TThe signature at the top of this piece reads MA Sieghart, not Mary Ann. Why? Because I really want men to read it too. Authors through the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt compelled to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary? The sad answer is yes.
For my book The authority gap, which examines why women are always taken less seriously than men, I ordered Nielsen Book Research to find out exactly who was reading what. I wanted to know if female authors were not only seen as less authoritarian than men, but if they were read by men in the first place. And the results confirmed my suspicions that men were disproportionately unlikely to open even a book written by a woman.
For the 10 best-selling female authors (including Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readers are men and 81% are women. But for the 10 best-selling male authors (including Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the distribution is much more even: 55% men and 45% women.
In other words, women are willing to read books written by men, but far fewer men are willing to read books written by women. And the top 10 female author with the largest male readership – thriller writer LJ Ross – uses her initials, so it’s possible the guys thought she was one of them. What does this tell us about the reluctance of men to grant equal authority – intellectual, artistic, cultural – to women and men?
Margaret Atwood, a writer who should be on the shelves of anyone who cares about literary fiction, has a readership of only 21% male. Male Booker Prize winners Julian Barnes and Yann Martel have almost twice as much (39% and 40%). It’s not as if women are less good at writing literary fiction. The five best-selling literary novels in 2017 were written by women, and nine of the top ten. And it’s not as if men don’t like to read books written by women when they open them; in fact, they marginally prefer them. The average rating men give to books written by women on Goodreads is 3.9 out of 5; for men’s pounds, it is 3.8.
When it comes to non-fiction, which is read by slightly more men than women, the pattern is similar, but not as striking. Men still read male authors much more than female authors, but the gap is not that big as women tend to do the same in favor of female authors. But there is still a big difference. Women are 65% more likely to read a non-fiction book of the opposite sex than men. All of this suggests that men, consciously or unconsciously, do not grant as much authority to female authors as to male authors. Or they make the lazy assumption that women’s books aren’t for them without trying them out to see if it’s true.
Why is this important? To begin with, he narrows down the experiences of men of the world. “I’ve known for a very long time that men just aren’t interested in reading our literature,” Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo told me in an interview with The authority gap. “Our literature is one of the ways we explore storytelling, we explore our ideas, we develop our intellect, our imagination. If we write stories of women, we talk about the experiences of women. We are also talking about male experiences from a female perspective. And so if they’re not interested in that, I think it’s very overwhelming and it’s extremely worrying.
If men don’t read books written by and about women, they won’t understand our psyche and our lived experience. They will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience by default. And this close focus will affect our relationships with them, as colleagues, friends and partners. But it also impoverishes female writers, whose work is seen as a niche rather than mainstream if primarily consumed by other women. They will earn less respect, less status and less money.
Novelist Kamila Shamsie has served on several award juries and has witnessed exactly this asymmetry. “Women judges offer books for men and women,” she told me. “And male judges largely offer books from other men.”
Dolly Alderton is a highly successful writer, whose memoir All i know about love won the 2018 National Book Award for Best Autobiography. Yet in Britain, at least, he had almost no male interest. Every newspaper and magazine reporter sent to interview was female and it was, as she told me, “marketed and perceived and received as something incredibly niche because of my gender.” Yet a female experience is not a niche experience; it is a universal common interest.
However, when she did an advertising tour in Denmark, it was quite different. She told the reporter who had been sent to interview her that he was the very first. “He couldn’t believe how weird it was. He was in his twenties and said he and his friends read women’s memoirs or novels as much as men’s. Things can be different. And it is a very easy problem for men to solve. All they have to do is actively search for books by female authors.
If men doubt women write about subjects that interest them, they could judge Pat Barker on WWI or Hilary Mantel on the court machinations of Henry VIII. Once they get used to them, they may even find that these turn into human stories rather than niche female stories – and that they appreciate them.
Men can gain a great deal from expanding their minds and tastes. Just because a book is written by a woman or about women doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer them. It opens their eyes to what it’s like to live as a woman in the world, the first step in learning empathy. And it can help burst the bubble that many men have inadvertently lived in, allowing new thoughts and ideas to germinate. Isn’t that what the arts are for?