Why men need to read more novels

From GQ:

It’s bedtime, and me and my boyfriend are comparing notes on what we’re reading. I flick through the tomes on his e-reader; it’s science fiction, politics, or politics in space. He’s halfway through Kim Stanley Robinson, following hot on the heels of China Mieville, Vincent Bevins, and Ursula K. Le Guin. He peers over at the pages of my Jane Austen, and wrinkles his nose. “It’s all chitter-chatter.” I ask him to explain what he means. “Well, there’s just a lot of talking.” He hunkers back down with the expanse of Red Mars and leaves me in the drawing rooms of Mansfield Park.

It’s not that he’s a protein-powder-where-a-brain-should-be bro. Indeed, he bears all the hallmarks of a fully reconstructed man: NTS on the radio, bell hooks on the shelf, a yoga membership used at least thrice-weekly. But literary fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, history, or sci-fi, just doesn’t interest him. Why prod the nooks and crannies of the human heart, when you can terraform planets, or dig into the CIA’s murky psy-ops in Indonesia? And he’s not alone. According to Nielsen, despite men famously making up half the population, they only account for 20% of the audience for literary fiction.

Part of this may be down to the changing landscape of authors themselves. In 2000, men made up 61% of the UK’s top selling hardbacks. By 2020, this number fell to 43%. Where straight white men used to dominate bestseller charts and prize shortlists, now it is people of colour, LGBT people and women who are both at the avant-garde of writing and driving sales in stores. Bernardine Evaristo, Paul Beatty, and Anna Burns have been lauded by the Booker committee for their narrative experimentation; meanwhile publishing houses across the country scour the internet for the next Sally Rooney. Commercially successful writing by women is, mercifully, no longer automatically designated as ‘chick-lit’. In recent years, the work of Marian Keyes has been critically reappraised; meanwhile Torrey Peters, and Candice Carty-Williams have garnered both plaudits and decent sales figures. Celebrity authors and those with big fan bases, like Richard Osman and Lee Child, may shift product, but creatively, straight white men haven’t kept up with those who’ve previously been consigned to the margins.

THE LITERARY CANON WILL SURVIVE HAVING TO HEAR MORE FROM ETHNIC MINORITIES, WOMEN, AND QUEER PEOPLE, AND A BIT LESS FROM MIDDLE-AGED UNI PROFESSORS

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t another article bemoaning the dearth of straight white men in contemporary literature. Culture changes faster than politics. Elected leaders look at Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and LGBT rights with hostility and/or befuddlement, but publishers and editors have seized the identitarian moment – also known as identity politics – with all the zeal of the recently converted. Elite tastemakers can’t deliver social equality, but they are attempting to commission a diverse cultural landscape into existence. And I reckon the literary canon will survive having to hear more from ethnic minorities, women, and queer people, and a bit less from middle-aged uni professors lamenting their employer’s updated guidance on sexual harassment.

While the material privileges of race, class, and gender remain stubbornly intact in society, the distribution of visibility has shifted meaning the caucasian Big Dogs of prestige literature can’t present themselves as the universal perspective anymore. Now that minorities and the historically marginalised have a voice in publishing, no one really needs Jonathan Franzen or Martin Amis to speak on behalf of humanity. Who are men when they don’t get to simply claim the status of godlike narrator? Aside from some notable exceptions – Sean Thor Conroe’s Fuccboi being one – male writers who aren’t otherwise talking from a marginalised perspective have largely abandoned the novel as a means to make sense of cultural change. Faced with the challenge of articulating themselves as themselves, it’s like straight white men have given up on the subtleties of literary fiction and said: “Fuck it – I’m doing stand up about cancel culture instead.”

THE CAUCASIAN BIG DOGS OF PRESTIGE LITERATURE CAN’T PRESENT THEMSELVES AS THE UNIVERSAL PERSPECTIVE ANYMORE

Rather than bemoan the loss of the male novelist, as other commentators have done, it might be useful to ask where exactly the male reader of novels has gone – if he even ever existed. Even the male literary titans still clinging on, such as Booker winners Julian Barnes and Yann Martel, have audiences which are 60% female. In truth, despite the historic dominance of men writing literary fiction, the idea of a male reader has been consistently derided throughout history. Even in the novel’s 19th Century heyday, reading fiction was a feminised activity – there was something a bit sexy about women who allowed books to activate their passions (Henry James wrote that one lady’s reputation for reading a lot “hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic.”)

But men who spend too much time indoors, reading novels and living their lives vicariously through the trials and tribulations of others, were widely considered cucks. A man’s literary interest had to be justified by ambition, linked to his masculine capacity for action, or contextualised in real-world exploration. They wander lonely as clouds, touch the heart of darkness, seek adventure on the road and end up getting dysentery. This gendered division of the imagination endured even through the social and political revolutions of the 20th Century. Karl Ove Knausgaard has spoken of the suffocating weight of gender expectations on his own experience of writing: “It put such doubt in me that I’ve never really recovered from it,” he said to The Observer. “I don’t talk about feelings but I write a lot about feelings. Reading, that’s feminine, writing, that’s feminine. It is insane, it’s really insane but it still is in me.”

Link to the rest at GQ and thanks to T. for the tip.

PG is definitely out of touch with the currents of contemporary society, at least as it exists in London or New York.

And that fact doesn’t bother him one whit.

He doesn’t know whether that sentiment has established itself in his psyche because of not ever caring about what or how they do things in London or New York and he’ll throw in Paris as well, or if there is some deeply-buried part of his brain that’s been adversely wired from birth.

Not everybody has to like serious books. PG likes some very serious books and is less-enamored with others. He read all the classic fiction in high school (not as assigned reading) college (50/50 assigned reading and non-assigned reading plus a dash of Cliff’s Notes) and enjoyed most while feeling so-so about some. He’s read some excellent fiction during the centuries since graduation, some serious, other not so much.

Although he has come to know a lot of authors, PG admits to not remembering the names of the authors for a great deal of the reading he currently does, fiction or non-fiction. He can always look the authors/books up either among his Amazon acquisitions or in his file at the local public library, available online, should he want to read more books they’ve written.

PG has a lot of very intelligent personal friends of various genders, but he doesn’t tend to talk about fiction with them. He’s happy to do so if they want to talk about fiction, but mostly they want to talk about other things.

And finally, PG has never read a book because he wants to impress anyone either positively or negatively and doesn’t think he would enjoy associating with someone who does.

PS: PG and Mrs. PG do talk about books quite a lot, but Mrs. PG is long-past judging PG by what he reads or doesn’t.

20 thoughts on “Why men need to read more novels”

  1. Some people enjoy reading.
    Some people don’t.
    Neither side *needs* to change. And they don’t.

    Reminds me of this bit of apocrypha:

    “Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed.”

    https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/01/17/marry/#:~:text=In%20September%201982%20the%20widely%20syndicated%20advice%20column,they%20will%20not.%20So%20each%20is%20inevitably%20disappointed.%E2%80%9D

  2. With all due respect to the author of the OP, I have acquired as much, or more, empathy for the “other” in my reading of the sci-fi that she has such contempt for as I have from reading the litfic she so loves.

    And I say this as a man who has read and enjoyed Pride and Prejudice.

  3. Larry Correia did one of his (in)famous “fiskings” of this article. I found it funny, but some would probably find it a bit offensive.

  4. I read the Correia fisking; I do think he should have made a distinction between literature — Jane Austen — and the “litra-cha” that the OP champions. Jane Austen did not do navel-gazing, which is one reason among many I love her.

    I truly do not understand the crusade OP is on; why does she care that her boyfriend doesn’t read the same books she reads? Why is she so narrowminded that she doesn’t try and read the books he is reading? Does she not like that scene in “R.E.D.” where Bruce Willis notes what romance book Mary Louise Parker is reading so he can have a conversation with her about it? Shoot, I looked up the book just so I can find out if it was an Easter egg, but it turns out “Love’s Secret Savage” wasn’t real. Then again, the OP probably only watches documentaries or something like that.

  5. Why prod the nooks and crannies of the human heart, when you can terraform planets, or dig into the CIA’s murky psy-ops in Indonesia?

    1. Because the nooks and crannies of the human heart are boring.
    2. Men have zero desire to become like the OP.
    3. Psy-Op plots are cool.
    4. What’s literary fiction?

    • 4- Small stories for small minds? 😉

      SF are big stories for open minds. As in “what if”, “if this goes on”, “if only”, or just for fun.
      Terraforming planets and building new societies is fun, for authors and *readers*.
      Never underestimate the value of fun.

      Besides, nothing says you can’t examine the nooks and crannies of the human heart in SF. It was done as far back as the 60’s:

      https://th.bing.com/th/id/R.3068b02956505ef04ad3d0c3596d56f1?rik=iRCfByyVZlIiqw&pid=ImgRaw&r=0

      😀

      • Explorers contemplating the galaxy, or middle-aged professors contemplating the scrambled eggs they move around their plates?

        • According to the OP, you’re behind the times. 😉
          The tweed wrapped professor mid-life crisis is out, coming of life stories from the diverse are in. No big change, except who gets tbe payday loan…

  6. This is another essay that goes in my Story folder, about the woman who marries men for their libraries. As she finishes a library, she moves on to the next husband with the next library.

    From her comments, I predict that the OP will move on soon as well.

    Thanks…

    • Wait. What kind of libraries are we talking about here? The ones with neo-classical frescoes and coffered ceilings? Or the ceilings can be painted Michelangelo-style, whichever works best for the aesthetic. And you need ladders to get up to the top shelves of the bookcases? Is it at all possible that some of these libraries have secret rooms accessible only by pulling the right book from the bookshelf?

      When you write this story, you must go all out with the descriptions. You really don’t have to work too hard to explain the woman’s motivations to me. Although, if she is on the hunt for a special manuscript that leads to a treasure, that may make her seem not-villainous to other people 🙂

      In college I worked at my school’s library. I regret not sneaking into the rare manuscript room. I didn’t go in there, mainly because I didn’t have a specific book I was hunting for to make getting into trouble worthwhile.

      • Oh, I like that. The Story so far is much more mundane. I went by the literal account in the original essay[1] and am building on that.

        For a story like what you are talking about, read Codex by Lev Grossman. He goes into detail about the history of books.

        I need to read that again.

        Thanks…

        [1] I Was a Teenage Illiterate
        https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/books/review/Schine-t.html

        Imagine the satisfaction, the exhilaration when, not long after, I stood as a newlywed surveying my husband’s bookcase. It reached from one wall to the other, from floor to ceiling. It had been culled and collected by a person of know­ledge and taste, a product of Columbia’s core curriculum, and . . . it was arranged alphabetically. I started at the upper left hand corner (Jane Austen! J. R. Ackerley!) and worked my way to the lower right (Waugh! Wodehouse! Woolf!). I got to read “Huckleberry Finn” for the first time when I was 35 years old. And when I eventually moved on to a different partner, there waiting for me was a new bookcase full of other books. I read “My Antonia” for the first time last month. That is a kind of grace.

        • Ah, gotcha. The woman in that link is … weird. But I can see how she inspired you. Thanks for the book recommendation 🙂

  7. The author clearly missed the whole “men are from mars, women are from venus’ thing. Why do they want men to read and think just like women? Each has something they desire and enjoy. If they don’t mesh, well that’s part of the diverse tapestry of humanity. Some men like literary fiction, some find it akin to having your teeth pulled without anesthetic. Equivalent issues for some women and non-lit books.
    Just be happy they’re reading SOMETHING. Too many people want things read to them or served as video, they’re becoming darn near illiterate.

  8. Am I the only one who was glad she was referring to him as a boyfriend? The guy has made a bad enough mistake to date this man hater who apparently wants a ‘reconstructed man.’ At least he hasn’t doubled down on the mistake by typing the knot.

    My recommendation to the boyfriend, run for the hills and leave the yoga membership behind. I’m not sure what bell hooks on the shelf means either but I’d suggest leaving those behind also. I’m sure he’ll be much happier without a man hating spouse and hopefully he can find one that doesn’t treat him simply as arm candy that exists to simply check every proper box so she can impress her snobby friends.

    • She might be rich.
      (He might be biding his time: marriage followed a trip to the legal cleaners. With the OP as exhibit A for spousal abuse.) 😀

    • “bell hooks on a shelf”

      Means books by an author named Bell Hooks, who spells her name lowercase. No, I don’t know why. It’s a thing. A thing she does.

      Solid advice. Never be with people who want to tweak you, fix you, or surgically remove your personality.

      • That’s it. Case closed. Anyone who mentions bell hooks in lower case should be dumped immediately. Mask up and get the hazmat suit. It’s Literapox.

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