Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gender Bias in Book Selection

Someone on Book Blogs started a discussion (and posted this link to her blog) about gender bias in book selection. Apparently, she has a colleague who will not read books written by women. As a female author, this bothers me. As a human being, it scares me a little. As a reader, I can kind of see his point.

I can't imagine deciding against picking up a book to read because its author is female, but if we didn't judge books based on things other than their content, all books could just be a flat light grey with their titles printed in an easy-to-read font. So I judge books (at least a little) by their covers, and part of that includes the author's name*. If an author's name is gender-ambiguous, I don't feel any great need to find out their sex. In some cases, the rest of the book cover gives that away (P.C. Cast, anyone?), but by and large gender doesn't really matter to me when choosing an author, as long as the book looks good.

The reason I said I could kind of see Buddy's point is that, when I thought about it, I realized that most of my favourite authors are male (Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Robert A. Heinlein, etc.). I don't think that's because of their use of “male” language (although, in the case of Gaiman and Pratchett, I would say it definitely has something to do with their British language), so much as the (often) male perspective on characters. Apart from a clever and engaging style, what I look for most in fiction is something character-driven. Fun and wonderful plots are all well and good, but if I don't care about the characters, I can hardly be expected to care about how they spend their time... and I think that men are more likely to write characters I care about. The reason for this? Flaws. Female authors (and I am way generalizing here; clearly I don't think this is true of all female authors) tend to have the unfortunate habit of forgetting to give their protagonists flaws of any kind – and many times, when they do have flaws, they're things like thinking that they're more flawed than they really are. I like my characters to be overcoming addiction, or give careless criticisms to people or be so heartsick that they can barely function. I don't want to read men who never ask for directions and frequently forget to pick up milk or women who insist on watching chick flicks and won't eat Chinese. There are flaws and there are quirks, and I think male authors are quicker to heap on the flaws when their characters are in their planning stages.

With all of that being said, I should mention that my favourite book EVER is Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen's style is very distinctly female and her characters are real, flawed people who I can relate to and enjoy reading about.

A few (though admittedly, a very few) people on Book Blogs didn't think there was much of a difference between male and female authors and Amanda Markham, the author of the blog that prompted this whole thing, points out that “... men can be every bit as fluffy and emotional as women”. This is true, but, as Ms. Markham goes on to point out, there is a discernible difference between the way women write and the way men write. She directs her readers (and I direct you) to the Gender Genie, which boasts something like 80% accuracy when determining if a passage was written by a male or female author. What's really interesting is that it shows you how it reached its conclusion, which is great, especially if you want to get really good at writing first person characters who aren't the same sex as you.

I'm still fairly ambivalent about this issue, because while there are traits that are often attributed to female authors (some of which I attribute to female authors in this post), I don't think that women should strive to be/write/act more like men. Actually, I think that if everyone strove to be and write more like themselves, we would have a lot more interesting and varied fiction available to us and a lot less weird men refusing to read woman authors.

*If an author has a name like Adrienne Loveheart, I'm likely to avoid anything she's written on principal.


E said...

I took the Gender Genie quiz twice, on two different pieces, and both times it said I write like a guy.
I'm going to choose to take that as a compliment.

It's interesting to consider the gender bias in some people's reading attitudes, especially considering how many women write crime fiction, something that you wouldn't necessarily think they'd do based on the idea that women tend to create less flawed characters. Because crime fiction is, when you get right down to it, all about flawed characters.
That's one of the three genres I see women authors being most prominent in - fantasy, crime, and chick lit/romance (which, quite honestly, I don't count as two different genres. Chick lit is romance, romance is chick lit. Honestly, what heterosexual male reads Harlequins?)
Hmm. Now I'm going to be on the lookout for gender differences in the books I read.

Athena said...

I'm jealous. Even when I'm trying to write like a guy, my style reads female. I'm hoping that with the aid of the gender genie, I'll be able to get my male characters sounding more male.

I hadn't considered crime drama, probably because I've never really read it (except for Pat...ricia... Cornwell? Um, she writes about an M.E. named... Scarpetta?)... but that may kill my whole theory about why I generally prefer male authors... hm.

Rhiannon said...

Anthropologically, you could probably say it's all a response to the roles of dominant males in the development of human societies...probably. Which is not to say that women are inferior. Big difference there.

But it's scientifically provable that men and women operate on very different wavelengths from one another, physically and mentally. It's all to do with hormones and genetics and the fact that men's chromosomes are broken on the one side*, and other such things, and ultimately, it's expressed in how we write.

But I'm in the same boat as Athena - all of my favourite authors are men. I like books written by women. Some of them, I'd even go so far as to say that I love. Like Pride and Prejudice - and Northanger Abbey, too.

But the authors whose books I consistently love and go back to time and again, the ones I get excited on finding something new from...Gaiman, Pratchett, Heinlein, Tolkien, Robert Jordan, Charles de Lint...Dave effing Duncan...

All severely lacking in the ovaries department.

So, while the Gender Genie tells me I write like a woman**, it's quite clear that I read like a man. And I'm okay with that.

You know, if there could be a story with both sappy romance (well written, of course) and shit that blows up in interesting ways, I would be very happy.***

*While also scientifically verifiable, this does not mean that men are in any way inferior to women, either.

**Which I'm perfectly okay with, really; it'd be silly not to be, since I can't escape the fact that I am a woman without hormone treatments, surgery and a hell of a lot of therapy. I'll just have to accept the fact that I'll never be any good at being bad enough to write Harlequin romance novels. *sob*

***coughcoughaigaiongirlcoughcough >:D