Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Chick Fic

Novelist Jane Austen making a surprise appearance at the Macau Grand Prix, yesterday.

This column by ME appeared in this weekend's Sunday Telegraph. Ahem.

Why Men Don't Read Women

Next Wednesday the annual Orange Prize will be awarded in central London: for the best novel written by a woman. The winner can expect the usual fanfares, a bundle of cash, and a pleasurable boost in sales.

What she cannot expect, however, is a lot of male readers, no matter how big the publicity splash. Because men don't read books by women.

Proof of this comes from various surveys. Over the last couple of years, for instance, academics Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins have been asking men and women to name their "watershed" books - the books that changed the way the reader felt about life. The list of books cited by women readers includes plenty of titles by men: Lord of the Rings, Catcher in the Rye and Catch 22 all get a namecheck, alongside the expected "female" titles like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Pride and Prejudice.

Contrast this with the male list. As with women, men like Tolkien and Salinger; men also like Camus and Orwell. What men don't like are books written by people who wear skirts: only one book by a woman made it into the male list: Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. And some have suggested Lee's book only found itself on the roster because the men believed, thanks to her ambiguous name, that Lee was a chap.

Of course one obvious explanation for women enjoying male authors, while men apparently reject female writers, is simply that women read a lot more books - written by either gender - whereas men read more newspapers, magazines and websites. That's according to an investigation by the Book Marketing Trust. Men do, however, read more on the toilet. Who was it said men can't multitask?

Another simple explanation for this difference is that men don't read fiction (and fiction is what women tend to write most): maybe 70% of fiction readers are female, right across the genres. By contrast, men slightly outnumber women in the non-fiction reading stakes. Put it another way: Men like Facts, Women like Stories.

But is that all there is to it? Maybe there is something deeper here: an antipathy to the female fiction-writing mindset. Take a look at the 2007 Orange Prize shortlist, and there is arguably a clue in this direction.

The list is dominated by cloistered emotional dramas. One of the favourites is Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park, an eloquent and melancholy tale of stifled desperation amongst middle class Englishwomen. Another favourite is Anne Tyler's Digging to America - a tragicomedy of adoption amongst Baltimore suburbanites. Even the books with supposedly bigger canvases - like Kiran Desai's the Inheritance of Loss - tend to focus on the minutiae of feelings rather than the theatre of actions.

As a novelist myself, I would venture to say this kind of writing puts men off: you can only read so many subtle chapters set in tense kitchens where, erm, not a lot happens, before you want a big punch up, or a gratuitous sex scene, or just some stirring and shocking event - nuclear war maybe. A lot of men consciously or subconsciously think fiction is a waste of time, because it isn't true - so if they are going to read it they need to be either violently entertained, or brilliantly enlightened, to justify the effort. The gentler designs of many female novelists don't feed this masculine appetite.

But then again, maybe this is sour grapes - from a male novelist operating in a world dominated by women. Because the world of books really is dominated by women. Trust me. Not only are most readers women, most fiction fans are women, most fiction writers are women, most publishers are women, and most of the important book buyers (Tescos, Richard and Judy) are women. Most librarians are also women. In fact maybe there should be an Orange Prize for Fiction written and read by men. It's time we boys had some encouragement.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm a woman, and I can't stand these pointless books about feelings! Give me guns and spaceships crashing into other spaceship!