Wednesday 6 May 2020

Is Gendered Reading A Thing? A Discussion on Book Recommendations Based on Gender

I’ve loosely titled this idea “gendered reading”, which may or may not be a thing, but was closest to what I had in mind. I’ve actually thought about writing this post for sometime now, possibly going on 2 years, but could never find how to accurately and eloquently express what my thoughts. Here’s me attempting to do so now though.

What really prompted this was the first few times I started seeing guides to purchasing books as gifts, more specifically for Mother or Father’s day. I started to notice a difference in recommendations, more so to do with genre, and whether the differences were pulled from data on what females and males preferred to consume or based on assumption of what each gendered wanted to consume.

Firstly, let’s take a look at some of this year’s Mother’s Day book buying guides.

Have you picked up a theme after looking at these guides? Beyond the fact that there are probably some great reads listed, the similarities between all guides are the inclusion and lack of inclusion of different genres. The recommendations are narrowed down into contemporary fiction, mystery/suspense or longer reads revolving around history or family themes. For guides, like that of Booktopia and Barnes & Noble's, there’s also the addition of lifestyle books, either to do with gardening or cooking. So what isn’t included in these lists? Not once do these guides recommend a fantasy, sci-fi or horror novel (amongst other existing genres). Yet, we see these genres specifically pop up in majority of Father’s Day guides. 

Take a look at the following lists: 

Notice that there is rarely, ever, a crossover between recommendations for mother’s and father’s whether it be genre or author. For men, it seems, there is a huge focus on horror, crime thrillers, politics, sports amongst the other recommended books. 

You could say that the crime/suspense recommendations in Mother’s Day guides are similar, if not the same, as the inclusion of thrillers for Father’s Day guides. However, I argue that whilst they are from the same family of reads, the themes or premises are quite difference. For instance, I noticed that the suspense novels listed for mums revolved around family mysteries (stemming numerous generations) or crime series written by women that are more focused on the why a crime occurs. In New Idea’s Five New Books To Give Mum on Mother’s Day (2020) they include newly released The long Shadow by Anne Buist. The premise is about psychologist Isabel Harris whose sole concern is her toddler and the mother-baby therapy group she’s involved in. However, one day she receives an anonymous note alerting her the fact that the baby killer will strike again. So off she goes as the heroine of the day to save these babies by understanding why a baby’s death 25 years ago could result in more deaths in present day. Authors like Kathy Reichs, Ann Cleeves and Agatha Christie’s name came up quite often. In thriller reads for men, authors included John Grisham, Michael Connelly and Daniel Silva who all write long standing crime series about male detectives who are intent on solving cases and demonstrate the process of investigating or prosecuting, whilst also touching on political or legal themes. 

If there is a list that can convey which genres are targeted at which gender, it is Barnes & Nobles’, albeit very well sectioned and easy to navigate, site. On the left hand side there are the genres listed clearly based on whether you are buying for your mum or dad. Obviously, these are  well thought out selling strategies, intentionally targeting their audience with books they believe their audience will read. 

My questions then, are whether the continuation in recommending certain genres for one gender over another is derived from audience informed or reliable sources/studies? Are book recommendations built to serve its consumers or are they written to reinforce certain beliefs about genders. For instance, whilst women are targeted with books about love and family, or how to tend to their garden and expand their cooking repertoire, men apparently prefer more confronting themes involving horror or crime solving, if not knowledge building books based politics or sports. I definitely believe there are times when people resort to thinking about whether someone would enjoy a certain gift based on their gender, as though women won’t enjoy reading about sports or men can’t appreciate a story about family bonds.

I can’t say that all women and men read only within the confinements of what is recommended to them. That would be rather narrow-minded of me, especially as, from personal reading preference, I definitely read across a range of genres. However, I will say that a major reason for writing this post is to point out that what we’re recommended to us, whether it be books like I’ve mentioned or movies, TV shows, music etc. can really be based on our gender and the stereotypes that come from it. I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong with reading the genres that are recommended to you, according to whether you define as female or male. Reading preferences will vary for everyone, but it’s up to yourself, as a consumer, to be aware of what is being presented to you and not have it subtly become a restriction or dictate what you can or cannot like.

Book buying lists are still a great source of recommendations though, as you can find a number of great reads. There’s still room for improvement though, in that compilations of book recommendations shouldn’t be based on just gender stereotypes or beliefs (or a definitive split between what women and men like) and should include a wide range of options. If there are any dangers to following a rather strict guideline on what men or women like and what you should buy for them, then it’s creating the sense that a certain gender should not read the genres that are reserved for the other gender. 

I would love to know what your perspective is regarding what I have addressed. Do you also notice a difference in recommendations for women and men and, if so, do you think it is necessary to be aware of or discuss?

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