Thursday, August 25, 2011

President Obama, Read Whatever You Want, Regardless of the Author's Gender

Yesterday, published an op/ed written by a short-story author named Robin Black, titled "President Obama: Why don't you read more women?" The piece, as you may surmise from its title, complains that President Obama's reading list is offensively light on female authors. Then, it devolves into one of those now all-too-familiar articles about what dolts we men readers are for not carefully monitoring our male/female author ratio. This piece in particular really got my blood boilin', and so I wanted to spend a post to look at some of Black's arguments, Reading Ape-style.

Right off the bat in this piece, Ms. Black sets a combative tone.
While there's no way to know whether Hillary Clinton would have hung tougher than President Obama with those recalcitrant Republicans, here's a safe bet -- her summer reading list would have included a few more women authors than his.
So, the assumption here is that, because she's a woman, Hillary Clinton would read more women authors. But isn't that the same wrong-headed gender-biased logic Ms. Black is attempting to take Obama to task for? What we get here is your standard-issue double-standard. It's okay if it's a woman reading mostly (or just a "few more"? what's the proper balance?) women writers, but it's not okay when it's a man reading mostly men writers. This is especially troubling given that, later, Black writes:
As I suspect Obama would agree, matters of prejudice are never entirely minor, even when their manifestations may seem relatively benign.
That's true. But Ms. Black started her piece with the same matter of gender prejudice, i.e. that a woman would read more women. That's not minor there either, right? Still, as I'll contend later, none of this really matters all that much.

Okay, let's take a breath, and laugh through an easy-to-spot hyperbole.
Now the fact that the president of the United States apparently doesn't read women writers is not the greatest crisis facing the arts, much less the nation -- but it's upsetting nevertheless. 
Ms. Black points out that Obama has read very few (maybe as low as 30 percent this year, and 4 percent overall) women authors. That means he actually does read women writers. Sloppy writing.

Now, let's get down to the heart of the matter. Here's what seems to be Ms. Black's central thesis for why men don't read women writers as much as they apparently should. 
It is a well-known fact among those of us to whom this matters that while women read books written by men, men do not tend to reciprocate. The reasons for this imbalance are the subject of much speculation and little conclusion, but, simple as this may sound, it looks an awful lot to me like we think they are more interesting than they think we may turn out to be.
First of all, that first sentence is FAR from a fact. Case in point: me. I reciprocate. I read lots of women novelists, and actually, so do 99.9 percent of the male readers I know. But, secondly, Black's point seems to be that men don't read women because we find women boring. (Indeed, the subtitle of the article she links to as "proof" is: "Women are underrepresented in literary publishing because men aren't interested in what they have to say.") That subtitle specifically and Ms. Black's central thesis in general are what almost shot me through the roof. This paragraph was the moment in the article when it began to feel less like a sophisticated discussion of reading preferences and more like an attack on male readers as knuckle-dragging neanderthals who have to be coaxed into listening to their women.

Look, here's the rub: We read for fun, not to be fair. Regardless of the gender of the author, we read for enjoyment, not to make other people happy. Those are true whether you're the leader of the free world or the purveyor of a lightly trafficked literary book blog. If some (but not all) male readers wind up reading more men writers than women, it's probably for the same reason that some (but not all) women readers read more women writers than men. Maybe we can convince Malcolm Gladwell to write an article explaining that reason in more detail. But for now, I know this for sure: The reason is definitely not that a reader stands in a bookstore, prepares for a book purchase, but then makes one last check of the gender of the author to make sure it's the "right" one.


The Franzen/Weiner/Picoult stuff in the last half of the piece is a nice walk down last summer's memory lane, but that dead horse has been sufficiently beaten. I don't think, though, that most people saw Weiner as attacking Franzen. People were more perplexed that she seemed to consider herself in the same category of writer as Franzen. And that's preposterous, in my view — like Adam Sandler getting on Jack Nicholson's case.

Lastly, I couldn't agree more with this: 
Women authors write kick-ass books.
Of course they do. (Though, I'd disagree with her that The Year We Left Home is an example of that.) My favorite novel of the year is written by a woman (Ida Hattemer-Higgins' The History of History). But I think it's silly to suggest we all must be equal opportunity readers. So let's all be cool, and read and let read.


  1. That article sounds ridiculous. Personally, I'd rather the president spend time working on our nation's problems than making sure his reading reflects a fair balance of authors. What next? He doesn't read enough Middle Eastern writers? He seems to avoid the Jewish authors? Next thing you know we'll have a "czar" appointed to select and monitor the president's reading list.
    I know that for me, I often don't register the gender of the author at all. Even after I've finished the book. It's just not that important. I mean, yay women writers and all, but if any social group thinks that they have a disproportionally low readership, they might want to concentrate on writing better books. Then maybe we'll read them.

  2. Fantastic post. I started my blog not long before New Year's, and was thrown off by the number of posts people wrote at that time breaking down their year of reading into statistics. You know, male vs. female, country by country, when the books were written, etc etc. A lot of these posts included, at end, some promise to do "better" in the coming year, to have a better gender balance and to read more widely in terms of geography. These things never seemed worthy of my attention before, but out of curiosity I looked over my own reading lists for the last few years. I found that, yeah, I read a lot more men than women, and that while I occasionally make excursions out of 20th c. America in my reading, my numbers wouldn't please anyone focused on equality in reading. But, as you write, we should be reading what we want, rather than attempting to quantify and "improve" what we read in order to be fair.

    When I walk into a bookstore I pick up what's interesting to me. I wouldn't ever go in with the idea that I was going to purchase a book written by a man, because it had been written by a man, and it seems as wrong-headed to me to purchase a book based on the color of its author's skin or the fact that it's by a woman. As readers, we should follow our interests rather than strive to be politically correct.

  3. I hadn't seen this piece, but I don't want to read it at all. I think it would make me feel stupider to read an article that criticizes what the President reads on his summer vacation. As it is, he's chosen books that are well-written, and without exception, books that I would consider a useful and intelligent use of his free time. Shouldn't we focus on the fact that the President is choosing to read these kind of books with his vacation time? Isn't it better that he's reading smart books that will educate him, not crap books?

    I hate these kind of articles. HATE. It's absurd. You're absolutely right that we read for fun, not to be fair. I worry about this all the time, that I'm not being fair enough with my reading, but then op/eds like this make me remember that my reading is MINE. No one else is dictating what I read, no one is dictating what Robin Black reads, why should anyone dictate what the President reads?

  4. Apparently, they don't think it's important to mention that, during the campaign, Obama said his favorite book was Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. They also don't mention that the book he was reading during the campaign, and which Obama spoke about often, was Team of Rivals, a book about Lincoln, also written by a woman (Doris Kearns Goodwin).

  5. There was another NYT article recently about how little boys don't read as much as little girls because most YA is driven toward girls and the boys find it boring. There was an UPROAR because HOW DARE the NYT suggest that boys are interested in boy things! GROWWWLL. It's as if gender differences in your reading preference aren't based on what you're interested in, they're based in DEEP-SEATED and EVIL MCEVIL sexist prejudices you have.

    I think about my husband, who is a very casual reader and reads mostly westerns and sci-fi because he likes the shoot em up bang bang. Not a lot of women write shoot em up bang bang, and he doesn't give two rips about who wrote the book, so he isn't going to search out a female author just because she's female. Because that would take work and is, in and of itself, sexism. And you know what? THAT'S FINE. Harumph.

  6. I'm just delighted he reads novels at all. I don't like any kinds of "shoulds" when it comes to reading. Read what you like. My reading turned out to be almost half men and women authors last year, but not be design, but because those were the books I wanted to read. A friend once invited me to join a book club, but they only read female authors. When I asked, "But what if there's a good book written by a male?" I got the evil eye. I didn't join.

  7. I don't think anyone should be guilted into being straight-down-the-middle equal opportunity readers. That's ridiculous. However, in the extreme case that someone is an avid reader and the overwhelming majority of the books they read are written by straight, white, male, American writers, I think it's worth taking a hard look at. I used to work at a bookstore with a guy who basically only read Norman Mailer, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad and took loud shots at several female authors who pushed boundaries (Toni Morrison, Miranda July)- of course he was entitled to like the authors he liked and dislike the authors he disliked, but after a while, the pattern that seemed to emerge was unsettling.

  8. I agree that the article is a poorly constructed, ridiculously hyperbolic attempt to shake a finger at the Presidents, and at male readers in general, but I'm not sure I agree with your claim that we read purely for enjoyment (I may be unfairly twisting the quote by adding the "purely" but go with me for a minute). I'd argue that one of the most important benefits of reading is that it opens doors to experiences, cultures, histories foreign to our own lives. If that's so, then I do think readers (particularly those who pride themselves in the ability to relate to and communicate with an incredibly diverse audience) have a responsibility to explore outside of their own demographic. I am NOT saying that Obama doesn't do this, or that any group/gender/race is inherently or even demonstrably better or worse at it.. I'm just suggesting that there might be (ought to be?) an agenda other than entertainment shaping reading lists.

  9. Such a crazy thing to argue over! I'm a woman, but I tend to read more books by male authors. It's not because I seek them out, though. I read a book synopsis, like it, and it just turns out to be by a male author. We can't really help what books we're drawn to, can we? More often, I will choose a book by whether the narrator is male or female. I've been reading a lot of male-narrated books, so I think I'll have to mix that up with my next pick.

  10. Ultimately you're right and people should read what they want and not have to worry about being fair across the board. The article makes some ridiculous claims and absolutely presents the double standard about how many women authors Clinton would be reading. It does come off as combative and comes off insulting and in the end I want to go who cares what the President is reading.

    That said I think there is something to expanding your reading horizons outside your normal comfort zone. If one of your comfort zones turns out to be straight, white, American males then it's not a bad thing to strive to read something from someone different. That doesn't mean reading just anything that falls into this "other" out "outside" category, but looking beyond your typical group of authors to find someone different but still interesting. It doesn't mean people has to read something in order to be seen as more fair to other people, but simply to expand your own personal reading horizon.

  11. Excellent post--I too am happy to have a president who reads for pleasure.

  12. I don't think there's much more I can add to this conversation that hasn't already been said. I agree that this article is pretty ridiculous, and that as readers it is important to read outside of our comfort zones sometimes. Thank you for the thought-provoking response.

  13. I didn't read this article but from the first excerpt given here,it sounds to me like the author's bias towards Hillary Clinton is what motivated her to write in the first place.

    Personally,I don't vote for people based on what they read in their off hours and the only reason that the media even focuses on that aspect of their lives is to help book sales,IMO.

    Politics aside,readers should not be shamed for not having an "equal" number of books by authors of every stripe checked off their list. Some books just don't appeal to everyone(even the insanely popular ones)and the whole wagging the finger at those who haven't read enough books by any group or gender.

  14. @Julie - Yeah, where is the line. In the first draft of this post, I had a joke about Black's piece having the feel of a Twilight fan complaining that Obama doesn't read more Twilight books. It's not that much of a stretch from the points you make about Middle Eastern fiction, etc. to that. Neither do I register the gender of the fiction I read - unless the periodic commenter points out what a chauvinist dolt I am because I read more male writers than women.

    @Ellen - I have to admit, I sort of enjoy looking at my own statistics - but I don't think looking at them changes my reading habits. Like you, I don't make promises to myself to do "better" in one area. Regarding your second paragraph: Exactly. The analogy to picking books based on the race of an author is, while touchy, pretty close to the same idea of gender-bias.

    @home - ...or that he's reading at all, in stark contrast to the last guy. ;) Yeah, of course I'm with you - it's an exercise in wheel-spinning to take him to task for what he reads. Someone always has to have a problem with something. And I HATE (yes, yelled!) these types of posts, too - and I even hate them more when they're directed at me, personally - which happens from time to time in comments. I'm not OBLIGATED to read what anyone else thinks I should. ;)

    @Roof - Yes - thank you for pointing that out. That just goes as further evidence that Black's own evidence was rather selective and slanted.

    @Amanda - What?! You mean boys don't want to read purple books about vampire romance? No. And I loved your line about Evil McEvil - very well said! And, what?! Your husband's not made at you for not reading his masculine westerns? C'mon, Ms. Black better queue up her post for that one, too. ;)

    @Amy - Agreed, on being delighted that our president is a reader - and also, as Homebetweenpages says, he has good taste! A book club that only reads women authors? Sheesh. That's sad.

    @BooksaremyBFs - I'd say that kind of guy you worked with is exactly the kind of dolt Ms. Black seems to presume all male readers are. In reality, we know your former co-worker is in the minority - and too closed-minded to spend anytime worrying about anyway.

  15. @Ali - You're right, I certainly agree that there are other reasons to read beyond pure enjoyment. And if reading for the other reasons you mention is the MAIN reason you read, then yes, I'd say expanding horizons is important. But again, I'd still argue that you should do that based not on gender of the author, but on the subject matter.

    @Katie - Agreed - I never understand why this supposed slight actually is a slight. We can help which books we're drawn to, I'd say, but not whether those books are written by men or women.

    @Red - Totally agree that well-balanced readers should, from time to time, pick up something outside their comfort zone. Still, rare is the reader whose comfort zone is nothing but white, American males (though, BooksaremyBF above pointed out one example). Don't read to be fair, read to be smarter. And doing so is not a matter of going out of your way to pick a book written by a female (or male) author.

    @JaneGS - Agreed! Again, in stark contrast to the last guy... ;)

    @Heather - Ridiculous, indeed. Thanks for chiming in!

    @lady T - Well, there is certainly a subtle attempt to score political points right off the bat - the use of the words "hung tougher" seems to imply Clinton would've and Obama's a wuss. Wanted to include that in the post, but didn't want to get sidetracked into a political debate. And of course, you're right - I see no shame in a disproportionate number of male or female authors read.

  16. Interesting, I missed the article you link to, thankfully :) It sounds quite poorly written - especially the starting assumption that Clinton would of course read more female authors just because she is female? Ick.

    That being said, I do agree with the few people here that we all seem to have comfort zones that dictate our reading. i.e. the dominant trend of reading more male authors. We don't do this consciously, but there are many cultural factors that fit into what we do so it is good to examine what we read and why we turn down what we do sometimes.... but that article surely isn't the way to do it!!!

  17. Well, the article is silly, especially the bit about Hilary Clinton, which as you say, is as sexist as anything the author is accusing Obama of.

    But I can understand the frustration behind the article. When it is known that books by women get less attention in major review publications (see the VIDA study at, Obama's reading choices are really emblematic of a larger problem. If books by women don't get as much critical attention, they're probably less likely to get read by readers--like Obama--who are looking for high-quality books. And that is frustrating. It also explains why some people do make a conscious effort to strive for parity, because they know that reading the most visible books may cause their reading to tip toward men, even when women are just as capable of writing worthwhile books that may not get critical attention.

    That said, I wouldn't dream of dictating what other individuals should read. People read for all kinds of reasons, and who am I to say what's right for them?

  18. I'm pretty sure that reading a woman because she's a woman is really no better than reading a man because he's a man. In fact, I'm sure of it. My only caveat is that I know of a couple people (WOMEN to be specific) who claim that they don't like women's reading and so avoid it. Reading men because they're men is not the same as avoiding women because they're women though.

  19. What a ridiculous article!

    1. I don't consider gender at all when I start a book. I just pick something that looks good to me.

    2. I'm totally excited we have a President who is reading for pleasure. Refreshing!

    3. Why do we care what he's reading on his own time? I don't understand this. Does it impact his job? Does it impact the country? Is there any real news out there?

    Great post and great conversation!!!

  20. I have to agree with most of the comments here at how excellent this post is. You've made some great points which I do agree with.
    And being a big reader, I also try to keep my reading as pleasurable as possible. I don't care who wrote the book, so long I enjoy it. But I have found that I do read a lot male authors; however I think that's due to having a brother and no sisters.
    I just wish I knew what our Prime Minister read.

  21. I hate these sorts of outspoken articles that make feminists looks bad. Really, should he make a spreadsheet? Keep track of the M/F ration? Maybe get an ap? For Christ's sake, at least this president knows how to read, which we can't really say for the last one...

  22. I agree that it's patently ridiculous to hang this whole "scandal" on President Obama's published reading list. As you say, there are sloppy assumptions here all around. But I'm kind of disheartened with the comments saying that parity is simply a matter of "political correctness" rather than true examination.

    Yes, reading is a thoroughly personal act. But the personal is political, at least for me, and it gives me opportunities to reevaluate my own presumptions and of the world around me. Issues about how I identify about characters crop up, or whether I see myself disapproving of character traits or decisions usually subscribed to men or women.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates said it best when he wrote the blog post Reading as Cartography (apologies for not linking, Blogger is very ornery when it comes to links, but it's on the Atlantic blog):

    "Why any dedicated reading man would dream of this sorcery strictly with other men is beyond me. It goes against one of the great assets of reading--the voyage to new worlds. It would be as if Magellan said, "I like my small town fine enough."

    Put bluntly, if you call yourself a reading man, but don't read books by women, you are actually neither. Such a person implicitly dismisses whole swaths of literature, and then flees the challenge of seeing himself through other eyes."

  23. 50% of the time I don't even know the gender of the author before I decide to read it. And I'm at about 60-40 in favor of men. And there's nothing wrong with that.

  24. @Amy - Yeah, I'd agree it's important to know some of the trends behind what we read - but I'd say that's only important for the sake of knowing trends. Especially when it comes to gender of the author, I'm not sure if I found out I'd been reading 80 percent males, and was fairly happy with what I'd been reading, I'd make a conscious effort to change. Again, I'd change more on the fact that, say, I hadn't ever read anything about India, and so I wanted to read something about India, so I'd pick up Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. That actually happened - and it didn't even register to me that Desai is a female novelist.

    @Teresa - Two things. First, I strongly disagree that one man's reading choices (even if he is the president) are "emblematic" of any problem. If he knowingly selected men authors at the expensive of women authors, then, yes. A problem. But that's not the case, and as I tried to argue above, nor is it the case for 99 percent of men. Secondly, yes, I've seen that study. But it's meaningless for several reasons. a) We don't know the overall ratio of male to female published books. So, maybe it actually is representative of the universe of novels. We don't get up in arms that these periodicals review fewer Asian authors than American, do we? b) I really don't think, much like readers like Obama and myself, that these publications are making a conscious effort to exclude women. Why would they? We already know that there are more book-buying readers who are women than men. And we know that women (for the most part) select more women authors than men authors (which doesn't bother me nearly as much as the reverse seems to bother women like Ms. Black), so why would newspapers and magazines purposely print reviews the majority of people (women readers) who are interested in reading them wouldn't care about as much. But we do agree that trying to dictate what others read is ridiculous. As I said, read and let read. ;)

    @Jennifer - Ha - what do we do, then, with those women who won't read women authors? What would Ms. Black say about that? That might make her head explode! ;)

    @Kate - 1. Agreed, me too. 2. Agreed! Very refreshing. 3. I like to know what the President is reading, only because then I'd want to read it too. But that's the only reason.

  25. @Mozette - Glad to hear you agree and thanks for the compliment. Yeah, it's never mentioned as a big deal when it's a woman who reads most male authors.

    @Christine - You've got a million-dollar idea there - an app that tracks your ratio, and sends out an electric shock if your ratio becomes too male-heavy. Giggled at your last line, too - that comment has appeared several times, and it makes me happy every time. ;)

    @fanarchist - Sure, reading to reevaluate your own notions of the world and challenge your presuppositions is a noble reason to read. But again, you can do that - you can broaden your horizons, so to speak - without giving two thoughts to the gender of the author you're reading. Defining fiction into buckets of "women-penned" and "men penned" and hoping to discover some new truth about yourself by reading one or the other more frequently is as erroneous as consciously not reading one at the expense of the other in the first place.

    @Trish - Me too. There is nothing wrong with that at all.

  26. Well, if you find you are showing unconscious bias is that not something we should work to eliminate in our lives? I mean, you don't dislike the 20% of women that you read in the example, so if you just tend to pick up male authors because of bias but like male and female authors both, then why maintain the bias? I mean, if we find biases in other areas like that - say hiring, promotions, etc - we try to fix them... so why not in the cultural offerings that we consume? I would argue that if we want to remove the unconscious biases in other areas of our lives we have to work at them were we find them. Not as important as in other areas, but still something to think on sometimes I think.

  27. @Amy - Disagree. Reading more males than females is not bias. No one's civil rights are infringed upon here. No one's being discriminated against. If I happen to read more males than females, it's just an anomaly, not an unconscious bias or anything else of any importance. It's the same level of importance as saying "I've read more books that begin with the letter T than I have that begin with the letter S." I wouldn't go out of my way to start reading more books that start with the letter S, so the idea of reading a female author SOLELY for the sake of reading a female author is silly to me. I mean, do you make a conscious effort in other "cultural offerings"? Do you calculate the ratio in regards to movies you've seen directed by women as men, or make sure that the magazine articles you read are split down the middle?

    I don't buy the "argument of increasing importance" either - that basically what you're saying (which could be insulting) is that if we don't read more female authors, if we don't eliminate that "unconscious bias", then we could also be harboring other unconscious biases, like racism. That's quite a stretch. But, since I don't buy that argument of increasing importance, I'm not insulted.

  28. Women and men, due to the culture we live in, experience life differently. If you are saying that books that begin with the letter T show some different worldview than books that start with the letter S then sure, your rebuttal would make sense. If I care about women having the ability and opportunity to write then I put my money where my values lie and support them and their work. It's also just experiencing the full range of possibilities rather than limiting myself to one range of experience.

    And yes, I also try to structure my reading to read authors of color and international authors as well. I rarely if ever watch TV or movies, I read blogs by non-white and non-male authors, I listen to music from around the globe. If all the authors you are reading are white then yes, you should also ask yourself why that is as well. Of course having an unconscious bias is NOT sexism or racism, but noticing it and doing nothing, well, that is getting a little closer to it I think.

  29. Well, when it comes to the VIDA study, you’re absolutely right that we don't know the percentages of books published by men vs. women, but if the numbers in the VIDA study are representative of what's published (or even just what literary fiction is published), then that’s a symptom of a different problem, and one that needs to be addressed, IMO. As for women tending to read mostly women, I’m not sure that’s true. I know I’ve heard it said that women are more likely to have an even gender split in their reading and that men are more likely to read mostly men, which means that books by men tend to get read more. (But I’ve never seen any hard data about that, so who knows?)

    And as far as I can tell, no one is accusing anyone of deliberately shutting women out. (I know I’m not.) What I’m concerned about is unconscious bias, which is, as Amy points out, not the same as overt sexism or racism (nor is it the same as infringing on a person’s civil rights).

    But honestly, as I said before, I don't care to dictate what individuals read. However, I do care about systemic bias, and there's ample evidence that it exists, even if the roots of the bias aren't clear. And because individual efforts can help combat bias, I can see why individual readers who care about this kind of thing might choose to look at their reading choices and maybe make a deliberate effort to step beyond those unconscious biases. That doesn’t necessarily mean setting a quota or anything, just being thoughtful in making choices and keeping that potential for bias in mind.

  30. Hey! Good point - I guess I care what he's reading so I can check the book out! :)

    I linked this post in my Friday Five over at Kate's Library - have a great weekend!!!

  31. I'd almost have to write a post to fully respond (hmm...) - but mostly I think such statistics or choices are just there to provide some kind of framework, and to possibly cause us to ask the question, "How do I make the reading choices that I make? Is there a bias, my own or society's for making certain titles more visible, that I might want to be aware of? Do I want to open myself up to alternative reading experiences or am I happy with where I am?" I'd rather pieces be written more as awareness-inducing and discussion-provoking rather than overly critical attacks down gender lines. More of a, hey, President Obama, have you thought about this? Do you want to consider this in the future? Do you even have time to think about this? instead of a, wow you're reading choices offend me. That's ridiculously and unnecessarily combative.

  32. I feel sorry for the Prez, he can't even publish a summer reading list without it being politicized. Good picking apart the argument, Reading Ape style :) However, I suspect there may have been a pageview motive behind the piece, and you can't fault her for being a good businesswoman!

  33. I agree that this article is pretty silly. However, when I worked at a B&N, there was a regular customer who would always come to me for suggestions. After a while, I noticed he would only buy the books I suggested that were written by men. I called him on it, he owned up to it, but wouldn't change. He said he thought he couldn't identify or truly understand books written by women which I thought was completel bullsh*t but there was a limit to how much I could argue with a customer. Trust me, he is not alone. WE all might be egalitarian readers, however we book bloggers are not a typical reader who only reads a few books a year, doesn't discuss books with others or review them, and the majority of them ARE very influenced by gender. It's sad becuase they're missing out on a lot of terrific books, but it's hard to force them. Unless you've got some female authors who write using initials or pseudonyms (and a lot of them still do including J. K. Rowling so that should be an indication of how prevalent this problem remains.)