First, the figures. A recent survey of the reading habits of Canadians conducted by the federal Department of Canadian Heritage found the following:
Women accounted for 60 per cent of the daily readers and 70 per cent of the heavy readers who had read 50 or more books in the last 12 months. Women also outnumbered men two to one as regular readers of both classic and contemporary novels.
I’ve seen statistical evidence of the gender gap in reading, particularly of fiction, trotted out elsewhere with some frequency, so these numbers don’t make for a surprising revelation. Indeed, to the extent that there is a surprise here, it’s that the numbers aren’t quite as lopsided as I’d been led to believe. Nevertheless, the question of why women read more fiction than men remains.
Taylor interviews a number of authors, critics, and publishers for their views on the issue. She sums up author and critic George Fetherling’s response as follows:
Fetherling complains that men only read those novels in which they can directly identify with the protagonist, while women will read about people different than themselves. That’s the most common explanation of the phenomenon: Reading fiction involves empathizing with the characters, and thus draws on women’s traditional emotional strengths. Men, on the other hand, turn to non-fiction to learn about the world around them.
Author Russell Smith and Doubleday editorial director Martha Kanya-Forstner offer up this explanation:
Both Smith and Kanya-Forstner argue that men are drawn to books about ideas, and both think publishers have failed to recognize that in their marketing schemes for fiction. “Guys look for ideas,” says Smith. “Very intelligent men I talk to, none of them read fiction. It’s girl stuff: hundreds and hundreds of pages of feelings. To think that no one perceives fiction as being about ideas is depressing.”
The inclusion of the word “perceives” in Smith’s final sentence suggests that the problem is not that these novels of ideas that would appeal to men aren’t out there, but rather that men aren’t aware of their existence. However, earlier in the article, Taylor describes Smith as “concerned that the success of these ‘women’s novels’ is limiting the kind of fiction that gets published” in Canada. (‘Women’s novels’ are here defined as “earnest” tales that “appeal to women with a story of family, memory, and loss.” Men, Smith says, “are bored with the earnestness of contemporary fiction.”) So perhaps in his view the problem is in fact that insufficient numbers of novels of ideas that would appeal to men are available.
I don’t find these explanations satisfying. The assumptions embedded within them are shot through with gender stereotypes that I find offensive in the abstract and flatly unconvincing in this context. They don’t reflect the breadth of fiction that I read and the reasons why I read it; nor do they reflect the habits of the many avid readers of fiction, male and female, with whom I am acquainted. For example, despite my chromosomal make-up, I’m quite partial to humour and ideas in my novels. And how exactly does one so deftly separate feelings and ideas anyway? Surely most good novels are bound to contain both thoroughly intertwined?
That said, I don’t have an alternate explanation to offer. I remain puzzled by the gender gap in fiction reading. I need to think about it more deeply. In the meantime, I appeal to you for your ideas on this question. Why do you think women read more fiction than men?