Literature’s Gender Gap
A few weeks ago, Laura Miller penned an interesting piece in Salon about the gap between the number of women being published and reviewed in the literary world (in literary magazines, in books reviews, etc.) versus the number of men. She was reporting on findings by Vida (an organization for “women in literary arts”), which discovered that in most literary publications (e.g., The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House), men far outweigh women in representation. Miller’s piece goes into all sorts of questions related to this issue, but one of the most interesting tangents of the whole story is the assertion (or assumption?) that men read more literary works by men, whereas women read works by both men and women. Although the evidence for this may be, as Miller notes, anecdotal, in general I tend to think this is true.
But it is not true of every male writer, of course—including yours truly. Indeed, reading the piece, I wanted to stand up and shout: “Not me, not me!” Still, overall, if we’re going to generalize (and why not?), then I think it is the case for many male writers—they largely just read books by other men.
And why is this? In asking, I don’t claim to have any answers.
This gender gap, sadly, is also true of the YA world. I know young women read a lot of novels by women—but they also read works by men. I know this because I’ve gotten plenty of emails and comments from the wonderful world of female YA bloggers who’ve read my novel. But do boys read works by women, books about girls? Not usually. And as Miller notes, this bias, which starts young, might extend into adulthood.
Some anecdotal evidence of my own: During my grad school years (over ten years ago), the small graduate workshop was made up of about seven men and five women. If you asked any of the men who their favorites writers were, they’d reel off a list of men, barely mentioning a female writer. Barry Hannah, Tim O’Brien, Thom Jones, Denis Johnson, Hemingway, Faulkner—those were the writers most mentioned, as I recall. (Writers that I, too, love, but not to the exclusion of other writers.) Meanwhile, the females—true to the above-mentioned thesis—would mention some of those male writers, but also writers like Willa Cather, Alice Munro, Ann Beattie, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, and Joy Williams. (Flannery O’Connor was the one female writer that I recall getting bisexual support. But this was the south, and one of our teachers was obsessed with O’Connor, so that made sense.)
Why was this? Why is this? Why do so many men shy away from female writers?
This topic got me thinking about my favorite writers. I professed to love female writers as much as male writers, if not more—but was this ultimately the case? I’d never made an official list of favorite writers, though I do keep a list of my favorite books.
So, this got me thinking: Who are my favorite writers? I made a list. I might as well break them down by gender. First, the females, in mostly random order: Alice Munro, Anne Tyler, Hilary Mantel, Lorrie Moore, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, Deborah Eisenberg, Elizabeth Strout, Jennifer Egan, Julie Hecht, Willa Cather, and Jane Austen. For the men, it’s William Faulkner, William Maxwell, David Gates, Allan Gurganus, Keith Banner, E.M. Forster, William Trevor, Robert Cormier, Vladimir Nabokov, Raymond Carver, J. D. Salinger, and Tobias Wolff.
Twelve women. Twelve men. Evenly divided. But ask me for my top two, and it becomes all about the women: Alice Munro and Anne Tyler are, without a doubt, my Top Two.
Why, then, do my tastes run to the more “feminine”? It is because I’m gay? I do know a number of gay male writers who share my affections for many of the female writers mentioned above, especially Tyler and Munro. And I think it’s true, as a whole, that more gay men list female writers in their list of favorites. But, again, this is anecdotal evidence on my part.
Explaining why I love Munro and Tyler so much—why I connect with their work, their writing styles—begs for a longer essay. Some people might describe them as writers who are more concerned with “domestic” and emotional matters—family, relationships, heartbreak, love. (This is not to say that men don’t write about these things, of course.) And perhaps that’s what I’m most attracted to, both as a writer and a reader.
So, back to my original query: Why don’t men read female writers? Is it just how we’re wired? Do we prefer to read about experiences that more reflect our own lives? There are not simple answers to these questions, of course. But I will always remember a male classmate who, when I told him I loved Alice Munro and that he should check her work out, replied scornfully that he found her work “boring.” “It’s just all that female stuff,” he said. I tried to argue him out of that narrow view—sure, it’s often about “female stuff,” but it’s really about so much more. To me, it’s the opposite of boring—it’s thrilling and invigorating, sentence after sentence of pleasure. But in the end I gave up and just thought to myself: “It’s your loss, buddy.” And indeed, I know this is true: My reading life—and thus my writing life—would be severely impoverished if I just read writers who share my gender.