Saturday, August 05, 2006

Gender and Reading Habits

In an article in today’s Globe and Mail, Kate Taylor examines at some length the question of why women read more fiction than men.

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?


Rebecca H. said...

Very good question. I really have no idea, although I tend to turn to social training for answers rather than looking for biological reasons. Are boys/men more often trained and expected to read other things besides fiction? Are girls/women encouraged to read it? If our culture has this perception that novels are about feelings and women are good at feelings, then women should read novels, right? I'm curious to hear other people's thoughts.

Heather said...

I grew up watching my father read and can directly link my love of reading to him. Being very young and not being able to read for myself he would read to me each night, invariably Sleeping Beauty. Then, when I was able to read he would listen each night as I read from one of my favourites Black Beauty. We began to visit the library each Saturday morning and spend the afternoons reading our respective choices together with only the sound of pages turning. Most other men I've encountered have not read much for pleasure but I'm sure that they must be out there. Thankfully the men I've encountered have all been willing to listen to be gab on about my reading choices, venturing questions knowing they would lead me off onto long-winded tangents that they in turn, would have to listen to.

So I suppose my true reply to your post is hmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the pundits. Not that there aren't exceptions, but overall I think they're quite right. I don't think that men who avoid emotions and other people's perspectives in real life would be interested in reading about them in their spare time! I wonder what the numbers are in countries where men are more free to empathize and express emotions?

Lee said...

Did the survey include a genre breakdown (SF, thriller, etc)? I think that might provide some interesting data.

Anonymous said...

I wrote about this a while ago in relation to an article that appeared in a British newspaper. *It* claimed that men read less than women because fiction doesn't represent their rugged masculine values, which I suppose isn't all that different from what the commentators you mention are saying.

For my own part I think this is wrongheaded and that men reading less is more to do with the *act* itself rather than the content of the material. Reading fiction is perceived to be a quintessentially feminine activity - it's passive, it's emotional and it's solitary - and so men are socialised out of it. Bookish boys are far less socially acceptable than girls. It was ok if I wanted to stay in my room all weekend with a book, but God forbid if my brother didn't want to go play football or rugby or something else physical! So I think it isn't that men are genetically incapable of reading about feelings or emotions (what a ridiculous idea anyway!) but that society discourages them from doing so. It's just a symptom of the holes that gender stereotyping puts us and them in.

Saying that, I am very interested by Lee's point about differences between genres. I consider myself a member of the large and vibrant online sf community, constituted of forums and blogs etc, and would say that the gender balance there is rather more even, if not tipped the other way. For example, of the 10 most regular posters on my "home" forum, I'm the only woman, and there are only 4 in the entire top 20. I would imagine that of the 600 or so members less than 100 are women. That's quite a striking statistic and although women are slowly gaining ground as authors, reviewers and commentators the genre is dominated by men.

sassymonkey said...

Hmmm...well...for the most part what I remember as a kid is reading while boys played video games. And a lot of guys that I know still play video games. It would be interesting to compare game playing numbers and reading numbers between the sexes. And there just never seemed to be as many popular "boy" books as there were "girl" books (gross generalization there).

Of course, this is more or less narrows it down to certain age groups. But I know that my male friends who game do so to escape/relax/etc which is often the same reason why I read.

mary grimm said...

I don't have anything to definitive to offer. My boyfriend is one of the sort of males who reads mainly nonfiction (he actually reads books about math sometimes); but every once in a while some book I'm talking about will pique his interest and he'll read that (recently Anna Karenina; plus he's become a big Mark Twain fan).
I teach creative writing, and I have a lot of boys in my classes who like to read--some might argue though that this is a self-selecting group.

grundgetta said...

Haha so true. I love contemporary fiction. I remember reading a book I really like, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and it took me forever to get my boyfriend to read it. Hes more into the news and non-fiction etc.

litlove said...

I don't really think we can dismiss gender difference. I will - and have - read my son every kind of fiction since he was a small child and as he grows he is developing distinctly male-patterned interests. He does not like books that highlight feelings or ones that he calls 'all talk' which means insufficient action. I also encourage my husband to read a lot of the books I've enjoyed but there are great swathes he wouldn't even consider. I can see in my child a desire for greater interaction in play than reading allows. I'm not sure I can pinpoint my husband's interests so clearly, but he has little time for domesticity in narrative. What I want to know is why is it so wrong to consider that there are differences in the general makeup of men and women? Many, many times in its history feminism has been about celebrating women's specificity. In the details we are all different, but there are still possible gen(d)eralisations to be made that could, I feel, be enlightening for some if not for all.

Anonymous said...

My goodness Kate -- what a provocative and wonderful essay and question. I think good blogging manners dictate that if you find yourself writing a 1000 word response, you should do it on your own blog. Which is what I'll do tomorrow.

For today, I'll say that this got me thinking about (a) how women's pursuits are instinctively devalued by our culture; and (b) whether young boys come to reading from a different path than young girls and whether this matters in the question you ask.

I'll say now though that when men do get around to reading fiction, good fiction I mean, they become as addicted to it as women. The novel is a form that's generous enough to appeal to anyone, male or female. Why its joys are not evenly spread between the sexes is puzzling and worth puzzling over.

Michael said...

maswvjxtMy fiction-reading fell off dramatically after 9-11. Now, that's a bit of a pat explanation, because the other thing that happened around that same time is that my kids reached an age where I started reading kid lit (as opposed to picture books) to them, and so my own need for fiction has been somewhat filled by the likes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Freddy the Pig, etc.

But there remains the fact that I had a hard time finding fiction that seemed to say much to me at that point, versus the nonfiction I read which really did help to explain the world we were in-- Bernard Lewis, Paul Berman, Rise of the Vulcans, Michael Oren's book on the six-day war, etc. etc. By comparison, what happened when our alleged greatest fiction writers tried to tackle the subject? Nicholson Baker produced assassination porn. Philip Roth looked square at Islamic extremism in 2006 and... got freaked out about Charles Lindbergh. Updike produced, basically, "Bomb, Rabbit, Bomb." Thanks, guys, that's really relevant to the present situation.

So I don't know where I stand on fiction. I would like to get back into it and yet it seems somewhat small for the times. That hasn't always been true-- Tolstoy had to slum a little to train a mind of his size on something as small as the Napoleonic wars-- and I realize it flirts with a socialist-realist notion of art (sorry, Comrade, your novel does not serve the needs of the people in the present emergency). But I can't help my instinctive reaction that literature has gotten kind of small compared to life, at the moment; I'm waiting for the book that seems to make the world bigger and richer again.

Anonymous said...

I prefer reading fiction to nonfiction, although creative nonfiction and personal essay are favorites too. As a fledgling fiction writer, I read fiction to learn craft, but also for a good story. If a story or novel has great characters and a great story, it'll hold my attention. I like emotional depth and strong characters as well as ideas. I prefer the depth of novels (in any genre) to that of most short stories.
Instead of surveys, I wonder if someone serious about men's and women's reading habits would go a bit deeper and ask why a particular book was chosen to read. Or why a particular man or woman chose nonfiction over fiction.

melmoth said...

Hi Kate. I think this issue is more complex than the newspaper article allows for, since all mass-consumed articles must take a more generalist or populist tone and approach, or risk losing its less literate readership.Also, statistics are quantitative not qualitative.

Now, think of all the men who write poetry and fiction - they're also readers (and there's a lot of them).

Almost all of the men I know are literate, intelligent and do read fiction; and as well, I actually know women who don't like fiction and read nothing but non-fiction (history, philosophy, theology, psychology, etc.)

However, that being said, Russell Smith is addressing something that has been bothering me. Smith's perception that the typical Canadian novel is one that appeals to women with a story of family, memory and loss is somewhat correct. When I once read the novels of Margaret Laurence (Stone Angel, The Diviners), they had no interest for me; but not because I don't have feelings, emotions or passions, but simply because I found them too pedestrian in their emotional power; at least beside, for example, the novels of Dostoevsky such as The Idiot, Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov, all of which are emotionally powerful. There is family, and memory, and loss in Dostoevsky's novels - so why are they devastating, while Laurence's novels are at best "feeling" and "thoughtful".

I have a number of fictioneers who happen to be women that I admire - Gertrude Stein, Nathalie Sarraute, Lydia Davis, Misha Nogha, Nicole Brossard - none of whom are pedestrian in their emotions, but all of whom are engaged intellectually with their world, and their ideas stir powerful emotions.

Red said...

This discussion is timely. I recently read some statistics on women and book reviews which stated (an I am paraphrasing) that since men are the majority book reviewers at the larger media outlets fewer women-authored fiction books get reviewed. As a new author of a fiction novel entitled Threads (, I have observed the gender phenomena described in the original discussion. My novel chronicles a womans journey as seen through the eyes of all the "threads" who wove her life. The threads are of both male and female persuasion. However, the major premise of the discussion seems to hold up as I sell my novel at a Farmer's Market in our city and so far the majority of buyers have been female. The only males buyers have been friends who indicated they were purchasing it for a woman. Men do however purchase books from a male writer at our booth who writes tales of mountain men and western-type characters. It's been interesting obseving the habits of buyers. I can almost pick out the people (women) in the crowd who will be attracted to my book. I would have to say my experience with male readers has followed the rule of nonfiction as a first preference with male-oreiented fiction as a second.

LK said...

I'm still stuck on the sentence about people who read 50 or more novels a year (and I thought I was doing so well, too).

I'm not very trusting of these types of statistics -- smacks of some marketing dweeb who wants to make a case for a new line of "fratire," the so-called male version of "chick lit."

I would like to know how many of books accounted for were romance novels, which clearly are marketed to women and (equally clearly) are formulated for easy and quick consumption. Hence, skewing the numbers.

And what comprises "classic and contemporary" novels? What about mysteries or spy novels, which presumably, would include more male readers?

The commentators make some incredible leaps in logic and gross generalizations--particularly the two MALE authors. Hmmm...surely some female authors would have weighed in on the question?

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. First, it is important to note that gender issues are not a matter of nature versus nurture, but the degree to which each contributes. There ARE biological differences between men and women, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Take a look at the research of Baron-Cohen, a psychologist out of England studing autism. Although his work is related to very extreme forms of masculine versus feminine brain functioning, the principle that there are differences holds.

The issue of being able to relate to a protagonist is probably an accurate appraisal to some extent. This would be more clearly addressed by researching the qualities of protagonists in fiction read by men versus fiction read by women. I can tell you, anecdotally, that I can count on one hand the number of fiction books or biographies I have read with female protagonists. I find it very difficult to identify with female characters.

It would also be interesting to see how the genders breakdown in terms of genre. I would imagine that "literary" fiction is probably less read by men than science fiction, probably along the same lines that men don't like going to "chick flicks" or watch Lifetime.