Male vs. Female Authors: The Double Standard

How likely is it that a man goes to a bookstore and purchases a pink book with a picture of a stiletto on it? Or a little girl on a farm? How likely is it that a woman goes to a bookstore and purchases a red book with bold, black typeface and some kind of faraway landscape? The fact of the matter is people really do judge books by their covers. And if that book seems remotely feminine and has a female author, a man will likely move on to the next shelf.

According to this important essay in The New York Times, “women’s fiction” consists of books that are written by women. But they’re not necessarily for women. And they certainly aren’t always “chick lit.” But many tend to lump women’s fiction and chick lit together — identifying these books as silly, quick reads about women and their romantic relationships with men as well as their friendships with other women. Essayist Meg Wolitzer uses Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot as an example of the exception to the rule — a book that has mainly feminine themes, but is written by a male. It’s been hugely successful, but women write books with similar content and themes all the time and don’t get nearly as much recognition. Is it simply because they’re women?

Furthermore, women’s fiction and chick lit are not the same. Women’s fiction can be as serious as any man’s book. And whereas a woman tends to be open to reading a book written by a man, men aren’t necessarily as inclined to read books written by women, as Meg Wolitzer explains.

Recently at a social gathering, when a guest found out I was a writer, he asked, “Would I have heard of you?” I dutifully told him my name — no recognition, fine, I’m not that famous — and then, at his request, I described my novels. “You know, contemporary, I guess,” I said. “Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children.” After a few uncomfortable moments he called his wife over, announcing that she, who “reads that kind of book,” was the one I ought to talk to. When I look back on that encounter, I see a lost opportunity. When someone asks, “Would I have heard of you?” many female novelists would be tempted to answer, “In a more just world.”

Wolitzer explains that women’s books are actually less reviewed, according to statistics gathered by a women’s literary organization called VIDA. She talks about the length of books, their covers, their jackets. But ultimately it all comes back to who has written the book. Wolitzer goes into incredible depth with this essay, and I urge you to read it in its entirety. While I often don’t think much about who wrote the book I’m reading, it’s something I’ll begin to consider now.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Male vs. Female Authors: The Double Standard

  1. This is an interesting post. It’s disturbing that female authors are relegated to “second-class” in terms of getting reviews. I’ve been reading a lot of indie books lately, and I noticed that the finalists for Amazon’s breakthrough novel award were all men for the general fiction category and all women for the young adult category. The sex segregation annoyed me.

    • As an aspiring author I find that the sex segregation is not the result of some higher order group intentionally forcing the divide, but rather it is self-inflicted. Consider, for a moment, that it isn’t just authors be shunted into groups but it is authors shunting themselves.

      I know a very large group of young women authors and only 1 or 2 out of dozens are writing anything else by YA lit. Most indie female authors I know are trying to do some variation on paranormal teen romance.

      Most of the male authors, of which I only know a few, feel there is no space for them in the YA scene. I’ve heard that unless you’re fit and attractive as a male author there is no place for you there.

      Of course, the biggest divide is between literary authors, like Eugenides and authors going the indie or genre publisher route. Eugenides can write a book about feminine topics because he is a literary author with the backing of the academic and artistic connections. I probably would fail if I wrote a Teen Paranormal Romance novel because no publisher wants to push a book written by a fat, balding, bearded guy in that genre. I’m suppose to be writing sci-fi or something.

      The fact that most of the books I see being published both indie and in small genre presses are women has me very discouraged as a male author. It makes me believe that I have to write a book that is far better than my female counterpart to be considered.

      Perhaps it is a good lesson in empathy for me to understand the plight of female authors 20 years ago, but it certainly doesn’t help my career.

      • I understand what you’re saying, but I respectfully disagree. The publishing industry and high profile reviewers prize male literary authors–female literary authors are dismissed as “women’s fiction.” In the Amazon Breakthrough example I gave, there were many women in the general fiction category who made it to the semi-final round (you can find the list online), but none were finalists, and so I don’t believe that women had simply “shunted themselves” away from that category. I do not read much YA, and so I will refrain from commenting on it. We can both find anecdotal evidence to support our points, but the statistical evidence to which Lara Bryn refers in this post is stronger, and I refuse to believe that men suffer from “reverse discrimination” in the publishing industry. I do wish you the best of luck in your writing career, and I hope you will not encounter the obstacles you seem to expect.

      • I think there may be two levels to the fiction industry and we may be talking about different levels of them.

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