Fiction is a feminist issue

Why publishers can and should encourage men to read fiction

Yesterday we saw some friends and I gave the female half of the couple a bag stuffed with books. Her husband looked downcast and said “Don’t you have any books for me, Bethanne?”

I explained to him that I did not–I receive fewer nonfiction books and pitches these days because I tend to write about and talk up fiction, although that could change any day depending on what project I’m working on at the time. His disappointment, however, sparked a dinner conversation about why men tend to choose nonfiction over fiction–especially because on of the books we discussed was Midnight in Peking, and our friend’s comment was “It was so good; it read like a novel!”

I said, “Why don’t you read novels, then, if you like that sort of ‘read?’” His answer was that he prefers to read books that teach him something.

A different type of learning

He might as well have waved a red flag in front of a bull. “Oh really,” said I. “That’s interesting, because I learn just as much from fiction as I do from nonfiction; it’s just a different sort of learning. It’s less factual and more psychological and emotional.”

Both our friend and my husband made those sort of “Well, there you have it” smirks that humans of both sexes are prone to display when they think they are entirely right. To these middle-aged men, fact trumps emotion, head trumps heart, and nonfiction means serious intent while fiction means frivolity.

It will not surprise any of you who know me that I was not going to let them off that easily. I have been listening to book people lament that men don’t read or buy or talk about fiction for so long that I’ve formulated an idea or three about why.

The bias against fiction goes back a ways, with men. While I won’t go back to the days of clay tablets and sticks, I will go back as far as religious scriptoria of the Dark Ages. Reading and writing have long been strongly identified as “indoor” work, the sort of thing that pale, industrious, and non-brawny types like monks engaged in while the warrior class was busy with plundering, pillaging, and hard physical toil. Jump ahead several hundred years and you see the Industrial Revolution’s division of labor reinforcing the idea that “easy” work, “feminine” work, is conducted inside, while “real” work, “masculine” work takes place on the railroad, in the factory, and (still) on the farm.

Factual prose vs. figurative language

Reading done by women could be “easy,” then, and since women were inclined to be interested in the sphere of the heart (how could they not, given that they were relegated to the sphere of the hearth, where the only action involved courtship and marriage?), imaginative literature–fiction–became something womanish and less serious.

Meanwhile, the reading done by men was supposed to be challenging and difficult, or it was worth less (i.e., became feminine). The bigger the book the greater the intellect (ah, yardstick measuring comes in so many forms), the bigger the words the greater the challenge, the more facts and figures… You get the picture.

The idea that boys like factual prose and girls like figurative language has persisted through the 20th and into the 21st century, which is why my industry colleagues rend their garments and despair as half of the reading public ignores half of the reading material out there. Men tell their families to buy them history books, biographies, and pundits’ tomes for holiday gifts and profess that they just “don’t read fiction.” However, take a peek at any man’s psychic bookshelves and you’ll probably see plenty of fiction: Thrillers, spy stories, mysteries, and more.

Men haven’t just been discouraged from reading “easy” books; they’ve even been discouraged from talking about those books, which hurts their chances of learning from them. Although many “book groups” are little more than an excuse to drink wine and gossip, there are many more in which members tease out meaning from contemporary and classic fiction, leaving meetings with ideas and not simply leftover cookies.

If those of us in publishing want to get men to read fiction, we need to do more than simply publish excellent fiction. We’re already doing that, and I don’t mean just fiction written by or for men; I know that my husband would love Ready Player One or A Visit from the Goon Squad or The Passage. He thinks that his time is important and shouldn’t be “wasted” on books that won’t teach him anything. We need to find ways to show men like my husband, men like our friend, that those books named and thousands of others can and will teach them things, sometimes as much as or even more than the best-written biography.

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