The OF Blog: An 800 lb. Gorilla in the Room: Men and Reading

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

An 800 lb. Gorilla in the Room: Men and Reading

Interesting Huffington Post article from last week called Why Men Don't Read:  How Publishing is Alienating Half the Population.  After reading it, I couldn't help but to find myself somewhat in agreement with the major points stated.  While I could and would quibble about other contributing causes that do affect how males in general tend to approach reading (and particularly, the reading of fiction), there is quite a bit of truth in that piece.

More and more, reading has been pitched lately as a social experience, contrary to previous centuries' emphasis on a solitary approach.  There are book clubs, whether they be at someone's house, in a library, on TV shows like Oprah's, or online.  Then there are sites like Goodreads and Shelfari that seem to be oriented to the notion of pitching one's book collection in a nice, graphic-intensive format.  These are all fine and dandy, but...are most of these developed with men in mind?

For the book clubs, almost certainly its popularity is not due to males embracing the trend (although there certainly are quite a few men who are willing and do participate in these sorts of social discussions).  As a way of encouraging "average" readers, particularly females, to participate, book clubs have been a rousing success.  Companies provide their own "starter questions" at the back of several books that tend to be chosen for these discussions and on the whole, most everyone is well pleased with the results.  But do these appeal to the "average" male reader?

Since it is difficult at best to define what constitutes the "average" male reader, the only data that I could even think of analyzing would be the books purchased for these book clubs and who they are marketed towards.  As the Huffington piece notes, due to market perceptions that males don't read (especially fiction, if one takes the NPR piece linked there at near-face value), there really isn't much pitched to males.  There are very few Louis L'Amour types out there today.  Maybe Cormac McCarthy could be marketed as such, but pay closer attention to how even McCarthy has been pitched in recent years and questions may arise about how he's been marketed as well.

Speculative fiction, along with comics/graphic novels and some historical fiction, may be one of the few genres of fiction remaining today where there is a near-representative ratio of female and male readers.  Yet look at what gets discussed as an aggregate.  The majority of the blogs on my blogroll are edited by male readers.  It is a bias of which I am acutely conscious, but part of that reason is that despite the hundreds of wonderful female authors that I have read and reviewed in recent years, I find myself not being drawn to several of the discussions and books reviewed by some female bloggers on their sites.  I am not saying that those books or those bloggers are inferior, but rather that the books being discussed, particularly the "new" urban fantasies (define that as you may) with the paranormal romance elements, are not intended for readers such as myself.  Just as I would not expect (hope, perhaps, but not expect) for the majority of female readers to enjoy tales where males struggle to find themselves in a strange world, it is difficult, it seems, for the majority of male readers to understand the appeal of female coming-of-age stories and romances.

It's perhaps a lamentable trend in literature, these divisions into "male" and "female" spheres.  But as more and more of the book buyers are women and more and more of the marketed is oriented toward females, where does that leave the male reader?  Should males have to adapt in some fashion to the changing socio-cultural climes?  Perhaps.  Should there be more "outreach" done to keep males interested in what's being published? As around 48% or so of the global population, one would hope that might be the case.  Is this trend part of a more global trend when it comes to educational rates and feelings of happiness and security?  A plethora of polls over the past decade would seem to support this assumption.

But it'll never be easy to change all this.  That 800 lb. gorilla is still in the room, breathing down our necks.  What should we do about it?


Seak (Bryce L.) said...

End all sports and tv?

I think this also has to do with the "it's cool to be dumb" phenomenon, which is I think more pronounced with males at least in this situation.

Chad Hull said...

What should we do about it?

Who is, 'we?' You and I? I guess we do something... nothing... hell I don't know. The Huffington article and yourself reject the assertion that men don't read--I agree with that rejection.

What seems to be argued is books aren't marketed to men--your second paragraph. With the exception of book clubs, all the other listed examples are businesses, with P&L charts and budgets.

The publishing business isn't known for it dynamic, evolving business model. They, the industry, have found a method--however stagnant--that works; they market to that niche almost exclusively. I don't think that means they are doing anything, 'wrong.' Willfully ignoring a potential huge segment of their market perhaps, but I can't blame them for walking the straight and narrow path when it almost guarantees success as opposed to what is perhaps seen as unproven potential.

I hate the fact that both you and Pinter feel you have to include that 'CYA' paragraph in your comments as to not offend any female readers. I understand it; I don't like it. People today--both genders--are way to sensitive. We are allowed to have preferences without being branded a sexist, a racist or any other epithet. I'm a staunch heterosexual; surely homosexuals can't take offense to that and if they do they need to stop reading into beyond what is written (Sorry for the digression.)

It seems like an industry problem, one that could be explored to big gains, but will probably continue to be ignored for the sake of financial security.
What should we do about it?

Not a damn thing.

Larry said...

Good points, Chad, and yes, upon re-reading it, I did wince a bit at the defensiveness of some of my comments there. But that "we" I think can be more proactive than just keeping on keeping on. I don't know if there should be some sort of loose-knit organization that highlights key demographics (again, that damnable business approach!) that are being overlooked.

And like Bryce notes in passing, I also feel this is part of a cultural shift that leaves many feeling alienated from the commodification of anti-intellectualism. I know I certainly don't buy a lot of products almost solely because of how demeaning I find several of their commercials. But perhaps that's a topic for another time?

PeterWilliam said...

I had to comment after reading Chad's response. Chad nailed it. The industry doesn't seem capable of sound and/or successful business strategies. I can't define the connection, but intuitively sense it, and agree that excessive levels of sociological self-edit does nothing to illuminate, illustrate or navigate the issue.

Damn, there's always something good here. Larry, you're somewhat like the Yankees. I want to "hate on" the site, but as I said, there's always something good here.

May your overfloweth in squirrels.

Michelle said...

I find your comparison between social and solitary experience highly interesting. And I must say, for me reading is still solitary. Yes, I do love to talk about books with my friends, I might blog about a book I loved/hated, but I can't find any joy in the internet's attempt to make my reading social. I've tried book forums, I've tried stuff like goodreads and I've tried book clubs. It doesn't make sense to me to the point where I feel either bored or stressed.

jblazier said...

Intersting articles, both yours and Pinters. Like a lot of men I've always been a reader and come from a long line of readers. To be honest, if you're not reading Scifi or Fantasy, you may have a hard time finding a "dude-centric" book. That's a shame. I find myself browsing the book aisle at my local kroger or walmart, and find that the books I'm interested in might occupy 1/20th of the shelf space. I highly doubt that represents the book buying demographic.

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