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.

JWH