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Men Reading Women: Defining the Problem

Book with coffee and flowers
image via pixabay | CC0 1.0

Part 1 of a five-part series on why men may be reluctant to read women, how even well-intentioned men default to reading other men, and why this is a problem.

Several months ago, Relevant magazine posted an article by a male writer about his foray into reading books written by women. After realizing that neither he nor his friends read anything written by women, he decided that he would get recommendations from a helpful employee at Barnes & Noble.

He ended up reading Kim Harrison’s urban fantasy novel Dead Witch Walking, and after mocking the book/genre, he discovers that he gained a new perspective on life by reading a book with a female protagonist.

My short summary does not do justice to this article, but it was every bit as bad as you’re imagining. So bad, in fact, that after concerted pushback the article was taken down within a couple of hours.

But this article, and then a panel at the Festival of Faith and Writing in April on men reading women, keep coming back to me. After eighteen years studying and teaching English in colleges and after a lifetime as a woman, particularly a Christian woman, I have no difficulty believing that men don’t read nearly as many books by women as they do by men.

It’s still possible to receive at least a BA in English without reading more than a handful of women writers. I’m going to assume that if this is true in English — where the whole point of the major is reading many books by many authors — it’s equally true in pretty much every other field.1

Because of this state of affairs, I even have some sympathy for the writer of the Relevant article; I doubt that he intentionally avoided books by women simply because women wrote them. And when he became aware of the deficit in his reading, he did begin the process of addressing it.

But his reading experience shows just how pervasive the idea is that books by and about men are for everyone, while books by and about women are for women. Because that’s how men end up not reading women: they assume that books by women are not relevant to them or their life experiences.

So much social weight lies behind this assumption. At perhaps the most obvious level, books by women often have clearly feminine covers: flowers, pastels, and flowing scripts visually signal a particular audience. (The author Maureen Johnson, back in 2013, initiated a widespread conversation about gendered book covers that led to these delightful gender-flipped covers).

As an example, I just started reading an advance copy of Fat and Faithful by Nicole Morgan. Morgan writes about bodies and embodiment and incarnation and living as the image of God, topics that apply to men and women. But because a woman wrote this book about bodies, is anyone surprised that the cover is a lovely purple with the title in a fancy cursive script, indicating that it’s marketed towards women?

Covers and marketing alone, however, do not make up the entire problem. The problem behind the marketing problem? Ingrained patriarchy leads us to assume that men’s experiences and perspectives are universal in a way that women’s simply aren’t.

The roots of this assumption run deep in the history of western culture and emerge every time someone tells Shannon Hale that boys don’t read books about princesses and every time women’s books are presumed to be too fluffy for major literary awards.

Why is this attitude a problem? Does it actually matter whether or not men read books by and about women?

This attitude suggests that women are not quite fully human in the way that men are, not quite capable of speaking to or reflecting the human experience, not able to transcend the specific and achieve universality.

In this view, Harry Potter teaches us about what it means to be human; Rachel Morgan, the protagonist of Dead Witch Walking, teaches us what it means to be a woman — knowledge that may be interesting for men, but not necessary.

So yes, I think it is a problem when men don’t read books by women, or when they read books by women expecting to find difference rather than common humanity. They miss out on the rich fullness of the human experience and, at the same time, elevate their own experience into universal truth.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be diving into these problems in greater depth and also offering some suggestions on where to start reading women. Check back on Thursday for a new post on whether part of the solution involves women writing more like men.


  1. I imagine education and nursing are the exceptions here, given that they are historically female-dominated fields. Anecdotally, a friend in nursing confirmed that many of her textbooks are written by women.

Tagged: books | gender | humanities