Gendering my bookshelves

A conversation on another bookish refuge of mine about the gender of the authors we tend to read has been both informative and unnerving. It has had me standing before the random selection of bookcases in my house taking stock of the novels lining the shelves. I have conducted no scientific calculation but I would hazard to guess that over 90% of the fiction collected, read and to be read, has been written by male authors. And that is without even digging up my electronic files.

Random pile, one of many, mostly unread.
Random pile, one of many, mostly unread.

I console myself by calling to mind a number of women peopling my hypothetical list of intentional reads for the upcoming year. But I know myself. I am idiosyncratic and tangential in my reading proclivities. I find myself unable to create a stack or list of titles and systematically make my way through from top to bottom. And although I do not intend it, novels by women are frequently pushed down the line by something else that comes into view.

Perhaps there is a question of subject and style. I am presently reading with a strong critical intention to exploring a way of telling a story that I have to tell and, for better or worse, the authors who are coming to my attention tend to be men. That may be accidental rather than intentional on my part. But my bookshelves hold a record running back over decades and the gender imbalance is consistent (and, by the way, not reflected in my non-fiction collection which tends to have a much more equal divide).

Now I could launch a defense for this heavily weighted scale. I suspect I do know some of the reasons why I am drawn to certain tales told from a male perspective, reasons rooted in my own differently gendered history, but at the end of the day I am only accountable to myself for that reality. I do not believe that I eschew female novelists on the basis of gender alone, but there are certainly stories and themes that do not draw me in. And I do not feel obligated to read women writers to understand women better, I spent the better part of four decades trying to jam my own square self into that round hole and accept that there are things I am not programmed to learn. I have female friends. I have a beautiful daughter. And it is not like I never read or fall in love with books by female authors. I am open to the opportunity to explore more. But setting a quota is disingenuous.

And feeling guilty wastes precious time that could be spent reading.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

17 thoughts on “Gendering my bookshelves”

  1. Couldn’t agree more I as you know read mainly translation and most books translated are male most books I want to read in translation are male I try to add a few female writers when I can but not going set a target or figure

    Liked by 1 person

      1. This is true it is hard one I can see need for more books in translation from female writers but not sure if that is just a side argument to just having more books translated full stop

        Like

  2. Pfffft evening the field. Down with binary gender systems etc etc. I have just the same situation with my music collection. Books maybe too. I’m not making sense today lol. Let me attempt another nap.

    Like

  3. I made an active decision in the 1980s to give significant time to female writers because my school and academic years were male dominated (with the exception of the usual suspects – Austen, the Brontes and Woolf). I have kept to that ever since, but I do real male authors too. I keep my novels written by women in my bookcase in our bedroom, and those by men in the bookcase in our guest room. I think I still have more books by men, but the women are catching up! I don’t read women or men to understand women or men better, but to gain different perspectives. Not that all women have one perspective and all men another, but there are I think some subtle differences that we could generalise.

    Like

    1. I have noticed some interesting sounding female writers on your blog, unfortunately many are not available outside of Australia. I wonder how much that factor and, as Stu was saying, the lack of translations of female writers impacts my selection as I am drawn to non- North American writers in general.

      Like

  4. I didn’t check my book shelf but I feel that I have read more men than women. But that is both accidental, as you put it, and circumstantial. Men simply had more works published in the early days. For a classics reader, that would create imbalance.

    I really don’t bother about a writer’s sex or race. So long as it’s a good book, I’ll be happy.

    Like

    1. True. I was just surprised when I took a critical look. I have been tracking every book I have read since my mid 20s (mid 1980s) and the numbers are dismal and yet I did not notice it because It was not a conscious choice.

      Like

    2. Yes, it’s sex we’re talking about here, to avoid possible confusion: a biologically female writer may choose a male-gendered posture in life, for instance, which muddies the waters nicely.

      Although I too seek to keep some sort of balance between male- and female-sex authors, one thing that seems absent from most of these discussions is the likely dominance of published books written by men; there are in fact no statistics kept on this…

      http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/04/research-male-writers-dominate-books-world

      but from my own browsing around bookshops both new and secondhand, the male sex predominates; quite naturally one will come across more books by men, one imagines.
      Although I too seek to keep some sort of balance between male- and female-sex authors, one thing that seems absent from most of these discussions is the likely dominance of published books written by men; there are in fact no statistics kept on this…

      http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/04/research-male-writers-dominate-books-world

      but from my own browsing around bookshops both new and secondhand, the male sex predominates; quite naturally one will come across more books by men, one imagines.

      Like

      1. I agree about the predominance of male authors but, even with this in mind, many of the female readers I know still tend to read more female authors. Secondly, one can distinguish sex from gender, but, as a transgendered person there are some of us for whom the two have never been aligned. In my case I did not chose a male gendered identity, I fought it for over 30 years (not knowing there was another way of being), my biological sex defined an alien space. I have long since taken measures (hormonal and physical) to live successfully as a man in the world. I am the first to admit that this is, at it’s core, a *different* way of existing in the world, but the only consistent internal existence I have is, for whatever reason, male or NOT female.

        Your little press looks fascinating by the way.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m so behind on comments on my own blog, I hope I haven’t left the impression I have abandoned that conversation which I have really enjoyed. As far as choosing books to read by male or female authors I rarely pay attention, I just read books that I think I will like no matter who wrote them. Last year my reading ended up being split 50/50 which surprised me because usually at the end of the year male authors number 5-10 books more than female. The kind of books you like to read makes a difference in the gender balance to a degree especially when it comes to nonfiction.

    Like

    1. Focusing on the author’s gender is probably not the best policy but the reflection has brought to mind some women writers I really would like to return to, so with that respect it has been healthy.

      Like

    2. I continue to be confused by the reference to gender here, Stephanie; referring to male or female authors I can tell you what the balance between the sexes in my reading is; but if it’s gender we’re using as the criterion – as roughghosts nicely explains it – I’ve no idea how many of the male authors have adopted a female gender identity, and how many female authors a male gender identity. I think this is why I find it difficult to enter the debate about the author balance: the lack of clarity about what exactly the criterion for comparison is: sex (biology) or gender (identity).

      I have enjoyed reading a civilised discussion of this question, in contrast to what one commonly faces in the digital world. Thanks to all.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.