Women read novels written by novelists. Men prefer their novelists to have a Y-chromosome along with the literary talent.
The greatest insult a little boy can endure is to be told he’s ‘acting like a girl’. Nobody points out that it’s wrong to use the word ‘girl’ as an insult. A boy child is led to believe, by a thousand different cultural messages, that he is better than a girl child, just by dint of his maleness. It is also made clear to him that he must learn the traditional qualities of maleness. He must be tough. No ‘crying like a girl’. He mustn’t betray himself before his peer group with demonstrations of emotional tenderness. Girls do not have these restrictions imposed upon them. Girls are allowed to cry without their gender being called in to question. In particular, they are allowed to be afraid. It’s okay for a girl to admit to her friends that she’s afraid of the dark. She and her little friends would probably have boasting competitions about just how terrified they can get when the light is switched off. A little boy however, would die of shame rather than admit to night terrors before his gang of mini hard men. And all the boys would unite in despising the scaredy girls for being ‘soft’. (Girls are softer, though, aren’t they? They just are. They play nicely. Do you find yourself agreeing with that statement? That’s called ‘conditioning’. Little girls can be cruel as hell, given the chance to ostracise some poor hapless mite. ) It’s a horrible trait in some human beings that we punish the weak for being weak. I could go on about Tory welfare cuts at this point but I don’t want to get side-tracked.
So – to the point: Over the course of a reading lifetime, women read male and female novelists more or less equally but men read mostly men. This is the very reason why Joanne Rowling was asked by her publisher to be J.K. – because boys don’t want to read a book with a woman’s name on the cover.
Men might have read a few female-authored classics at school (Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice) but the male reader will only read contemporary female novelists if their worth is vouchsafed to them by another male, preferably one in literary authority (newspaper reviewers, for example). There’s a subconscious misogyny at work here – a punishing of women as the ‘weak’. It says, man to man: we know women have a poor track record in matters of conspicuous achievement and we fear to associate with them in case it lowers our stock and compromises our Alpha-male reading integrity.
But then you get a novel like ‘Wolf Hall’.
Wolf Hall has won prizes so it’s officially a high status read which overcomes the disadvantage for a male reader of its being written by a woman, for a man’s greatest fear in choosing a novel, is emasculation.
Now, though I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I have the reading appetite of a king, and a king of English too. And I recommend that men who dare to read a novel written by a double-X chromosomed novelist apart from Hilary Mantel, should try ‘Old Filth’. It stands for ‘Failed in London Try Hong Kong’. The publisher has recently changed the cover to a ‘gender-neutral’ design and the hope is that more men will discover this excellent author. It’s a novel about a man, but it’s written by someone called Jane. A woman writing about a man. Jane Gardam writing about Old Filth. Human experience. That’s what reading and writing is all about. Sharing and reading and living and writing the human experience.