Women… they don’t have humour, they can’t drive, they have terrible navigation skills… hmm, what other nonsensical stereotypes can we name? Perhaps that they can’t write anything relevant besides the cheap romance novels you find at the airport?

I’m sure none of you actually believe any of those archaic stereotypes. But sometimes we don’t think we believe them, but we do unconsciously act upon them.

For example, I never believed women are bad writers. That sounds ridiculous to me. In fact, based on my experiences in school and university, women have always been the better writers around me. But for some reason, this experience never properly translated to my reading behaviour.

Why do I tend to read fewer female authors?

When you look at my reading data since 2019 (the year I actively started tracking my reading habits), you’ll see that the percentage of female authors in my ‘read’-pile is scarily low. Until 2021 it didn’t even reach above 10%. That’s lower than the percentage of female CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies in 2023 (10,4%).

YearFemale authors
20191/25 (4%)
20203/40 (7,5%)
20217/31 (22,6%)
202210/40 (25%)
202311/19 (58%)
Annual percentage of female authors out of total books I read

The same patriarchal system that keeps women out of the CEO also keeps them out of my bookshelf. Because the books that are considered classics are almost always written by men. Just because women didn’t get the chance to write in those days, or because their work didn’t get any attention precisely because they were women.

For contemporary (literary) fiction this power dynamic seems to be shifting. This data-based essay by The Pudding shows how the gender balance in the New York Times Bestseller list has shifted over the last century. Growing from a 25/75 split in the 1950s to around 50/50 in 2016. There are still a lot of nuances hiding behind those numbers, and I would recommend you read the full essay if you want to learn more about gender inequality in the publishing world.

My personal reading history shows the same development. Over the last few years, I have started to read more books that are written by female authors.

The most significant change came in 2021. This year, I asked my female friends to recommend me feminist books. I called it my feminist reading challenge. And I really enjoyed it! The important takeaway from this challenge was the strength of fictional books. Written by women, about women. For me, these books were the most impactful gateway to learning about the female experience. Through their stories.

Personal reflection on my 2023 reading challenge

I’m writing this message to you in June 2023, after I’ve just hit my non-cis-male-reading target. I planned to read at least 10 books by non-cis-male authors this year. And now, at the halfway mark of 2023, I’m already at 11 books. So, what are my thoughts about this challenge now?

Two new favourite writers

This feels like the most important ‘win’ in my book (pun intended). All of my previous favourite writers have identified themselves as men (Reve, Elsschot, Brusselmans, Dijkshoorn, etcetera), but I’m glad that I can now add a few writers to that list with a completely different lived experience. These authors are Ottessa Moshfegh and Sayaka Murata. These authors have blown me away with the way they mix the seemingly mundane with the ultra gore, the absurd, and the shocking.

It made me think about the lived experience of men vs women and how it translates into art. Most of my favourite male authors seem to write quite boring stories. The protagonist just goes about his life, doing very mundane things. Most of these protagonists will then try to make their life more interesting in some way, out of boredom. Their motivation almost always seems to be boredom (which can have many forms).

But Moshfegh and Murata both write stories in which shocking things happen, yet they do the opposite of what the men do. They reverse the process and try to make the shocking seem mundane and normal.

What does that say? Is the lived experiences of the straight white male, at the top of the food chain, so boring that they need art to escape from it? And is the lived experience of women so horrific that they’ve started to consider it normal and mundane? Or do these stories about women only shock me because I am a man and their experiences are completely foreign to me? I’m curious about what you all make of this. Please send me an email if you have anything you’d like to say about this topic.

What about non-fiction?

If the fictional classics are still male-dominated, then the non-fiction section surely must be the same, right? Or even worse, as it might reflect the power dynamics in society a bit more accurately. Most respected non-fiction books are written by professors of prestigious universities, or CEOs of successful companies, or other experts that we deem important and influential. And since we live in a patriarchy, those seats are still mostly filled with the wrinkly, hairy buttocks of men.

YearAs % of total non-fictionAs % of total female
20216/17 (46%)6/7 (86%)
20225/21 (24%)5/10 (50%)
20231/4 (25%)1/11 (9%)
Swipe right on mobile for an extra column. I left out the years 2020 and 2019 because I read so few female authors that it became irrelevant to mention them.

When looking at my personal data, I think there is something interesting going on. It seems that the only year I read a decent amount of non-fiction by female authors is the year of my feminism reading challenge (2021). That is interesting because female friends chose those books for me. I did not choose them myself. The years 2022 and 2023 show a steady decline in non-fiction books by female authors. Back to a level where I’m comfortable again. Back to reading non-fiction by grey, old, white man with fancy titles.

Of course, that’s not really cool. And it’s not like I do it on purpose. It is just a manifestation of our patriarchal system. More men in power -> more male experts -> more male non-fiction appreciation -> more male non-fiction on my bookshelf. It just sort of happens automatically.

But those are the worst types of things. Things that just happen automatically. Unconscious decisions. Because every decision you make that is not conscious, is a decision that is probably made by someone else. Unconscious decisions therefore signify a lack of freedom. And if you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know that I’m all about freedom. Getting rid of (or at least being aware of) biases and other barricades should help me in my quest for freedom.

So that means that I should put in a bit more effort to include female authors in my non-fiction book list. And next to that, I think I can also be a bit more ambitious with my female reading challenge next year. This year the target was 10 books. But my total book target for 2023 is 45. So I’m aiming to read only 22% women? Bit disappointing honestly. And it says enough that I’ve already hit the target in June. So, I will adjust my target accordingly. In 2023 I will try and read 22 books by female authors! Let’s strive for balance and equality!

(But not completely, because I’m a man and I enjoy sitting on society’s throne. So 22/45 female authors and 23/45 male 🙂 )