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Bookish ThoughtsSociological Thoughts

The gender of the book group

By February 24, 20119 Comments

A couple of days ago I was browsing through the book blogosphere and came upon a post by The Reading Ape about the gender gap in reading. This was in response to a comment on The Huffington Post that men don’t read as much as women because the publishing world ignores them. Interesting, and something I’ve never thought about before. What I have spent a great deal of thought and discussion on is the gender of the book group.

I currently belong to two book groups, both of which consist of all other women. My husband reads, not as much as I do, but is a reader nonetheless. As a man who very much enjoys the company of women, he feels somewhat jokingly left out of my book group life. This is especially true when I host book group at my house and he’s faced with a room full of women he knows and whose company he quite enjoys, but is nonetheless banished to another room. “Why don’t you form your own book group?” I ask. “Why aren’t there any men in your book group?” he counters. And then we move on with our lives.

Those seem to be the two questions here, or at least two that I’m interested in. Why don’t men form their own book groups? And why don’t we think to ask men to join ours?

Both my husband and I are academics, and so the social circles we run in are highly populated with people who read. My husband is friends with other men who read, but I can guarantee you with 99.6% certainty that they will not be forming a book group any time soon. And, I confess, it’s hard for me to imagine a room full of guys sitting in someone’s living room talking about books.

As someone who thinks and has read quite a bit about gender, there seems to be little historical precedence for this phenomenon. For most of Western history, books and the talking about books were men’s terrain. Most women didn’t write books, and the books most women read were not considered really worth talking about in any serious kind of way. Maybe this is still true, and so men don’t form book groups because they are not seen as serious intellectual activities; book groups are just a group of women using books as an excuse to talk about the things that women always talk about when they get together (and the things women always talk about when they get together are not particularly important). And almost all of the men I know do not get together as groups of men and talk about those kinds of things. They might in small groups or with one other friend, but I just think about all the times my dad went golfing with his buddies. Once one of his friends had a daughter going through a painful divorce, and my mother asked my dad how his friend was doing. “We didn’t talk about that,” he said. The most I could ever glean about what happened out there on the course were fart jokes, and I swear I’m not making that up to be stereotypical or funny.

So maybe book groups are seen as beneath some men, like powder puff football or something? And then there’s a whole other category of men who just don’t read, period, so why would they form a book group?

I don’t think any of the men I know are going to form their own group, so why not let my husband into ours? Why don’t we women ask men to join our book groups? As I said, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about gender, namely in the interest of writing one long-ass sociology of gender textbook. The more I think about gender, the more inclined I am to believe that we see many more gender differences than actually exist. Gender becomes a set of blinders that leads us to interpret the world in certain ways. Confirmation bias tells us that once we believe something is true, we tend to ignore facts which contradict that belief and remember the facts that support it. We begin to believe in gender pretty early on, and so for most of our lives, we walk around with these blinders on that shut out some experiences and highlight others. So I’m a person who is generally reluctant to talk about gender differences as things that just are, rather than as things that we believe.

Nonetheless, my first response to the question, why don’t we ask men to join our book group is quite simply that they wouldn’t act right. It’s a delicate balance when a group of women get together to talk about a book. The person who made the recommendation is nervous that everyone will hate it, or that they’ll be nothing to talk about. There’s a kind of responsibility to be generally kind and sensitive to each other, and to give everyone a chance to talk. If the book touches on some particular experience you know someone in the group has gone through, there’s a desire on the part of some people to be sensitive to that. There’s a lot going on in a book group, and I’m not sure if I trust a man to be aware of that.

But then I try to peer past my gender blinders and the reality is that not all of the women in the book groups themselves are kind and sensitive to each other. Not all of us always refrain from the desire to just tell our own stories, to try and dominate the conversation. We’re not always sensitive to what the other women bring to the table. So what does any of that have to do with gender?

My favorite theories of gender draw on a the metaphor of performance and place an emphasis on context for understanding gender. Gender is something that you do, rather than something that you are, and so your gender is not always the same in different settings. I don’t even want to say that one man in our book group would act in more feminine ways, but I think maybe he would act differently. But I’m afraid the rest of us women would act differently, too.

I can imagine gender-integrated book groups that would work very well. Some things would be lost and some things would be gained. It’s certainly something I’d be willing to give a try. But as an addition, and not a replacement. In the world we live in right now, there’s something very enjoyable about being in a room full of other women that I’m not ready to give up.

What do you think? Do you have men in your book groups? Do you know of book groups with no women? What’s going on here?


  • Laurie says:

    Hi Robyn,
    I'd like to post a link to your post here tomorrow or later today: Your take on this issue ties in to other discussions of gender issues & reading that I encountered today, so I thought I'd pass on your ideas to the folks who visit my blog.

  • Robyn says:

    Yeh, Laurie. That sounds great. Looking forward to reading what you have to say.

  • Nymeth says:

    First of all, your book sounds fascinating! This is a theme that really interests me – so much so that I've recently decided to devote my MA thesis to the question “What's going on here?” I'm specifically interested in how perceptions of reading as a gendered behaviour affects how much teen boys read (or don't). I don't think the traditional solution, which is promoting more “manly” books with action! explosions! sports! is getting to the heart of the issue. And yes, I absolutely agree that we see far more gender differences than the ones that actually exist. Have you read Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine? It's a fascinating book.

  • Laurie says:

    Thanks, Robyn. And,Nymeth, that's one of the links for my post tomorrow!
    R – I'm not offering any answers in my post, just linking to a variety of blogs that are reaching into these questions…
    To that end, I'll link to Nymeth's blog too, if that's alreight…

  • llevinso says:

    #1, got here from What She Reads, great blog!

    #2, my parents are in a book group together that consists of three couples total and the husbands are willing participants. So there is hope. But all three couples are in the psychological field so maybe they are just outliers?

    #3, I always remember the one episode of The Cosby Show where Claire belongs to a book club (all women) and one day they decide to invite their husbands to participate. All week Claire is worried because Cliff isn't reading the book and she thinks he's going to embarrass her. The day of the club comes and he's the only husband to show up because the other men hadn't read the book. And Claire is embarrassed because Cliff's giving vague answers but then, surprise surprise, he HAS read the book! But then he says something embarrassing anyway and somewhat sexist.

  • These are questions that my store has been trying to address for a while. I'm not a member of any book clubs, though I'd love to be, but our bookstore has been talking for a long time about how to get more men involved in book clubs. We host three at our store: Open Fiction (which is mostly literary fiction, led by a woman) Crime Club (all mysteries & thrillers, led by a man), and Shakespeare Sunday (one play each month, led by a man). Men rarely attend the first one, occasionally the middle one, and frequently the last one. It seems bizarre to me that of the three bookclubs, the Shakespeare club gets the highest percentage of men in attendance on a regular basis. We're thinking of starting a non-fiction book club in the hopes that more men will become involved, as our sales indicate that our male customers buy proportionately much more nonfiction than fiction, and much more nonfiction than our female customers buy.

    Our store is in western massachusetts and our area has one of the highest concentrations of academics per capita in the US–we're collectively people who read and value books and ideas. I have a lot of customers who are men, and I'm very aware of the books I try to sell to them versus the books I try to sell to women. There are some exceptions–my husband is one of them–but most of my female customers don't want to read a book if I compare it to Cormac McCarthy and most men don't want to read a book if I compare it to Geraldine Brooks. Both writers are literary, major prize winners, so it's not a question of the literary content like it would be if I were trying to sell Nora Roberts or Jodi Picoult, whose works are popular and very issue- or relationship-driven, to the guys.

    Although things are slowly moving in the right direction, it's fairly true of my customers that girls and women are happy to read books written by men with male characters, but not vice versa.

  • Laurie says:

    Ah, it's a long road…
    C – Although I live on the opposite side of the country, our community sounds similar to yours and I would predict that a Shakespeare reading group would draw a wide range of participants here too.
    Q: Could timing be a factor in attendance? Sunday's an easier draw for all?
    And the nonfiction idea sounds worth pursuing…
    R – One of my favorite people on the planet, our school librarian, has been in an all-mens book group for years. As I understand it, they're not all librarians! As you research for your book, let me know if/when you'd like me to put you in touch with him.

  • Lanita says:

    I don't belong to a book club, but I did watch the movie, The Jane Austen Book Club. They had a a young man join their club, and eventually more men joined. It seemed to work for them.

  • Robyn says:

    Nymeth, that sounds like a great topic for an MA. I can't wait to here more about it. I don't think the solution is to make books that are more “boyish” either. Girls read books with boyish things in them, why can't boys read books with girlish things?

    Laurie, I'll have to check out Delusions of Gender. Thanks again for the link. I think Nymeth is researching about men and book groups, though your all-male book group does sound interesting.

    Ilevinso, that's nice that your parents were in a book group together. My husband read my post and though he wants to be in the room, I don't think he really wants to actually join my book group.

    Emily, your experience with the book groups makes me think that maybe it is only okay for men to talk about the “heavy” stuff like Shakespeare and non-fiction. There's a term for it being okay for women to do masculine things but not for men to do feminine things–androcentrism. The explanation is that because men and masculinity are seen as dominant and therefore better, it's okay for women to want to be like men (=better) but nor for men to want to be like women (=worse). What a world.

    Lanita, I forgot about the young man who joins the Jane Austen book club. Does he end up dating someone in the group? I can't remember.

    Great discussion.

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