A Manly Bookshelf?

Not too long ago, I was up in my attic where some of my books are bestowed; owing to a lack of space (I have a lot of books). While there, I found my copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the whereabouts of which, I’d been wondering about for a while. That, however, was accidental. My true purpose was to take a look at the state of my bookshelves, from a gendered point of view.

This is not something I usually pay any attention to. I rarely consider the author’s identity unless the author is one whose works I have already read or one who I was deliberately keeping an eye out for. I base my choices on the description of the book’s premise that is usually provided in the blurb. The sex/gender identity of the author is not something that I consider, nor is the sex/gender identity of the protagonist. Regardless, I had a pretty good idea of what I would observe; most likely, so do you. Before revealing my findings however, I will digress to provide some cultural context to my bookshelf perusal.

Apparently, the primary audience for fiction is women. This is, of course, a generalisation. Mark Twain is said to have said “All generalisations are false” and I hold that quotation in high esteem. Nevertheless, it seems to be a fact that statistically (yeah, yeah, “lies, damn lies and statistics”) women read more fiction than men.

Now within fiction-readers there are apparently more gender differences between readers of different kinds of stories. Science-fiction is usually considered a primarily male domain and that vague, amorphous thing called fantasy (or at least some of its more prominent sub-types) is only a little less male-dominated. So goes conventional wisdom, backed up by a few numbers and a lot of conversation in the media.

Perhaps ironically (depending on your own expectations), there is apparently a lack of female writers in fiction. Of those that do exist, many are labelled as part of that vaguely-defined yet much-maligned genre known as chick-lit. Now, chick-lit is more of a marketing strategy than anything else and so there may well be many great books receiving less attention than they deserve because they are packaged as chick-lit. The question is, what are the rest up to and why do we see so few of them on award-lists and best-seller charts?

The other question is, now that we’re over 400 words into the article, am I finally going to reveal what I was doing? Spoiler: Yes.

Discounting my non-fiction books, my graphic novels and my short-story collections and looking exclusively at my prose-fiction novels, I divided them into two categories (author and protagonist) and ‘awarded’ points based on the gender of each. I was not scientifically rigorous with the process, as the idea was to get a look at state of the forest, not to make sure I detailed each leaf on every tree.

To give some insight into how I did this, the Harry Potter series got 1 Female Author Point and 1 Male Protagonist Point (there’s not really any argument to be made that anyone other than Harry is the main character, even though I’d probably prefer Hermione’s point of view) while Dostoyevsky (1 Male Author Point) donated 8 Male Protagonist Points because I have several different books of his that all have a male protagonist (or are dominated by male protagonists).

Final results:

Male author: 55
Female Author: 9

Male authors on my bookshelves outnumber female authors approximately 6 to 1.

Male protagonist: 85
Female Protagonist: 38

Male protagonists only outnumber female protagonists a little more than 2 to 1.

Well, obviously feminism won’t be flying any flags over my reading material. It is possible that I am subconsciously choosing male over female despite my lack of conscious consideration. I do not think that this is what’s going on, however. I am an eclectic reader who will read practically any kind of book but science-fiction and fantasy are the two genres I gravitate towards most. As I mentioned earlier, they tend to be male-dominated in readership and fiction authorship in general seems to be male-dominated. I don’t know why this is so; I think it’s probably related to more general patriarchal structures but I’m baffled as to why this is so entrenched in what is a relatively recent phenomenon (the novel as we know it today is a very recent medium, historically speaking) and one where the differences between the sexes are practically invisible.

So, should I run out and buy a load of female-authored books just to make up for the disparity? No, I don’t think so. What books I have by any author, be they male or female (or intersex if I have any) are there regardless of such considerations; they’re there because they are good.

I’m not going to be more sexist in order to be less sexist. (Does that even make sense?)

So, should I ignore the difference entirely except maybe for hoping it goes away of its own accord? No, I don’t think so. I’m well aware of the problems caused by under-representation of women and the effects of a partially-devolved patriarchal society. If I’m not part of the solution et cetera.

The least I can do is raise awareness of the problem. Hence this blog post. Consider your awareness raised. You’re welcome. Another thing I can do is raise awareness of what you may be missing if you concentrate your reading on one sex/gender identity.

In that spirit, I’ll finish by recommending a book from each of the four categories.

Book with a Male author: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I only finished reading this recently. I loooooooved it; it’s fantastic. It’s an account of delirious events in Moscow when the Devil decides to visit, and it’s a love story, and it’s about a novel about Pontius Pilate, and it’s a satire of Soviet Russia. It is both brilliantly bizarre and bizarrely brilliant.

Book with a Female author: The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

This is a very cleverly constructed book, where every tiny detail of the lives of the multiple protagonists add up to the ending, like a finely tuned machine. It’s about the horrific effects people can have on other people when they don’t really see them as real people. This book is really, really good; the magic is in the writing.

Book with a Male protagonist: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

This is one of my favourite books: Child of the Gothic, first cousin to science-fiction, the premise needs no introduction. You know what it’s about, right? You might not know how eloquently the monster speaks, you might not know what the Irishman says when Victor washes up on the shores of the Emerald Isle, you might not know what a joy it is to read. If you don’t, you might like to find out.

Book with a Female protagonist: Sabriel by Garth Nix

I’ve had my copy of this for a long time and I’ve reread it over and over again. Crossing the Wall of George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is nothing to crossing the wall into the Old Kingdom. But Sabriel does so anyway; she has to find her father, who is missing after being attacked by a powerful sorcerer of the Greater Dead. It’s difficult to say more without giving the plot away but it does contain magical bells and a talking cat-that’s-not-a-cat. Suffice it to say that this is a brilliant book and worth the reading.

Comments are welcome.


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