Genderised Book Reviewing

6 December, 2016

When I mentioned my favourite writers some years ago, I was taken to task because I didn’t include any female authors. I confess I hadn’t even considered gender when assessing whose works I liked to read, but you could say that the criticism “raised my consciousness” about the issue.

Recently I did a survey of the last 100 books I read and found that only 19 were authored or edited by a woman. I was a bit surprised at this low number.  My guess is that this may be partly because I tend to read multiple books by favourite male authors such as Anthony Burgess and Paul Theroux, while female authors (for some as yet unanalysed reason) are generally represented on my reading list by single examples, and the results are thus somewhat skewed.

However, it seems that I shouldn’t have been surprised, as a survey by Goodreads found that, of books published in 2014, male authors accounted for no fewer than 90% of men’s 50 most-read titles.  Before everybody jumps up and down about men being sexist, be aware that female authors accounted for 92% of the 50 titles most read by women!  (I have included Robert Galbraith as a female writer, as it’s in fact J. K. Rowling writing under a pseudonym).

Historically, men have been published much more than women and so, unsurprisingly, we find that in “100 best books of all time” lists, women feature far less than men – the Guardian’s list, published in 2002, for example, has only 14. The 2010 Time magazine list  (which includes only books published after 1923) has 22.   Esquire Magazine’s “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read” includes just one book written by a women (Flannery O’Connor – maybe the name fooled them…).

So it was with the aforementioned heightened awareness that I approached last weekend’s Irish Times annual review of favourite books, chosen by selected luminaries.   As might be expected from such a feminist organ, the “paper of record” was scrupulously gender-balanced, with 17 male and 17 female reviewers asked to contribute.  I analysed the gender of the authors of the books mentioned, excluding a few that were compendia of works by both genders, to test the extent to which males favoured male authors and female favoured female authors.

Overall, there were 142 recommendations, with some books being represented more than once within this number. There was a respectable gender balance, with a 60/40 split in favour of male authors.  No need for quotas then (or was this outcome itself the result of a quota being imposed?!)  In fact, I suspect that this outcome probably reflects the gender balance of the authors of all books published in the English language these days, with males outnumbering females, rather than any bias or quality issues.

But when recommendations were further analysed by gender of the reviewer, the position is a bit different. In the case of male reviewers, 73% of the books recommended were written by men.  The women were a bit more balanced, but still favoured books written by women, by 58% to 42%.

So the Irish Times interviewees were still favouring their own gender when it comes to book selections. I’m not surprised that the extent of this bias (if that is the appropriate word) is far less marked than that shown by the Goodreads survey mentioned above – after all, those who write for (and read) The Irish Times are an educated and sophisticated lot, and are less likely to favour crime novels (written largely by men for men), science fiction (ditto), or chick-lit (written largely by women for women).  Biography, history and literary fiction are much more gender-blind.

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