All of us—to a greater or lesser extent, and often without realizing it—tend to expect less of women, listen to them less attentively and feel uncomfortable with them in positions of authority. But there are men who do not expose themselves to women’s voices in the first place, across the cultural spectrum, whether the women are on social media, writing books or appearing in films. If these men are not listening to, reading or watching women, how can they accord them any authority at all? How do they even know if the women are any good?
The easiest way to measure this phenomenon—of women whistling into the void—is to look at the books that men and women read. Non-fiction books are sources of authority on a subject; fiction takes us into other humans’ worlds and minds, broadening our empathy and understanding. Before going any further, may I ask you to take a moment to think about the last five or ten books you’ve read, and count how many are by male and how many by female authors? If you’re a man and your tally is roughly 50:50, congratulations, you are very unusual. As the writer Grace Paley once said, “Women have always done men the favor of reading their work and men have not returned the favor.”
The first study to look at this was a little anecdotal, but still telling. Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary University interviewed a hundred academics, critics and writers about their fiction reading habits. Four out of five of the men they talked to said the last novel they had read was written by a man, whereas women were almost as likely to have read a novel by a male author as a female one. When asked which novel by a woman they had read most recently, a majority of men found it hard to recall or could not answer.
When asked to name the ‘most important’ novel by a woman written in the last two years, many men admitted defeat and confessed they had no idea. Female authors make up as much of the modern literary canon as male ones, so these men were reading only half the canon, while the women were sampling it all. Maybe the men assumed that novels by women weren’t as good, but how could they tell if they weren’t even reading them?
As the report concluded: “Men who read fiction tend to read fiction by men, while women read fiction by both women and men. Consequently, fiction by women remains ‘special interest,’ while fiction by men still sets the standard for quality, narrative and style.” If you think about the “great American novel,” I bet you immediately associate it with Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen. But what about Toni Morrison, anyone? Harper Lee? Alice Walker? Donna Tartt?
The Irish novelist John Boyne remembers attending a literary festival where three established male novelists were referred to in the program as “giants of world literature,” while a panel of female writers of equal stature were described as “wonderful storytellers.” He actually believes that women are better novelists than men because, he claims, they have a better grasp of human complexity. “My female friends, for example, seem to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in men’s heads most of the time. My male friends, on the other hand, haven’t got a clue what’s going on in women’s.”
Boyne is unusual, though. Most people seem to have different expectations and therefore different standards for men’s and women’s fiction writing. This is what allows some men to believe that women’s writing is not worth reading. The Irish novelist Anne Enright explained this beautifully in the London Review of Books : “If a man writes ‘The cat sat on the mat’ we admire the economy of his prose; if a woman does, we find it banal. If a man writes ‘The cat sat on the mat’ we are taken by the simplicity of his sentence structure, its toughness and precision. We understand the connection between ‘cat’ and ‘mat,’ sense the grace of the animal, admire the way the percussive monosyllables sharpen the geometrics of the mat beneath. This is just a very truthful, very real sentence (look at those nouns!) containing both masculine ‘mat’ and feminine ‘cat.’ It somehow Says It All. If, on the other hand, a woman writes ‘The cat sat on the mat’ her concerns are clearly domestic, and sort of limiting. Time to go below the comments line and make jokes about pussy…”
Things can be different. And it’s a very easy problem for men to fix. All they have to do is actively seek out books by women.
Mary Beard told me how she was once on a book prize panel, “and it was absolutely clear to me that the men picked really lengthy books. They would pick them up and say, ‘This is a really weighty contribution’ and what they meant was, ‘This is a very male contribution.’ Then one of the other judges said in the end, ‘We’re going to have some short books.’ It’s not that the contributions of men and women are colossally different, but the affirmative adjectives that are used to make us think that we can all agree about this candidate rather than the other one tend to be heavily correlated with male candidates. Women don’t do ‘weighty’ things. These are words that are not so glaringly correlated with gender, but they’re a code for gender. The men who use those words are as unaware as anybody of that.” We all know instinctively that “heavyweight” is code for “male.”
The novelist Kamila Shamsie has sat on a number of prize judging panels. “There are male judges and female judges,” she told me, “and the women judges are putting forward books by both men and women that they think should be shortlisted. And the male judges are largely putting forward books by other men.”
One year, she decided to call it out. As the panel sat down for their first meeting, Shamsie drew attention to the fact that the prize had only ever been won by one or two women. The next time they met for the longlisting, each of them having supposedly read all the books submitted for the prize, a male judge had on his longlist a couple of books by female authors. When he was asked about one of these books, he shrugged, looked at Shamsie, and said, “Well, I put it on because such a noise was made on the first day about women not being included.” He clearly hadn’t read it, she says.
“But then the really telling thing,” she goes on, “was it got on the longlist because others of us, which is to say the women judges, had read it and really liked it. And when we came in for the next meeting, this male judge was a very passionate advocate of this book, which he had finally read and found to be wonderful!”
Amanda Craig is a British novelist who writes state-of-the-nation fiction. Yet, as Sarah Hughes asked in the Independent when reviewing Craig’s latest book, The Golden Rule, “Why is Amanda Craig not better known? Her novels, which have tackled topics from the plight of undocumented migrants to the effects of Brexit on rural Britain, fit neatly into the sphere occupied by the celebrated likes of Jonathan Coe—yet somehow she is not a household name.
“This is possibly because the influences Craig draws on are seen as ‘female’ and lacking in weight. She has never been afraid to reference myth and fairy tale in her work, previously playing on the story of Theseus and Ariadne and spinning comic gold from an updated retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yet it seems that an interest in how stories feed the imagination is considered less compelling than tricks of language or form.”
And very similar books written by men and women can be judged differently. Kamila Shamsie won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel Home Fire. A retelling of Antigone in the context of the war on terror, it covers deep contemporary themes with an overlay of complex relationships between three Anglo-Pakistani siblings and the son of the Home Secretary. But, she told me, “When my books get talked about, people go much more to the familial and the romantic elements of them. And actually, the men are writing as much about romance and family, maybe more, but they get talked about in terms of the larger political stories that they’re telling.”
Is this just a phenomenon of the English-speaking world? Definitely not. The Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard was feted for his six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle, a minutely detailed account of his domestic life that would probably have been deemed inconsequential if written by a woman. In 2010, Belgian author Bernhard Dewulf won a prestigious Dutch literary award, the Libris Literatuur Prijs, for a semi-autobiographical account of day-to-day life with his children. Three years earlier, a jury of the same prize lamented the fact that women so often write about “personal trifles.”
To see a better and bigger picture of the extent to which men were failing to read books by women, I asked Nielsen Book Research, the gurus of the book trade, to reveal definitively who exactly was reading what. I wanted to know not just whether female authors were deemed less authoritative than men (possibly because they are judged by double standards), but whether they were even being read in the first place. And the results bore out my suspicion that men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman. Overall, looking at the top-selling books (fiction and nonfiction) in the UK, women read slightly more than men: the readers of these books were 54 per cent female and 46 per cent male. But when you break them down by author, the results are dramatically different.
For the top ten bestselling female authors (who include Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19 per cent of their readers are men and 81 per cent women. But for the top ten bestselling male authors (who include Charles Dickens and J. R. R. Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split is much more even: 55 per cent men and 45 per cent women. In other words, women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women. And the female author in the top ten who had the biggest male readership—the thrillerwriter L. J. Ross—uses her initials, so it’s possible that her male readers weren’t aware of her gender. What does that tell us about how reluctant we are to accord equal authority—intellectual, artistic, cultural—to women and men?
Margaret Atwood, self-evidently a writer who should be on the bookshelves of anyone who cares about literary fiction, has a readership which is only 21 per cent male. Male fellow Booker Prize winners Julian Barnes and Yann Martel have nearly twice as many (39 and 40 per cent). Hilary Mantel has only 34 per cent male readers.
It’s not as if women are less adept at writing literary fiction. Quite the contrary. In 2017, all five of the top five bestselling literary novels in the UK and Ireland were by women, and nine of the top ten. And it’s not as if men don’t enjoy reading books by women when they do read them; in fact, they marginally prefer them. The average rating men give to books by women on Goodreads is 3.9 out of 5; for books by men, it’s 3.8.
Just as men are reluctant to read female authors, they are also reluctant to review or recommend them.
Turning to non-fiction, which is read by slightly more men than women, the pattern is similar, though not quite so striking. Men still read male authors much more than female ones, but the discrepancy isn’t so large because women tend to do the same in favor of female authors. But there is still quite a difference. Women are 65 per cent more likely to read a nonfiction book by the opposite sex than men are. And that suggests that men, consciously or unconsciously, do not accord female authors as much authority as male ones. Or they make the lazy assumption that women’s books aren’t for them without trying them out to see whether this is true.
This is not just bad for women’s book sales. It narrows men’s experiences of the world. “I’ve known this for a very long time, that men just aren’t interested in reading our literature,” Bernardine Evaristo told me. “So what does that say about our society? Our literature is one of the ways in which we explore narrative, we
explore our ideas, we develop our intellect, our imagination. If we’re writing women’s stories, we’re talking about the experiences of women. We also talk about male experiences from a female perspective. And so if they’re not interested in that, I think that it says a lot and it’s very damning and it’s extremely worrying. It seems to me that we’re seen as less important and more insignificant. And that is a big problem.”
If women writers do want to be feted, it helps if they write mainly about men. Nicola Griffith analyzed the six most important US and UK literary fiction awards over fifteen years and found that the more prestigious the award, the more likely the novel would have male main characters. So, for instance, in fifteen years of the Pulitzer Prize, between 2000 and 2015, more than half the winners were books by men, about men. Of the female winners, half the novels were about men and half were about both men and women. No winner, either male or female, wrote a book starring women or girls.
Yet novels are supposed to be about the human condition, not just the male condition. “Either this means that women writers are selfcensoring, or those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, distasteful, or boring. Certainly, the results argue for women’s perspectives being considered uninteresting or unworthy,” writes Griffith.
This lack of acknowledgement is also very hurtful to female authors. Dolly Alderton is a highly successful writer, whose memoir Everything I Know About Love was a Sunday Times bestseller and won the 2018 National Book Award for best autobiography. Yet in Britain, at least, it had almost no interest from men. Every newspaper and magazine journalist sent to interview her was a woman and it was, as she told me, “marketed and perceived and received as something incredibly niche by dint of my gender. Yet a female experience is not a niche experience; it’s a universal common interest.”
This has really dented her morale. “I feel like I have no male readers. There’s something innately very patronizing about knowing that half the population considers my thoughts on anything to be completely irrelevant to them. I do find that quite upsetting sometimes. On low days when I think about what that dismissal of my thoughts and stories and work is, it’s wounding. It sends you into a weird existential place to think that half the population isn’t interested in what you’ve got to say.” It’s not just that there is an authority gap: there is a complete void if men aren’t reading books by women.
Yet, when she went on a publicity tour to Denmark, a rather more progressive country, it was quite different. She told the male journalist who had been sent to interview her that he was the first ever. “He couldn’t believe how weird that was. He was in his twenties and said he and his friends read memoirs or fiction by women just as much as those by men.” Things can be different. And it’s a very easy problem for men to fix. All they have to do is actively seek out books by women.
“When I’m asked to recommend books, I nearly always choose women. And I nearly always choose black women or women of color, because I know if I don’t, they’re very unlikely to be on those lists.”
But the UK and the US still have a very long way to go. When Esquire magazine drew up a list of “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read,” described as “the greatest works of literature ever published,” only one was written by a woman, Flannery O’Connor, and she had a gender-neutral first name. Female authors from George Eliot to the Brontë sisters to J. K. Rowling have had to change or disguise their names to persuade men and boys to read them. I was very tempted to publish this book under the name of M. A. Sieghart.
You might expect Esquire’s list to be a matter of blokes recommending to blokes books written by other blokes. But would you expect it from, say, the New York Review of Books? In 2019, only 29.6 per cent of its reviewers were women. (The London Review of Books, at 32 per cent, was only marginally better.) And of the books it reviewed, only 31 per cent were by women. So, just as men are reluctant to read female authors, they are also reluctant to review or recommend them. Even in the NYRB, we have blokes recommending books by other blokes. The cultural gatekeepers, the people given authority to pass judgement on books, the critics, are mainly men. And they are according authority to books written by other men. How can women writers expect to be taken seriously by men if male critics largely ignore their existence?
“Affinity is a joyful thing,” writes the novelist Anne Enright. “I have often admired the ease with which men praise books by other men, and envied, slightly, the way they sometimes got admired in their turn. This spiral of male affection twists up through our cultural life, lifting male confidence and reputation as it goes. Work by men is also read and discussed by female critics; only one side of the equation is weak: the lack of engagement with women’s work by men.”
It’s not as if the New York Review of Books is doing this unknowingly. The VIDA Count, from which I took these statistics, has been publicizing its valuable work since 2010. The percentage of female reviewers in the NYRB has crept up since then, but only at the pace of a remarkably idle sloth. It is only three percentage points higher than it was in 2014.
Some publications now do much better. The New York Times Book Review’s book pages had 58 per cent women reviewers in 2019, a huge improvement over the decade. The Times Literary Supplement had 49 per cent (but it still reviewed twice as many books by men as by women). Again, things can change.
Whole genres are often dismissed by the book review pages. The easy-reading thrillers and crime mysteries and speculative fiction that men enjoy are reviewed. No new book by Lee Child goes unnoticed. And when male authors such as Nick Hornby or David Nicholls write commercial books that deal with relationships and family life, they too get reviewed. But the female equivalents are often categorized derisively as chick lit, women’s fiction or romance and are usually overlooked by serious papers.
“If chick-lit novels are reviewed, it’s to be rude about them,” says Serena Mackesy. She started writing fiction in the 1990s, soon after the first Bridget Jones book was published. So her publishers decided to package her as a chicklit author. “All my books were discussing quite big issues, but the blurbs were, ‘So and so has a job but can she find a boyfriend?’” Mackesy had no say in how her books were marketed, until she had a brainwave. She decided to change her name to the gender-neutral Alex Marwood and start again. “I know stacks and stacks of very nice men who aren’t at all prejudiced against women, but they just automatically think they won’t have anything in common with a book by ‘Serena.’” Her first thriller as “Alex,” The Wicked Girls, was widely reviewed, praised by Stephen King as one of his top ten books of the year, and won the prestigious Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. She hasn’t looked back.
“It’s very clear from my Amazon reviews that my readership is much more male. And I’m about 50:50 in my following on social media, whereas before it was entirely women and the men that I knew. It changed everything for me having a new name.” One one-star review on Amazon, though, said, “I do not like thrillers from female authors. I would never have bought this book if I had known that Alex Marwood was a made-up name for a British female writer.” She has it up on her bathroom wall.
At publishing parties, Mackesy enjoys arriving as Serena and then changing to Alex halfway through. “People who can barely bring themselves to shake my hand suddenly start fawning in recognition.”
Her conclusion? “It was amazing to find that I was successful and it’s delightful to be talked to with respect by strangers who don’t realize you’re a woman on social media.”
She is still irritated, though, that male authors such as David Nicholls, who wrote the highly successful and very readable One Day, about an on-off romance between a young man and a woman, are widely reviewed and celebrated. “One Day is an excellent novel, but a lot of female authors were surprised to find it praised for elements that are dismissed as ‘classic chick lit’ in their own work.” After all, its subject matter is romance, sensitivity and relationships.
Reviews can, of course, be bad, but recommendations are universally good. So I counted the “Books of the Year” recommendations in the TLS, the Guardian, the Spectator and the New Statesman. Only the Guardian asked more women than men to suggest their books of the year. The other titles ranged from 61-70 per cent men, with the Spectator the most male-skewed.
The male reviewers at the Spectator were four times more likely to recommend books by other men than books by women. The (many fewer) female reviewers were much more even-handed, recommending 42 per cent men, 58 per cent women. At the TLS too, the men recommended books that were 69 per cent by men and only 31 per cent by women; the female split was 44:56. Even in the New Statesman (where two thirds of the reviewers were male, despite its progressive ethos), the men showed exactly the same 69:31 bias, but it was at least counteracted by female reviewers recommending many more books by women. So male critics are according much more authority to male writers than female ones. And the critics themselves are supposedly authorities on the world of literature. As a result, readers are led to believe, first, that men have more authority in recommending which books to read and, second, that books by men are better than books by women. Neither is true, but both serve to exacerbate the authority gap.
Bernardine Evaristo says she makes a point of trying to redress the balance. “When I’m asked to recommend books, I nearly always choose women. And I nearly always choose black women or women of color, because I know if I don’t, they’re very unlikely to be on those lists. So I make a point of doing it because then at least there are going to be two or three books there that are not by white people and not by white men.”
David Bamman, an assistant professor at University of California, Berkeley, did a similar study in 2018 of the hundred most recent interviews in the New York Times’s “By the Book” column, looking at which books authors said they had on their bedside tables. He found an even stronger male bias. Male interviewees recommended four books by men for every one book by a woman, whereas women were extremely even-handed, recommending 51 per cent men and 49 per cent women. Half the male interviewees mentioned no women writers at all.
This connects across, he says, to the lowly status that women have in novels written by men. “Men remain—on average, as a group—remarkably resistant to giving women more than a third of the character-space in their stories.”
The author Lauren Groff tried to redress the balance when she did her “By the Book” interview in May 2018, by naming only female authors. She signed off by asking, “When male writers list books they love or have been influenced by—as in this very column, week after week—why does it almost always seem as though they have only read one or two women in their lives? It can’t be because men are inherently better writers than their female counterparts… And it isn’t because male writers are bad people. We know they’re not bad people. In fact, we love them. We love them because we have read them. Something invisible and pernicious seems to be preventing even good literary men from either reaching for books with women’s names on the spines, or from summoning women’s books to mind when asked to list their influences. I wonder what such a thing could possibly be.” It is surely (some) men’s blind spot when it comes to letting women’s views into their lives, admiring their writing, and according them literary authority.
This has real-life consequences. As well as not being taken as seriously as men, women writers have to put up with earning less because so many fewer men are reading their books and so their publishers value them less. Sociologist Dana Beth Weinberg and mathematician Adam Kapelner of Queens College-CUNY looked at 2 million titles published in North America between 2002 and 2012. They found that, on average, books by women were priced 45 per cent lower than books by men.
But it has consequences too for us all. “Women’s voices are not being heard. Women are more than half our culture. If half the adults in our culture have no voice, half the world’s experience is not being attended to, learned from, or built upon. Humanity is only half what we could be,” writes Nicola Griffith.
Which is why it was so cheering that the Man Booker Prize, whose previous record was only marginally better than the Pulitzer, decided to award its 2019 prize jointly to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other—both novels by women, about women and, in Evaristo’s case, about women of color. Progress is finally being made; let’s hope that it spreads more widely. Let’s hope that women’s writing starts to be valued as much as men’s and that men start to open their minds to the other half of the world.
It wasn’t until she was sixty that Evaristo felt her work was at last being taken seriously. “It’s always been a struggle to reach a wider audience, and to be conferred with the kind of respect that white men have traditionally had in our literary culture in the UK,” she told me. And to what extent was this because she was female or black? “Sometimes we have to break it down, don’t we? Are we talking about race? Are we talking about gender, are we talking about class, are we talking about education? All those things play a part. The fact that I was the first black woman to win the Booker, or the first black British person to win the Booker, tells a story in itself.”
And how did it eventually happen? “Because of who was in the room. I think it’s that simple. There were four women on the panel, and one man, and I think that that made history. They were four very strong women, and my book clearly spoke to them. At the same time our society has changed somewhat in the last few years, in that there is more receptivity to black women’s art, ideas, culture, literature. So I think the time was right for a book such as mine to break through. But it did take fifty years for that to happen. And I did have to share the prize, although, as I always say, I will take it any way it comes.”
Excerpted from The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It. Copyright © 2022 by Mary Ann Sieghart. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.