to writing. I believe that men are more likely to feel that whatever they do must be important just because they are doing it as well as being business minded about the process and women are more likely to see writing as an indulgence or more of a spiritual or artistic enterprise than a mercurial one. The rule proved by the exceptions, of course.

I think that men stick to certain sorts of books, not to male authors.

I think they are also marketed to less than women.

Jeff said...

"Yeah, blame men! You sure don't want to just give men credit for writing better books! It's got to be men's fault somehow that the list came out this way. Start with that premise, then work out an answer. You know what you've got to do to get along in this world. Whatever the results show, it means that women are superior. Your job is to say why."

This paragraph appears, sans irony, on Pandagon every other day.

Omaha1 said...

Do books written by men contain more graphic sex scenes? Maybe that's the key here. Sex sells, as we all know.

Torn ligament said...

'I think they are also marketed to less than women.'

Depends on the store. Supermarket shelves tend to put female authors front and centre as it's mostly women doing the grocery shopping.

SF said...

Interesting. I'm a guy, and a heavy reader. I've only read six of the books on their list, and it is a 50/50 split male/female authors.

Thinking back to my recent reading, I think I may be running 2-to-1 female-penned to male books for the last few years. But if forced to name my five favorite books since 1982, I think male authors would dominate my list.

For my taste, it feels like the female authors I read produce a look of really good books -- but my absolute favorites are by men. So if I listed five, it would have more men on it; if I made a list of a hundred, it might well have more females on it.

Revenant said...

The notion that men care about the gender of the author is, at least in my case, total nonsense. I've read great books by both men and women; ignoring an entire gender would be counterproductive.

I'd be curious to see what the ratio is like when you factor in how many books actually *sell*. J.K. Rowling alone might be enough to put women way ahead of men.

Synova said...

Men probably care more about the cover art than the gender of the author.

;-)

unreasonable said...

I do not think that 1:2 is a very dramatic difference. This kind of report always makes me wonder how many Womens Studies professors are male…




The chain, which polled its sales staff to celebrate its 25th anniversary, denied suggestions yesterday that its book tills were manned by male chauvinists. But it said that it was at a loss to explain the heavy bias in favour of male authors.


Men, he thought, preferred books written by men while women were far more catholic in their tastes and were not influenced by the sex of an author.


Wouldn’t that be male chauvinism, if true?

He said: "Women read more than men - the core customer is a woman aged between 35 and 55 - but what they read is right across the board: chick lit, crime fiction, biographies, heavyweight novels, and they don't care about the gender of the author.

"Subconsciously, I think men stick to male writers. They think that what women write doesn't appeal to them."
Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings, and the novels of Jane Austen and the Brontes traditionally top readers' favourite book polls. By confining itself to its own staff and to books published since 1982, the Waterstone's survey comes up with very different results, a list of mostly well-known, bestselling, mid-to-highbrow titles.

I doubt that many men would read Austen or Bronte whatever the authors sex.

I think what he is trying to say is that male authors write books that appeal to either sex, and female authors write books that appeal mainly to women. Naturally he cannot say that clearly – he might offend an activist group.

If the sex of the author made that big a difference I imagine that authors would simply use a pen name that implied they were a member of the favoured sex.

For example, the feminist publishing group Virago once published an anthology called “Down the Road, Worlds Away” by Rahila Khan. It turned out to have been written by an Anglican vicar, using an Asian female pen name. (The production run was apparently pulped when they discovered this.)

Joan said...

I want to disparage that list, viciously, because it includes the execrable DaVinci Code. But then, way towards the bottom, I saw it also included the delightful Colour of Magic, and realized not everyone who was surveyed was an idiot.

The last million books I've read (it seems) were written by a woman, Mary Pope Osborn -- I'm working through the Magic Tree House series with my youngest, he adores them.

But all the books I've read for myself recently are written by men, including my current read, Victor Davis Hansen's A War Like No Other. If I had to pick 5 favorites, it's likely they'd all be by men. But expand the list and I expect it would be more an even distribution. I would be hardpressed to come up with such a list anyway, and am glad I don't have to!

(When it comes to music, I definitely prefer male musicians, including vocalists, to females. Reviewing my iPod, the ratio would probably be 97:3 percent, male to female.)

Jeff said...

I rarely read any contemporary fiction. I find that women authors write boring sci-fi but excellent mysteries. Patricia Highsmith wrote crime fiction that had high artistic and literary merit. Some women really excell at "literary" writing- Elizabeth Bowen is one of my favorite writers and one who is criminally overlooked, IMHO.

Pete the Streak said...

Thank you, Professor. Doing the math correctly,7% IS the solution. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - another dang male author).

Torn ligament said...

The list includes authors from several countries. As such, I'm wondering if people here who haven't read many of the books tend to read mostly US authors. I've read 28 on the list, a list compiled by Brits.

Regarding men not reading women may depend on taste. I read everything my husband reads but he'd never read anything by Barbara Kingsolver or any of the other 'chick lit' types, except for Margaret Atwood and Elizabeth George who both write for everyone.

JimM47 said...

I was struck by the amount of fiction/memoirs on the list, and the lack of much serious non-fiction. In my own limited anecdotal experience men seem much more likely to constrict themselves to non-fiction.

Also, if women read more broadly, is that likely to skew results by spreading out women's votes and thus diminishing there effectiveness, while men's remain more concentrated due to the smaller number of works they've read?

JimM47 said...

Yeah, blame men! You sure don't want to just give men credit for writing better books! It's got to be men's fault somehow that the list came out this way. Start with that premise, then work out an answer. You know what you've got to do to get along in this world. Whatever the results show, it means that women are superior. Your job is to say why.

That's a well-aimed criticism, and one with which I largely agree, but just for fun a few devil's advocate thoughts:

The response by the story's source is unsurprising, because the claim that women read more, and read more broadly, is likely to be uncontroversial. Hard evidence exists for it, and it is not politically incorrect because it does not speak harmfully against the idea that men and women have inherently equal value to society.

The claim that men write better books is likely to be controversial. You can't offer hard evidence in the same way, and it is politically incorrect in that writing ability is considered of great value in our society, so the claim does speak harmfully against the idea that men and women have inherently equal value to society.

Additionally, the latter claim is basically the no-brainer interpretation of the data. No need spending copy on it. The other interpretation is slightly more complex and involves information the reader may not have. I suspect that the actual answer is even more complex, but at least now I know something more than just the fact that more men were named as authors on a list of good books.

And as annoying as this "blame men" tendency is, I would rather live in a world that tolerates stupid but innocuous theories like this than one where people easily and casually say and believe theories that make radical judgments about the inherent relative value of the two sexes.

Daryl said...

Writing books is hard.

Half a book doesn't sell, you have to invest the time and energy to write the whole thing.

More men are capable and willing to devote themselves to that.

On average, men are more willing to devote themselves single-mindedly to very difficult, time-consuming tasks.

PatCA said...

But I think Ann's point was not the accuracy of the survey but that it is being used for the dubious gender "equality" agenda.

I wonder what the recently departed Kurt Vonnegut would have thought...

"The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal."

blake said...

Ooh, I love Austen, could read and re-read her over and over again. (The Bronte sisters not so much.)

And, Pete, "The 7 Per cent Solution" wasn't Doyle, it was Nicholas Meyer.

Synova said...

Daryl?

On average men are more likely to view self absorbed and obsessive behavior as something they are entitled to.

Oftentimes the great artists, musicians and writers of the past (and preachers too) did their own obsessive thing while their wife and children barely scraped along in pitiful circumstance.

It's very true that most women just aren't capable of doing that.

lurker2209 said...

The problem isn't that people assume male authors are more popular due to male chauvinism as opposed to superior writing. The problem is that they make assumptions at all. The people being asked to explain the survey results aren't qualified to do so, in anything more than the most general, speculative terms.

How hard is it to put together a psychology study? Give a number of men and women the same book (or several books) with different author names on the cover. One group gets the male author, one the female, and one some sort of gender neutral name or simply initials. Compare men's and women's responses. Maybe a researcher has already done this; maybe one will soon. It just seems silly to speculate with no data.

unreasonable said...

Lurker2209 said:

The claim that men write better books is likely to be controversial. You can't offer hard evidence in the same way, and it is politically incorrect in that writing ability is considered of great value in our society, so the claim does speak harmfully against the idea that men and women have inherently equal value to society.

Is it politically incorrect to say: “girls have better exam results than boys because they work harder”? I doubt the NOW would denounce such a claim.

In general terms the “politically correct” thing to say is whatever is convenient to help you get on. “Segregation” was once politically correct. Now the KKK is weak, and the NAACP stronger, so “affirmative action” is politically correct.

Spokesmen are not paid to annoy pressure groups.

The problem with doing studies properly, is that you might discover evidence of something that happens to be Incorrect today.

Bruce Hayden said...

Well, I am a male who prefers fiction written by women. I read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy, and am much likelier to try out a new female author than a male one. Add to that that almost all of my favorite authors in the genre are women.

On the other hand, I tend to read a lot more non-fiction by men than women - possibly because a lot more of it is written by men in the areas that I am interested in (economics, science, history).

So, from my point of view, I think that the justification offered is pretty bogus.

Tex the Pontificator said...

The statement that men less readily read books written by women sounds to me like what women like to think of men. I've read plenty of Patricia Cornwell and Sue Grafton (hey, I don't claim to be an intellectual). I don't recall, when scanning the library shelf, ever noting the sex of the author.

Revenant said...

On average men are more likely to view self absorbed and obsessive behavior as something they are entitled to.

More likely than what -- dogs and cats? Because you can't possibly be suggesting that the gender that has a thousand books and magazines devoted to the subjects of "what's wrong with me", "how can I look better", and "how to get him to do what I want" is on average less obsessive and self-centered than men.

Roger said...

Like tex and others, I choose books based on subject matter and title, not the author. I do know my favorite historian was Barbara Tuchman, but that had to do with her subject matter.

Kirby Olson said...

There have only been 5 women on the FBI most wanted list since 1950.

Kate said...

is this true for bloggers?
there are so many female bloggers out there...
www.globalmatrix.blogspot.com

Emailman said...

Thanks Ann. Great post. A friend of mine asked me this question tonight so I pointed her to your blog :)