Reading women: A self-evaluation

Get lists of women authors from the staff at the New Jersey City University library.

Get lists of women authors from the staff at the New Jersey City University library.

After cobbling together a reading challenge for myself for 2016 (I smooshed together different aspects from these reading challenges suggested by Bustle), I created a “women authors” category on my Goodreads profile to help me track that category of books. I was sorely disappointed in myself to learn that only 28% of the books I’ve read were written by women (keeping in mind that I didn’t consistently track the books I’ve read until a few years ago), and most of those have been in the last two years. Considering how many women there are in the world, that’s a dismally low number. According to The World Bank, the number is 50.4% in the United States, which is where most of the authors I read are from. Australia and Great Britain are the only two other home countries for the majority of my authors, and they have similar numbers. But the lack of geographic diversity in my reading is a whole other disparity that deserves its own post, which has luckily already been written by someone more talented than I: Reading More Translated Books Will Make You A Better Person by Rachel Cardasco on BookRiot.

But getting back to women authors. Here are some thoughts that tagging all the books written by women I’ve read brought up:

Pseudonym and assumptions

It’s interesting how many women feel the need to obscure their gender by either using a gender neutral pseudonym or using initials. We all know about J.K. Rowling, who interestingly used a male pen name (Robert Galbraith) when writing her adult mystery series. This after she gained international renown as a woman author. But the Han Solo trilogy from Star Wars’ “Legends” universe (which is the new name for the expanded universe that isn’t considered canon anymore) was written by an A.C. Crispin, who I would have sworn was a dude until I Googled the name. Her name is Ann Crispin. Speaking of pen names, Lian Hearn, who wrote the Tales of the Otori series, is actually named Gillian Rubinstein. She’s another author I would have sworn was a guy.

What does that say about me? After some introspection, I think I wrongly assumed a male author because I thought a book with a male protagonist would likely have been written by a man. But that’s strange because I’m not shocked when I read a book with a female protagonist that is written by a man. This might be because most men don’t obscure their gender with a pen name. I mean, Thursday Next is one of my favorite female characters of all time, but Jasper Fforde is an unavoidably male name and it is right there in big letters on the cover. Even when men use pseudonyms, they tend to just make their names manlier or more simple. Samuel Langhorne Clemens became Mark Twain (I’ve always thought Samuel Langhorne Clemens was the better name).

Tracing it to the curriculum

I went through my “Read” list on Goodreads chronologically, beginning with my most recent reads. Towards the end of the list I noticed that there were fewer and fewer women. Indeed the last page was all Dean Koontz, with the exception of Madeleine L’Engle (I told you all my childhood tastes were strange). Looking back on it, much of assigned reading I had in school were male authors. Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Dickens, Camus, Ellison, Faulkner, Conrad and Orwell greatly outnumber the women writers I read in school. The only one I can think of is Harper Lee. Recent school lists have made an effort to integrate more women writers, though. Last year’s lists for my local schools included Laurie Halse Anderson, Mary Shelley and Pearl Buck, but these examples are still outnumbered by the men. It’s possible that a person can unconsciously read more books by men if the teachers they get their book recommendations from only recommend male authors. Are we being indoctrinated at a young age to prefer male writers? Can a simple change in curriculum solve the problem?

Women and Genre

What do I have going for me? Well, I don’t discount books based on the gender of their author, simple because I don’t pay that much attention to authors. I generally focus on the genre and description. Perhaps I disproportionately read male authors because they tend to write the type of books I’m drawn to. In fact a lot of the recent female authors I’ve read were romance authors. I don’t read that genre generally, except I feel like I need to read some books in that genre in order to successfully recommend books to readers of romances.

Except these assumptions about genre are not true. Yes, women write a lot of famous romance novels (I’m looking at you, Nora Roberts), but men can write romance, too (Nicholas Sparks, for one). And there are plenty of women authors in the other genres. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle is one of my all time favorite science fiction books. Rowling’s Harry Potter took the fantasy world by storm. For adults, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood are amazing science fiction writers who grapple with issues of gender and equality in their books. Anne Rice was the queen of the vampire fantasy before anyone had ever heard of Twilight. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Reading More Women

I guess this whole post is leading to a single conclusion: I (and everyone, really) need to read more women authors. I know women authors are out there and they are awesome, just like I know that there are awesome male authors. While I don’t think I should discriminate against male authors by not reading them (some of my favorites are males, including David Mitchell, Jasper Fforde and Alan Bradley), I can make a conscious effort to bring some more women into the mix. For example, I just rescued an Ursula K. Le Guin collection of short stories from my the Friends of the Library room. She is highly praised in both science fiction and literary circles, so I’m looking forward to this collection being a gateway into her works.

I can also begin pushing women authors to my reading public, regardless of age. I’ve been guilty of thinking that some of the tween boys requesting recommendations would be more apt to like Rick Riordan over Cornelia Funke, when that’s not necessarily true. I’m also more likely to recommend Catherine Coulter to women seeking thrillers, while men get Ludlum. I have to stop making those assumptions. And let’s not forget the teachers, who have great influence on our youth. If we collectively and purposefully make a legitimate place for women on our shelves, then we’ll no longer have to have this conversation. Who’s with me?


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