Thursday, August 31, 2006

The He-Man Novel-Hater's Club

Real men don't read novels. That's what Lakshmi Chaudhry says:

“When women stop reading, the novel will be dead,” declared Ian McEwan in the Guardian last year. The British novelist reached this rather dire conclusion after venturing into a nearby park in an attempt to give away free novels. The result?

Only one “sensitive male soul” took up his offer, while every woman he approached was “eager and grateful” to do the same.

Unscientific as McEwan’s experiment may be, its thesis is borne out by a number of surveys conducted in Britain, the United States and Canada, where men account for a paltry 20 percent of the market for fiction. Unlike the gods of the literary establishment who remain predominantly male—both as writers and critics—their humble readers are overwhelmingly female.

In recent years, various pundits have used this so-called “fiction gap” as an opportunity to trot out their pet theories on what makes men and women tick. The most recent is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who jumped at the chance to peddle his special brand of gender essentialism. His June 11 column arbitrarily divided all books into neat boy/girl categories—”In the men’s sections of the bookstore, there are books describing masterly men conquering evil. In the women’s sections there are novels about … well, I guess feelings and stuff.” His sweeping assertion flies in the face of publishing industry research, which shows that if “chick-lit” were defined as what women read, the term would have to include most novels, including those considered macho territory. A 2000 survey found that women comprised a greater percentage of readers than men across all genres: Espionage/thriller (69 percent); General (88 percent); Mystery/Detective (86 percent); and even Science Fiction (52 percent).
...

It takes a bizarre leap of logic to connect current school curricula to the reading habits of adult men. Moreover, there is no indication that men “hate reading”—women just read more fiction. Men out-read women by at least ten percentage points when it comes to nonfiction books—surely good news for the bestselling author of Bobos in Paradise.

To be fair, conservatives like Brooks are not the only talking-heads to resort to biological determinism in explaining the “fiction gap.” Psychologist Dorothy Rowe told the Observer that women like fiction because they have richer and more complex imaginations. “Women have always had to try to understand what other people are doing because women have always had to negotiate their way through the family,” she said. “They have always had to get their power by having a pretty good idea of what’s going on inside other people and using that knowledge to get them to do things.” Quite apart from the unintended implication that feminism is likely to fulfill McEwan’s worst fears—i.e., kill the novel—such arguments reproduce the worst kind of gender stereotypes: Women as sensitive, emotionally intelligent creatures; men as unreflective dolts.

Cognitive literary critic Lisa Zunshine, whose multidisciplinary field integrates the insights offered by cognitive science to better understand fiction, offers a more modest and nuanced hypothesis. Her book, Why We Read Fiction, argues that fiction as a literary form offers us pleasure because it engages our ability to mind-read, “a term used by cognitive psychologists, interchangeably with ‘Theory of Mind,’ to describe our ability to explain people’s behavior in terms of their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires.” Fiction, therefore, “lets us try on different mental states.”

Women are more likely than men to enjoy reading fiction, period (as opposed to just reading about “feelings and stuff”), because “they generally want more input for their Theory-of-Mind adaptations,” says Zunshine. “They want to experience other ‘minds in action’—which is another way of defining ‘empathy’—much more than men do.”

Zunshine underscores the fact that such cognitive research is based on “average statistical scores,” and offers no guidance as to what individual men or women may read. Moreover, the biological difference between male and female Theory-of-Mind is small, and likely only accounts for a “somewhat greater” predilection for fiction among women.


One frustration I have with many novels is the profusion of characters and relationships that I have to keep track of. I have the same frustration trying to follow the latest "core dump" from my wife as she relates the news from her siblings, acquaintances and all of their siblings and acquaintances out to five degrees of separation. I'm quickly lost. I either listen along with an occasional "uh-uh" to show interest while being totally confused, or I'll interrupt and say "Cathy who? Your sister Cathy or Justin's room-mate's cousin Cathy?" Relationship tracking is definitely something that females excel at and enjoy, and the novel offers endless possibilities for tickling this fancy. To me following relationship webs to any depth just results in a headache.

What I look for in a novel, and which I think most men look for, are situations of high drama where a character's fate is tested by extroadinary circumstances. Which is why we're driven to war epics and sci-fi. But non-fiction offers so many examples of such, whether in history or current affairs, that it is difficult to take the time to seek out those authors that can offer the same experience with fictional characters. I've enjoyed Neal Stephensons novels "SnowCrash" and "Diamond Age", and have several of his latest 1000 page epics sitting on my bookshelf waiting for the opportunity for me to tear myself away from other distractions to read them. Ah, there's another difference: men are more distractable than women.

19 Comments:

Blogger Oroborous said...

“When women stop reading, the novel will be dead,” declared Ian McEwan...

Why would women, or any other group, stop reading ?
The primary mode of delivery might be changing, but people still read.

In any case, "selling fewer copies" is not the same as "dead".

Only one “sensitive male soul” took up [Ian McEwan's] offer, while every woman he approached was “eager and grateful” to do the same.

What McEwan apparently doesn't factor in is that women would naturally be more loath to hurt the feelings of a mentally-challenged loser passing out copies of his failed novel in a public park.

That's why even he recognized that the male who took pity on him was "sensitive".

How many of those dames read the book, and how many tossed it without opening it ?

[W]omen comprised a greater percentage of readers than men across all genres: [...] even Science Fiction...

I'm highly skeptical of that, and would like to know how they defined "science fiction".

Although it would be a boon for geeky boys everywhere if most girls really did like to read and discuss SF.

[S]uch arguments reproduce the worst kind of gender stereotypes: Women as sensitive, emotionally intelligent creatures; men as unreflective dolts.

Yes, acknowledging reality is surely the "worst kind" of gender stereotype.

Fiction, therefore, “lets us try on different mental states.”

Well, that's certainly one of the reasons why I read fiction.

Relationship tracking is definitely something that females excel at and enjoy...

Whereas men mostly track who owes whom a beer.

What I look for in a novel [...] are situations of high drama where a character's fate is tested by extraordinary circumstances.

I really dislike those "slice of life" novels and movies in which barely anything happens, nothing's resolved, and at the end the characters wander off unchanged.
What's the point ?

I could save time and energy and have my own fairly uneventful day, in which any problems that crop up fail to be solved.

August 31, 2006 7:11 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I consume novels greedily and have done since I was a child.

I look for two things in a novel: universal human truths, and good writing.

An exciting plot is welcome, but optional. (I positively delight in "slice of life" novels and movies in which barely anything happens, nothing's resolved, and at the end the characters wander off unchanged. For example, I thought Lost in Translation was magnificent.)

Thus, I have to be manly enough to admit that one of my very favourite writers is the very unmanly Jane Austen.

August 31, 2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Oh good, more male and female stereotyping! Well, as long as were on this particular subject, I feel compelled to point to this very funny joke regarding gender stereotypes and creative writing.

Duck wrote: "One frustration I have with many novels is the profusion of characters and relationships that I have to keep track of."

I apparently agree with that, since when I'm in an airport bookstore (most of the novels I read are on airplanes) I leaf through the books until I find one that's part of a series that I've read some of before. That way, I don't have to learn a whole new set of characters. I don't really care if the writing is crappy, I'm just looking for something to distract me from the monotony of the airplane flight. I'll probably read Harry Potter 7 for the same reason when it comes out. I know the characters so it'll maximum entertainment per unit effort.

oroborous wrote: "I could save time and energy and have my own fairly uneventful day..."

Wow! What a concept. I ought to try having an uneventful day sometime. How does one do that?

brit wrote: "...one of my very favourite writers is ... Jane Austen."

No fair bringing the classics into this. They're classics because, well, they're actually good. It's hard for me to think of a single novel from this era that will be considered a classic in 100 years, so we can't really compare the classics with modern novels.

August 31, 2006 9:27 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Since two-fifths of novels sold are rape fantasies, with virtually 100% female readership, the split in the other three-fifths is 1:2 male:female and not 1:4.

I think 'Dairy of Bridget Jones' will take its place among the classics. I cannot think of any other novel I've read lately that I'd say that about.

But I don't read many.

August 31, 2006 10:56 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

harry eagar wrote: "Since two-fifths of novels sold are rape fantasies..."

Really? Like which books? Can you name any that I've ever heard of? Are they in book stores? Amazon?

August 31, 2006 12:07 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I used to love reading fiction -- I hoovered the Jack Aubrey series, for instance. But I've probably only read one novel since Commodore Aubrey sailed into my sunset a couple years ago.

Don't know why, exactly. Part has to do with inadequate time; part to do with more interest in non-fiction, and blogging. Finally, I ran into the problem of having utterly no idea what was good, and loath to inadvertently waste my time on dreck.

I really would love to pick up a good story, though, so I'm open to suggestions. Particularly since my new lifestyle, once the training is in my deep six, will allow ample time for reading.


Bret:

harry eagar wrote: "Since two-fifths of novels sold are rape fantasies..."

I don't have much insight into this particular issue, but have noted that the Clan of the Cave Bear series, very much chick-lit, has some astonishingly steamy sex scenes. (Full disclosure: I haven't read the books, but my wife has pointed out a couple of the good parts. I'm not sure why.)

Just a week ago, though, the local paper carried an item about how Romance novels are getting far less, um, elliptical about certain things. The titles are flying off the shelves.

Roughly on this topic, I was talking to a long time friend of mine recently, and she acknowledged that she had been bit by the blogging bug. So I emailed her TDD URL. Turns out she wasn't the slightest bit interested -- her blogging interest is knitting and child care. Proving, once again, that acknowledging reality is surely the "worst kind" of gender stereotype.

I have no idea if the absence of rape fantasies here had anything to do with her lack of interest. I neglected to ask.

Duck:

Darn you, I was going to do a post on this!

August 31, 2006 2:35 PM  
Blogger David said...

I've been meaning to post on the luke warm reception novels get from the Duckians. I've observed that auto-didacts tend not to like novels and I think that, though traditionally educated, most of the Duckians count as auto-didacts.

I have to admit that I don't have a particularly good theory as to why these two characteristics go together, or even in which direction the causation runs. My bet is that both are symptoms of some other cause.

On the other hand, it is no doubt true that modern literature is dead and that good writing, and keen insight into the human condition, lives on only in the genre fiction that the literaturistas deplore.

August 31, 2006 7:44 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

I can't stand modern fiction because I too much of a problem solver and in my experience, the solutions to the problems in the novels are trivial and obvious. It's like a bad sitcom. I find things like C++ Template Metaprogramming not ony more useful but more entertaining, as the problems to be solved don't have obvious solutions.

P.S. I do still like SciFi, though, because it has big problems with non-obvious solutions as well.

August 31, 2006 9:59 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hmmm. I don't know that I know the reading habits of any autodidacts except myself. But if, as it seems to me, the autodidact ought always to be nervous that his wayward education may have left unsuspected gaping knowledge pits, then perhaps he feels compelled to constantly add to his store of (alleged) facts, lest he be caught out as a hayseed. So, no time for mere stories.

That sounds pretty good, and describes my own reading habits, but then I think of which autodidacts are most common around me. These would be the East Maui woowoos, with their inane energy fields, auras and what not.

Although some take a seminar here and there, and a few even spend years in an ashram (or equivalent), most just read Ken Wilber books.

I suppose we could class them as half-autodidacts, since although they blather on endlessly on the subjects of health, physics and philosophy, they have next to no contact, formal or otherwise, with the world's store of thoughts on these subjects.

++++

About those rape fantasies. Harlequin books and their spawn.

It's true, as Skipper says, they have become more explicit than they were 30 years ago, but they were rape fantasies 30 years ago, too.

The figure two-fifths comes from a study in the '70s. I don't know how it's changed, but probably not much.

It does not follow that four-fifths of women readers read rape-fantasies.

Rape-fantasy readers consume prodigious quantities of these books, hundreds a year. You can subscribe to Harlequin and get a new novel almost every day.

August 31, 2006 11:17 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

It could be that autodidacts necessarily prefer non-fiction because that is, after all, exactly how they have didacted themselves.

As for which modern novels will become 'classics', it is by definition impossible to say for sure since the only true test is time, so we can only guess. Also, when is the tipping point? Is 'Midnight's Children' a classic yet, or 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'?

But the much-loved and Duckian-discussed Aubrey-Maturin books are an odds-on bet for immortality.

I tried to think of other recent novels I've read and really enjoyed that have a shot at 'classic', and dismissed most as ultimately perhaps a bit too gimmicky or flashy, but one that will probably have a chance, not least because it provides a mythology for a new nation, is 'The True History of the Ned Kelly Gang' by Peter Carey - highly recommended.

September 01, 2006 1:23 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...


On the other hand, it is no doubt true that modern literature is dead and that good writing, and keen insight into the human condition, lives on only in the genre fiction that the literaturistas deplore.


True. I read Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels and Kurt Busiek's Astro City comic for my fix of that.

September 01, 2006 3:33 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Funny fisking, Oro.

One way is which this article goes awry is that those who are addicted to police/murder mysteries know that, like everything else, the genre has been mastered by more and more women authors, often writing about women protagonists. They are often good, but can be quite different. The traditional male cop-hero focussed on evidence and the lives of the potential perps and was all about the reader's watching his mental gears grind to figure things out while maybe dodging a few bullets. Family and colleagues provided brief, unanalysed bouts of humour or logistical context and limitations. The modern woman cop spends a lot of time analysing her relationship with everybody in the office (and then her parents at night), dwelling on potential work romances (awfully tempting, but doomed, as any woman itching to be Chief Constable should know)and fighting the sexism that threatens her promotion.

It is very common for modern cop-heros to have failed in their personal lives. The men tend to brood (aided by booze) on how they could have been so stupid to let fanatic devotion to duty drive away perfect family bliss. The women feel guilty too in that inscrutable female way that expresses itself through rants about how clever girls like they could hook up with such unsupportive jerks.

The very worst tend to be modern women authors with male heros and vice versa. They are often just too perfect to be true. They are obviously writing about the teenage love objects that got away and about whom they have been dreaming ever since.

I would argue that the fact that such "sexist" comments would not resonate about Victorian authors like Austen and Thackeray, or even the generation of P.D. James, may be an indication how our understandings of the basic natures of the opposite sex (or even of our own) are fading and are marked more and more by either adolescent idealizations or simmering resentments.

But, sure, most (but not all) men have limited patience with wanking about relationships, while women lap it up insatiably. Men want the hero on the lip of the volcano and that sure isn't the thrust of modern fiction. That's why the girls in my high school loved Vanity Fair while we guys thought it was incomprehensible torture.

That may help explain reading preferences but not why men are generally eschewing all fiction or even actual reading more and more, if they are. I guess if we try hard enough, we'll find some way to blame women for that too.

Bret:

You do realize that Harry's definition of rape fanatsy includes Himpeldorpher? I don't get it either, but you know Harry.

September 01, 2006 4:21 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

I agree with some of that, but you've gone badly awry on Vanity Fair: chick-lit it ain't. With its unremitting pessimism and black humour it could only have been written by a man, and a cantankerous old bugger at that.

The moment when Dobbin finally comes to his senses and gives a rocket to the insufferable and wilfully self-deluding wimp Amelia is a terrific moment of grouchy men's lib. The recent film (directed by a woman) made a travesty of this by omitting the scene and giving them a women-friendly happy ending.

(Also, since Austen died before Victoria was born, I assume you mean she was a 'Victorian' writer in the abstract sense.)

September 01, 2006 5:22 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I haven't given up on novels, I've just fallen away of late. I've actually fallen away from book reading, as the internet is making up a larger share of my reading. I hope to remedy that in the future, once I'm in my new digs.

I've been meaning to read "The Children of Men" by PD James. A novel that I read a while back and could be considered relationshipy is "Herzog" by Saul Bellow, about a man coming to terms with his dissolving marriage. Gee, I wonder why I liked it?

I read most of Philip K Dick's works, except the later stuff like "Valis" which was a little too batty. Dick tried to make it as a "straight" novelist too, but his SciFi sold better.

I bought "I am Charlotte Simmons" by Tom Wolfe, and intend to read it someday when I am less distracted. Wolfe may turn out to be a classical author, as his works capture the social mores of this age better than anyone else, and his writing is superb.

In the early 90's I started reading Wallace Stegner's "Crossing to Safety" during NPR's "Book Club of the Air" program. Stegner is considered one of America's most acclaimed writers. I couldn't finish the book, it was so awfully dull and depressing. It was about a group of friends who share a cabin every summer, and the way that their relationships evolve, or devolve, over the course of their lives. Take Oro's uneventful day and multiply it by four lifetimes. But I guess that the true literature lovers need a way to separate themselves from the philistine autodidacts, and promoting the unreadable stuff to the pinnacle of acheivement is one way to do it. That way they can claim reading this stuff as a badge of honor.

September 01, 2006 5:37 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

I stand humbled. My problem may be that my most vivid memory about the book is of our English teacher, Mrs. Rowles, more Victorian than the real Victorians, spending an entire class demonstrating the emotional and class significance of the various ways Amelia or Becky or someone would extend her fingers to be clasped or kissed by her gentlemen callers. Riveting stuff.

September 01, 2006 6:29 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

Quite understandable. The deadly combination of the enforcement of a set text, tediously predictable essays about 'themes' and rotten teachers can make even the most brilliant literature unbearable.

Which is why most people can't stand Shakespeare until they've got a suitable distance from their school years.

(By the way - the BBC adaptation of Vanity Fair was a masterpiece. If you can pick it up at a reasonable price, I urge you to do so.)

September 01, 2006 6:43 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Quite right. I dodn't get "into" Shakespeare until I saw a live performance of Macbeth as an adult.

September 01, 2006 7:25 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Thank you, Peter. We try.

I haven't given up on novels, I've just fallen away of late. I've actually fallen away from book reading, as the internet is making up a larger share of my reading.

That is exactly my position, as well.

I still like reading fiction, and do so on odd occasion, but mostly I read periodicals and the 'net.

September 01, 2006 1:35 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Peter, stop by your local Goodwill thrit store, invest a dime in a Harlequin and get back to me.

September 01, 2006 4:49 PM  

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