Here’s the great question Kate asked the other day: why is it that more women than men read novels? One way you can tell it’s a great question is because it’s already spurred an interesting discussion in Litlove’s Reading Room about whether men and women read differently. (And, just this morning, a wonderful essay by litlove on gender difference.)
My first move? To ask the four men I live with what they like to read. I can’t take a survey. I have to rely on anecdotal information. But that’s okay. It’s a blog, for heaven’s sake.
The BlogLily boys like to read stories and to have stories read to them. They love the Narnia books, Children of the Lamp, Harry Potter, the Moffats, the Fudge stories, and Greek myths. They really like comic books.
And they don’t care that much about whether the main characters are girls or boys. In fact, they don’t really like the kind of books where the characters are only girls or only boys. One boy said he likes his fiction “co-ed” – because it’s more interesting. Another boys pointed out that as long as a book is funny, he doesn’t care who the main character is. The other boy just likes it when there are pictures.
What do I take away from this? I’m inclined to believe that all children love stories – humans are just programmed that way. At this point, though, the question becomes one about whether children of both genders have equal access to the skills you need to read independently. My guess is that there are big swaths of boys, particularly boys in poorer families, who don’t become readers because of the problems they experience being taught how to read in school. And so, right there, some boy readers drop out. And then, I think there’s another big drop off because reading for pleasure isn’t seen as manly in American culture. So, when boys become teenagers, and being manly matters, this is something they might put aside. Some boys will not care about this particular definition of being manly — they just keep right on reading.
And then, say, you get to adulthood, a man who’s maybe been discouraged from reading fiction but still has that same desire to hear a story he’s always had. So what does he do? Here’s my guess: I think he reads stories, but he doesn’t call what he reads a “novel.”
Many men would call the books they read adventure stories, or mysteries, or thrillers, or biographies about people involved in adventures or mysteries or thrilling events. But one thing all these books have in common is that they tell wonderful stories and they fill our need to have someone tell us a tale.
My husband is my evidence for this. He’s an engineer. He’s not a person you’d think reads novels. But he does. (Unlike many other men, though, he knows when he’s reading a novel.) The first writer he remembers reading as a young adult was Alistair MacLean – he of Where Eagles Dare and The Eiger Sanction — adventure stories. He likes stories set in inhospitable places, it turns out. He reads them in the form of biographies, and non-fiction (books like Nansen’s Farthest North and that wonderful book about Lewis and Clark called Undaunted Courage). But he also reads fiction – he loves Patrick O’Brien, not just for the stories of adventure, but for stories of relationships. In none of this reading could he be said to be searching for “ideas” – he reads for what I think is a more common pleasure, the pleasure of a story well told, a story that takes you somewhere you don’t live. And I think many men do that, by seeking out genre fiction, to avoid the stigma of the “novel” and yet to have the pleasure of a story.
The thing I feel badly about, though, is that some boys lose this lovely connection to stories during childhood. These boys get some version of it when they play video games, but something deeper and richer is denied them. In the end, I hope smart people are putting energy into that problem, rather than into telling us that men don’t read novels because novels don’t have anything to say to them.