Male & Female Reading

Reading & Writing


Despite the new century’s welcome seismic shift in sexual equality, we all know there are gender divisions in reading. Or as my father once put it; ‘Romantic novels are for middle-aged women who hate their husbands.’  I’ve met few men who profess to having read ‘Jane Eyre’, a novel I find turgid and deeply peculiar, or for that matter ‘Pride and Prejudice’, although a few have read the one with zombies in it. And when it comes to genre reading there is often a gender split.

In the last few years it has become popular to gender-neutralise author names by switching to initials, so that we have SJ Bolton, NJ Cooper, JK Rowling and so on. This is not new. In the past writers sometimes used their husbands’ names (‘Clifford Mills’, ‘Mrs Henry Wood’) in order to find readership.

I ran into trouble selling my novel ‘Plastic’ because I wrote it in first person female form at a time when most publishers’ readers were female, and my notes from them reveal a surprising level of reverse sexism. If I had submitted the book as CR Fowler would they have put comments like ‘I was put off this manuscript knowing he was writing in a female voice’?

Equally, some female crime writers invest too much emotion in their male characters. Men still don’t go to the doctor when they feel ill or talk about their feelings as much as women, so why would a taciturn old-school male cop do so? This is where great crime writers like Val McDermid, Mo Hayder and Ann Cleeves get it so right, balancing their male and female characters so that their books don’t have a divided readership.

A good writer can write with strongly identifiable female traits and still draw male readers. I like Kate Atkinson’s books because her prose is so powerful. Do women read Lee Child, I wonder, even though he writes his terrific Jack Reacher novels with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek?

In Hollywood films you find insulting, solipsistic tosh like ‘Eat Pray Love’ on one side and Tarantino’s unpleasantly misogynistic ‘The Hateful Eight’ on the other. I’m thrilled that the category of domestic suspense is back, as I love these books, primarily written by women. It’s interesting to look through your reading list and see if you can divide out what you read by the gender of the author. Anyone care to share?

7 comments on “Male & Female Reading”

  1. Alan says:

    I am a man, and I have read both Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, and have found neither work to exhibit turgor. Both are morally instructive and should, I feel, be compulsory reading for the youth who can be found hanging around outside fried chicken shops on the most high streets after dark. For those inclined to improving themselves, I highly recommend this informative video tutorial:

  2. Vivienne says:

    I’d like to think I was gender neutral as far as my reading goes. I have certainly read and enjoyed Jane Eyre and P+P, but maybe starting those at 13 to 14 was part of it. But, reflecting now, I think my preference has unconsciously been for male authors. From the school library I hunted out a series of books about a chap called Corrigan who, with a sidekick, seemed always to be having adventures in the jungle – much more fun that Jane ?, Air Hostess. Emma Bovary, Tess and Anna Karenina are strong females from a male author – can I immediately come up with a strong man from a female writer? Not sure. I have read several Lee Child and, if thrillers are more often male authored, crime writing has always seemed to be pretty balanced author-wise and I get through a lot of those. But through the years, Tolstoy, Dickens, Orwell, Gissing, Waugh, Burgess, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis – have read more of those than George Eliot, Kate Atkinson – no Barbara Cartland, but have never been very keen on pink for myself, my daughter or my granddaughters!

  3. admin says:

    I love the idea that Beau Brummel washed his shoes in champagne!

  4. When I was a lad, I read many authors who turned out to be female, despite their names, such as Andre Norton (Alice North, though she later changed her legal name) and C.L. Moore. I was not concerned when I penetrated the gender masque. I was much more upset when I found out Ellery Queen was two guys. I was not upset when I found out David Frome was Leslie Ford (though I was surprised there was a third name beyond Ford). Personally, I never thought women had a good reason for gender swapping, but that may have been because I was an isolated reader, not much influenced by my peers, and tended to read any good mystery or science fiction writer who could tell me a great story. In the romance field, however, I can easily understand why men feminise their names. A man’s name on a bodice-ripper cover doesn’t say “romance” to a female reader, even though men are more romantic (in the classical sense) than women. Women will pass that book in favour of one apparently written by a woman, whether it was or not. I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon, despite Nicholas Sparks, who, I have been told by women, doesn’t really write romances. Why? Because he’s male. He doesn’t write romances, they tell me, just romantic stories. I don’t get it, but, then, I’m only a guy.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Of the last 60 books I’ve read (that goes back to last June) 24 were by men and 36 were by women. That includes a Jane Austen (Mansfield Park) a couple of John LeCarres, a history of Marston Moor (really good) a whole raft of silly mysteries and a history of the use of quilts along the Underground Railway. Regardless of the type of book, though, there are both male and female writers and it’s just the indulgence in fluffy mysteries, nearly all written by women, that overbalances the count. I’m not sure where Jill Paton Walsh fits on the mystery continuum because they are certainly not fluff, but Peter Wimsey is certainly not your average male, either.

  6. John says:

    I felt obligated to prove to myself that I do read more women than men writers’ books. It always feel like I’m writing about more women writers on my blog than men, but my memory is obviously playing tricks on me. When I tallied up the split between sexes from the reading list I kept last year I got these results: Men – 67 (11 writers I read more than one book) Women – 30 (6 were repeats). A bit over a 2:1 ratio. About 75% of what I read last year was published before 1980 and of the new books the men still won out! I’m hanging my head in shame. My tastes always lean heavily to genre fiction both vintage and modern (and like Helen I read a lot of “fluffy” mysteries), but apparently most of those – fluffy or not – I read were written by men!

  7. Nigel says:

    I agree with you about the initials and gender neutralisation. I’m no great fan of JK Rowling, but there’s no denying her enormous popularity and her ability to get boys and girls (and men and women, although I hate those alternative “adult” covers – do they still do them?) reading. I believe it was her editor at Bloomsbury who suggested she call herself JK, because no self-respecting schoolboy would want to buy or read a book about magic written by someone called Joanne. (“Ugh! A girl!”)

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