Frustrations of a bookseller

This year’s Stella Count is bleak. The statistics from The Monthly are broadly representative of the count’s wider findings: 65 per cent of authors reviewed were male, and just 5 per cent of published book reviews were men reviewing women authors (whereas 30 per cent were women reviewers covering male authors). The magazine published six times as many long reviews of books by men as it did books by women.

Working in bookselling, this comes as no surprise at all. The results reflect the persisting truth of Simone de Beauvoir’s iconic statement that ‘man represents both the positive and the neutral’. The Stella Count is perfectly emblematic of a reading culture in which there exists a widespread reluctance for males of all ages to engage with the work of women writers or stories about women characters. This reluctance transcends the books men choose for themselves; when a female customer comes looking for a gift for a male friend, the recipient’s gender is emphasised. If they’re looking for a book on leadership, for instance, manifestoes from successful businesswomen just won’t suffice.

To a woman seeking a crime novel for a friend, my colleague has recommended a string of prominent blockbuster crime authors – Patricia Cornwell, Ruth Rendell, Kathy Reichs – yet none were quite right. Suggestions were rebuffed by a sceptical ‘But is this for a man?’ or ‘Are you sure a male reader would like this?’ Such questions frequently recur in our conversations with customers, and gender consistently emerges as a paramount consideration when buying books as gifts. On the occasion I refer to here, the customer was ironically content in purchasing a Robert Galbraith novel.

Popular author Jodi Picoult has expressed her frustration with this very bias – the perception that, as a woman, everything she publishes must be ‘women’s fiction’ while male authors can enjoy a universal readership.

If a woman had written One Day [by David Nicholls], it would have been airport fiction. Look at The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. If Jenny Eugenides had written it, it would have had a pink fluffy cover on it. What is it about? It’s about a woman choosing between two men. And I’m attacking gun control and teen suicide and end-of-life care and the Holocaust, and I’m writing women’s fiction?

It’s true: David Nicholls’ One Day carries all the makings of the genre typically derided as ‘chick-lit’ – and yet his most recent novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a feat out of reach for bestselling authors like Picoult.

This tendency infiltrates the seeming innocence of the children’s department as well. Young girls are constantly delving into the adventurous fantasy worlds of Percy Jackson, Alex Rider and Artemis Fowl. They devour the tales of male mouse Geronimo Stilton and his female counterpart Thea Stilton alike. But in six years of bookselling, I’ve yet to see a boy venture into the saga of girl-spy Ruby Redfort. Boys show no inclination to read Thea Stilton, even though the books are identical to Geronimo.

The burden of diversifying reading habits obviously can’t be placed on the shoulders of seven-year-olds oblivious to the way their books are subject to gendered marketing. This is where parents come in, however, and it’s not rare to hear them express palpable fear at the prospect of their sons reading women’s work. Like clockwork, even recommending a series with proven universal popularity like The Hunger Games will be followed up by a parent’s whispering in a hushed aside, ‘But isn’t that book for girls?’

In such an environment, a dearth of male interaction with the works of women authors seems inevitable. At a cultural level, Laurie Penny writes in Unspeakable Things:

Almost every story boys get to read casts them as the hero and women and girls as supporting characters, mothers and wives and girlfriends … promising men the beautiful sidekick, the lovely princess, the silent, smiling companion as a reward for whatever trials life throws their way.

The flow-on effect of this isn’t hard to deduce.

Our book-buying decisions do not exist in a vacuum, of course. The way books by women authors are marketed is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. Typically a woman writer’s gender will be downplayed to appeal to a wider audience by using an initialed first name, or her ‘femaleness’ will be emphasised in ways that would usually discourage men from approaching their work. This isn’t limited to ‘chick-lit’, but is an entrenched practice in commercial genres like fantasy, crime, sci-fi and horror.

One colleague of mine laments the way travel literature is branded: a male author is usually discovering facts and ideas, while a woman travel writer will discover her feelings. Or so it seems from the cover and the blurb. Another colleague frequently draws parallels between Outlander and Game of Thrones as epic fantasy series’ of sex, history and intrigue. Yet despite their strong plots and shared tedium in length, Outlander remains popular with an almost exclusively female readership because it’s marketed as a romance.

In spite of this, we all retain the capacity to look beyond the cover and author’s gender. And look beyond we must, if we want to change the glaring disparity that the Stella Count illuminates on a yearly basis. If the experiences of women writers publishing under male pseudonyms tells us anything, it’s that factors like gender play an outrageous role that borders on comical in implicitly restricting the readership of women writers. The biases affecting women writers of colour and diverse background are only greater, and it is with this view that I eagerly welcome the Stella Count’s projected expansion into investigating how intersections of gender identity, sexuality, race and disability impact women writers.

At the Stella blog, Jasmeet Sahi notes that ‘analysing and acknowledging these results may result in greater self-awareness within the industry and its gatekeepers’. Reviewers and publications can try leading the way, and I encourage them to do so, but after talking to people about their reading choices all day, my hope is that analysing and acknowledging these results may also result in greater self-awareness in individual readers.

Despite the recent Stella Count, last month’s issue of The Monthly still featured two long reviews of male authors by male reviewers, while the sole, short review of a woman author (written by a woman reviewer) sits on the back page.

This situation will continue until we re-examine and transform the way we read at both a collective and individual level – it’s a feat that relies on the active efforts of all readers and book lovers. It’s not enough to just think critically and challenge biases when it comes to the books we choose for ourselves, either: it needs to extend to the books we recommend to our friends and children as well.


Image: ‘Reading’ by Kyle RW / flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Hi Natassia! Thanks for a great article. You mention “the Stella Count’s projected expansion into investigating how intersections of gender identity, sexuality, race and disability impact women writers.”
    We actually released the results for the inaugural version of this research last week. The Stella Count Survey collected information about how writers self-identify their gender, sexuality, race and disability. While we had a small take-up in this first year, the results still tell us some things about the makeup of women authors who are reviewed in Australia; namely, that they are largely white, cisgender, heterosexual and do not identify as having a disability. You can read more and view the full results on our website: http://thestellaprize.com.au/the-count/stella-count-survey

  2. Hi Natassia, Thanks for a good article. As a woman, I wanted to let you know of my experience with female writing and particularly female discussion groups and what becomes the central focus of the discussion? That is relationships – was the main character a good wife, a good daughter, a good mother (couched with a good mother wouldn’t do that), how could a good mother have a child like that, does she have mental health problems and so forth. The author’s writing, research, use of structure, motif, etc are rarely discussed and ancillary to “the relationships”. Imagine if any of Bret Easton Ellis books were written by a women! Myself I don’t care who wrote the book, whether the main character is a raving lunatic – just show me good writing.

  3. Most interesting article. As an aficionado of crime fiction who grew up reading Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, I admit to a strong preference to male writers in the genre eg Ian Rankin, Henning Mankell, Robert Crais, Robert B Parker and Michael Connolly, for example. For some reason, feamale writers do not cut it when it come to real crime novels and just by reading a book I can tell whether the writer was a woman! The other aspect is that most female writers have female heroines which I find difficult to identify with! I am not at all biased against female writing since I am a fan of Hilary Manton, Mary Renault and Nadine Gordimer to name but a few! I am not a fan of entirely erasing gender stereotyping since the sexes are different and do things differently and are better at different things! Ardent feminists may not agree but that’s my view.

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