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He Reads, She Reads: Do Choices Speak Volumes?

What men and women read does tend to differ, but some readers and writers chafe at labels such as 'women's books.'


When author Jonathan Franzen balked at being one of talk show host Oprah Winfrey's book club picks last month, it raised some hackles and some questions:

What's so bad about being read by thousands of women? And if being on Oprah's list makes a book a "woman's book," just what does that mean?

"To deem a book a 'woman's book' is kind of a backhanded way of disparaging a book," says Linda Bubon, co-owner of Women & Children First, a Chicago bookstore founded in 1979 to give women authors their due.

"It's really insulting to call a book a 'woman's book,"' said e-novelist Emily McCormack, 79, of Willowbrook, Ill. "What it means is it's silly and sentimental and there's no meat in it."

But are those stereotypes fact or fiction in this day and age?

Bubon, whose clientele is 80% female, said that there is "incredible diversity" in both the writing of female authors and the readers themselves, which defies those notions.

Still, some of the impressions of what women like to read are backed up by sales figures.

According to Ipsos BookTrends, a research survey conducted for the publishing industry, the top genre purchased for women is romance, followed by general fiction.

For some, the popularity of those categories among female readers and female writers feeds the idea that women's books are something less than high-minded literature--and it implies that men won't read them. That seemed to be part of the reasoning behind Franzen's initial snubbing of Oprah's Book Club logo on the cover of his book "The Corrections."

In a radio interview, Franzen said that "more than one [male] reader" at book signings had told him: "If I hadn't heard of you, I would've been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women, and I never touch [them]."

The book deals with family dynamics, which traditionally have been considered women's domain. But that common wisdom may need updating, said Brad Hooper, adult books editor for Booklist, a review journal published by the American Library Assn.

"If [the subject matter] suggests that it is a woman's novel, that's too bad," Hooper says. "We operate on the premise that readers are readers."

Besides, he said, plenty of men wrote about family relationships, including D.H. Lawrence and William Faulkner.

Ipsos BookTrends divides men's and women's purchase data into roughly 60 genres. It reports that part of the romance category's popularity among women could simply be affordability--many books in that class tend to cost less.

And although the top category for men is nonfiction religion--which includes Bibles, Korans, philosophy, Eastern religions and Christian living books, for example--that class accounts for less than 10% of all books bought for men.

Ann Russo, acting director of the women's studies program at DePaul University, believes marketing, such as the way books are advertised and their cover art, creates gender differences and perpetuates them.

"I don't think there is anything inherent in women or in men that would orient them toward different topics, styles and concerns," she said.


Roberta Rubin, owner of the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, says some gender-based distinctions may have validity.

"I don't like to think of literature as being sexist, but I suppose there are certain books, like Danielle Steel's, that I don't think many men would read," Rubin said. "Men might prefer David Baldacci, although I know women read [his thrillers] too."

But if there are some gender-based leanings, women cross over more easily than men, Rubin says.

That may have something to do with the sheer volume of books purchased and read by women compared with men. Ipsos BookTrends reports that a whopping 81% of books are purchased for women but cautions that this figure may be somewhat skewed because the household diaries it uses to gather data tend to be filled out by women.

But that finding jibes with Rubin's observations. "Men, in our store, at least, are not the majority of shoppers," Rubin says.

Clearly, for every generalization, there are exceptions. Choice of reading materials can be enormously individual.

"There truly is the idea that something is a woman's book, just like they call certain movies 'chick flicks,' but I don't think all women fit into that category when it comes to their choice in reading," said avid reader Liz Nicholson, 34, director of scheduling for the Illinois Secretary of State's office. "I don't necessarily read books that could be pigeonholed as 'chick books' or whatever.

"For maybe a year and a half I was on a big kick of reading true-crime books, things of a nature that would turn some women's stomachs. Over the summer, I was into more frivolous reading--autobiographies of Esther Williams and Eddie Fisher," said Nicholson, of Chicago. "Those are books a lot of men wouldn't particularly pick, but I wasn't reading them because I'm a woman. I was reading them because it took my mind off of other things and let me delve into the world of old movie stars."

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