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?