I recently listened to a podcast where old-school Hollywood powerhouse Alan Alda interviewed author Ann Patchett. And I was appalled at the casual manner in which both of them accepted and propagated gendered beliefs about readers. Patchett quoted statistics: 80% of fiction books are bought by women. And in her bookstore the men enter and immediately turn right to nonfiction, the women turn left towards fiction. So that must be how everyone reads, right?
Even though the statistics I found online do bear this out, I’d like to say it isn’t so. All studies are by definition a generalization. In this case, it doesn’t feel like a good thing to me. I want the next generations of readers to be more open to variety than my generation supposedly is. Let’s not make reading a gendered activity.
In the early part of my life, my pleasure reading was exclusively fiction. Perhaps because of the time I spent reading school textbooks. But starting 10+ years ago, I began to read from an eclectic and multi-genre list. Each year, it’s split just about 50/50 between fiction and nonfiction. And categorizing one kind of read as exclusive to a gender is deeply exclusionary. It assumes a false binary that isn’t actually representative of readers, who are infinitely more diverse than that.
Women Read Nonfiction
I have so many examples of women who read and write nonfiction. For example, soon after we met her, I learned that our daughter-in-law is a big reader. Imagine my excitement! But then as I asked her about some of my favorite authors, she said, “Well, I only read nonfiction.” Since I was mostly a fiction reader then, I was sad that we couldn’t commune over shared book insights. Thankfully, we do just that now. I pass my favorite memoirs on to her, and often give her a books as gifts. She and her family give me gift cards, since they can’t keep up with what I own or might have read. Works for me!
I’m also in a wonderful postal book club, totally focused on nonfiction. For the last two summers we’ve each picked one book. After we read and notate it, we pass it on to the next member. There’s just four of us, so by fall we’ve completed a round. And yes, we are all female. Our book choices have included topics like science, medicine, political biographies, language, and misogyny. We enjoy learning and commenting on our nonfiction books together.
Another thing Patchett said made me yell “Not true!” out loud as I was driving. She said men choose nonfiction because they want to learn. Women choose fiction because they like to empathize with a story. Well, again, I beg to differ. Nonfiction is so much more than just educational. Often the best nonfiction reads like a novel, drawing you forward with narrative arcs. Except you periodically remind yourself that it’s all true. You learn about people’s true experiences, whether in a history book or a memoir. Personal stories play a large part in the best nonfiction on every topic. What better way to empathize with people from around the world? At least to me, it isn’t gendered.
I was recently conversing with nonfiction author Donna Jackson Nakazawa on Twitter. She discusses the empathy factor in nonfiction when she says, “My thoughts as I put words/translate the science/tell a story on the page are simple: may this bring healing, may this further this necessary conversation, may this ease suffering.” Doesn’t this illustrate the correlation of female, nonfiction, and empathy? Of course, it does, and that’s the very nature of true life.
I may enjoy Patchett’s writing, but she missed the mark with her generalizations. And Alda just swallowed them as wise and clearly true. But gendering our reading habits simply limits the intellects of bookstore and library patrons and the world’s readers as a whole. Let’s not allow it!
Men Read Fiction
Let’s also look at the alternate to Patchett’s perspective. Men do in fact read fiction books.
Recently, a male friend posted a picture of two fiction books on Facebook. He wanted to crowdsource his next read. So I made a comment or two, and then he told me how much he’d loved the last book he read. A fiction book, mind you. In fact, he said he was overcome with emotional tears at the end. If that isn’t empathy and connection with characters, I don’t know what is. And I’ve already put my list aside to start said book, just based on how intensely it moved him.
Plus, how on earth would men become authors if they weren’t readers first? They must surely pick up books by other male fiction writers from time to time. And here’s the percentage of men who are published by major publishing houses today, along with some interesting statistics.
The reading world is overflowing with celebrity book clubs right now. We have a reboot from Oprah, plus entries from Emma Watson, Reese Witherspoon, and Jenna Bush. Plus Bitch Media’s ongoing lists for an intersectional feminist perspective. On the long list of celebrities encouraging readers we have yes, you heard me, a man. That’d be Jimmy Fallon. For the second summer in a row, he’s asking his viewers to choose from three books, and then read together. The choices are fiction. From a man with a multi-million viewer platform. So now, tell me again that men don’t read fiction.
And of course, my last example is former President Barack Obama. At least twice a year, he posts his recent reading list on Facebook. It’s never strictly nonfiction. His August 2019 list started with a much-deserved shout out to Toni Morrison, who passed away just a few days before. And while he included a few nonfiction choices, he also lists The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead), Exhalation (Ted Chiang), Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel), American Spy (Lauren Wilkerson), Men Without Women (Haruki Murakami), Inland (Téa Obreht), and How to Read the Air (Dinaw Mengestu). In fact, fiction books made up the majority of Obama’s list this time. Perhaps he’s currently in a different mind space where learning from fiction is just his speed. Hooray for that. Obama may not be our Commander-in-Chief anymore, but thank goodness he’s still our Reader-in-Chief.
Let’s Not Make Reading Gendered
Readers are individuals. They choose what appeals to them in any given moment. To say that there’s a gender-connected bias to our book choices minimizes their intellect, and the work of authors. It means that men write to men and women write to women. And any reader knows that’s not the case.
Haven’t you ever read a great book written from the viewpoint of your own gender, only to realize it was written by an author of the opposite one? Does an LGBTQIA+ author have the ability to inhabit a hetero, cis gendered character? Of course you have and of course they do.
A great storyteller, just like a great reader, can transcend what divides us. The last thing we need is respected authors and celebrity interviewers just swallowing a gender divide as if it’s a done deal. Readers are so much more unique than that.
Brilliant observations, Barbara!
Thanks, Donna. I appreciate your comment. Glad the post resonated with you!
Not to mention, there are tons of avid readers who are nonbinary, genderqueer, etc. which make Alda and Patchett’s binary way of thinking even *more* out of touch.
Thanks Monika – I was thinking the same thing, but wanted to stay focused in the post. I appreciate your bringing it up!
Like Monica, I thought immediately of gender queer and non-binary folks.
One of my greatest reading influences was my Dad, who read me The Hobbit when I was small, as well as portions of TLOTR, his favorite books. He was also a Winnie-the-Pooh fan.
I think it’s unfortunate that well known book folks would have such narrow and gendered ideas of readers. I hope that enough people will call them out that they might rethink it.
Thanks Soubhi – I appreciate the story about the influence your dad had on your fiction choices. And thanks for adding to the chorus on the non-binary genderqueer readers.
Wow. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I’m largely discounting Patchett’s comments as being those of a business owner and less as an author/reader. Is there some truth to them? I’m sure there is, from a strictly sales-figure standpoint. But given the location of Patchett’s store, which is a rather monied part of Nashville (Green Hills) and the tourist draw to the city, which has boomed since I lived there in the 90’s, I feel like many (not all…but many) of her patrons are probably the same ones who go to the Nashville store location of the TV show American Pickers. It’s one of The Things to do.
Reading for some can certainly be considered “gendered,” but for a well respected, popular author to apply such a sweeping generalization disappoints me. Of course I enjoy a fiction novel where I can empathize with a character. But that has nothing to do with the prevailing presence estrogen in my body. Likewise, my pleasure at reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lachs or anything by Jon Krakauer or the online magazine, The Bitter Southerner, or many recent books on current affairs does not automatically mean I must possess a Y chromosome. Such assumptions not only insulting but I hope are surely as absurd as these last two sentences sound!!!
You mentioned “mind space” in your discussion of the presence or absence of fiction on former president Obama’s reading lists. I believe it is as simple as that – Mind Space. Sometimes I prefer Italian food while other times I just want a good ‘ol PB&J on cheap white bread. Likewise, sometimes I want to be transported to another place or time through an engaging family drama that has little to do with reality or a dark trip through the human psyche with Stephen King. At other times, however, I am curious to know more about the Astor family, or Seabiscuit and the world of horse racing, or I’m inclined to gain more understanding about the circumstances that led up to the tragedies at Newtown and Columbine. These tastes shift on any given day and I refuse to assign those to a gender. Why must they be labeled?
These preferences, I believe, have more to do with my head space on any given day, and not where my hormone levels fall. And to attribute my tastes to a gender minimizes my intelligence, perspective and personal experience. So I’m just going to go now and continue reading my nonfiction book about bootlegging like any good alcoholic…ahem…I mean “Southern Lady” would do.
Thanks, Cathy, for your thoughtful comments! I appreciate your local perspective, and admit I hadn’t thought about the tourist impact of her bookstore. Still, would a nonreader even prioritize a visit there? And should anyone be surprised that I chose McKay’s instead of Parnassus on my last Nashville visit? They have a rocking narrative nonfiction section, which is where two books you mentioned would fall. Seabiscuit and Henrietta Lacks, that is. And I definitely think mind space is how most people decide what to read next. My mood determines a LOT about what I choose. Thanks again for spending time to share your thoughts. I hope that bootlegger book is terrific!