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Judging a Book by Its Gender

A little-known anecdote tells that J.K. Rowling was advised early in her writing days to make her main character a boy. Her publishers told her that boys wouldn’t read a book with a girl as the main character. Thus, we have Harry Potter.

Do you ever decide to read, or not to read, a book based on the gender of the author or the main characters? Studies show that your chances of having done so are higher if you are a male. Perhaps you’ve never thought about it, but seem to always choose unconsciously books written by men, with males as main characters. The same studies show that women are more likely to read the works of both sexes.

About a year ago, the Observer discussed a study that looks carefully at these habits, reporting: “… a gender gap remains in what people choose to read, at least among the cultural elite. Four out of five men said the last novel they read was by a man, whereas women were almost as likely to have read a book by a male author as a female. When asked what novel by a woman they had read most recently, a majority of men found it hard to recall or could not answer. Women, however, often gave several titles.”

A radio show I listen to recently had a panel of literature professors discussing Gilead by Marilynn Robinson and her first novel, Housekeeping. In the title, “housekeeping” is an interesting metaphor that the author uses for things happening to characters in the story, not about household chores at all. A listener called in to ask the panel, “Since this is a book by a woman about women, and things that matter to women, can you tell me why I—as a man—should read it?” Perhaps you’re asking yourself the same question now.

Here are a few reasons: You could choose to read it for the beauty, power, grace and economy of the language. You could choose to read it because it’s art that tells a good story, and you know that stories are valuable and reveal something of the human condition no matter which gender happens to be telling the story, or which gender the main characters are. Or you could chose to read it to gain a fresh perspective about your own life. I find that when a book is written from a very different perspective than my own, I tend to learn unexpected things about myself.

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Reading a novel gives you a perfect chance to practice empathy, to rehearse putting yourself in another’s shoes. What kind of issues matter only to women? What kind of things matter only to men? If you can’t be interested in an incredibly well-written story just because it is written by a woman, or about a female character, what does that say about you as a person?

I recently found a book by Ursula K. LeGuin on the sale rack at a bookstore called The Left Hand of Darkness. It’s about a world in which every person encompasses both genders—no one is strictly male or female. The story was about a man from earth struggling to interact with these new people, having an incredibly difficult time because he was unable to pin them down into gender categories.

Yes, there are gender differences. But at what point do these stereotypes serve as blinders for our eyes, keeping us from really knowing people, trapping us into seeing only what we expect to see and experience? At what point are these little “category boxes” we rely on tripping us up, preventing us from seeing new aspects and fascinations in the world?

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