The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Sunday, February 05, 2006

It's a man's world but a woman's house

Some time in the 1980s the idea that men don't read fiction -- specifically, literary fiction -- took hold in major publishing houses. It's an idea that has grown deep roots, and, for those with some knowledge of the inner workings of the publishing world, it's pretty much accepted as gospel.

The debate these days isn't so much over whether the generalization is true, despite the fact that it's imperative to remember it is a generalization. It's also imperative to underline that what I'm talking about here isn't the percentage of male or female writers who are published, or the inequities in the publishing industry at large, such as its increasing ageism and looksism. These are very interesting topics, too, but for another posting.

Instead, what's at issue here is the fact that the demographics of the sales of literary novels consistently reflect that significantly more women buy and read novels than men do. (For evidence of this, read a piece by Ian McEwan. It's a few months old, but still very timely.) This is just a reality of the book-buying market. The more interesting questions, though, are why this has happened, and the degree to which the industry may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Given the tenor of our times, the most popular explanation for men's relative lack of interest in literary novels is genetic. Men and women's brains are different, the reasoning goes. Men are better at spatial reasoning, women better at verbal reasoning. Men are interested in facts. Women are interested in relationships. So it is, that novels, with their emphasis on the minutae of emotional interchange, have more interest for the latter.

These beliefs have been reinforced by study after study. We may ask questions about some of the presumptions of these studies -- for example, a recent one of male vs. female behaviour on the Internet repeated the idea men liked "facts" ... and then included the male fascination with porn as evidence of this. Well, I guess porn is a fact of a sort....

These ideas seem so undeniably true to most of us that we don't really question them. But here's the thing: if men are genetically predisposed to prefer not reading fiction, then why was this not the case for the several centuries when literature existed but was a realm of endeavor dominated by men? (See countless academic articles from the 1970s to 1990s that question the male-centric quality of the canon.) The predominant answer to this question has always been feminist: society was patriarchal, so of course men dominated in literature, just as they did in all else. Still, the answer leaves other, more subtle questions: were all those men -- who, recall, are genetically designed to prefer activities other than novel-reading -- just faking it? Were they bossing their way around the pages of the culture more for the pleasure of feeling like they ruled the roost than out of any heartfelt passion for literary culture itself?

The answer to these questions is obviously no. Men who wrote, publishing and criticized literary fiction were as passionately engaged with the form as any human can be. Their only failing was the aforementioned patriarchy, which led them at times to exclude or diminish the work of women.

So the question remains: What about now? If men once loved literature, why has the idea that they don't -- in fact, that they can't -- taken such a firm root?

Why do many people in publishing nowadays believe men are not interested in literary fiction?


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