Why men don’t read fiction: Part 1

If these words were the start of a novel instead of a blog, chances are you’d be a woman. At least according to studies cited on the Internet indicating 80 percent of all fiction is purchased by women. These studies are so often cited that despite the fact it is difficult or impossible to actually find them, the statistic has risen to the level of fact or assumed non-fiction.

Five seconds browsing the Internet on the subject of men’s and women’s reading habits will also turn up the experiment recounted by British novelist Ian McEwan in The Guardian in which he and his son passed out free novels in a London park. The only takers were women. Men turned down the offer with “suspicion, or distaste.”

Yet despite the lack of scientific rigour in the fiction-for-free experiment or the apocryphal nature of the 80/20 ratio, I would bet you a hardcover copy of your favourite novel that any quick straw poll of your male friends – excluding those who work in literary academia or publishing – would conclude the 80/20 ratio is conservative, that the percentage of men who read fiction is even lower.

As a forty-something male who grew up in an artsy, intensely bookish household, and who has been unabashedly reading fiction for years, I cannot help wondering why this should be the case. Was it always this way or do most men suddenly abandon reading novels the way they give up on becoming professional hockey or baseball players at some point in their adolescence.

Some of my male friends have confessed to reading less and less fiction as they get older. They tend to blame this failing on the lack of time, usually the result of busy careers that require a high degree of focus and attention. These careers also usually involve a lot of reading: it’s just that none of it is fiction. Or they blame their lack of time on the not-unpleasant responsibilities of being an attentive husband and father.

One friend in his mid-forties who has worked with words in some way or another his whole life told me almost apologetically that he loves fiction but it all comes down to time. “When I dive into a book I’m truly immersed in it, like I’m living in the pages. Almost to the point I grieve when I turn the last one. Kind of wimpy, eh? So fiction: I love it but who the hell’s got the time?”

When I asked him why he doesn’t read at home, he replies with a defeated but also fully contented grin: “Books don’t grab your legs the way your children do when you get home.”

But for other men I know, it’s always been this way. They cannot remember the last time they read a novel. Ironically, many of them are voracious readers of non-fiction, and not a small number are also writers of non-fiction who make their living telling stories: just not made-up ones.

For some, it’s a simple matter of having trouble paying attention to fiction. They tend to refer to themselves as having attention deficit disorder, indulging in our age’s passion for over-diagnosis.

It’s also clear, in the articles written on this topic, or in informal conversation, that men have a weakness for what journalists call “news you can use,” for learning something they can apply in the “real world.”

One highly articulate, passionate, and motivating sixty-something executive I know is an avid reader of business books and biographies. When we happen to have read the same book, the two of us will discuss leadership, management, and the ins and outs of corporate life with a seriousness that wouldn’t have been out of place among students at Plato’s Academy.

Asked why he never reads fiction, his reply is simple: “I like to learn from my books. I have no inspiration to learn from a fictional book. Reading a novel would drive me around the bend.”

Not surprisingly, much of the literature encouraging men to read focuses on utility. This includes the proven assumption that fiction helps you understand other people, what psychologists call theory of mind: the ability to read social clues and guess at what people are really thinking and feeling. This skill of course would theoretically help you get ahead in any environment, literary or otherwise.

Much of the advice on helping men to develop a taste for reading is directed at women. It encourages them to buy the men in their life books that would appeal to stereotypically masculine interests: sports, history, adventure. Often the point is to simply try to get men to read more, period, let alone fiction.

Ironically, my reasons for reading less non-fiction than I used to are similar to the explanation my friends offer for not reading fiction: lack of time and interest. As a child I read non-fiction and fiction equally. I used to spend hours immersed in biographies of conquerors, soldiers, explorers, and scientists when I wasn’t reading novels. But, increasing as I hit my adolescence I spent more time with fiction. By the time I was in university I associated reading non-fiction with something I had to do.

As I started to work in corporate communications, I found myself trying to justify the time I spent on fiction as being something that would help me to do my job, suspecting it improved my ability to empathize with others before I ever came across the term “theory of mind” in non-fiction. I learn more and remember more about life when I read made-up stories than when I read facts.

So, in the spirit of that boyish schoolyard wisdom – “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” – I’ve come up with a novel (ahem) approach to encourage male readers to pick up my first novel Sons and Fathers.

If a novel about the influence fathers have on their sons; the complexities of male friendships; and the ins and outs of Canadian politics, journalism, and spin with a bit of poetry thrown in is not enough for male readers who want to learn something practical, Sons and Fathers is serendipitously filled with a wide range of useful masculine knowledge.

Find out what you can learn from reading Sons and Fathers in my next post…

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