Popular history writing remains a male preserve, publishing study finds

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Man readingHere is a fascinating, and depressing, article showing publishing’s overwhelming bias towards male historians and male historical subjects.

Slate magazine studied 614 popular history titles published last year in the US and found a genre dominated by generals, presidents and male authors.

Of those 614 titles, three-quarters were written by men.  Of the published biographies, nearly three-quarters were about men.  Only six percent of male biography authors wrote about women.  Sigh.

Slate argues that the persistence of this imbalance, even among authors writing for presses that publish more academics, “seems to reflect a continuing gender disparity among academic historians.”  I would argue that it also reflects the publishing industry’s views about who buys what.  Publisher Lara Heimert thinks so too.

The conventional wisdom has been that men read more non-fiction and women read more fiction, though as with most conventional wisdom in publishing (and life) I’ve never actually seen a study proving that to be true.

Slate coins a fantastic new term – uncle books – to describe the “tomes that you give an older male relative, to take up residence by his wingback armchair.”  These predictably include naval battles, grand adventures and biographies about ‘great men’.

Our data set revealed some answers about the publishing of popular history that we expected: Authors are largely male, biographical subjects too; “uncle books” make up a third of the total titles published. But the data also raise interesting questions. Is it possible to sell biographies of unfamous people? Why are some historical episodes that fit some of the criteria we outlined above, like the Vietnam War, so absent? And when will World War II ever stop being interesting?

There are glimmers some glimmers of hope.  One of the publishers Slate spoke to provided a useful list of women (presumably US writers) who write popular (presumably US-focussed) histories: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stacy Schiff, Drew Gilpin Faust, Karen Armstrong, and Pauline Maier.  Others listed Jill Lepore, Annette Gordon-Reed, Megan Marshall, Maya Jasanoff, Susan Pedersen, Sara Lipton, Linda Colley, Judith Thurman, Jennifer Homans, Patricia Limerick, and Mary Beth Norton.  I confess I’ve heard of only a few of these women but this list should keep the TBR pile going for a while.

But overall the stats mirror those collected internationally by the VIDA Count Project and here in Australia by the Stella Count.

While a longitudinal analysis of trade history publishing might reveal a swing toward female authorship and diversity of subject matter, and anecdotal evidence points to some improvement, our data for 2015 still look grim. “We have a real problem in publishing, but it’s not just a publishing problem,” Heimert wrote. “What is it about the way we educate our children that channels women toward literature departments and men toward history and politics departments? What are our assumptions—and by ‘our’ I mean publishers, booksellers, book reviewers &c—that lead us to publish history books for Father’s Day and fiction and memoir for Mother’s Day? Are these based on data or merely stereotypes?”

The Guardian builds on the Slate piece with some insights into the UK scene.  Spoiler alert – it’s pretty much the same depressing picture.

In the UK, the skew is just as dramatic. Figures from Nielsen BookScan show that last year, there were just four solo female authors appearing in the top 50 bestselling history titles … in 2014, all top 10 bestselling military history titles in the UK were by men. Two women make the top 10 in general history, Beard and Catherine Bailey, while three make the top 10 in history and political memoirs. The book trade magazine’s preview of 2015 titles in history, politics and war highlights 57 books. Thirteen are by women, with one other having a female co-author.

The Guardian article goes on to explore the bias in interesting ways, looking at why there’s still very much a sense that serious history is written by men – books about war or politics – and that women are more likely to tackle fashion, or biographies of queens or mistresses.  And why are there so few women historians on tv, given the huge boost in sales provided by such exposure?

As usual there are plenty of questions, not so many answers.

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6 responses »

  1. ‘Uncle books’ is a new one for me – I always thought they were Fathers Day books – and usually written by Peter FitzSimon 🙂
    I think one reason why women aren’t presenting TV programs is the preoccupation with physical appearance. Clare Wright Is a good presenter – but sadly I suspect her good looks help. An older academic woman like Mary Beard has had to deal with dreadful, irrelevant criticism of her appearance.

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    • Yes, what Mary Beard copped was ridiculous. There are a couple of other English women historians I’ve seen on tv, but I don’t recall their names. One features on a show about people who renovate historic homes, the other presented a series on Captain Cook (and I think she also wrote his biography). Both were young and attractive though (as, it must be said, is the English tv historian Dan Snow).

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  2. I think there are biases (often subconscious) among many people in the publishing sector – the publishers skewing their list towards the ‘uncle’ market, the authors trying to fit in with what they perceive that the publishers and booksellers want, and the readers having their reading preferences shaped by what is given to them by publishers, booksellers and authors. This is what Vida and the Australian Women’s Writing Challenge seek to disrupt. As readers of books we need to challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zones and challenge the industry to experiment and address their biases. I suspect that we should also turn to the smaller, independent presses as that is where exciting changes in publishing are most likely to come from.

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    • You’re absolutely right, Perkinsy. I think there is a chicken/egg effect. The publishers provide what they *think* the readers want; the readers tend to buy whatever is front and centre. I agree we should all start looking for works beyond the feature table at the front of the shop. Blogs like yours definitely help us to do that.

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