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)