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XX or XY? Do readers care about gender of author?

May-We-Be-ForgivenPB-649x999This piece started out as a review of A M (Amy) Homes’ novel May We Be Forgiven, winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013.  I’m a fan of her writing and rushed to read the book back in the autumn when it was released in the UK.  It’s tremendously enjoyable and memorable, but I soon realised my recollections are not detailed enough to do it justice.

The awarding of whatever this prize is called at the time (formerly the Orange Prize, henceforth to be known as the Bailey’s Prize) invariably generates debate about whether a major (and lucrative) literary prize open only to female writers is justified, relevant or desirable.  This year was no exception.  I’ve read a number of interesting newspaper articles and blogposts which give the industry perspective, analysing the current state of publishing, literary prizes and professional reviewing.

In reality, the entrenched gender barriers in the literary world are there all the time and are horribly divisive.   Many writers who happen to be female instinctively dislike the idea of women-only prizes and would be more than happy to settle for equal treatment alongside men:   to be taken seriously and not have to battle preconceptions about what we’re capable of writing.  Even top literary novelists have to contend with these prejudices, one of which has become a cliché in its own right – that when women write about home and family it’s ‘domestic’ and when men do, it’s a profound insight into the human condition.  When the term women writers is no longer used, we’ll know the time for women-only prizes has passed.

All this got me thinking:  Do readers care about whether a book is written by a man or a woman?   I was an avid reader long before I began writing and I didn’t think gender of author played any part in my reading choices, but when I turned to my notebook – and indeed this blog – I must admit to being nervous about what it would reveal.

In 2011, the number of books I read written by men was 22 of 55.  Last year it was 15 of 68, and so far this year it’s 14 of 32.  When I counted the number of in-depth reviews I’ve written for the Literary Sofa, it was, astonishingly, 15 all.  My twice-yearly listings (Hot Picks and Summer Reads) have so far featured mostly women writers, but I’m only interested in the book, not who wrote it.   I’m influenced by title, premise/theme and above all, the quality of the writing.  The latter is the hardest part to establish until you pick the book up and that’s where word of mouth and personal recommendations come in.  The jury’s out on professional reviews.

When I asked my Twitter followers about this subject, it generated a lively debate.  It’s obviously not a survey, but it gave some enlightening insights into readers’ decision-making processes.  The most commonly-held position was similar to my own – the sex of the author didn’t come into it.  Several men and women replied that they mostly read books by their own gender and some felt bad about it.  (Keep reading – there’s something for you below).  Some men were on a mission to read more female writers.  One female reader tends to dislike male authors’ unkind portrayal of women.  There were also comments about authors who publish under their initials or pseudonyms to disguise their gender, or who write in an opposite-sex narrative voice (which is sometimes thought to give a female writer an advantage.)  One male and one female reader told me they read almost exclusively books by the opposite sex!

Ever heard this?  That women will read books written by men but men avoid books written by women.  It’s not surprising that no men expressed this view – if they felt that way they probably wouldn’t follow me on Twitter or read my blog.  Given that women read far more fiction than men it’s maybe not a big issue in terms of sales, but if it’s true….

But IS it true?  And if so, does it matter?  I’m suspicious when things are presented in such black-and-white terms.  I know plenty of men who read books by women.   I also don’t like making the kind of sexist assumptions about men that women have to put up with.  I was recently told a true story about a man who’d chosen some novels in a shop, only to put one back when the cashier casually revealed that the (initialled) author was a woman.  I’m going to be totally honest here.  I thought what an idiot and part of me still does.

But it turns out the gender issue as it affects readers is every bit as complex as at the industry level where it’s decided who gets published, who wins awards and who gets big media exposure.   Don’t we all have the right to read what we like by whoever we choose?  The fact that someone strongly or exclusively favours male or female authors doesn’t necessarily make them narrow-minded.  In some cases it’s down to the genre – if you’re a big fan of chick-lit or romantic fiction, you won’t find much of it written by men. ( I’m not going to stick my neck out and name a genre dominated by male writers.)

This is a fascinating subject which inspires strong opinions, many questions and few answers.  I want to hear your views, and if you’ve already commented on Twitter, feel free to expand.  If you’re looking for a thought-provoking and entertaining read, I thoroughly recommend Women’s Prize for Fiction winner A M Homes’ May We Be Forgiven.  Convincingly narrated in a male voice, it’s a fantastic example of a book where the gender of the author couldn’t matter less.

I’m sticking to my belief that it’s all about the writing.

Many thanks to my interlocutors:  Lloyd Shepherd, Helen MacKinven, Carol Lovekin, Dan Purdue, Naomi Frisby, Ben Blackman, Michelle Flatley, F C Malby, Kathryn Eastman, Pete Domican, Denise Meredith, Jonathan Gibbs, Louise Walters, Benjamin Dreyer and Rob Doyle.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


24 thoughts on “XX or XY? Do readers care about gender of author?

  1. I don’t have a preference when it comes to the gender of a writer, but I dislike it when an author misrepresents the opposite gender in his/her novels. I’ve read a few books written by men who are dismissive when it comes to women and cast them either as objects to be possessed or nagging harpies. But women do the same thing to men sometimes, which equally irritates me. When a woman portrays a man as either too noble to do anything wrong or as being completely evil, it sets my teeth on edge. I think that it shows a complete lack of awareness of what the opposite sex is like.

    As for my writing, when I finish my novel and want to publish it I will probably use my initials instead of my first name. Not because I don’t want anyone to know my name, but because I’m afraid that it might put men off from reading my work. Buffy is a great name if one wants to write romance or chic lit, but I can’t imagine anyone taking me seriously for writing science fiction and fantasy.

    I would probably think that someone was an idiot too if he put down a book for the sole reason that it was written by a woman. At least read a few pages to see what the style is like and then decide. We can’t know what a person’s writing will be like based on his/her plumbing.

    Posted by storytimewithbuffy | June 17, 2013, 13:34
  2. It’s one of those things we think we don’t care about, but then we probe and realise that we do. All of my top five books of all time were written by men. Men write with that bit more punch, and their novels tend to be more epic in scope, and I think this may have swayed me. And all of my top comfort reads, that I return to again and again, are by women. We are hard wired to think along gender-orientated lines, but I don’t think that’s good or bad – it’s just part of the human condition.

    Posted by writerlyderv | June 17, 2013, 13:47
  3. The Orange/Bailey’s/Women’s Prize for Fiction was launched in response to an all-male Booker Prize shortlist in the early 1990s so I think it was created for a good reason even if it might seem a bit outdated these days given the dominance of authors like Hilary Mantel. The problem is often the marketing of books. You can’t help but judge books by their covers when publishers make certain genres all look the same.

    Posted by A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff | June 17, 2013, 13:51
    • I’m not that influenced by covers as I read a lot of titles as proofs and therefore without the final artwork etc, but I do hang out in bookshops a lot and I totally agree. In fact A M Homes’ novel This Book Will Change Your Life put loads of people off (someone even said so on Twitter today!) with its pictures of doughnuts. If my novel gets published I’d be horrified if it was given a girly cover.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 18, 2013, 17:49
  4. I read more books by women than men (probably in the ratio 2/1) mainly short stories or literary fiction. It’s not a conscious choice. All my books nowadays are recommendations of one kind or another. I probably know more women writers/readers than men. Whether these facts are interrelated, I’ve no idea,
    I genuinely don’t care about the gender and to be honest, if it’s well written, I can’t usually tell whether it’s been written by a man or a woman. Covers are a different area. A book with a cartoon of champagne and shoes is like garlic to a vampire.
    I think, in the world of entertainment generally, there seems a circular pattern of :
    People don’t like X, we don’t put X on, Do you like X? Not sure really, I’ve never watched it. People don’t like X…
    So we get ‘People don’t like subtitles’, ‘Men don’t like female comedians’, ‘People don’t like short stories’ and so they don’t put things on and sell them. And then somehow it turns out when they do that quite a few people didn’t actually mind and it’s all a big surprise.

    Posted by Peter Domican | June 17, 2013, 15:44
    • Very good point you make there Pete, and some good examples. I feel it’s particularly true of short stories and everybody’s loss (but short story writers’ above all, sadly!) As for champagne and shoes – much as I like both in real life, seeing them on a book cover would have the exact same effect on me as on you. Same goes for swirly writing, anything pink, shiny or glittery and not keen on pictures of women either. Not that I’m fussy…

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 18, 2013, 17:52
  5. Hi Isabel, it doesn’t bother me about the gender of authors but, like you, the quality of the writing and whether the story grips me. I did an experiment while responding to this blog and counted the male/female ratio of authors from two of the shelves next to my desk. The results…Shelf 1: Female 5 / Male 7 and Shelf 2: Female 6 / Male 6. It would seem I am a fence sitter! When it comes to writing though, I write from the female POV almost exclusively. Sometimes I just wish everyone would stop analysing things so much though and just enjoy what they want whoever wrote it and whatever genre it’s in!

    Posted by Amanda Saint (@saintlywriter) | June 17, 2013, 19:45
    • Your experiment yielded interesting results! I feel guilty now as I’m always analysing things, but that’s what happens when you have to find something interesting to write about every week! As long as it gets people talking, I’m happy. Seriously though, I share your view about labelling fiction by genre. I hated describing my ms as ‘women’s fiction’ before – now it’s changed so much I have even less clue what to call it. Apparently we writers are supposed to have opinions about how it should be marketed. I’d rather just write!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 18, 2013, 17:55
  6. The current book I’m reading is by a woman, the one before that was by a man, and the one before that was by a woman — that seems fairly typical for me. I really don’t seem to have a preference.

    However, I am very interested in the wider subject of gender differences and, as Writerlyderv says above, the extent to which we’re hard-wired to behave and think in gender-specific ways. And actually I suspect that some of my favourite authors (and artists in the wider sense) share my fascination for this subject, I’m a fan of Anne Tyler and she seems to want to explore in some of her novels what it means to be a man, which I think she does sympathetically and successfully.

    I support the principles behind the Orange/Baileys prize but have also been on the other side — in creative writing classes where the students have been encouraged to enter a competition in, for example, Mslexia — “except, ahem, for you”. Of course some might argue that this is necessary, or even welcome, to show men what it’s like to be discriminated against and that such affirmative action is required.

    However, I’m not sure that the exclusion that appears to operate in the likes of the review pages is wholly to do with gender. I’d suggest any elitism is driven as much by class, connections and education — based on networks established at universities, if not before.

    Gender is also very interesting in writing groups when a member might assert ‘no man/woman would ever think/do that’ — as if they’re able to speak for half the human race based solely upon generalsing their own views on gender to everyone else. Perhaps a writer may have to be of a particular gender to undergo certain experiences at an internal level but what’s also certain is that in the opposite gender has the most varied experience of intimate situations (in straight relationships). So if a male writer or critiquer says, for example, he’d never do that to her in bed then how does he know — how many times has he witnessed how other men behave in those situations? Probably never. Ditto women with men — a woman may behave entirely differently in the sole company of a man to the way she’d relate it to her female friends.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | June 18, 2013, 00:51
    • All very interesting as ever Mike, but I’ll pick up the final point. I’ve come up against that, especially writing male POV – which I really enjoy. Strangely, it’s been other women saying ‘but a man would never do that’. Both sexes seem to have quite entrenched generalised views about the other (women gossip, men can’t talk about emotions, etc). Good characterisation has to go way beyond that level of superficiality. The MC in my new book is a 35 year old man and I deliberately made him not a ‘regular guy’to avoid being constricted by stock-in-trade ideas of masculinity.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 18, 2013, 17:59
  7. A few random, not necessarily connected, thoughts on the topic:

    I don’t consciously think about gender when I choose a book to read, but I do consciously choose a genre; the genres I choose tend not to be dominated by one gender or the other; the genres I actively avoid (chick-lit, romance, heavy duty shoot-em-up action thrillers) tend to be dominated by either female or male writers. (Or at least, they appear to be; even in the age of the Internet we can’t always be sure a writer is who they claim to be!). I think I prefer the more balanced, nuanced work that can come from either sex.

    I rarely have a problem reading a male POV written by a woman; I sometimes have a problem reading a female POV written by a man. Last week I started a book that introduced its ‘strong female protagonist’ looking at herself in the mirror in a way that no woman I know would ever look at herself. It felt like the male writer’s slightly pornographic fantasy of how a woman would view her own body. But then, the rest of his writing was equally bad and I gave up after 20 pages.

    ‘Archipelago’ by Monique Roffey is written entirely, and very convincingly, from a male POV; the sense of place is also extremely strong; the adult women characters are for me the least convincing aspect of the book. The central character in ‘Archipelago’ is based on Monique’s brother, and she has lived in the Caribbean all her life; I suspect the women were ‘made up’ (perhaps *because* the central character is based on her brother; there must be a limit to how far you can appropriate someone else’s life for the sake of a story!). I’m avoiding the ‘write what you know’ cliché, but the deeper the intimacy the better the characterisation I think. I’d bet 50p that any man who writes good women characters has had strong female relationships in his life somewhere along the way, or has at least taken the time to observe real women’s behaviour – just as any author who writes a strong sense of place has taken time to get to know the environment they are describing.

    When I write, I feel as comfortable writing a male POV as I do a female one, and in fact tend to use them more often. I am a mother of men and I have no sisters, so perhaps not so surprising. But if I think of a readership for my writing I tend to assume it will be women; my friends and my wider networks tend to be female, so that’s the gender I’m most used to speaking to and engaging with. That’s the country where I feel I speak the language like a native; with a male audience, even (especially!) as a mother of men, it does sometimes feel like I have to work hard to make myself understood and things often get lost in translation…

    On a more pragmatic note, I suspect that I’m likely to be reading more contemporary women writers now and in the future than I have done before, simply because they are coming to my attention more. Partly that’s the effect of the prizes (would I have read Hilary Mantel without the Orange prize? Would I even have heard of her?), but largely it’s the impact of social media. Writers & publishers generally are still learning to use social media to build their audiences, and women generally tend to be better at using Twitter and Facebook to build social networks rather than for pure advertising/promotion – that’s not just women writers but women in all walks of life and business. So I’m more likely to come across them, get to ‘know’ them, like them and read them. Eventually the men will catch up, and my particular reading pendulum will swing the other way.

    Posted by janeide2013 | June 18, 2013, 13:34
    • Great comments Jane, thanks. I’m desperate to know what book you’re talking about but I know the kind of writing you mean and it makes me very uncomfortable. For whatever reason, it seems more common and often to work better when women write male POV than the opposite. Maybe because so many of us are ‘mothers of men’?! I feel completely immersed in a male universe in this house so it’s not a big leap at all.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 18, 2013, 18:02
      • The question of whether we have a ‘hardwired’ set of perceptions about the world according to gender is something I find endlessly fascinating. Is it possible to generalise one’s own intuitive feelings and behaviour across half of the population?

        It’s one area where fiction probably gives us a more honest and accurate insight than by social interaction with others in which we feel pressure to conform to acceptable norms or be embarassed. Also, for the majority of people, the closest and most intimate relationships they’ll have in their lives will be with members of the opposite sex.

        The parenting point is interesting too — following how your children (particularly of the opposite gender) develop might be the closest way of trying to understand this question.

        Posted by Mike Clarke | June 18, 2013, 20:34
  8. I can’t honestly say the sex of a writer has much impact on me, but if it does it’s usually symptomatic of problems in the writing generally. I’m much more swayed by packaging, sadly, and agree with the comments about shoes (always high heeled) and swirly fonts. Having said that I really enjoyed Bridget Jones Diary, but I laughed equally loudly at Nick Hornby, whose Fever Pitch or High Fidelity I’d put in the same literary bracket.

    My husband has often said he enjoys novels by women but I wonder if it’s more a particular genre/style he enjoys than simply down to it being by a female author. He’ll happily consume anything by Kate Atkinson or Anita Shreve but Margaret Drabble would be a tough call, and much as I persuaded him to stick with Wolf Hall he couldn’t get into it. But on the other hand he baulks at the kind of dumb-ass ‘made for TV’ writing turned out by Dan Brown or Jo Nesbo.

    The poetry world is an interesting one. Sam Riviere in 81 Austerities explores the issue of having an androgynous name in the poem ‘It’s great to be here’ – ‘I did as it happens / think of entering the mslexia comp 1 year / how would I account for this my / presence/appearance at readings…’ It was only after a year of submitting poems to magazines with (mostly) male editors that it occurred to me they may think I’m male, and for some reason I was almost seduced by the idea. Why would I want editors/reader to think I’m a man? Now there’s a loaded question …

    Posted by Robin Houghton | June 24, 2013, 09:15
  9. Very interesting post and commentaries. Anyone curious about the paucity of actual biological differences between men and women (as opposed to social constructions) should check out the work of Cordelia Fine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cordelia_Fine. I wasn’t terribly interested myself until gender stereotyping became one of the themes of my novel and now I find I can’t bear even to check one of the tick boxes for male or female on any kind of form unless it seems absolutely essential! (I have actually come across the occasional one that allows you to take “would prefer not to say” and it’s so liberating.)

    Posted by Annecdotist | June 24, 2013, 11:51
    • I’ve also become more conscious of these issues through my own writing. In fact it was partly irritation with the way women over about 35 are portrayed in fiction that inspired my book. At home I often talk to my sons about stereotypical attitudes to women and girls -they certainly don’t get them from their father, but they’re ‘out there’. That said, all the males in my family will happily read books by women without giving it a second thought.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 24, 2013, 14:46
  10. Because of my work with For Books’ Sake I pretty much exclusively read books by women. If I’m not reading something for a feature I’ll be reading one of the other cracking books my colleagues are raving about on the site. I probably read one book by a male author per year – I will make time this year for the new Doug Coupland – so because of this it blows my mind to hear people (of both genders) say they just don’t know of any good female authors. I think some genuinely still believe women only write romance, erotica, etc, and if you want substance you need male authors. This is both insulting to all the fab female lit fiction writers, and to all the great fiction that is romantic / erotic / domestic.

    I don’t think I’d be biased towards a book based on the gender of the author, but if I’m going to read a book by a male author, I’d rather the protagonist was male to avoid possibility of poorly represented female characters.

    Posted by Cariad Martin (@cariadmartin) | June 24, 2013, 21:13
    • Hi Cariad
      Good to see you again on the Lit Sofa! It’s fascinating that you barely read male authors at all. Yes, a lot of us are frustrated about preconceptions about what women write – I don’t understand why this kind of thinking persists when there is so much great stuff written by women – in many ways I reckon it’s just an extension of sexist attitudes in general, i.e. not very intelligent. Also interested in your comment about male authors representing female characters. I read a lot of books by men and I think many pull it off very well but it becomes much harder if it’s the point of view character.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 26, 2013, 18:08
      • Yes, definitely, I think female characters can be portrayed v well by male writers, but when written from the p.o.v of a women, that’s when it can be problematic.

        I’m sure it’s probably the same the other way around, it’s just I wouldn’t know.

        Posted by Cariad Martin (@cariadmartin) | June 27, 2013, 11:11


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