(And suggest they pick up a book by a woman already)
By Rachel Cronin
If you’ve ever read a piece of literature by a heterosexual man, you might be familiar with the… interesting language they often use to describe their female characters. The recent social media trend #MenWritingWomen unleashed a tsunami of hilarious and equally concerning ways male authors have referred to women, some highlights from Twitter and reddit including:
‘’Her breasts were like pillows made of dough and her ass was like a mold of gelatine, wiggling with each step.’’
And ‘’She had very small breasts, but they were very sweet. I mean there’s all kinds of breasts when you think about it, noisy breasts and quiet breasts and melancholy breasts and sincere breasts…’’ (He goes on listing different ‘’kinds’’ of breasts till the end of the page.)
Although these descriptions are brilliant for a bit of comic relief, it’s worth taking into consideration the reasons men seem to immediately resort to colourfully describing women’s breasts when writing female characters. Naturally, it’s because they refuse to read books by women.
Writer and journalist Mary Ann Sieghart explored the topic of men’s lack of engagement with women writers in her new book ‘’The Authority Gap: Why Women are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men.’’
Her research revealed that less than 20% of the readers of bestselling female authors are men, while 81% are women. Even literary geniuses like Margaret Atwood have only 21% male readers, while popular male authors such as JRR Tolkien and Stephen King have a much more even split at 55% male readers and 45% female.
BBC’s Womens’ Hour did a similar examination of why men avoid books by women, where The Times columnist Andrew Billen explained that he thinks some men find women writers ‘’flowery’’ and that they ‘’use too many adjectives’’. (Someone must’ve added ‘’adjectives’’ to the list of random concepts that are too feminine for men, along with ‘’recycling’’ and ‘’skin-care’’.)
In the same radio show, Sieghart shared her research and revealed why she thought men don’t want to read books by female authors. She explained the story of novelist and journalist Serena Mackesy, who felt she only started getting proper recognition for her books when she adopted the name ‘’Alex’’ and used it for her work. Her first thriller novel under the alias won her the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best paperback debut in 2014.
‘’There was even an amazon review that said ‘’If I’d known this was by a woman I never would’ve bought it’’, explained Sieghart.
The research also revealed that the female writer with the highest number of male readers- thriller author LJ Ross- also used her initials instead of her first name (seemingly to deter men from immediately setting her books on fire when they found out she was a woman). Sieghart herself uses the technique, using ‘’MA Sieghart’’ for the same reason.
According to the research, men who read books by women actually rate them higher on average than books by men, suggesting that it’s not the content of the book, but simply the gender of the author that stops men from taking them off the shelf.
‘’Men find it embarrassing and effeminate to read books by women. There’s definitely some kind of misogyny there.’’ said Sieghart.
This phenomenon of men who only read books by men who have only read books by men creates a vicious cycle of reiterations of their thoughts and their views of the world. What’s most worrying about the way women are represented in fiction by men is that by reading what is essentially the male character’s internal monologue, we are also getting an insight into how those male authors view the women in their lives (which is terrifying if you’ve read anything under the #MenWritingWomen tag).
Sieghart ended her exposé on men’s manly reading habits with an attempt to convince them to pick up and read books by women writers:
‘’Just because a book is written by a woman or is about women doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer men. It opens their eyes to what it’s like to live as a woman in the world, the first step to learning empathy.’’
It’s true that men must start reading women in order to write them properly, and to see into their lives and minds free from the male gaze. However, the fact that men need to be encouraged to read books by female authors like children who don’t want to eat their vegetables is disappointing, if not expected. Do we really need to go out of our way to teach men to have empathy towards women, and that they should probably be writing more complex female characters that have more to offer than sex appeal?
Men need to broaden their horizons when it comes to women’s literature. If not to save us from the terribly written female characters described under the #MenWritingWomen tag, then to learn more about the women in their own lives, so they can better understand them and the way they see the world.
Andrew Billen advises that men start picking up and taking in books by the opposite sex, ‘’and just realise how clever, witty and observant they are’’. He added that by reading books by women, ‘’they might learn something, not about women but about themselves.’’