Sunday, October 01, 2006

Are men killing the novel as art?

One thing which points us to the underlying differences between men and women is what we choose to read.

I can remember pondering this question years ago when I used to take public transport to uni. The men in the tram/train carriage would generally read a newspaper or some kind of trade journal; the women were more likely to read a magazine like Cosmo or a novel.

It turns out that my observation about women reading novels is generally true. In an article titled "Why Hemingway is Chick-Lit" we learn that 80% of novels are bought by women. Men, in contrast, buy a majority of non-fiction books.

The gender contrast is so stark that some fear it is undermining the status of the novel. Lakshmi Chaudry, in the article I linked to above, writes that:

we may be headed back to the 19th century, when the novel was considered a low-status, frivolous, pastime of ladies of leisure, unfit for real men ...

... the novel seems to be reverting to its origins as a feminine hobby, and hence is in danger of being toppled off its high artistic perch.

Penguin books has even tried to improve the situation by sending out models to award a prize of 1000 pounds to any man caught in possession of one of their novels.

Which brings us to the most interesting question. Why is it that women read more novels than men?

Lakshmi Chaudry gives a modified liberal answer. Usually liberals adopt a constructionist explanation for gender difference. This is the idea that gender difference is caused by the influence of culture, which means that there are no fixed, essential traits defining men and women.

Liberals are drawn to the constructionist view because of their underlying belief that we only become human when we are self-determining: when we can make up for ourselves who we are.

The constructionist view suggests that gender difference is something that we ourselves have created, and that it is therefore malleable, changing and evolving. It doesn't, as a result, place any necessary limits on what we can (or should) will ourselves to be. Nor does it give to the qualities of manhood or womanhood the status of unchanging, objectively existing truths that we might measure ourselves by.

The French feminist Simone de Beauvoir put the constructionist view in its most radical form when she declared that "one is not born, but becomes a woman".

The major problem for the constructionist view is that modern science is begining to map significant differences in the male and female brain. It is going to become increasingly difficult to uphold the view that culture alone is responsible for generating differences in behaviour between men and women.

So how does a modern liberal cope with the new trends within science? Lakshmi Chaudry gives some ground, but not much. She still firmly rejects the more conservative "essentialist" view:

In recent years, various pundits have used this so-called "fiction gap" as an opportunity to trot out their pet theories on what makes men and women tick. The most recent is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who jumped at the chance to peddle his special brand of gender essentialism. His June 11 column arbitrarily divided all books into neat boy/girl categories - "In the men's sections of the bookstore, there are books describing masterly men conquering evil. In the women's sections there are novels about .. well, I guess feelings and stuff." ...

Brooks' real agenda, however, is ... to promote the latest conservative talking point: blaming politically correct liberals for a "feminized" school curriculum ... "It could be, in short, that biological factors influence reading tastes, even after accounting for culture," Brooks claims, "The problem is that even after the recent flurry of attention about why boys are falling behind, there is still intense social pressure not to talk about biological differences between boys and girls."

So, when David Brooks raises the idea that there might be biological differences between boys and girls influencing reading habits he is described negatively as a conservative peddler of gender essentialism.

However, Lakshmi Chaudry does make a small concession to the newer science. She accepts some cognitive research cited by Lisa Zunshine as it attributes only a "small difference" in reading habits to biological difference. This allows Lakshmi Chaudry to claim that this small biologically based difference is then greatly increased in extent by culture:

But in a culture infused with polarizing messages about gender, such small differences can be magnified into vast disparities.

So the social constructionist explanation still dominates, in spite of Lakshmi Chaudry's small step forward.

Finally, I should point out that conservatives don't deny that culture has an influence in shaping gender difference. We do, though, take the idea of an essential masculinity and femininity, hardwired into our natures, much more seriously than liberals. We don't view such gender qualities negatively as potential impediments to our individual will, but as important parts of our self-identity and as an aspect of the "good" in human life.

(Hat tip: reader KS)


  1. May I suggest an easy explanation, men dont like the books that women read.

  2. May I quote from the sadly now defunct "16 volts" web journal:

    "Middle-aged women have transformed contemporary literature into a conveyor belt of dreck. This is not a random slur – look at what is lauded as the superlative writing today and you will find books filled with menopausal obsessions, chatter about the mundane, shallow cultural tourism, bulk rate epiphanies, pseudo-spiritual profundities, and page after page of writing that is as lost in itself as its readers are – the sort of thing women take comfort in once they've dried up. The gray, meat-like material that is the modern novel is processed in such massive quantity that it prefigures the threat of nanotechnology to wipe out all human existence; this gray literature has wiped out novels, poetry, and plays as forms of any significance. Because the machinery of publicity demands that someone sing its praises, we have the new critic: the man (or, more frequently, woman) who writes clichés about clichés – everything he reads, or everything by authors of a certain reputation, is lyrical, elegaic, transfiguring, transcendent. He constantly announces that he is astonished, startled, and punched in the gut by the reams of self-conscious prose, although because he is always acting astonished, and because he never compares anything to anything else, it is difficult to conclude that he believes what he is saying. Or, English major that he is, knows what he is saying."

    The rest of the passage has been recorded at:

  3. The first two comments are supported also by David Brooks, who argues that boys are unlikely to be attracted to "new wave" novels about "introspectively morose young women".

    On a couple of occasions I have taken English extras for junior high school classes. I've been surprised at how much the material is aimed at forcing an unnatural level of emotional introspection on the students.

    Attempting to provide responses to the set questions made my own head spin at times, and I wondered how even the brightest students would be able to cope.

    I think a love of literature would have to be fostered outside of the school curriculum rather than within it.

  4. The only novels I own are semi-autobiographical, like Miller and Kerouac. I enjoy quality prose, but not if it's neuroses for the sake of neuroses - that kind of thing deserves to be considered low status.

  5. First of all, the reading and writing of literature has become a liberal activity. Contemporary writers present stories which try to break down essentialistic assumptions, champion the "marginalized," and promote multiculturalism and feminism. There may be exceptions in "genre fiction" such as thrillers. Think about Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, etc. Novels of ideas and novels of struggle to triumph over evil are rare.

    The liberalization of literature has feminized it. It is striking to look back at writers like Wordsworth, Kipling, Dickins, Hemingway, and see that writing was once a MASCULINE profession.

  6. There is a big gap in the market for literature that addresses weighty themes and worldy affairs that are of interest to intelligent male readers.

    One of my favourite fiction books is John Dos Passos's 'USA' Trilogy- a huge sprawling work on politics and culture.

    There is very little stuff like this around today.

    Part of the problem is that male 'techology nerds' are not taught masculine literature, in schools, so they never get a taste for it and become over-specialsied in there technology fields.

    Subseqently, the gap between the 'feminine arts' and the 'male sciences' has been artificially widened.

  7. There is a good article on the gender choices for literature

    which starts: "The novel that means most to men is about indifference, alienation and lack of emotional responses. That which means most to women is about deeply held feelings, a struggle to overcome circumstances and passion, research by the University of London has found"

  8. It seems to me, that one reason for the lack of male fictional readers is that in the last century man (more-or-less) had the world in a manageable state, where society ran smoothly enough for him to allocate time to exploring the frontiers of the mind (Read literature and art). Thanks to the cemented laws of feminism today (not to mention it’s undercurrents, which require two parents to work long hours at full-time jobs) – there is little time, or energy, left to further the creative human frontier.

    The female notion is to ‘escape’ the horror by Burying oneself in fantasy. Consequently, this ‘scared little rich kid’ mentality fosters a weaker world than in centuries.

    Feminism has dug a whole so deep, that it looks pointless to even attempt to jump up to feel sunlight on one’s face. ‘What’s the point?’ seems to be the prevailing notion. There is only time to numb oneself with pointless fictional gratification, and even ‘more’ pointless reality tv and trash magazines.

    Since feminists began to re-write the English dictionary a few decades ago (along with everything else) in the name of ‘politically correct’ language, it has seen the male literary flame dissolve. Since feminism began to regard every thought provoking subject and idea associated with novelists and novels as ‘potentially dangerous’ to it’s ‘female-centric’ world view – it has continually thrown a bucket of cold water on any attempts to continue the exploration of great ideas and/or brilliant works.

    One of the great characteristics of great literature (or art) is to ‘challenge’ the audience. To say something profound or important. Feminism’s ‘outrage’ at any dissenting colour that doesn’t capitulate to the basic feminist spectrum of black, purple & pink, is labeled ‘evil’ (or any exaggerated term serving to silence said alternate view). Is it really any wonder that, coupled with feminism (and it’s bedfellow; materialism – which requires large groups to think/buy the same way) – that we have a glut of blandness? A glut of bad vanilla flavoured icecream to chose from in our icecream parlors, because it’s ‘offensive’ to have any other choice to consume.

    My observations on the train to work, tend to see men and women reading almost the same fiction. From ‘Harry Potter’ to ‘The Davinci Code’, it seems that it’s not only ‘fashion’ that has merged.

    Oh, and for the record, if one reads some of Hemmingway’s essays, diary’s and his wife’s writings – one will discover that Ernest Hemmingway was far from the ‘masculine’ top-dog that people make him out to be. Among Hemingway’s fetishes, were dressing up in women’s clothing for his wife and being her ‘man-lady’, as well as diary entries professing to acts of beastiality with his pet cat Boise. Hemingway had great moments in his works, no doubt, but I tire of people associating him with ‘masculinity’ as a totem.

    But I digress.

    Bottom line is, men are handcuffed in today’s society. Literature is just one avenue that has been diluted (if not drowned) by feminism.

    It’s a shame.