Books: Women (over 45) This Way Please; Recent Research Suggests That Men Still Mainly Read Works by Other Men. So Does the Launch of a New Publishing House Aimed Solely at Women over 45 Just Ghettoise Female Authors Further, Asks Literary Editor Caroline Foulkes

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Byline: Caroline Foulkes

'The great question that has never been answered and which I have not been able to answer . . . is, what does a woman want?'

Well Dr Freud, if you'd thought to read a few books written by women, maybe you'd have found out. Or maybe not.

Because when it comes down to it, every woman is different, just as every book written by a woman is different.

Yes, I know what you're thinking. Women's books. They're either pastel-covered chic lit or worthy Catherine Cookson-style epics. And that's it.

Some days, when I sit here opening the many packages of books sent in for review, I'd probably agree with you. But if you gave me a moment to sit back and think about it, I'd say of course that's not the case. Not at all.

But the problem is that this is very much how the material produced by women writers is perceived. It's by women for women.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, there are certain types of books by women that are deliberately marketed at women. But that doesn't mean they all are. You wouldn't know it from the country's reading habits, though.

Recent research by academics Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary College, London, to mark the tenth anniversary of the women-only Orange Prize, found that the traditional pattern of men only reading books by other men while women read books by authors of either gender still holds, even though men are beginning to recognise that there are some great books by women writers.

'Men clearly now know that there are some great books by women they really ought to have read and ought to consider 'great' (or at least good) writing,' said the report.

'They recognise the titles and they've read the reviews. They may even have bought or been given the books and start reading them. But they probably won't finish them.'

In a survey carried out as part of the research, Jardine and Watkins found that four out of five men said the last book they read was by a man, whereas women were equally likely to have read a book written by a man or a woman.

'Men who read fiction tend to read fiction by men, while women read fiction by both women and men.

'Consequently, fiction by women remains 'special interest' while fiction by men still sets the standard for quality, narrative and style'.

It was ever thus. Women have always written, it's not like they just did so as part of some great feminist campaign, they just did it. But it still tended to be male authors who got all the attention. Aphra Behn, Julian of Norwich, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and countless others were out there, scribbling away.

But for whatever reasons, be it patriarchal hierarchies or the simple fact that then as much as now men didn't read books by women, they weren't recognised. So when it came to putting together literature courses at universities, it was naturally the 'dead white males' who dominated the reading lists - Shakespeare, Dickens, James.

The 'rediscovery' of these 'lost' female writers in the late 60s and early 70s led to the establishment of the much-maligned 'women's writing' courses.

And yes, the majority of the people on these courses were women. Yet the fact that at my own university, Hull, we had three separate courses, Writing About Women, Women's Writing and Modern Women Writers (and yes, they are all different things) shows what a narrow view it is to think that books written by females were only ever intended to be read by other females.

And yet we continue to ghettoise female authors. Despite being connected with Jardine and Watkins' research and trying to challenge its results, the Orange Prize itself has long been criticised for helping to reinforce the status quo by awarding only women writers rather than authors of either gender.

When it was launched in 1996, AS Byatt proclaimed her distaste for it, saying 'I am deeply against anything which ghettoises women. …