Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gender Inequality in reading?

Many years ago I was in the library when I met a young man who was pulling down all of Louis McMaster Bujold's books.

Since she was one of my favorites, I started up a conversation. He raved about those books, and we were well on our way to hitting it off when I used the word "she." He looked at me strangely and told me that Bujold is a man and he would never read a book written by a woman because women couldn't write.

I suggested he read the biography. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut, but I didn't. He looked at the biography, slammed all the books back onto the shelf, and said he'd never read anything of hers again.

The incident made me think. Years later I did some research, and as I remember the numbers were something like this:

Women who will not read books written by men: apx 17%
Men who will not read books written by women: apx 85%

The numbers may be wrong, since I'm working off memory, but the gap was enormous. A few months ago I found a website that ran a similar poll, and the numbers were about 10 and 50. One of the commenters said that he would never read a woman's writing because "they do it wrong," whatever that means.

Now, I'm a writer. I read voraciously and have since I was about seven years old. But looking at my bookshelf, I was able to find precisely eight male writers among my books. Two of those were Asimov and Heinlein.

Understanding that eight isn't a very high number, I took a look at the books written by those authors and I found something very interesting. The books, by the standard of any female writer I've run across, had very little description. Emotions tended to be used during fights or other sorts of combat--high stress periods. Emotions were more likely to be expressed by physical movement rather than words, and implied rather than stated.

The female writers on my bookshelf tend to use emotion words, playing up the emotion at all times rather than restricting it to the high stress times. They also use description a great deal more, using it as a tool to play up and enhance the emotion. Minor characters are expected to have emotional lives, and expressions of those things actually become part of the story. Description was scattered throughout, making a continuous and building picture of each and every scene.

Not so much with male authors. Men tended to use more words to build the scene, but once built it was seldom mentioned again. Emotion was suggested and then ignored, rather than being a major component in the plot.

In essence, the differences between male and female authors are much the same as the differences between men and women in general.

Women are used to trying to parse other people's emotions, used to the unstated assumptions and the expectation that we will understand what another person means, even when they don't say it. Therefore, seeing this same form in fiction is familiar and easy to deal with. Men aren't so used to having emotions thrown in their face and everything described in minute detail--it makes them uncomfortable.

Women are used to paying close attention to the world around them, noticing details and not just generalities. Men tend to take in the scene and then ignore it unless something goes wrong.

I think this might be a major component of those numbers. Not definitive, but an interesting thought anyway. I think those authors who can transcend this gender gap are those who manage to combine the two--give the women sufficient emotion and description without bludgeoning the men over the head with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment