Tyler Daswick, a senior writer at Relevant, was not reading books written by women, an omission he confessed in his recent article, How Six Weeks of Reading Books By Women Affected My Thinking. Daswick—“a Straight White Dude”—described his regretful neglect of female perspectives and his hope “to be an ally for women amid the current social climate.” Although his piece was obviously well-intentioned, it caused offense. And because Relevant said it did not accurately represent their editorial perspective, the site chose to take the piece down. Daswisk himself has responded to criticism on Twitter by apologizing and admitting he has much to learn. I’m grateful for his humility.
Quite honestly, I only wish more men would follow Daswick’s example in trying to read women writers more widely. He is certainly not alone in his “ignorance,” even his “complacen[cy] toward that ignorance.” As Dr. Albert Hsu discovered in his doctoral research (Hsu earned his PhD in educational studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is senior editor for IVP books), women read relatively equally between male and female authors (54%/46%), while men, on the other hand, are much more likely to read male authors than female authors (90%/10%).
Why the discrepancy?
According to Daswick’s article, it’s to be possibly blamed on the chicken-egg cycle of men’s ignorance of women authors. Because men don’t read women, when they ask their male friends for recommended titles, their “dude friends” offer no help. Daswick admitted he felt amiss when looking to expand his library: “I didn’t know where to find books [written by women] on my own.” This led to his aimless wandering into a local Barnes and Noble where he purportedly encountered a second problem: accessibility. When he has finally exhausted all of the recommendations his female friends have given him, none of which were stocked, he finally selected—drum roll!—Dead Witch Walking.
Daswick was never clear about the kind of book he might have been looking for, but it simply can’t be the rarity of books written by women that accounts for men’s failure to read them, nor can it be the impossibility of finding them. A simple google search turns up the names of women who have made literary history, who have snagged coveted literary prizes, who most recently made the diversity of lists to applaud the great books of 2017, including CT’s Book of the Year, Liturgy of the Ordinary—written by Tish Harrison Warren.
Women writers aren’t a rare species of hippopotamus, glimpsed only at dusk by keen eyes behind binoculars.
Why don’t men read women writers? I suppose that question is best left to the men for answering. I can only speculate. In some cases, theological convictions about gender roles—and who is permitted to teach whom—surely play a part. A man who questions the permissibility of a woman behind a pulpit might equally question the legitimacy of a women behind a page (specifically in Christian non-fiction publishing). It would certainly prove interesting if we could understand, by the data, how much or how little our theology drives our book-buying decisions.
Perhaps what drives the discrepancy, even among those of more egalitarian ilk, is the assumption (again, in Christian non-fiction publishing) that women aren’t writing serious books. Books by men are presumed to have more theological heft than books by women. A friend recently told me of a bestselling book by a celebrity (female) Christian author that she’d skimmed in an hour. “It would have been better as a paragraph,” she concluded. And truthfully, I know exactly the kind of book she means: heavy on syrupy, self-deprecating anecdotes, light on analysis, biblical or otherwise. Some would say we have a crisis of fluff in Christian women’s publishing.
On the one hand, I want to say: yes. Christian women who write and speak for a popular audience are often met with the unfortunate expectation that they be witty, vulnerable, and inspirational (not to mention pretty). These qualities of personality—and not the more solemn tasks of research and sustained reflection, biblical or otherwise—are often the standards of “success” in terms of book sales or speaking invitations. Unless we look Stich-Fix cute and divulge the “hot mess” of our own lives, we’re afraid no one will listen.
On the other hand, I want to say: no. I think these pressures—to be artificially intimate, to deliver the lowest-hanging fruit of insight, to exude enviable “cool”—also face many male writers and speakers. The itching ears of contemporary society have a bottomless appetite for the superficial. Fluff is a more likely a human crisis, not a female one. And further, a cursory look at the women writing at major Christian blogs will turn up a host of “serious” Christian authors who endeavor to say something meaningful and lasting and true.
What is different, of course, is the range of embodied experience women writers bring to their work of words. We birth and suckle babies, for example; we “drip”, as Daswick wrote, with femininity. To be sure, a male reader might not fully understand the grief of a shuttered womb, but he can practice that great human effort called empathy. And this isn’t simply necessary for him to become more worldly-wizened. It’s deeply necessary for him to read the Scriptures, where salvation is likened to labor, where redemption is described as an act of housekeeping, where God, Israel’s mother, cries out for her comfort. As long as the male experience is considered to be universal (and female experience alien), we’ll be missing a lot of good material for our preaching and teaching. More importantly, we’ll have a diminished view of God and his work in the world.
Christian men—of all men—should be the most literate when it comes to reading the work of women writers, knowing that we image God best in our complementarity of male and female. So why aren’t men more widely reading women writers?
Let’s ask them.
As an aside, I'll be moderating a panel at the Festival of Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids in April. Joining me will be Al Hsu (InterVarsity Press), Robert Hosack (Baker Books), Katelyn Beaty (author of A Woman's Place) and Tish Harrison Warren (author of Liturgy of the Ordinary). If you plan to be in Grand Rapids and are interested in this conversation, check us out!