Confession: I'm Biased Against Women Authors

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The numbers back it up. I am a biased reader.

In September 2004, after returning from a year of teaching English in Japan, I started writing down the names of every book I read. I don’t know why I did this. I like the orderly nature of lists. And 10 years later, nestled in the pages of a faux leather-bound journal, that list says a lot about my reading life.

1 decade.
149 books.
22 written by women.

That’s less than 15 percent, if you’re the mathematical type. I only realized this at the end of the decade, when I sat down and crunched the numbers. Joan Didion was on the list a few times. So was Barbara Kingsolver’s "The Bean Trees" and "The Poisonwood Bible." Mostly, though, it was list made up of men. Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy satisfied my taste for the West and Mexican culture. I seem to read every book by W. Somerset Maugham that I can get my hands on. Lately, I’m on a John Updike kick, and I feel a sort of repulsion and attraction to the way he writes about the often miserable, complicated relationships between men and women.

Some of the books by women authors Peter O'Dowd read in a decade. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)
Some of the books by women authors Peter O'Dowd read in a decade. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)

Turns out I am not alone. A survey last year of 40,000 members of the website Goodreads, shows that men prefer reading books by men, and women prefer reading books by women.

This is even true for established writers. David Abrams, who wrote "Fobbit" in 2012, put a microscope on his reading list from the last decade and found he favors male authors about 60 percent of the time.

“I actually think I'm a little bit higher than the average male reader,” Abrams told me. “But still, I'm always a little bit surprised that I don't read more females than I do.”

But why? And is it a problem?

Abrams said it shouldn’t be seen that way. Go ahead, read strictly romance or military history with alacrity. “Picking a book is a very personal thing,” he said. “I don’t think anyone should judge you.”

[sidebar title="Books by Women, Read by Peter"]



My instinct is that the books we chose must have something to do with relatability — that we feel or recognize something familiar in the characters we read. In my sophomore year in high school, I remember reading Pat Conroy’s "The Great Santini," a novel about a tough military dad who reigned over his family. This appealed totally to my high-school brain. When I recently went back and asked my teacher, Dorothy Dunnion, who taught me much of what I know about reading and writing at the all-boys Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, Ariz., she confirmed my suspicion. Choosing books that boys will connect to is sort of the point.

“We try to engage the boys,” Dunnion said. “The boys enjoy reading people they can relate to. We do boys' stuff when we can. But I think that's pretty much an excuse.”

That’s because she points to other pressures. Like teaching “the canon,” or the great works of literature. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ernest Hemingway. The list is long, and includes great artists, sure, but that list looks a lot like mine from the past decade. It’s full of dead white men.

Those men may produce work that resonates with me, but I’ve spoken to several women who just can’t relate.

“They’d throw you a lady like you’d throw a dog a bone,” said Jennifer Weiner, the New York Times bestselling author, referring to her own teachers in school.” You’d get your Jane Austen and a Bronte every now and then. But mostly genius wore pants.”

Weiner, whose latest book is "All Fall Down," told me she believes this has bled into modern publishing, an industry that she often criticizes for favoring male writers.

Women writers, Weiner says, “work in this pink-collar ghetto where our readers are women, where we’re getting read, we’re getting bought, we’re getting paid, we’re getting into the book clubs, but we’re not in the New York Times or getting discussed the way men might be.”

And that could be another reason my reading list is so lopsided in favor of male authors. According to VIDA, a group that tracks literary criticism, there’s a good chance I don’t see as much out there in newspapers and magazines about what women are writing.

I’m only here to judge my own habits — not yours. I agree with David Abrams. Read whatever moves you to pick up a book. But I want to see what happens if I exclusively pick up books by women over the next few months. Maybe nothing will change about the way I see the world. But I’m guessing something probably will.

In any case, I have a lot of ground to make up.

Peter's Reading Log

This segment aired on March 18, 2015.

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Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.



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