Reading habits: Male vs Female Authors

Elle wrote a thought-provoking post a few days ago titled Am I a Sexist Reviewer? about how she actually reads a fairly even split of female:male authors, but doesn’t blog about all the novels by men, as she finds more to talk about in general in novels by women.

It got me thinking about the balance between the sexes in my own reading. That was easy to check thanks to my huge spreadsheet – time for a quick chart…

Authors

Note: 2012 was skewed by having hosted Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week.

*NB, before I go on to ramble about the subject, I want to apologise for any sweeping generalisations I may make below!*

I like to think that I choose the books I read in a gender-neutral way – choosing mainly by perceived content. Even if I consciously opt to pick a particular author, I don’t select them because they are male or female, I strongly believe that the author’s sex doesn’t come into it.Yet, I usually read more books by men than women, and often considerably more by men in a year. Am I subconsciously favouring male authors?

As a teenager, I read as voraciously as I still do now. I devoured fiction including a lot of novels by Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy et al, but what I enjoyed most were thrillers; Alastair MacLean, Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley in particular, how I loved these manly adventures with token women. At the same time at school, I discovered SF through Brave New World, Day of the Triffids, 1984 and their ilk.  In fact the only book I can recall by a female author that we read in class was To Kill a Mockingbird.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m nothing more than a reading enthusiast. I have no literary qualifications beyond English Language O-level. My senior school at the time (1970s) had a progressive attitude towards English Literature. We still read lots of it, mostly classics, modern classics and plenty of Shakespeare, but didn’t over-analyse it in that way that off-puts many teenagers – we didn’t do the English Lit O-level, freeing us to find what we each liked reading the best. I chose Maths and Sciences for A-Level so never went further studying English, bar a journalism option in 6th form general studies.

I went on to study an applied science at a university college with twelve male students to each female one at the time. I was the only girl engineer in the factory in my first job and was the first female scientist on the team in my second, so I’ve always been happy operating in a male-dominated world – seeing myself not as a token woman, but rather as helping to break the mould (although I have exhibited some ladette tendencies on occasion, *ahem*). It’s more unnatural for me now working in a school with more women than men on the staff!

Am I set in my ways?

I still tend to pick a novel promising a good adventure; lots of intrigue; a black comedy; or something techy over domestic dramas. Give me dystopian societies, spies, quests, science (but not necessarily SF) and literary thrillers etc. These are all types of plot-driven novels that have tended to be dominated by male authors (although that is changing, as is the balance of male over female protagonists?), and these form a large part of my reading.

Conversely, when I do take a punt on a domestic drama or novel of family life, I often find myself picking an older one from my TBR and I admit it does make a refreshing change, although I won’t deny that they can be harder for me to write about. Although I can live without reading any more Anita Brookner novels – I was entranced by the Barbara Pym I read a couple of years ago, I want to read more Edna O’Brien and Penelope Fitzgerald too, and still have quite a few ‘Beryls‘ yet to be read, to name but a few. There are still acres of female crime and suspense authors to explore – types of books I do really enjoy too.

Where do I go from here?

As I skewed the figures towards equality in 2012 by reading loads of Beryl Bainbridge, so my male:female reading ratio will likely be strongly male this year due to my (nearly) monthly dose of Anthony Powell, and multiple reads like the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer; I’m about to start my third Simenon in a week too.

Having subjected my reading habits to some navel-gazing regarding gender bias, I still believe that I don’t consciously choose male authors over female ones. Instead it’s the world I’ve grown up in and as a resolutely non-girly girl I feel comfortable there. I don’t plan to make any big changes in how I pick the books I read, but I do have good intention to select more great books that challenge my preconceptions now and then, which should include choosing some more women authors.

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Rewarding YA reading for Grown-ups! Let me persuade you…

I’m in my early fifties prime (!) and I’m not afraid to say that I love reading modern YA books now and then … but only good ones, naturally.  By using the term ‘YA’ here, I’m distinguishing them from those books we usually call ‘children’s classics’ (which still appeal to readers young and old alike).  I’m concentrating on contemporary novels specifically aimed at older children/teenaged readers, usually 12+.

I passionately believe that the very best of modern YA writing can be as good as books for grown-ups, and equal to that of the children’s classics that we remember from our youth.  Many remain to be converted to this way of thinking, so I’d like to explain a bit, maybe encourage you as a grown-up to give a YA book a go, and offer a few suggestions for reading.

There’s an incentive if you make it all the way to the end of this post.  You may disagree with me too, and I don’t mind that at all. We each find our way to the things we like to read, but I’m trying to encourage an open attitude to at least try reading something different.  I will, however, be the first to admit that as an adult reader of a YA novel you do have to be a bit more picky …

That black cover!

One barrier is making your way past all the formulaic black covers of all the ‘Twi-likes’.  The paranormal romance genre has been the big marketing success of recent years in teen fiction, spawning werewolves, witches, angels – stories featuring all kinds of undead following in the vampires’ wake, (paralleled to a lesser extent by zombie mayhem aimed at boys).  Twilight wasn’t the first teen vampire novel by a long shot – L H Smith’s The Vampire Diaries were there way before for instance, but it was Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (my review here) that became the publishing phenomenon and really kick-started the whole shebang.  I’ve read a good variety of these paranormal high school romances; more than enough to know that although they can be enjoyable fun, they are for teenagers.  As an adult reader, I don’t need to read any more of them, even the rest of the Twilight series, (I have watched all the films though).

Now we’ve got that out of the way …

What are the differences between adult and YA literature?  

Well, they share the three major common elements of plot, character and writing style of all novels.  Many adults tend to favour writing style to dominate over plot or character – a debate that was the subject of a great post a while ago at Stuck in a book. What use is a great character or story if you can’t get into reading it after all.  Well, the same is true of YA books too,  but the balance between the three elements is often different.  I realise that by necessity I’m having to generalise here, but using my daughter’s reading experiences too, so go with me if you can …

Writing style in literature for younger readers does tend to be more direct.  Authors have to take great care with their language,  not using bad language unnecessarily, but keeping it appropriate to their audience.  Difficult subjects such as sex, drugs, alienation and all the good and bad bits of growing up – all these emotive issues need to be tackled with tact and sensitivity, again appropriate to their audience.  Sometimes I wish more adult books would moderate their language a bit – you can get fed up of too many profanities and graphic sex scenes.

What would a novel be without strong characters?  Pretty uninvolving, I think.  The only difference here is that the main protagonists in YA books tend to be younger, older teens themselves – an age their main readers can identify with.  This shouldn’t be a problem for the adult reader either.  There are so many adult novels with child or teen lead characters – the ‘coming of age’ novel in particular being its own sub-genre (see some of my reviews of these here.)  YA characters can, however, can often be defined by their actions, rather than their thoughts.

Plot though, does tend to come more highly up the scale for teens.  Younger readers need action.  They need things to happen all of the time – they can’t cope with pages of descriptive atmosphere or scene-setting.  This can sometimes make a YA novel seem rather relentless, you wish for a break.  The clever YA author will build in descriptive elements throughout whilst keeping a cracking plot going and coming up for breath now and then.  As we progress up the age scale, the action-quotient typically decreases a little to let the setting speak, and allow characters to pause for thought more too.

So, are you willing to have a go yet?  If yes, what could you read?

For starters, you won’t go far wrong if you pick one of the books that have been awarded the Carnegie Medal – an annual prize in the UK made to a writer of outstanding fiction for children. The medal is awarded by CILIP: the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.  Admittedly, many of these winning books are for older children rather than teens – but they’re all great books.

The real King Arthur ...My favourite Carnegie winner from 2008 is Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve.  It is a very different and brilliant take on Arthurian Legend with Merlin as a spin doctor.

I’m also a big fan of Patrick Ness, who won in 2012 with A Monster Calls (and 2011). It’s a simple story of a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, who can’t accept what’s happening, and a monster comes to help him through. As our book group found, this one wasn’t universally popular as an adult read, but did provoke good discussion.  You can hear Patrick talking to Simon Savidge about his writing for adults and children in a podcast at You Wrote the Book!.

This year’s Carnegie Shortlist (award in June) has some brilliant novels on it; I’ve read three so far, plus several that were longlisted that didn’t make it onto the shortlist. Some previous thoughts on the longlist are here, but the highlights for me are:

  • Blood red snow whiteMidwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick (review coming soon).  Sedgwick is my favourite YA author. Many of his novels have a magical edge to them, they nearly always have a darkness at their heart and are based on folktales and folklore. My favourite book of his though, is his fictional account of Arthur Ransome’s years in Russia Blood Red Snow White.  I particularly enjoy his writing style which seems ‘ageless’. My fingers are crossed that he may win this year.
  • A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle.  A bittersweet novel about dying which tells the story of four generations of women with great empathy and humour, and is typically Roddy Doyle too!
  • The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner. A complex and fantastical philosophical novel for teens. While The Double Shadow didn’t make it onto the shortlist; another of her novels did however – Maggot Moon is narrated by a boy with dyslexia, which Sally suffers from. I shall be reading it soon.

Some other authors of YA books that I’ve read and reviewed include Sally Nicholls, Charlie Higson for ‘zombie mayhem to scare your pants off’, Matt Haig creator of the crossover vampire family The Radleys, Cliff McNish.

These are just a few of the contemporary authors writing primarily for teens that I’ve read and enjoyed on an adult level; authors I will be returning to again and again.  There are so many more for me to explore, not least Diana Wynne Jones who died in 2011 and who has an army of adult fans, Meg Rossoff too, and, and, and … the list could go on for pages.

Which contemporary YA authors & books would you recommend to me?
Would you consider reading a YA novel?

As a final incentive, I’m offering one copy each of Here Lies Arthur, and Midwinterblood as a GIVEAWAY – open to any country to which the Book Depository delivers to.  To enter – just recommend any children’s or YA novel that makes a rewarding read for adults, ancient or modern.

Character forming – Book then Movie or Movie then Book. Discuss:

There have been many posts about the merits of which order to do things in for novels that have been made into movies (or TV series). These tend to concentrate on the differences in plots made to give films the required conclusions, and the excising of large chunks of plot and/or characters in the novel to fit the film into two hours.

It was a comment by Sams Still Reading on my post about the film of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen that has sparked me off on a slightly different thread to the book then movie or movie then book debate.

Question: If you see the film first and then read the book, is it possible to put aside the casting you’ve seen in the movie/TV, and imagine the characters in the novel as the author wrote them?

I’d wager that the answer is nearly always NO.

Indeed, Sam said: “I want to read the book, based mainly of my love for all things Ewan. Based on your review, I think I’ll watch him first and then read it.”  

I think if Sam does read the book, she wants to be able to imagine Ewan in it. (Do let me know if I’m wrong Sam, but frankly, who wouldn’t after seeing the film first!)

Initially I wasn’t convinced about McGregor’s casting. I had imagined Fred – Dr Jones, as a bit older, tweedier, and with glasses.  Ewan won me over though with his boyish fringe and twinkly eyes.

I can think of an occasion when this inability to re-cast characters helps though…

I was the only blogger I can think of who loved Death comes to Pemberley by PD James.  With a little hindsight, I can honestly say I wasn’t comparing it with Austen’s Pride & Prejudice at all.

I have read P&P, but what sticks in my mind, as I have seen it so many times, is the wonderful BBC production with Colin Firth as Darcy, (and I still swoon every time I see that lake scene). Consequently, I read the book as P&P series two and it worked really well on that level.   I struggled with the casting in the 2005 film though, with Keira Knightley and Matthew McFayden despite how good McFayden was in TV spy series Spooks, he wasn’t aristocratic enough as Darcy, and Knightley is a marmite actress!

The film of Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy, which I adored, was everything I had hoped for surpassing, for me, the older TV adaptation and really getting the feel of the times. All of the casting was brilliant, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s no 2, Peter Gwillam was fab, but Gary Oldman was just perfect. If I ever re-read the book I will be very happy envisioning Oldman as Smiley. His nemesis, Karla, though who was only talked about in the film will remain Patrick Stewart from the TV series. But what about the brilliant BBC R4 dramatisations with Simon Russell Beale as Smiley I hear you ask? Radio/audio in a way gives the best of both worlds – allowing you to imagine the picture, but with voices you sometimes know – but that’s another post!

It’s also fascinating when writers respond to how their characters are portrayed on the TV. Colin Dexter has said that the younger TV Lewis in the series Morse is an improvement on his original (who is older in his 60s, and Welsh).

I hope to read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie soon. It will be interesting to see if I can divorce my visions of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens from the text – or were they the perfectly cast pair?   On the other hand, I’m looking forward to seeing the film of Never Let Me Go, a book I loved, but can I cope with Keira in this film?

Apart from having confirmed to myself the assertion I made at the start of this ramble that seeing the film inevitably colours your reading of a book in terms of the characters, it hasn’t changed my stance on book or movie first.  I’m remain a bit non-committal.  In general, I would always prefer to read the book first but, when push comes to shove, I don’t really mind either way!

Over to you now. Let me know what you think …

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To explore any of the titles mentioned on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday
Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James
Pride And Prejudice – Special Edition [DVD] – the BBC TV series.
Pride & Prejudice – 2005 [DVD] – film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew McFayden
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – by John Le Carré
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [DVD] – the 2011 film starring Gary Oldman
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People Double Pack [DVD] [1979] – the original TV series with Alec Guiness.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC Audio) – Radio dramatisation with Simon Russell Beale.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie [DVD] [1969] starring Maggie Smith
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go (2010) [DVD] starring Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan

Book Stats – Review of 2011

I told you about my Books of the Year a few weeks ago here, but another thing I like to do at the end of the year is compare my reading stats. Being an inveterate list-maker and cataloguer this always appeals to me, and actually I’ve had a different type of reading year in 2011 compared to the couple before.

Firstly, I read less books:  This year, at the time of writing, I’ve read 93 books, whereas in the previous years I topped the century with 106 and 114 in 2009.

I did read more pages though in 2012 – beating 2010’s 26k with a whopping total of over 29,000 pages read.  I’ll admit that 2100 of those were the first four books in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (and I’ve still got around 2000 to go to complete it!). A further 1650 were the four Charlie Higson books for older kids that I devoured (and loved) in preparation for meeting and interviewing him back in September. This was the first year I’ve read more than two books by individual authors.

I’m going to talk about my TBR piles in another post, but there are a few other memos to self that I can note:

  • This year I read a lot more books by men – nearly 70% versus 55% last year – not a conscious decision – just the way it went.
  • I continued to try to read more books published before I was born (1960 in case you wondered), and the number is creeping up – 15  versus 13  and 9 in years before – here’s to reading even more ‘old’ books in 2012.
  • I read very little Non-fiction indeed in 2011, something I blogged about here.
  • I read a similar number of books in translation, 10 this year.
  • The lure of the shiny new title continues to do its work – again, around a third of the books I read were published this year.
  • In terms of genres, what I’d broadly describe as contemporary fiction dominated as usual, but I read a good sprinkling of crime, classics, modern classics, YA/children’s fiction and SF/dystopian/spec fiction, plus my first graphic novel.
  • … and finally…  Less vampires this year, but more zombies!  Ho, Ho, Ho.

I’d love to know how your reading year shaped up.