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It’s a well-documented truism that while women read books by and about men, men are far less likely to read books by or about women. As a woman who writes books about women, this is bad news for me, but also a woman living in the world that is full of both men and women, it’s also a troubling puzzle.

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Ladies be readin’

Here’s something worth a try: ask your nearest man what was the last book they read that was written by a woman. The nearest man I asked cheated, because he was reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf at the time, and he threw off my survey and ruined my favourite hobby which is maligning men while complaining that women are subject to constant calumny in the opinions of said men. But, several friends have had responses to the effect that the last book by a woman their nearest men read was Harry Potter, when it came out.

So why not? Is it that men, as a rule, have no interest in women? I have observed this, broadly, not to be true. Is it that they feel that these stories won’t be relatable for them? But in that case, wouldn’t women mostly or only read women authors? Sure, there are far fewer, although the gap these days is closing and there are still enough that you could read exclusively women writers if you wanted. Is it the kind of stories men expect women to write about or something imagined about “feminine style”? If that were the case, wouldn’t every woman under a male nom de plume be instantly unmasked?

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This woman is sick of your foolish chatter about how books by women are just for girls

For my part, I wonder if it’s something subtler and more insidious than this. If it’s the idea that many men have that they don’t want to be associated with something “girly”, the pervasive message in society that men must be super-manly all the time. It’s coming into question more and more, but it’s still there.

Being not a man myself, I do not have the answer. Feminist theory of the C20th has plenty to say about women and men and who should write for whom, but as the world moves forward some of that absolutism feels out-of-date.

I’m optimistic that we can look forward to a future in which there’s less of a gender divide in readers. Books are books, after all, not books for boys and books for girls. All books are for everyone.

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