Tuesday, 21 January 2014

You say causation, I say correlation... let's call the whole thing off

Thanks to the excellent Rosy Thornton for pointing out this piece in the Guardian blogs, suggesting that we should 'make sure the next book we read is by a woman.' I find this offensive and I suspect behind the rhetoric is my favourite bugbear, a confusion of correlation and causality.

I would suggest that the vast majority of people do not choose their books based on the gender of the author, even subconsciously. Instead, most of us read books in a genre or genres that we like (and there's nothing wrong with that, though I always encourage people to experiment and take a tiptoe out of their habitual genres).

Here comes the correlation bit. In quite a few genres, one sex of author dominates. I happen to read mostly popular science and science fiction, which have a preponderance of male authors. If instead I happened to enjoy reading fiction the genre that is usually labelled 'chick-lit' (though I think the term is going out of fashion), I suspect I would be reading books where most authors are female - but I don't. In fact a genre I read less frequently, but do read occasionally, is crime, and there female authors do dominate my reading. If you look on my shelves for crime books*, you will find titles by Margery Allingham, P. D. James, Ngaio Marsh, Susan Hill, Ruth Rendell and Elizabeth George hugely dominating those by Colin Dexter and Jonathan Gash, who are the only male crime writers I own books by.

Now I don't think there is anything sinister in the predominance of male writers in science fiction or women writers in crime. It isn't some conspiracy by the publishers - it's quite simply that more men choose to write science fiction and more women choose to write crime. In both cases there are plenty of exceptions, but I'm just talking about the overall picture. So if I, as a man, have chosen to read more books by men (and I think that is true), it is due to an incidental correlation of the sex of the author with the genre they write in, rather than a causal connection between the authors' gender and my decision to read their books.

I think to suggest that we should consciously decide to read a book by a woman is a terrible approach - because we should never be choosing books on the gender of the author (surely the whole point of this business), yet that is exactly what we are being asked to do. I suspect if there was a better understanding of the difference between correlation and causality in the literary world this wouldn't be an issue.

* If anyone thinks this is unrepresentative as a sample of modern crime authors, I only really read the sub-genre of 'traditional English crime'.

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