How Many Readers Avoid Books Based on a Writer’s Gender?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 3, 2016

I often see comments on the web where readers attack book list makers for not having enough titles by women or people of color. Sometimes the comment sections get rather heated over the topic, especially when people using Twitter get involved. How common is this sentiment? Statistically we know that women and people of color aren’t represented equally in society. How often do readers avoid books because of their prejudices? How often do buyers select books to read based on their desire to promote equality? Today, far more women and people of color are succeeding on the bestseller lists than ever before. Is that because some readers are choosing to purchase books by writers to promote diversity, or because readers are interested in great stories and pay little attention to authors? My best guess is readers are mostly indifferent to who wrote a book, all they want is to forget the world and immerse themselves in a compelling work of fiction.

Hugo award novel 2016

I bought The Fifth Season because it won the Hugo Award this year, and it got amazing reviews. I do assume there are readers out there that chose not to buy this novel because it was written by a woman, but how many people still think that way? I suppose the misogyny of the Donald Trump campaign is evidence that the figure could be large, but looking at lists of best sellers and books that have been made into movies recently, I wonder how large.

I do believe movies, television shows, and novels can spread the acceptance of diversity. But how many people consciously choose a book to broaden their outlook? I’m not sure if book lists created to promote diversity have much impact. I do think what has impact is success. A blockbuster movie or bestselling novel that brings people closer together will change society. But does making lists of them help change society?

As a list maker, I have some evidence to apply towards these questions. After reading many essays and comments by people advocating there should be more women writers on lists of science fiction books, I created a list of science fiction  books by women writers for the new version 4 of Classics of Science Fiction. Our list is generated by studying 65 other lists, and we’ve been doing this for over thirty years. The trend we see is more women writers are being read. However, I’m not sure readers are selecting books to read because they are written by women. I think more women are writing great stories readers want to read.

When I look at our stats page, the only list that people are interested in is the Classics of Science Fiction by rank. We also offer the list ordered by author, title and year published, plus this time, the most popular science fiction books by women writers. Any list other than rank gets damn few hits. Our lists aren’t that popular to begin with, so I tend to doubt many readers buy books based on lists, other than best seller lists. And our rank list is somewhat like a bestseller list, books that succeed over time. Readers seem interested in long term popularity, but that might be nostalgia. I think most readers prefer new books. I don’t see any indication in our stats that readers focus on authors. The popularity of a novel is everything. I do know authors have fans that read all their books, but our readers don’t seem to care to check our author list to see which books by their favorite writers made the list.

I’m disappointed that our list of science fiction by women writers gets so few lists. I thought it was a well made list. Promoting great stories worthy of reading. I hope the lack of hits isn’t because science fiction readers are prejudice against women writers. The most popular book on our rank list by total citation lists, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, had been on 43 of the 65 lists we studied. I like to assume it proves most readers aren’t bias by gender, but favor great storytelling.

I’m a lifelong liberal. I’d like to believe I’ve never avoided a book because a woman wrote it. But I have to admit that growing up I read very few science fiction books by women writers. As a teen I read Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, Zenna Henderson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Madeleine L’Engle, Judith Merril, C. L. Moore, and a few other women writers. But to be completely honest, none of my favorite science fiction novels back in the 1960s were written those women. My two favorite authors growing up were Robert A. Heinlein and Samuel R. Delany. I knew little about them personally. Second tier was Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I didn’t like all their books, but the SF books I loved best were mainly by these five guys. Did their gender influence me? I don’t know. I do know my current all-time favorite novel is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. And even though I think Gilbert is a fascinating woman, her book is my favorite novel because of the story.

And to be totally upfront, I wrote this essay to get people to read the list, “Science Fiction by Women Writers,” and hopefully try the books on it. I like list making. I want them to be useful. But I’m also learning the limits of their appeal and value. Lists are very popular on the web, but I’m starting to wonder if readers are becoming indifferent to them.


Consensual, Prostitution and Rape

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 12, 2015

I saw a silly movie this weekend that had two disturbing scenes that I can’t stop thinking about. The film, Kingsman, is a comedy-action spoof on spy films. I’m sure the screenwriters and the audiences considered everything in good fun, but two scenes troubled me. The first was a mass killing at a church, which I will write about in the future, and the second, is when Princess Tilde tells our young hero, Eggsy, she’ll give him anal sex if he will free her from her dungeon prison. It bothers me that this modern fairy tale has the Princess bargaining for her freedom with Prince Charming. Is the hero’s reward consensual, prostitution or rape?


Matthew Vaughn, the director, considers this scene just another bit of comedy, but I think fiction has a moral language, a philosophical point of view, that we should always take seriously, no matter how stupid the story. Most people want to believe that fiction has a neutral impact on people’s minds, and is entertainment, merely a pastime. That’s why conventional wisdom wants us to believe that video game and movie violence don’t cause actual violence. To me, believing fiction has no power to influence is bullshit.

We all live by fictional beliefs. Unless a concept has been proven by science, most of the beliefs we live by are fictions. To say that fiction has no impact is silly. There are thousands of religions on this planet, and only one or zero of them can be true, so if you look at what religion causes people to do, then I think that’s logic enough to prove my point. Movies do influence people, even light-hearted comedies like Kingsman. Hollywood now has more influence than religion. The scene where the damsel in distress offers the hero sex in exchange for her freedom sends two messages. The first, is to promote the acceptance of anal sex in society. Hollywood has always promoted sex, but that’s not the issue I want to deal with. The second, is that’s it’s okay to barter sex for freedom – that’s loaded with moral issues that need to be examine.

Sex as a form of currency goes back to the animal kingdom. For example, male bowerbirds create elaborate nests in exchange for getting lucky with lady bowerbirds. Evolution uses traits for one gender of a species to set a high price for reproductive access. At one level we can say Princess Tilde has judged Eggsy worthy in a naturalistic way. Even among species were sex is recreational, prostitution sometimes reveals itself. But humans also have free will, and we’ve invented fine shades of laws, ethics and morality about dating. Essentially we divide sexual encounters into three domains of agreement between the two parties: consensual, prostitution and rape.

Ethically, when it comes to sex, our society has intellectually decided we want it to be consensual. Ethically, we quibble over the morality of sex for payment, and we consider sex by force to be one of the worst of crimes. We value everyone’s right to control their body as the highest forms of freedom and one of the greatest human rights. This hasn’t always been so, and it isn’t so everywhere, even today, but it’s inherent in modern liberal societies. We’re still moving towards the goal of perfect equality among the genders, but unfortunately, we’re not there yet, not even close. This incident with the hero and princess in this movie is a good case study why.

There are two sex-for-freedom cases in Kingsman. The hero’s mother in trapped in a relationship with a violent thug, and we’re led to assume it’s because the hero’s desperate mother aligned herself with this man to provide for her children. The hero hates this arrangement, so it’s rather startling that Eggsy would take the same bargain with the Princess Tilde – using his strength to get sex. Why do the moviegoers hate the thug but not the hero? We want to believe that the Princess Tilde is having consensual sex with the hero – but is she? Is any kidnapped woman, captured for what may be years, terrified of dying,  capable of making a free choice? Is the hero’s mom making a free choice when she has sex with the thug to provide for her kids?

Libertarians would like us to believe that prostitution is consensual and maybe it is in some cases, but if a woman is selling sex to survive is that really consensual?  If a wife tells her husband that she will give him a blowjob if he’ll watch the kids Saturday afternoon while she goes shopping might be an example of consensual prostitution. But even then it could be ethically iffy. What if the wife truly hates giving oral sex, but does it out of a sense of obligation, isn’t that still against her will?

When is consensual prostitution? When is prostitution rape? As a society we don’t fully realize the extent of rape in our culture. Few people understand the extent of the feminist message. It’s important for everyone to learn these distinctions, and spot them, even in supposedly harmless comedies. Anyone who has studied humor will understand comedy often has a subtext of hate.

The decision when to have sex is always changing. The generation before mine believed people should wait until after marriage to have sex. My generation, women embraced a variety of culturally supported decision tools, some even coming up with schemes about putting out after a specific number of dates. In modern times, women often go by their own internal desires and reading of their chemistry, which is naturalistic and biology driven. However, biology imposes a tyranny on both men and women. Our bodies push us to have sex, but we often don’t know why.  Nowadays some people prefer hookups without dating. It’s more egalitarian and consensual. Both parties want sex, and getting down to business avoids all the complicated other issues. Most people want sex. There are a percentage of people that don’t, but most do. If two people find each other and scratch each other’s sexual itches by mutual consent with no consequences, we can remove them from our ethical discussion.

Where things get difficult morally is when one person is coerced for whatever reason. We know biology forces us, but how is culture a coercive factor? If you study television and movies with the right insight, you can see how culture imprisons us all in gender stereotypes. As long as women are seen as rewards for male success we won’t have a truly egalitarian society. The trouble is many woman still buy into this belief too.

Ultimately, I want to explore the ethical issue brought up in Kingsman, and most other movies today, that sex is the reward men expect from females, and whether or not this expectation is egalitarian. Are young women programmed by culture to be sexual rewards? In the old days, the hero saves the Princess, and they get married to live happily ever after. In Kingsman, the Princess says, “Oh thanks for saving my life, as a reward I’ll let you fuck me in the ass.” What messages does that send to young women? Pop culture often supports the idea sex is proper payment for the weak to pay the strong? It bothers me Tilde was at the beginning of the show a political powerhouse and stood up to Valentine, but turned airhead weak for Eggsy in the end. Of course some feminists will broil me for linking female sexual desire with female willpower. I’m perfectly fine with Tilde wanting to have sex with Eggsy, but I’m unhappy how she’s portrayed as a joke. We don’t laugh at her when she’s strong, but we do when she’s weak.

Most people are going to say I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but isn’t that because they already accept Kingsman’s messages as true? Can we have an egalitarian society if women are seen as rewards for success? Sure, that’s the way nature works, but nature is not egalitarian. Nature doesn’t give a shit about what happens to anyone. Nature is not ethical. We are evolving beyond nature, into a humanistic state of being. We can reject nature. Maybe we’re evolving our souls, and I’m saying Kingsman isn’t helping.

We’re in new territory here. It’s only within the last century that we’ve started considering women to be equal to men, and most people still don’t. Take the Catholic Church. If we all have equal souls why can’t women become priests and even Pope? Is there something different about their souls? I’m an atheist, so I don’t believe in heaven, but for you people that do, answer me this: Does heaven have gender issues? Does not having a dick make you a second class soul? Do souls have genitals in heaven?

Now that we’re inventing gender equality, we have to assume that all humans are truly equal. Even though I’m an atheist, I like the concept of the soul because souls don’t have physical attributes – they’re pure consciousness. If we’re egalitarian souls, then we can’t discriminate by genitals or chromosomes, and isn’t that what movies are doing? From now on, whenever you watch a movie, or television show or read a book, think about how culture assigns different roles to males and females. Is that consensual? Is what the Princess did truly consensual? Even if she sounded more than willing? I don’t believe so.

As a guy, we always want to believe women want to have sex with us, but just how true is it? If the decision was measured against a scale, with a green zone for consensual, a yellow zone for prostitution, and a red zone for rape, how often when we get laid would the meter swing into the yellow or red?

We are so programmed by pop culture that we fail to see its evil. Princess Tilde was a strong independent woman when she resisted Valentine’s evil plan, but in the end her character is used for laughs, and she’s turned into a batty-eyed sex object. Roxy and Gazelle are never fully realized characters, and neither is Princess Tilde.  Women only represent sexual pawns in this story. Roxy is the token female Kingsman, and Gazelle, the novelty henchmen. Of course, all the characters are cartoonish comic book characters – but the male characters make the decisions. The story is a fairy tale for adults and not meant to be serious, but unfortunately, like all fairy tales, they come with a subtext, and when decoded, we see the darker side of being human.


Reading Synergy

Sometimes I luck out and read two great books about different subjects that reinforce each other’s ideas and make each book more powerful.  Earlier this month I read Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  Now I’m reading The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond, about comparing modern society to human societies of the past.  Jared Diamond makes a case that human behavior is different under state governments than how we lived under pre-state societies.  Diamond describes life and psychology in hunter and gather cultures, as well a chiefdoms and tribal societies.  It might surprise you that there is much in the two books that overlap, but then any two books that chronicles so many cultures around the world are bound to overlap.


Half the Sky is introduced by saying 60-100 million women are missing from the current population.  Kristof and WuDunn point out that gender selected abortion, infanticide, the favoring of male children to receive medical care over females, enslavement, torture and other horrible social practices explain the missing females from the world’s population.

Jared Diamond also describes how pre-state cultures are hard on females.  His book explains why these cultures practice infanticide and gender selected abortions when they have access to technology.  What Diamond essentially says is our modern way of life is new and that humans lived much differently for millions of years before the advent of state controlled governments.

Most traditional cultures, as Diamond calls them, fought constant wars over women, food, land and natural resources.  Societies were male dominated and women were possessions.  Polygamy was the common marriage arrangement which inherently treats women unfairly.

If you blend the two books together you see that the world is going through a transformation.   We’re shifting from traditional cultures to state cultures which over time has abolished slavery and moved towards monogamy and fairer treatment of women.


Kristof and WuDunn make a case that if we change how we treat women, we’ll change how societies operate, and thus reduce terrorism and war, and increase economic activity and freedom for all individuals.  Diamond indirectly says states protects individuals and frees them from constant warring and violence, which is mainly caused by males seeking personal revenge and retribution.  He also points out the ownership of women causes much of the violence in traditional societies.

There is a synergy between that and the TV show I’m watching on DVD, Hatfields & McCoys.  The two feuding families were more like two feuding tribes.  I find further reading synergy between the above and the book Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne describing the history of the Comanche Indians, and The Old TestamentThe Old Testament is a history of the twelve tribes of Israel conquering the Canaanites, and later about the twelve tribes of Israel trying to survive the onslaught to two state run societies, The Babylonians and The Romans. Empire of the Summer Moon is about the Comanches fighting the onslaught of the United States of America, another state run society.

For most of human history we live and fought each other as small groups.  The standard operating procedure was kill your enemy, enslave the women, and adopt the children.  The Old Testament illustrates this perfectly.  Sometimes God told the Israelites to kill everything that walks and crawls when they invade a village, and sometimes God told them to kill only them men and keep the women and children.  The tribes of Israel acted no different from the Comanches.  Whether they were as cruel in their torture was not noted in The Bible, but I expect it was pretty much like what we saw between the Hutu and the Tutsi.

The upshot of all these books is individual freedom, peace, gender equality, the semblance of justice comes from state run governments.  If we don’t want tribal societies like the Taliban or Al-Qaeda then we have to promote strong central governments.

Kristof and WuDunn don’t go into this directly.  They just advocate uplifting women where we can, but what that really means if Jared Diamond is right, is we have to eliminate old traditional ways, which is a kind of cultural imperialism.  Diamond is very fond of traditional societies and thinks we can learn from them, and that might be true, but he knows we can’t maintain all the old ways.  This is best illustrated in his introduction when he compares 1961 New Guinea people to 2013 New Guinea people.  The World Until Yesterday is an extremely important book.

In a pre-state society, safety is living very close to your tribe and your tribal alliances.  It is extremely unsafe to venture far and meet strangers.  Nearly all strangers are considered enemies.   If you are alone and meet a group of strangers expect to flee or die.  If you are with your friends and find strangers in a smaller number, expect to kill.  This is the basis for our xenophobia.  It worked the same for the Hatfields and the McCoys.

In a state society we learn to trust strangers.  We can safely travel the world as long as we don’t venture into traditional societies.  When you go to France you don’t expect the Frenchmen to kill you.  That won’t be true in areas where people still live by traditional ways.

Kristof and WuDunn inadvertently make the case that lingering traditional societies are killing off women, or cruelly oppressing them, and that we need to spread strong governments into traditional societies.  What they explicitly advocate is finding gentle ways of changing social customs in traditional societies to be more enlightened about women.   If you read Empire of the Summer Moon you’ll see how 19th century people wanted to gently change the Comanche.  It didn’t work as planned.  I doubt changing the Taliban will be any more of a success.


Strangely enough, the real vector of change is television and the internet.  Knowledge is homogenizing.  Citizens of traditional cultures resent being forced to change.  Practices like infanticide and female genital mutilation are natural, if not holy and good to them.  It is insulting to these people to tell them their ways of doing things are evil and grotesque.  But if they are given a choice they sometimes choose to change on their own.  Television and the internet help them see their choices.  Kristof and WuDunn say helping women will cause positives changes too.  That’s a great hypothesis to test.

I highly recommend reading Half the Sky, The World Until Yesterday and Empire of the Summer Moon together for the strong synergy of ideas.  All too often we think our way of doing things is the right way, and everyone else’s way is wrong.  Many people advocate cultural relativism, but I don’t.  I believe individuals are more important than cultures.  There is no superior culture, but I advocate the maximum protection of the individual with the goal of giving everyone the most freedom possible.  That avoids the which culture is better issue.  Of course, individual freedoms tend to homogenize societies because it does away with violence, gender bias, slavery, polygamy,  and all kinds of other culture beliefs that tend to color individual cultures.

JWH – 1/28/13