When Did Fiction Turn Female?

I was browsing the Boston Globe Sunday Arts section, looking at the Local Bestseller lists, when this caught my eye:

Hardcover FictionPaperback Fiction
Hello Beautiful Ann NapolitanoDaisy Jones & the Six Taylor Jenkins Reid
Lessons in ChemistryBonnie GarmusThe Lincoln Highway Amor Towles
I Have Some Questions for You
Rebecca MakkaiThe Candy House Jennifer Egan
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and TomorrowGabrielle ZevinThe Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo Taylor Jenkins Reid
Pineapple StreetJenny JacksonThe Paris Apartment Lucy Foley
The White Lady Jacqueline WinspearThe Thursday Murder Club Richard Osman
Demon CopperheadBarbara KingsolverThe Four Winds Kristin Hannah
Horse Geraldine BrooksThe Last Thing He Told Me Laura Dave
Foster Claire KeeganIt Ends With Us Colleen Hoover
Old Babes in the Wood: Stories Margaret AtwoodNever Never Colleen Hoover, Tarryn Fisher
Boston Globe – Local bestsellers for the week ended March 26

Twenty books, of which eighteen are by women! Seventeen female authors (two twice) and two male. That’s an 8:1 ratio! Less recent lists have been the same. Is this peculiar to the Boston area? Is this recent?

Let’s look back over a bigger survey, the New York Times bestseller lists. They keep them at URLs of the form https://www.nytimes.com/books/best-sellers/<year>/<month>/01/<category>/. They only go back to 2009, but that was far enough. I parsed out the entries for each month over the last 14 years, and they can be found at this spreadsheet: NYT Bestsellers 2009 to 2023. I found lists of girl and boy names from the Social Security Administration in order to estimate genders. Some names are ambiguous, but the proportion is small.

So if we look at the 678 NYT lists from 2009 to today, there are 9313 books on them, with 1803 authors and 3171 titles. The breakdown by gender then looks like this:

From 2009 to 2019, women were about half the fiction authors, but they then became the majority, and now completely dominate paperback fiction. They are still only about a third of the authors of nonfiction, and that wobbles around but has been fairly constant over the last 14 years.

What could be the reason? The rise in female paperback bestseller authors started in 2019, and so came just before the COVID pandemic. The tendency is even stronger in 2023, though, when the pandemic’s effects are largely past It might be the Trump administration, when women had plenty of reason to seek entertainment. Or maybe men are spending their time video gaming instead, or posting rants on 8chan.

Or it could simply be that women are coming into their own. Women have gotten the majority of bachelor’s degrees since the 1980s, and are now up to 57%. Colleges are actually worried. The majority of medicine and law degrees, and of science doctorates, now go to women, and that happened in only the last couple of years. There are now as many college-educated women in the workforce as men. They have money, and they want stories from authors like them. It could be as simple as that.

Whatever the underlying reason, it’s certainly a welcome development. Every field of art needs to get talent from as wide a range of people as possible. Storytelling especially needs everyone’s voice to be heard, because books are how things are preserved. I don’t own a single artifact from the 19th century, but I have lots of books from then. The fact that more women are writing books and almost certainly more women are buying them, does NOT mean that fewer men are writing and reading them. It’s not a zero-sum game. There’s room for all!

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