Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why don't men read fiction?

It is a commonly known fact that the reading habit in the US has not thrived in recent times. It is often bemoaned that reading anything beyond necessary schoolwork has declined noticably for many years. Particularly crushing has been the downward trend in literary reading, i.e. reading of novels, short stories, poems etc. This has decreased steadily from the early '80s till recent years. In the survey of literary reading habits among adults released earlier this year, the National Endowment for the Arts showed (for the first time) an increase in reading rates among adults, with 50.2% of the adult population reporting that they read something literary in the prior 12 months. This increase, while noteworthy, is still minor compared to the more steady decline we have seen over a longer period.

While this story is well known, what is somewhat less discussed is how big a gender gap exists in literary reading. In the most recent NEA survey, 58% of women reported having read something literary while the same number for men was 42%. Surveys on fiction book readers present an even starker picture. This NPR article speaks of surveys that indicate that only about 20% of the market for fiction books is comprised of men. (I must admit though, that after about a hour of googling, I gave up on finding the original source of that statistic.) This publishing blog (by a woman) asks bluntly - 'Men's Fiction - A Contradiction in Terms?'

It is not that men don't read at all. They do, though slightly less than women. They are just much more likely to read non-fiction. The whole fiction thing doesn't seem to work for us. As Ian McEwan memorably said, 'when women stop reading, the novel will be dead'.

Some academics have written full-fledged papers on this stuff. This paper by Steve Tepper for instance takes on a quantitative approach to study why women read more fiction than men, exploring factors like (pardon the bombast) 'the influence of childhood socialization and gender-role stereotypes, differences in cognition and prose literacy and differences in work status and available free time.'

A good (male) friend once visited me at home and was browsing through my bookshelves. When he came to the shelf with fiction books, he gave me an incomprehending stare, and said "why would you want to read fiction?". On seeing my extensive collection of Salman Rushdie, he said "The problem I have with magic realism is this - what is the point? So what?"

Now, this is an otherwise extremely well-read individual (and friend of Brick and Rope), so it was not a question I could readily dismiss as silly. I guess I read fiction because I love the English language. I couldn't tell you the 'so what' of the best stories. Maybe there is some deeper social commentary or acute psychological insight into humanity. Then again, maybe there isn't. To me, it doesn't matter. I read fiction because I like it. The story is an end in itself.

Clearly, the majority of us men is not where I am on this. And I have no original insights to offer on why they are not. Which is where I could use your help - what do you think? Why don't men read fiction?


  1. Sports? Maybe humans were designed in such a way that there is only so much activity each person can do which is in the "pointless" category. Men fill up their quota from sports, women fill up their quota with fiction :). I have noticed that the amount of fiction I read is inversely proportional to the amount of time I spend watching sports.

  2. Is there a 'point' then in reading non-fiction? I agree with you that there is a limited amount of discretionary time. Why do men prioritize reading non-fiction over fiction in that limited time? Better alignment with our self-perceived role in 'bringing home the bacon', or a simple lack of imagination / soft sensitivity?

  3. I think it has something to do with the lower patience threshold of a male mind to let a story evolve.

    I want to draw a slight parallel with some observed behaviour on how males and females surf the net. Apparently, males are much more likely to jump around, click at links, go down rabbit-holes than women. Women on the other hand have fewer clicks per hour and spend more time reading a page. Overall, more patience. Probably the same reason why women linger longer in grocery aisles.

    Reading a novel takes time, and more importantly patience. It takes time to let the characters develop themselves in the text and more importantly in the reader's consciousness. And maybe women are better wired (as traditional homemakers and firetenders) to be patient than the men (traditional hunters).

    My two cents at pop psychology.

  4. Just because more women than men THINK that they have read something LITERARY in the last TWELVE months, it doesn't mean that more women are actually reading more quality fiction than men.

  5. To be clear, the NEA survey does not use the word 'literary' in a subjective, judgmental sense. It is used in a much more factual sense of something that encompasses novels, poetry and drama, as distinct from non-fiction. So (at least to me), this isn't about different yardsticks of quality reading.

    A related note that might be relevant is that the way most of these surveys are phrased, romance novels and other forms of 'chick-lit' are clearly counted. Which might be another reason the total level of reading among women is higher than men.

  6. That's what I meant. The response to the question may be different from a man and a woman if both had read one popular fiction novel 8 months back.

    I am interested if you can find some data on whether women authors are now selling more books than men as compared to 20 years ago.

  7. From my observation of dad ,fil and hubby dearest..men who need to have "efficiency" and "optimising" tendencies-who need lists and are forever finetuning processes-like my dad and hubby dear-just cannot read fiction..its like a humongous waste of time."whats the point" as u called it

    others with a more emotional/sensitive bent -who can watch a drama movie, those who can care patiently for a child seem to read fiction.

    so if u can read fiction- kudos on finding ur more sensitive side :)

  8. So is it also true that men tend to favour documentaries over fiction movies? With average movie times of 2 hours, it helps normalizing for the "patience" factor.

  9. Thanks for this post. I am happily part of the 20% of males who DO read fiction. In fact I have a hard time finishing non-fiction even when I am interested in the topic. I will go even further and say that I prefer women authors. I guess I am comfortably in touch with my feminine side.

  10. And there are more men whose work of fiction is considered to be in the Top 100 novels list! But that is probably because more men tended to get published in the last century than women. Overall, I think the reason could be low patience levels, and perceived waste of time.

  11. This is a comment late in coming, but I figure why not?

    Which is also what I might have asked my friend in response to the "So what?"

    I had a brief thought concerning men and woman and the imagination. Many of us read fiction because we like the story, but also because of the fun of escapism. A way of being elsewhere without really being elsewhere. Perhaps men find that they don't need this sort of escapism or have other methods of slipping away from the trials of everyday life (television, joining friends at a bar, or simply being alone).

    After all, men have different ways of dealing with anger and the like. Perhaps real stories are simply more exciting for that exact reason; they actually happened.

    Just speculation from yet another female who loves fiction. All the "What ifs" and "What could bes" - and why not? ;)

  12. Why is the other question never asked, why don't women read non-fiction? Are they not interested in learning or a lack of curiosity. I find for the most part that women are only interested in their "interests" and hobbies, career and practicalities, but not much in learning about everything. I find very few women intellectuals and those curious about learning all kinds of things.

  13. Lonesome Tango29 June, 2010 21:04

    I hypothesize that much of this phenomenon is a relatively recent trend that started in the past 50 years or so - a time when competition in the work space has become much more fierce. Understanding management jargon, being on top of world politics and economics seems to be an absolute must in the corporate world today. I think that women who rise to a certain level in the corporate world probably also read large amounts of non-fiction. Is that just to keep up with the corridor or lunch room conversations? Or is it a genuine desire to improve themselves and their mental awareness?
    And, what of those men and women that aren't at the top - here, I hypothesize that on average, men have a much higher level of ambition, and a need to be considered just as intellectual as the next guy. So, much earlier on in their careers, men start reading up on the hottest topics of non-fiction out there, so that they will be able to join in the conversation at the next bar outing.

  14. I am reading writer-critic John Berger's amazing work of memoir-ish fiction 'Here is Where We Meet'. The protagonist is speaking with his (dead) mother, and she says something that I thought was a fresh new way of thinking about the 'Why don't men read fiction?' question: "I liked books that took me to another life. That's why I read the books I did. Many. Each one was about real life, but not about what was happening to me when I found my bookmark and went on reading. When I read, I lost all sense of time. Women always wonder about other lives, most men are too ambitious to understand this. Other lives, other lives which you have lived before, or which you could have lived."

  15. "Why is the other question never asked, why don't women read non-fiction?"

    Exactly. It's very annoying that not reading fiction seems to be considered such a problem, while not reading non-fiction (though it would seem essential in order to be an informed citizen) isn't usually treated as a problem.