Do you have a gender bias about what you read? I think I might do…

This year’s Miles Franklin award has produced much debate about the gender of authors, the Australian voice in literary fiction and the under-recognition of female authors by reviewers and literary prizes. For the second year in a row there are no female authors on the Miles Franklin shortlist. In fact they even shortened the shortlist this year to only three. This is coupled with the fact that only 13 of the 50 winners of the Miles Franklin Award have been female. [PLEASE NOTE: I don’t want to detract from this year’s shortlist because each of the three books would be deserving winners of our most prestigious awards and I really hope BEREFT wins!]

In response to this a new award is set to be established for female writers only. The Orange Prize was similarly established over 15 years ago when the same debate about the under-recognition of female writers occurred with The Booker Prize. The Orange Prize has now grown into one of the world’s top literary awards. I think an Australian version is a fantastic idea.

The debate about gender bias in awards and reviews has got me thinking about my own reading. I would like think that I do not have a gender bias when I read. I do not choose a book based on the gender of an author nor the gender of the main character. I choose a book to read based on its subject, characters, my interests, recommendations and what is happening in my life at that moment. I love books when I relate to a character and can immerse myself in the world that an author has created and when a book makes me think about the world around me. I hate when a character does not ring true and have given up on books where an author has tried to write from another gender’s perspective and I felt it hasn’t worked. (I once read a book, written in the first person, assuming the narrator was a woman only to find out it was a man!).

I consider a number of female authors amongst my favourites including (but not limited to) Laura Lippman, Donna Tartt, Sadie Jones and Kate Grenville and have read some brilliant debuts in the last year by Miriam Gershow, Favel Parett, P.M. Newton and Roberta Lowing. My favourite book so far in 2011 is THE TIGER’S WIFE by Téa Obreht. But on examination of my bookshelves I was quite surprised at how many books were by male writers. If you’d asked me before looking I would have said my bookshelves might be 2:1 male:female writers but I think it is closer to 5:1. So while I don’t consider myself as having a gender bias to my reading my library indicates otherwise.

I think a reader will favour their own gender in one way or another but are there other factors that probably exasperate a gender bias. But is the under-representation of female writers in reviews and literary awards the cause of a problem or the reflection of the problem? I have no evidence to back this up but my observations in my bookshop are that the majority of my customers are female and that they do not discern between the genders of authors that they read. A majority of our male customers (not all) do seem to base their choice of books on the gender of the author and will only read male authors. It is not an overt decision but it is noticeable none the less.

Publishers are aware of the gender issue and often try to take gender out of the equation by the way the author is credited on the cover of the book. This is not new, George Eliot being an obvious example. However the trend nowadays is to neutralize an author’s gender. The most famous example of this is Joanne Rowling (aka J.K.Rowling). Despite a boy’s name, Harry Potter, being in the books’ titles a decision was made, by either the publisher or Joanne herself, to neutralize the effect her gender would have on the sales of the books. And it does have an effect on sales. I certainly sold more copies of THE OLD SCHOOL by P.M.Newton because some of my customers assumed the author was male.

Maybe all books should be published under an author’s initials so gender isn’t an issue at all…

15 thoughts on “Do you have a gender bias about what you read? I think I might do…

  1. Yes, I do have a bias, I didn’t know it, but out of the last 30 books read, 21 have been by male authors. Can’t say I noticed, is that a good thing, or subliminally bad.

    Whatever my reading habits are, we obviously need to have female only literature prizes across the board, so it will hopefully even out my, and others reading habits.

    All right, where do we start to implement this, I think CAL should be informed, they are a smart group, I’d bet that they would get the ball rolling.

    1. The people behind the prize are Sophie Cunningham, Kerryn Goldsworthy and Kirsten Tranter. I’m pretty sure the book industry is going to support it. I know the ABA will.

  2. I don’t think I do. Of the 67 books I have finished this year 33 are by women, 31 by men and 3 are by multiple authors with a mix of genders. Of the four books I have rated 5 stars this year 2 are by women and 2 by men. So I’m fairly split down the middle I think, without giving the subject any thought at all (until a post like yours prompts me to dig into my spreadsheet).

    I am really uncomfortable with the idea of female-only awards but I get howled down every time I raise my concerns so I’ve learned to generally keep my trap shut. In my opinion though the proliferation of ‘minority’ awards (not that women are a minority of the overall population but in literature their influence is equal to a minority one) and recognition schemes across a whole range of areas just makes it far easier for the ‘majority’ to feel good about their inclusiveness and lack of bias without actually having to change their behaviour. I’d far rather see some debate about prizes like the Booker and the Miles Franklin that see the debate effectively silenced by the announcement of awards like the Orange and the whatever they’re going to call the Australian one.

    1. Affirmative action or reverse-discrimination is never the ideal but sometimes a culture of bias or discrimination needs to be broken in order to further debate on the issue

  3. I’m fascinated that you found it easier to sell my book with the initials “P.M.” rather than “Pam”, Jon. It confirms what I, and my wise beyond her years agent Sophie Hamley, felt when we insisted on that naming.

    Though women are big readers of crime, and read across the sex divide, I had a gut feeling that men would read crime written by men. Yours is the second “proof” I have for this.

    The first came from a friend (female) who at a dinner party saw my book on the sideboard. The male of the house, who travels a lot and “only reads men” had picked it up flying through an airport. My friend let him praise it for a few minutes before she burst his bubble.

    As to the prize (I like the name STELLA for it – especially when yelled out loudly!) I know that there is a sense of giving up and going away to play on another playing field about it, and yet, and yet, and yet ….. as one female writer so eloquently put it on Benjamin Law’s piece on The Drum – give me the money.

    It will be a bit controversial. It will garner some publicity. It might start to redress the balance a little in a blunt instrument sort of way.

    The Miles Franklin discussion is reminding me a little of the Climate Change debate. If you look at any one year, well, you can make an argument that the list consisted of men because they were the best books, or in any one year, well, that was the best book and it happened to be written by a bloke.

    Rather like how climate change scientists remind us one hot day doesn’t prove anything, but, a series over years of steadily increasing departures, well, that does.

    Looking at the MF list is like crunching the climate change numbers, when you start to look at the overall figures … well, then something starts to look wrong. How can the winners list be so fundamentally skewed?

    I hope that establishing the STELLA! won’t end the debate, as Bernadette quite rightly fears, but rather opens it up, by promoting some titles that might otherwise have not been noticed.

  4. Even though I have my doubts I shall hope that the STELLA (love that name, I am going to call it that even if they end up calling it something else) does generate genuine debate about women’s writing.

    As for the whole PM v Pam thing – I loaned my copy of THE OLD SCHOOL to a female colleague and she reported that her husband read it because it was lying around and liked it – he refused to believe it had been written by a woman because “he doesn’t like books by women”. I am grateful that whatever my faults, making sweeping generalisations about the abilities of any group of people isn’t one of them, think what you’d miss out on.

  5. Just counted all by reviews on the blog whcih accounts for my reading over the last 18 months: I have read 43 books by male authors versus 7 books by female authors. Am very shocked!

    1. I think this is what’s interesting about the debate that the VIDA stats started, Jon. It was happening without anyone really being aware of it.

      I know women writers and readers might have had a niggling sense that something was amiss, but without figures, you tend to just keep such potentially unworthy & ungenerous thoughts to yourself.

      Now we feel justified in standing out in the rain and yelling “STEEEEEEEELLLLLLAAAAAAAAA!”

  6. I think there’s definitely a point to be made here about male readers preferring to read about male protagonists, whilst female readers prefer either; and a point too about how those very general preferences might affect sales figures (and thus bestseller lists, further purchases and reviews) given that male authors (again very generally) tend to write about, well, men.

    But sales figures shouldn’t impact on prize nominations… unless the majority of the award judges are perhaps men? It would be interesting to compare the genders of each year’s judging panel with each year’s nominations. Not that they would be discriminating (yucky, horrible word!), it’s just you can’t help what you prefer.

    And then there’s Lynn Peters. I can’t help but think of her when the issue of men/female authors and their writing comes up… I don’t necessarily think her poem explains women’s under-representation in awards, it simply rings true enough to make me snigger, and I like spreading smiles:

    by Lynn Peters

    “I wandered lonely as a…
    They’re in the top drawer, William,
    Under your socks –
    I wandered lonely as a –
    No not that drawer, the top one.
    I wandered by myself –
    Well wear the ones you can find.
    No, don’t get overwrought my dear, I’m coming.

    “I wandered lonely as a –
    Lonely as a cloud when –
    Soft-boiled egg, yes my dear,
    As usual, three minutes –
    As a cloud which floats –
    Look, I said I’ll cook it,
    Just hold on will you –
    All right, I’m coming.

    “One day I was out for a walk
    When I saw this flock –
    It can’t be too hard, it had three minutes.
    Well put some butter in it. –
    This host of golden daffodils
    As I was out for a stroll one –
    “Oh you fancy a stroll, do you?
    Yes all right, William, I’m coming.
    It’s on the peg. Under your hat.
    I’ll bring my pad, shall I, in case
    You want to jot something down?”

  7. I read roughly 50-50 also. Funny that several people think Andrea Camilleri is a woman and Fred Vargas a man – that’ll show them 😉

    Karin Altvegen, Asa Larsson, Helene Tursten are three excellent female crime fiction authors I recommend (all Swedish) as well as Karin Fossum (Norway).

    re your intials theme, I don’t read them, but P J Tracey is a mother-daughter combination, as is “Charles Todd”.

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