Personal reflections on books and gender

This post has been inspired by an entry in Juliet McKenna‘s LiveJournal asking whether publishing is sexist. It may turn out to be more a series of fragments than a properly coherent argument, and I doubt that I’ll offer any original insights; but I’ve never written about this topic before, so we’ll see how it goes.

To start with my own experiences as a reader: yes, most of the books I have read in my lifetime have been by men, and most of the books I have reveiwed have been by men. Yes, I was surprised by the ending of The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler when we read it at school; and no, I didn’t read ‘books for girls’. But then, I didn’t read many ‘books for boys’ either — the closest I got were all the adventure gamebooks I read (the vast majority of which were written by men; and which had, I would surmise, a largely male readership). Mostly, though, I just read books — the gender of the author was genuinely never a concern to me. As an adult, I notice an author’s gender more; and, if I see that I’ve read a few books in a row by male authors, I do often think, perhaps it’s time I read a female author or two. I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a good way of looking at it; I think there’s something to be said for the free-spirited way I read as a child, picking up anything and everything with no regard for any criteria other than that it sounded good.

There has been quite a pause between my writing the last paragraph and this one, as I’ve confronted the fact that I probably do have a real gender bias in my choice of reading matter. It’s quite hypothetical, but it’s there. I would never reject a book on the basis of its author’s gender (gender might affect the order in which I read a group of books, but that’s different); I would reject it on the basis of whether I thought I’d like it. Now, I don’t tend to read books that have been explicitly written for a particular gender, of any sort — chick-lit, lad-lit, whatever, they generally don’t appeal to me (though I’m sure I could find exceptions if I looked); but if I had to choose one (and I’m talking about the really hackneyed, stereotyped stuff here), I’d go for a book written for my own gender. Hopefully there’s enough out there to read that I’ll never have to resort to making such a choice, but there it is.

So, I can understand (as I previously thought I couldn’t) how readers might prefer authors of one gender over another.  But I think the issue is also tied up with other factors. One of the commenters on Juliet’s post, Maura McHugh, says that, in the fantastic genres, we still have some people viewing some kinds of fiction  as more ‘suitable’ for women to write than others (i.e. fantasy rather than hard SF or horror), and cites as an example ‘paranormal romance’ being excluded from definitions of horror. Now, I think she conflates two different issues here. Yes, some people do think that women can’t or shouldn’t write particular kinds of fiction (in my view, all such opinions are wrong). The thing is, though, I wouldn’t classify ‘paranormal romance’ as ‘horror’. But I wouldn’t classify ‘paranormal detections’ (which are often written by men as well as women) as horror, either. And I would exclude these kinds of fiction not because of their authors’ gender, or because I think they’re intrinsically inferior (which, by the way, I don’t); but for the same reason I wouldn’t call Count Duckula horror — because I think (broadly speaking — of course there’s some overlap) they try to do different things and work in different ways.

Finally, to answer Juliet’s question: is publishing sexist? I have nothing to do with the industry, so I can do no more than speculate. I don’t think it is, not conciously anyway; but I do think there is a bias towards male writers — yet the majority of readers are female. Perhaps it is not so much one gender being favoured deliberately over another as the industry seeking to maintain a preconceived pattern of gender. A few years ago, Mark Morris wrote Fiddleback (known as The Lonely Places in the US), a psychological thriller with a female lead. It was published under a gender-neutral name to make it more appealing to women. That doesn’t excuse any biases against female writers, but it does demonstrate that ‘gender expectations’ can work both ways. Perhaps it’s that the publishing industry likes it when one set of books appeals to one gender, and another set of books appeals to another gender, and doesn’t like to rock that particular boat.

Over to you — yes, for once I’m going to explicitly invite comments (which are always welcome in any case). Do you prefer to read authors of one gender over another? What’s your take on the whole issue?


  1. I read, mostly S.F., fantasy and Horror, i tend to ignore the supposed sex of the author, as the names dont help…Andre Norton for example. In SF with the best writers you can tell who is male and who is female when you read the works….C J Cherryh and Elizabeth Moon vs Alastair Reynolds and Larry Niven, all equely good and you can tell the sex of the writer, but it takes nothing away from the story. SO I fail to see why at the highest levels why anyone good enough can not write in any field.

    does that make sence?

  2. Yes, that does make sense.Thanks for the comment! How big a difference do you think there is between the SF books that men and women write?

  3. How big a difference do you think there is between the SF books that men and women write?

    well quality wise if the authors are good then the quality will be the same, its more a question of focus, female writers seem to be better at personality and personal interation of the characters, male writers tend to go for the technological glory along with maybe a touch more warfare. But with then best writers its all swings and roundabouts

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