A Challenge

So what do you think about the gendered nature of reading? Can men and women read the same books and receive them in the same way? Is there such a thing as ‘women’s writing’, or is that only to be understood as a historical misnomer, a patriarchal term that makes no sense in the modern world?

In the comments to my previous review, Dark Puss said ‘I am never a believer in books that are in any sense optimised for one sex or the other.’ Now we’ve had this conversation before, he and I (only I can’t find it, alas, in my voluminous archive), as I do believe there are books aimed at women readers and written with their social situation in mind, and that such books will not be enjoyed as readily by male readers. Now, one of Dark Puss’s favourite authors, I happen to know, is Colette, who was dismissed as a ‘woman’s writer’ for many decades. However, I think that she doesn’t rate as a good test, because the epithet was applied to her in a sexist way, and because her writing is so fantastic that her work offers a great deal to just about any reader.

So when I suggested to Dark Puss in our conversation that I should try him out on some other women-oriented novels and he was happy to oblige, I started to wrack my brains to come up with exactly the right sort of authors for the job. I wanted to think of books that were well-written, but… but… well, the sort of books my husband wouldn’t touch with a barge pole even if I told him they were really good ( I do not live with a bridge brain).

So can you help me out here? With which books should we test Dark Puss’s strongly held belief that there is no such thing as a book intended only for women?

ETA Here’s a few that crossed my mind as possible choices:

Judith Krantz – Scruples

Helen Fielding – Bridget Jones’ Diary

Meg Rosoff – How I Live Now/Shannon Hale – Goose Girl (I’m sure there must be some YA titles)

Meg Wolitzer – The Ten Year Nap

Curtis Sittenfeld – Prep

Mary Stewart – This Rough Magic

If you know men who raved about these, let me know and I can cross them off the list.

42 thoughts on “A Challenge

  1. I can’t wait to read all of the suggestions that this post will generate. I need to think about it. I’ve read many things considered “women’s fiction” but I think of that as a marketing term, rather than a literary one. And none of them that I can think of would I qualify as particularly good or even memorable.

  2. My husband scorns chic lit, wouldn’t be caught dead reading Bridget Jones Diary. Yet he read and loved Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Banks and shoved it at me to read. He also scorns romance but he read Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and loved it and again, shoved it at me to read. So maybe it isn’t so much the books themselves but how they are marketed?

  3. Lidia Yuknavich, Lynne Tillman, Janet Kaufmann, Compton-Burnett, each of these seems they could not have been written by a male. Clarice Lispector, Helene Cixous

  4. Funny, almost everyone I know who reads and enjoys Clarice Lispector is male, although I haven’t yet joined the bandwagon myself.

  5. I can’t remember ever reading a book I thought was just for women, perhaps because I avoid them, subconsciously or not. Yet it does make me wonder what the criteria are for such books. What exactly is meant by women? It’s a question I have never been able to answer. Could the answer be anything more than a stereotype? A woman who is the sort of woman who reads books aimed at precisely herself? While I ponder I’ll try to come up with some suggestions. Similarly, would writers generally considered literary or intellectual writers want to produce fiction for such a specific audience, thinking of Clarice Lispector, Helene Cixous mentioned above, though not by you? More questions than answers I’m afraid!

  6. Of the books you listed, I have only read Bridget Jones’ Diary (which I loved). I have read other titles from Mary Steward and Curtis SIttenfeld, however. BTW, I don’t think anyone could pay me to read Judith Kranz (or Sidney Sheldon or Harold Robbins…)…ok, I would do it for money, but it would have to be a lot of money. But I have been thinking about this and I am coming around to thinking that DP’s belief is correct: there are no books that will be read exclusively by women (or men). I was thinking Romance would be the one category, but Stephanie’s husband ruined that for me. 🙂

  7. You will always find the one man who reads a specific book written with women in mind and one woman who will read that one for men (marketing certainly does aim at specific gender) but those exceptions do not really make the theory crumble. I wonder if Dark Puss just didn’t like the absolute generalisation. I’m on the same page there but I can’t help thinking that there are a great many books written by women no man (but a few exceptions) would ever read and it’s not even books like Bridget Jones. Women (following the general trend of society) are far less biased when it comes books or rather books written by men.
    But there are a lot of male writers like Andy McNabb I suspect who don’t have a lot of female readers.
    I suppose that even the most open minded have a tiny gender bias. My best example, although movies, not books is, that hardly anyone thinks I’m a woman when they read my movie blog (war movies only), while nobody would ever think I’m a man when visiting my book blog (title, choice of some books, tone).

  8. My partner and I talk about this all the time, because most of what he reads comes from me. He just says that I know more about books than he does, and every time he buys something he’s disappointed so he may as well just read what I’ve read. (Or at least what I’ve bought, because there’s a lot of books round here that haven’t been read).

  9. Like Caroline, I think there will always be a small percentage of men who are ‘bridge brains’, which is to say in possession of a less obviously gendered brain than others. So yes, there will always be some men who read and enjoy books that one might assume were intended for women.

    However, and this is a conversation I think I’ve had with Dark Puss before, I don’t think we are doing anyone any favours by eliding the difference between men and women. I don’t think that equality means similarity – if it has in the past, then it has meant one gendered perspective and that a masculine one. For centuries, women have lived socially and culturally different lives and had radically different relationships to power and self-expression. That’s going to come out in their literature, even today. Women still have a very different experience of life to men because they can have children, and any mother will be able to tell you that motherhood is the cause that feminism forgot. Yes, I do know of households where the husband brings up the children, but they remain such a minority that they do not, I think, have any lasting effect on cultural perceptions as yet.

    What I am hoping might happen (my health willing and a following wind) would be to pick a couple of books for Dark Puss and read them along with him. What I’m interested to know is how our readings differ. Stephen Mitchelmore sent a tweet after I’d posted this, saying that no one reads the same book – our readings are all so individual that we can’t ever count on reading the ‘same’ thing. If you look at a microscopic level, I’m sure there’s truth in that. But I also think that generalisations are interesting and useful, because we live in a society where we generalise all the time around all sorts of important areas – education, careers, social policy. We can’t live in a culture dominated currently by groupthink and not believe in generalised thought. Anyway, I thought it might be interesting for Dark Puss and I to compare readings and see what came out of that.

  10. This is such an interesting question, Litlove.

    In the past I think ‘women’s writing’ was a distinctly derogatory term. What constitutes a ‘woman’s book’ anyway? Is it subject matter, point of view, tone?

    My husband’s all-male book group chooses very different books to my all-female one. We seem to have an unconscious leaning towards female authors and ‘relationship’ novels, but right now I’m find the men’s choices much more appealing.

  11. Ah, now you open the wound called not-enough-male-readers-in-my-real-life. The only ones I can think of are those with whom I blog, and I’m more than half jealous that you married a reader. So, to think of a title “for” women that men also love (besides A. S. Byatt’s Possession)? I’ll have to get back to you. Although off the top of my head, Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings loved Colleen Gleason’s Vampire series, which I definitely would have considered women stuff…

  12. As a male I do think that men and women do favour different books and can sometimes react differently to the same book. A classic example of this is Wuthering Heights. Many female readers see this as a very romantic novel. I do not. I see it as more of a revenge story, and when I read it for school as a 17 year old, Heathcliff reminded me of the school bully.

    I have not read any of the books that you listed, but I have read one book by Mary Stewart and enjoyed it. I forget the title of the book, but I remember that it did have both action and romance, so is probably not really a female only book, though it may be marketed that way.

    • LOL, the first time I read Wuthering Heights I was expecting it to be so romantic and was appalled by how twisted and sick the relationships were. How could that be romantic? Several women friends tell me I have a heart of stone, I tell them they should talk to their therapists about what constitutes a healthy love relationship!

  13. I was reading the annual VIDA book reviewing gender breakdown today, and came across this link in the comments- a blog devoted to men reading female (Australian, apparently) authors: http://guysreadgals.wordpress.com/
    It seems focused on author rather than theme/genre (so not necessarily just books ‘for’ women), but they do review a book called ‘I’m not shaving my legs for this’, so I thought maybe that would have an interesting perspective.

    Not sure that I can think of many books for women that men would be unlikely to read that haven’t been covered- expect for the whole genres of ‘chick-lit’ and romance. But I think it would be a really interesting list to compile! How about the authors Kate Morton and Kerry Greenwood?

  14. Prep is a great suggestion, I think you know my feelings on that. I’d also suggest The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger.

    Now, is the contention that “there is no such thing as a book intended only for women” or that “books are not optimised for one sex or the other”?

    I read a slightly different connotation into those, and one is harder to disprove than the other. I think it’s hard not to contend that books like Bridget Jones’ Diary were NOT written and marketed practically exclusively to women. However, whether or not a man could get equally ‘optimal’ enjoyment out of it is another story.

  15. My wife suggests The Bridges of Madison County, a fairly formulaic book which was written, I believe, for estrogenic sensibilities more than testost-ironic.
    I got in trouble in the SF bay area throughout the 80s for contending there are differences in mindset between the genders. I think some of the more vociferous women feared a justification for work inequality, which was never my contention. But it becomes like the six blind men and the elephant, each reporting on what they touched.
    Maybe the best litmus for this sort of thing would be framed in tipping point terms? What book’s readers are 80 or 85 % women?
    I’ve known women who intensely disliked Hemingway. Yet one very conservative coworker loved him. (Could be an elephantine / GOP joke in that.)
    I’m pretty sure Ernest was very left wing, however. At least through the Spanish Civil War.
    My wife also suggests The Secret Life of Bees, and agrees about Fifty Shades of Grey.
    I remember a kid in school who loved the book King Rat, about a Japanese POW camp in WW2. Not sure I’d recommend that one to many women, especially this many decades later, as the world has changed.
    Sorry if I’ve meandered a bit from the initial ? here.

  16. Thanks for the great food for thought. I have been thinking of books I have read and enjoyed, and then looked at again with a different lens to see if they would be considered gendered. Sittenfeld’s Prep, perhaps Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate? There are many terribly written books clearly geared towards women, especially young adult women.

    It seems to me that a well-written book, while perhaps having a specific audience in mind, and likely appealing more generally to said target market, would transcend gender.

  17. I differentiate between what publishers define shallowly as “women’s books” and those that I consider “women-centered books,” which I see as looking at life from a woman’s perspective.
    Bite Your Tongue, by Kyŏng-sook Sin. An intense mother-daughter story, deliberately blending fact and fiction, that I do not think a man could write.
    A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam. Civil war in Bangladesh as experienced by women and men.
    Please take Care of Mom, Male and female family members’ response to the disappearance of the elderly mother.

  18. Jane Green (Swapping Lives), Kristin Hannah (Firefly Lane), and Jennifer Werner (Bet Me) have usually been considered authors of “Women’s books”. I have to say I would have a hard time imagining my husband reading them.
    But books like “Prep” or even “An American Wife” could be for either audience.

  19. I talk about books a lot with a group of men who grew up reading science fiction, and who still read a lot, and widely. The book they would not read and, in fact, kind of look down their noses at because “it’s not a good time travel story” is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

  20. A generalization doesn’t have to cover 100% of the generalized population. So I agree that some books are gendered. That doesn’t mean that all men won’t read a particular book or that all women will and the same in reverse. But there are books that are mainly read by women and books that are mainly read by men.

  21. What about Jane Eyre? So many women of my acquaintance, and myself included, consider it THE coming-of-age novel for women. But are men as in love with Jane as we are with Mr Rochester? Do they / can they understand and identify with Jane?

  22. Late to the party because this suggestion just occurred to me (as I prepare to teach it in class!) – UNLESS, by Carol Shields. Not ‘chick lit’ or romance or any other highly gendered category but serious fiction that is very much a woman’s book (which is not to say, obviously, that men can’t and haven’t read it and appreciated it).

  23. What an interesting dilemma and question! I’m also intrigued to see what happens! I’m afraid I don’t read much “chic lit” so I don’t know what to recommend, but I look forward to seeing how this goes!

  24. I loved Bridget Jones when I read it!
    I’m definitely in the books-for-all category, and get rather weary of women’s-books and men’s-books theories. I will go so far as to acknowledge books-which-accord-more-closely-with-that-which-has-been-deemed-feminine (and ditto masculine) but that’s pretty self-fulfilling.

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