Essays

Why Don’t Men Read Books By Women?

by Chloe Angyal

Read this article and more at Feministing

I made a pledge at the beginning of 2015. This year, I’m only reading books by women. I borrowed this pledge from Lilit Marcus, who did the same thing in 2013, and so far, I’ve read some stunners. (I particularly recommend Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story, by Mac McClelland.)

Like Marcus, I’m finding that when people recommend to me a book written by man and I tell them why I won’t be able to read it until 2016, the reactions are mixed. Like Marcus, I’ve had women who ask for recommendations — and men ask me why I’d “limit” myself in such a way, as though women haven’t produced enough gorgeously written works of literary importance to keep someone who reads at a slightly-faster-than-average pace busy for a whole calendar year.

8577697418_7261300133_oI haven’t read enough books by women, and particularly by women of color, and that’s something I’m seeking to correct in a systematic fashion — you know, the way we should correct all systematic inequities. This question of why it’s so hard to get people to read books by women, and particularly why it’s so hard to get men to read books by women, is not a new one. My father, who belongs to an all-men book club, has run up against this challenge (once, he succeeded, and one of the guys assessed the book by screwing up his nose and saying, “It was all about ideas and feelings and stuff”). When I do online dating, I use the presence or absence of books by women on a man’s “favorites” list as a way to separate wheat from chaff, and I can tell you: if that’s the mechanism you’re using, you end up with a very low wheat-to-chaff ratio.

Earlier this week, after explaining my 2015 reading list choices to yet another guy who told me that he’d never thought that hard about the gender of the authors he reads — but who, after further prodding, revealed that he hadn’t read a book by a woman in over a year — I came across a blog post by novelist Robin Black, who wroteLife Drawing and If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, both of which have been recommended to me multiple times. Black recounts doing a book signing at which every single man who bought a copy of her book asked her to sign it to their wives. She tries to puzzle out what made them discount her book en masse as not something they would or should read, and then wonders:

But, having gone through what felt like a strangely ritualistic enactment of a statistic I haven’t wanted to believe, I am filled more with questions about the larger implications of men not reading fiction by women than about the causes. If you think that because I’m female what I have to say in my novel won’t interest you, what about the things I say when I am talking to you about the research project in which we’re both engaged? About the funding needed for the public school system? How about when I am arguing a case in court? Filing an insurance claim?

Is it credible that fiction occupies a unique place? Credible that men who dismiss what female storytellers have to say as irrelevant to them, aren’t also inclined to dismiss – albeit unconsciously – what females of every variety have to say?  To think it somehow less relevant than what the other men say? Is it credible that this often unexamined aversion is a special case of some kind? A glitch?

13253827175_aca24bca40_o

(Read more about the unconscious, systematic way
our culture discounts women’s voices here.)

It isn’t credible, she concludes. And the tendency to choose not to listen to women’s stories in print, even when they’re fictional, doesn’t have a lot to do with literary taste — just like the insistence on only watching men’s athletics, when you get down to it, doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the quality of the game, as eschewers of the WNBA so often claim. It’s about trusting women’s words and ideas, and being able to empathize with people who don’t look or live exactly the way you do. It’s about humanity, about recognizing that everyone’s story is important and worth listening to.

We could do that. We could decide, as a culture, that all stories matter, and that a life in which we only listen to the stories told by a tiny slice of society is impoverished and wasted. Or, I guess, we could read A Farewell to Arms yet again.

Like this? Donate to Feministing!

5 replies »

  1. Reblogged this on Lisa Lanser Rose and commented:

    I find this take on why men tend not to read women’s literature surprisingly compelling–even though a man didn’t make it. Or maybe a man wants to make this point? That would be so nice. What a great idea! Thank you.

  2. I’ve never actually read any of the Harry Potter books (I was a little too old – in my teenaged estimation – for them when they started coming out and, yes, people have told me, many times over, that adults tend to enjoy them a great deal and that I HAVE to read one. No, I don’t, but that’s not my point). Anyway, I had read or heard a long time ago that J.K. Rowling adopted her gender-ambiguous pen name on purpose so that boys and men wouldn’t dismiss her work. I’ve actually done the same thing with certain pieces I’ve managed to get published because, even though I live in this nice little, pro-woman, anti-racism, LGBTQ-embracing bubble peopled by intellectual folks who aren’t hung up on gender (I really am very lucky in the regard), I recognize that my social and academic settings are likely not the norm. I would be genuinely infuriated to know that my (hypothetical) book was picked up and immediately re-shelved because a man saw “Laura” on the cover. There’s a part of me that’s really tempted to defend my writing as “non-frilly” or “frequently dark and intense” or “not about my period” but I feel like that’d just be playing into the divisive gender BS that’s at the root of this problem. It shouldn’t matter what I write about or how I write it. If my work is good, then read it, if it’s not good, then lambast me ’til the cows come home but at least read the damned thing. At any rate, I intend to continue using my ambiguous pseudonyms because, realistically, I fell like I still have to. But I sure wish I didn’t.

    • I’m so glad you brought this up. I go through the same conniptions about my name, often submitting work as L. Lanser Rose or L. L. Rose. But since I’m mostly working on personal essays, I out my own gender pretty quickly. And then there’s VIDA and the scramble at journals to publish more women–might we soon see men resorting to initials or adopting women’s names? It all makes one so tired. What are we to do? I hope someone pitches me a panel on this problem at this year’s Other Words conference. If you or anyone you know is up for it, pitch it to me at llanserrose@gmail.com
      http://elisabethlanserrose.com/2015/03/25/white-guys-win-again-was-this-college-catalog-cover-a-loser//

      • I’ll definitely keep my ear to the ground! And HOLY COW, if that cover came across my editorial desk I would have some serious words with whoever chose that photo. Gender issues are of particular interest to me and, if a man – living as a man – decided to adopt a female pseudonym SOLELY for a better shot at getting published (as opposed to, for example, experimenting with gender fluidity and identity), I can only assume that even he knows his work can’t stand on its own legs. But you’re right, it is tiring. The most tiring thing about it is that, in my experience, a great many people don’t think the problem exists at all. Sometimes complacency does more damage than aggression.

  3. Reblogged this on I just have to say… and commented:

    “…[T]he tendency to choose not to listen to women’s stories in print, even when they’re fictional, doesn’t have a lot to do with literary taste — just like the insistence on only watching men’s athletics, when you get down to it, doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the quality of the game, as eschews of the WNBA so often claim. It’s about trusting women’s words and ideas, and being able to empathize with people who don’t look or live exactly the way you do. It’s about humanity, about recognizing that everyone’s story is important and worth listening to.”