A top-level inquiry by an anthropologist (a bookseller, actually) into gender buying habits.
The book world, like the world-world, shows sad signs of gender bias. To work in a bookshop is to become an anthropologist of sorts, specialising in the genus Biblio Lector (or book reader/buyer, for those who are not fluent in the anthropologists’ pretend Latin). Generally the species is kind and gracious, with only subtle expressions of sexism; however on occasion a remark is made that makes the anthropologists…gag a little.
You may assume that men are the worst offenders. One recalls the elderly gentleman who waffled on about his knowledge of The Great War, before adding, “But of course, as a girl, you would never have read a history book. Girls read books about knitting or such like, I don’t know.” Another young man revealed a trace of panic when the anthropologist recommended a book by William Boyd – it had Oprah’s Book Club seal of approval on the cover.
Sadly, the sexism disease affects even those with less testosterone. There was the mother who anxiously pushed a very pink picture book involving princesses at her four-year-old daughter, who insisted the one she wanted was My Bum. There was another woman who asked for a book recommendation, and then announced, “But I don’t read books by women” – in front of her 10-year-old girl. At these times it is difficult for the dispassionate anthropologist to remain professional.
Perhaps the most prevalent offender of all is the sweet old grandmother out to buy a gift for her grandson. Philip Pullman’s wonderful Northern Lights trilogy has been the victim of much old lady slander, usually along the lines of: “You’re saying that the protagonist is a girl? I really don’t think that is appropriate for Henry.” If the anthropologists attempt to wrap the gift with a purple ribbon, they could be immediately executed. It’s all they can do not to remind old ladies that a boy’s ability to empathise with females might not be the worst thing in the world.
Is it only these rare and outrageous individuals that we should be worried about? Or is the situation more serious and widespread? Is it a case that men won’t read women authors, and women won’t read male authors? The anthropologists demanded answers. They conducted a top-level inquiry. Kind of. A tally chart was set up on a piece of scrap paper, and 38 book buyers were sampled before the results became clear, and experiment too depressing. The anthropologists found that only five individuals ventured into the wilderness of novels by the opposite gender. (Props, however, to the young man who specifically sought out Virginia Woolf).
The anthropologists spoke to a lovely male reader about this troubling finding, and he denied any book-world sexism on his part. Then he realised that he could not think of the last novel he’d read that was written by a woman.
When the anthropologists looked inward, however, they discovered that they, too, were part of the problem. The approach of a male customer, followed by the words, “Could you help me find a book..?” seems to set off an unstoppable chain of events in the anthropologist’s mind: a male customer: do we have any copies left of the new Lee Child? Even if the male in question only asks for a “good read”, there are few female authors who the anthropologists would brave to suggest. There is the immediate assumption that men are not interested in certain topics – romantic relationships, family, the general experiences of women…
Now, we – anthropologists and gender-biased readers alike – should not blame ourselves. Who decided that books by women must have a pair of children’s shoes or a sunset on their cover? And is it really necessary for Amazon to have a “women’s fiction” category, as if women were some sort of strange sub-breed of Homo Sapiens? It certainly isn’t the innocent reader’s fault that in most publications a vast majority of books reviewed have male authors, and most literary critics are men. [Spinoff figures: 35 female authors, 40 male; 13 female literary critics, 17 male.] This is all despite the fact that women on average read significantly more novels than men.
So, what can be done? I guess the anthropologists could recommend secretly-female thriller writers like Fred Vargas and Robert Galbraith to unsuspecting men, and then jump out to shout Surprise! after the men have already admitted to enjoying them. It’s better than picking a fight with everyone who tells you that their son can only have a green or blue ribbon around his present.
How about, try this: count how many male novelists and how many female novelists are on your shelves (or on your small portable device, if you swing that way). Chances are, you will experience a small revelation and some guilt. The good news: admitting that you have a problem is the first step to recovery.
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.