Monday, March 30, 2009

Real Men Read Fiction

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


As I rushed to finish my current book club book over the weekend (which is, by the way, the terrific Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See) I could sense my husband getting antsy - he kept asking me what I had to 'do' each day and, when I remained vague, he catalogued all the errands and chores that he would be doing. I felt I could hardly confess that apart from playing with the boys, cooking and the like my only plan was to read...because let's face it in my husband's world that was tantamount to doing pretty much 'bugger all'.

So what is it with men and reading?! I did a quick google search before writing this blog and the statistics were depressing - basically the death knell for the male fiction reader has well and truly been rung. I only have to look at most of the men I know to be convinced of this- sure they read (well sometimes) but when they do it's usually non-fiction, and the mere suggestion of forming or joining a book club is met with stony-eyed suspicion. As all the surveys indicate, women are the major purchasers of fiction, they consistently read more books and participate in book groups to the almost complete exclusion of men. So what does this mean for the publishing industry and, is it in part the fault of the industry that men don't want to read much fiction anymore?

The exception to the fiction-free zone for men is (apparently) what some of the articles termed 'manfiction' - you know, the full blooded male adventure thrillers by the likes of James Patterson, Clive Cussler or John Grisham - the kind of stuff that some of my fellow bloggers might write (though I have to confess I doubt any of my stuff would ever be called 'manfiction' by any stretch of the imagination...) When it came to most other forms of fiction, however, (particularly that written by women) the gap soon widens up and this started me wondering: who failed whom? Was it the industry? Writers? Or was it just all the men's fault :)?

I certainly know that when it comes to historical fiction everyone in the industry always says that a strong female protagonist is essential unless you are writing military historicals...Romance, which commands a whopping percentage of the market is pretty much solely for women and when it comes to that dreaded term 'literary fiction' , I think women are also the primary target - for they rule when it comes to book groups (and book groups are probably the only way literary fiction can become commerically successful). So what are you blokes out there going to do about this situation? Do you even care?

If you are a writer, does the fact that so few men read fiction affect your writing? For me I confess I have always assumed that women will be my main readership base (I'm always amazed when I get an email from a male reader who loves my books!) and I probably (though not deliberately) write accordingly. But it depresses me nevertheless - so will one of you endangered male fiction readers out there try and explain to me why you think this is the situation and tell me (reassure me perhaps?) - do you think it's ever going to change?

26 comments:

  1. Married Writer Rule #1: Never admit to a spouse that we are simply reading--we are doing "background research"(grin). As to the guy nonreading thing, I wasn't aware of that. I would have assumed that more women read certain genres than men, and vice versa. But overall more women read? Is that true? I'd be interested in seeing some links to data about that, if anyone can post them.

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  2. I'm not surprised in the least.

    As far as deciding who is at fault, what difference does it make? Just blame us guys--we're used to it, it doesn't really bother us anymore, and most of us aren't paying attention or are ignoring you to watch the game anyway.
    :D

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  3. But more men still tend to become critically acclaimed writers, don't they? Is this like the men-don't-cook-at-home-but-become-the-famous-chef-thing? I'm tellin' ya, it's all a conspiracy. Pass me a beer, and did anyone order pizza for the game?

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  4. Harlan Coben just tweeted a Twitpic of Burt Reynolds holding up Harlan's newest. What does this tell us?

    http://twitpic.com/2lpdl

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  5. I wish I had time to read your post, Clare, but while I do my chores, I'm getting psyched up for Jack Bauer in 24 tonight at 9/8 Central on Fox. I'll try to comment on your blog after that. Thanks for understanding. :-)

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  6. I think it's something people like to discuss that doesn't really mean much. Men may be hard wired to be pre-disposed toward non-fiction and manfiction. (It's the hunter in us.) It doesn't worry me that women buy most of the fiction; there are over 3 billion of you out there.

    I've known this assertion for several years, and it hasn't affected how I write at all. Of course, I have no published novels yet, either.

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  7. Hah:)! But I don't really buy the 'guys will be guys' thing - or the genetic thing (which some have argued is why women read fiction more) As a mother of two boys though it does depress me that they maybe condemned to a lifetime of biographies and military history books (if I can tear them away from the internet or video games when they're teens). I guess I'll just have to inflict a steady diet of the Brontes and Austen to torment them!

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  8. Kathryn - I can also try and post some of the links re: data...the boys have a day off from preschool so I'm 'mum in charge' which means chaos may reign today - but if I get a chance later I will.

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  9. I think it has to do brain function, and men tend to be more visual, especially in how they process information (so many prefer TV to books). And I write stories I would want to read, so in that sense, I'm writing for a female audience.

    On a side note, my husband encourages me to read, because he knows I enjoy it but never take enough time for it. He also proofreads my manuscripts, the only fiction he reads.

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  10. LJ - My husband reads my drafts too (and it's the only fiction he gets time to read). He's had 'three cups of tea' on his bedside table for about 6 months now...so I think for him as with many men (and women) lack of time is part of the issue. Still I think this is true for everyone but maybe men turn more to TV/Movies/Graphic novels/internet when they do get a chance to relax.

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  11. I think it has something to do with the fact that boys are being sidelined more and more in the public school system. I certainly believe it to be true in Virginia. From the very earliest ages, when it comes time to write or read stories, students are actively discouraged from engaging in stories of aggression. It's unnacceptable to hunt or fish or fight in original stories, and God forbid a character might pick up a gun in a story that a child greates. We've created a world where a child gets suspended or expelled if he draws a picture of a gun.

    It's a world that is very difficult for boys, for whom (forgive me, PC police), aggression is a natural slice of life. It's true of some girls, too, but I think it's common to most boys. I've posted here before that my son was made to read THE SCARLET LETTER in junior high school! What a complete waste for all concerned.

    If we want men to read, we need to give boys stories worth reading. As it is, I think we've lost a generation of boys to video games and television, where they find the creative outlet that they're hardwired to enjoy.

    We did it for their own good, remember?

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  12. John, I think you are spot on when it comes to education and boys. I recently went to a lecture on this very issue and the statistics regarding boys in America are frightening - again much of it is because they have been sidelined and their voices 'silenced' by the system. I think you do have to accept that boys often do want to create and read what (for girls) ae aggressive stories but they shouldn't be made to feel 'bad' about that. At many children's book panels I've attended there is the same lament - too few books that boys really want to get into. I read somewhere (not sure it's true) but that more boys than girls actually read the Harry Potter series so maybe there's signs of a turnaround...but God forbid my poor boys end up trapped in a system where their only exposure to literature is The Scarlet Letter!

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  13. I'm now officially telling everyone that my subgenre is, "Manfiction." Love it. Can picture the sign in B&N, right next to "Ladybooks" and down the aisle from "Doggie Tales."

    I think John is on to something. Before the teen years, I believe reading habits are split fairly evenly between the genders. But I even have male writer friends who fell off the reading wagon in their teens, only to jump back on when they stumbled across something that grabbed them. So rather than force feeding kids "important" fiction, perhaps from time to time they should be assigned something that's fun, that will spark a sense of how much enjoyment can be had from a good book.

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  14. I'm glad I had Tarzan and Men of Iron and Treasure Island as a kid.

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  15. Michelle - I envy you and others who get 'manfiction' - sounds so much better than 'chick lit' or (the most yawn inspiring) 'cozies'. I'm going to have to think up some cool phrase that makes historicals sound way cooler than 'manfiction'...any suggestions?

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  16. Right now my understanding is that my series gets lumped with the "soft-boiled" mysteries. To me that sounds like an underdone egg. Bleh.

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  17. Kathryn - I know, with terms like that (all runny and underdone) it's no wonder men don't read much fiction!

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  18. as a late thirties(very late thirties) guy I found the post interesting. I've been reading forever. I did the guy books like the hardy boys, three investigators and danny dunne but also did nancy drew and trixie belden. I do read a fair amount of non fiction but for the most part read mysteries/thrillers. (admittedly however I've yet to read any books by the six who post here regularly). I think there are more women than men who read and I think it has to do with time or rather how each views how to use their discretionary time. sports obviously plays a big role here. I think more men tend to play and watch more sports than women. Although I do play I tend to read rather than watch.
    anyway keep up the good work for us male readers who do read often.

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  19. My own work has been called "manfiction" by some since it is primarily of the military thriller genre. I assumed there would be more female readers than male and so have strong female characters, romance elements, and plenty of places where I thought a female reader could identify without emasculating the story. That having been said those who have commented on the audio podcast series have been primarily males. I don't know if that's because more men listen to audio books than women, or this type of story appeals more towards men, regardless of the presence of strong women characters.

    On the other hand, comments from female listeners were typically very pleasing too. They were quite excited when they did write.

    Who knows, maybe when the books come out in traditional print it will hit both audiences equally. I suspect thought it will be mainly male.

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  20. John has great point with which I fervently agree. As a father of three boys I try to make them read as much as possible. I have told them stories, either made up or read from a book, since they were toddlers and encouraged them to make their own.

    When my soon to graduate son told me some of the books they were reading in school and what he was not allowed to write about in "Creative Writing" class I was not really shocked. Oh well, my boys will grow up to be studs at any rate, no matter what the PC police tell them.

    Studs with guns! Yeah baby!

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  21. Clare, how about these ideas for a new genre name:

    1. Timeslice
    2. Blood of the Past
    3. Ancestral Crime
    4. Victorian Daggers

    or

    5. Sex & Violence with Great-Great Grandma

    just some ideas...probably needs some work though

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  22. Thanks Kevin - glad some males are out there reading! Basil -I had no idea there were rules about what kids could write about in creative writing classes - most thriller writers would have been chucked out long ago! I think I'll go for the sex and violence with great-great grandma - though that makes me worry grandmas are the only ones who read my books!

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  23. My son is a voracious reader, but I think that's due in part to the fact that his dad read to him every night before bed when he was little, and also to the fact that he was homeschooled and could choose his own reading materials. He's been through the Hardy Boys, all sorts of Star Wars and Star Trek books, what Nero Wolfe books I could find, and has bought and read on his own some of the classics, but only because he wanted to. He won't read my books, though. I think the whole idea of a first person female perspective that Mom wrote kinda puts him off.

    My husband reads, but not a lot. Just doesn't have the time for it.

    Word verification: deguall. French with a drawl?

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  24. I remember writing a blog entry back in 2007 on why men don't read fiction, as a response to an NPR piece I heard. I'll just post it here. http://festeringhole.spaces.live.com/?_c11_BlogPart_BlogPart=blogview&_c=BlogPart&partqs=amonth%3d11%26ayear%3d2007

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  25. Why males read less than females is not a trivial issue at all. It is so very important for anyone concerned to read some or all of the following (in order of my own personal preference):
    1. The Trouble with Boys by Peg tyre
    2. The Minds of Boys by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens
    3. Connecting Boys with Books 2 by Michael Sullivan
    4. Misreading Masculinity: Boys Literacy and Popular Culture by Thomas Newkirk
    Also, see these websites:
    http://www.boysproject.net
    http://www.guysread.com

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  26. I think it's telling how casually you use "don't read" and "don't read fiction" interchangeably. I have long resented the idea that reading something other than fiction was somehow not real reading. I read a little fiction when I was in elementary school, but my favorite books tended to be things like "Flags of the World." My favorite Hardy Boys book was the detective manual they put out (which inspired me to start a short-lived detective agency with my best friend). I don't consider my overwhelming preference for reading non-fiction a problem. I do consider it a problem that people in general, male and female, do not read as much as they ought to in order to understand the world, particularly at the political and economic level.

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