The real reasons why men do not read books anymore

As men have fallen in love with reading, publishing has become a bastion dominated by women. Depending on how you look at it, there is either a vicious circle where the industry has become more and more efficient at doing what sells best, or a vicious circle where a certain type of professional creates books that reflect their own interests, with the exception of other votes.

A survey published earlier this year by the UK Publishers Association found that women made up almost two-thirds of the publishing workforce, a figure that goes up to 92 per cent in the advertising departments, 83 per cent in the marketing and 78 per cent in the editorial staff. One view says that this predominantly white middle-class cohort, encouraged by the statistics of men not reading, produces novels in its own image. When Penguin’s imprint Vintage published a list of its debut novels to keep an eye on this year, all five of them were about complicated young women.

Last month, American author Elizabeth Strout dared to suggest that publishers could ‘mix it up’ to keep the field fresh. Teeth were rubbed. There was a round of follow-up posts and a discussion in Radio 4’s program Today. In the Daily Mail, Boris Starling observed that the climate of fiction was so hostile to men, not to mention poorly paid, that they instead turned to screenwriters.

Giles Coren used his Times column to argue that since being a novelist was no longer a guarantee of sex, money and fame, there was no reason for men to worry. (His own solitary novel, Winkler, he reminded us, was best known for winning the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.)

Some male writers have complained that the broader climate of hostility to toxic masculinity, and the suspicion with which everything that sounds like male special prayers are treated, makes it difficult to write about the experience of being a young man. without courting for cancellation. The implication is that by 2021, men discussing human relationships, and sex in particular, are unthinkable.

Yet there are plenty of young or young male writers who disprove this theory: David Szalay, Paul Murray, Adam Foulds, Sam Byers, Ross Raisin, Adam Thirlwell, Ned Beauman, David Whitehouse. It’s just that they are not presented as prominently as their female counterparts.

“It’s a very women’s market,” says Jonny Geller, CEO of the literary agency Curtis Brown, whose clients include the Le Carré property and David Nicholls. »The cliché is that men read non-fiction and women read fiction. But the truth is that there is actually not much data. We have not spent much money on researching it. Publishing does not seem to ask the right questions. ‘

In an age where data has turned art into science in many areas, publishing gives the impression of being an old-fashioned place where a hit happens by accident and then copied indefinitely. “When I started in the 1990s, it was about breaking out 20-something writers,” Geller adds. ‘Now it’s about other issues.’

Of course, some believe that women innately are more likely to enjoy fiction. In his landmark work on autism, The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain, cognitive neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen argued that the female brain is primarily attached to empathy. The male brain is predominantly wired to understand and build systems. ‘ It is not a big leap to pattern this on reading habits. Novels are about empathy and invite the reader to imagine other lives and perspectives. Non-fiction is about learning facts and understanding the way the world works.

Essentialist arguments about the differences between men and women, however, quickly run into thorns. Sweeping statements about the brain tend to grossly oversimplify. “I do not think there is a politically correct way to answer the question,” says literature journalist Leo Robson.

“The cliché is that women take Anne Tyler or whatever, and men take Allen Lane non-fiction on oil. Many people say the difference between Ian McEwan, who sells millions of copies, and Martin Amis, who never sold much, is that women read [McEwan]. But the whole thing is so anecdotal. McEwan’s thrilling science lessons seem pretty tough to me. ‘

Moreover, while men may be in a minority of fiction readers, many manage to get through the strange novel, even one not written by Robert Harris. Literary criticism is still male-dominated. Historically, the female takeover of publishing houses is a more recent phenomenon. Something has happened over the last few decades to get guys to put the books down.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that in the UK the “reading gap” is opening up already in primary school. Girls from the beginning have a higher reading level than boys of the same age, and it continues forever. An elementary school teacher I talk to believes that this indirectly leads to a preference for non-fiction and may even help to promote a lifelong suspicion of fiction in men.

“At the upper end of primary school, children with a weaker reading level are more likely to choose non-fiction, as it has images they can look at if they think the text is too harsh,” she says. »Fiction that addresses the same age group is just continuous text, so if they can not access it, there is nothing else to look at. They get bored and stare into space during their independent reading time. If the teaching of reading in primary school was universally better, that would not be the case, I do not think. ‘

According to GCSE, girls consistently do better than boys in English, while there is no comparable difference in mathematics. This year, 77 percent of English literature A-level was set by female students. For the English language, the balance was not much better, as female students sat 72 per cent. Inequality continues at university. A friend who was studying history once told me that English, my degree, was ‘history for birds’. It is not the most politically sensitive way of expressing it, but it speaks to the view that studying novels and plays and poetry is fleeting and homely compared to the harsh, masculine reality of history or the economy.

The study of novels is not necessarily related to the appreciation of them among adults, but the gap among young people is alarming because it involves factors other than personal preferences. If men choose not to read novels, it’s good for them, but if they’ve been exposed to novels – or reading – because of the education system, it seems like a problem that should be solved.

For the little men coming out of education who are still interested in reading, the challenge has only just begun. The novel came of age at a time when the main competition for our attention was waiting for spring and the strange public execution. The sale of fiction survived the advent of radio and early television, but the enemy has not rested on its laurels. Now YouTube, Netflix, video games, social media and endless pornography are fighting for our attention. It’s hard for words on a page to compete.

Rory Sutherland, vice president of advertising and public relations agency Ogilvy – which focuses on consumer behavior – points out that many products die out, not because they are faulty, but because the circumstances of their consumption disappear. Blackberry was a death knell for reading newspapers on the train because you could suddenly check your emails instead. ‘It’s hard to compete with social media,’ says Sutherland, ‘because it’s all about you.’

In light of all this competition, different approaches to reading may only highlight the gap between men and women. For men who are more likely to read novels for suspense and action, they will lose out to more immediate forms of entertainment. For women seeking empathy in a world of one-time culture, they will become more valuable.

“I certainly do not want to rule out a revival of the novel,” Sutherland adds. ‘The battle between different media is still unfolding. The effects are unpredictable. Everyone thought television would kill the cinema, but then the VCR again aroused everyone’s interest in feature films. It would be exactly that kind of perverted unintended consequence if in a few years there were eight young male novelists who were treated like rock stars. ‘

For those of us who consider ourselves readers, there is no shortage of paradoxes about the current situation. Sometimes when I want to depress myself, I remember the list of ‘exam-informed’ books I sent to university to prove my literacy. If I was 17 now and had a smartphone in my pocket, would I have read Witold Gombrowicz ‘Pornografia? I doubt it. Of course, I now have no idea what’s going on in Pornography, though I could tell you in detail about any number of albums, movies, or video games from the same period of my life.

Games act as a special factor in reducing male reading. While women are catching up with men in the total number of games, they tend to prefer casual mobile games. Especially Candy Crush Saga for some reason, where a survey found that they make up 83 percent of the players. The kind of immersive shooting games, strategy and sports games that can rob oneself of a night of novel reading are still dominated by men. I’ve read Roberto Bolaño, and I’ve played Call of Duty: Warzone, and I can tell you what’s more uplifting after a few pints. But anyone who believes that men are incapable of sustained immersion in imaginative universes may not be familiar with Football Manager, a kind of animated spreadsheet in which it is possible to lose weeks at a time.

Most of the male friends I talk to about this agree that they read less than they used to. Most people are frustrated with this development. In part, they are too tired. If you spend a lot of your time reading for work, it’s easier to put Squid Game on than to pick up a novel, the easiest of which still requires more attention than the most complicated TV series. You can not read with one eye on your phone.

When you set aside time for reading, non-fiction somehow feels more work-oriented than fiction. Like scrolling through Twitter or listening to podcasts, professional literature seems like leisure that can somehow advance your professional life, as if another interview with an entrepreneur describing how they took control of their destiny would be a richer experience than e.g. The Karamazov brothers.

Does any of this matter? Representation in publishers does not have to be perfectly matched with consumption. Lots of culture divides along demographic lines. But I refuse to believe that my frustration with the shimmer I feel like now, compared to the reader I used to be, is just nostalgia for being younger and having more time on my hands. My mindset is more woolly, my ability for long-term engagement with other topics, such as my work, my marriage, or where I left the car keys, is weakened. I have fantasies of spending a month retraining my brain to read, like a monk. It would be tiring at first, but slowly I would remember what it was like.

Meanwhile, there is one place, ironically, where the influence of fiction on men has not diminished: Silicon Valley, where some of the most powerful men on earth take visions of science fiction, more or less dystopian, and try to make them real. The term ‘metaverse’, popularized by Mark Zuckerberg last month, comes from a Neal Stephenson novel, Snow Crash. It is a sequel to ‘cyberspace’, which William Gibson invented in a short story. Elon Musk is such a big fan of Iain M Banks ‘cultural novels that he has named his drone ships after the laconic self-conscious spaceships in Banks’ series and calls them Of Course I Still Love You, Just Read the Instructions and A Shortfall of Gravitas.

If Musk and co had read Middlemarch instead, they might know that the world’s growing good is partly dependent on unhistorical actions instead of blasting celebrities into space. There is also a world down here to learn about and novels can help.

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