Where Are All the Boys?

Recently the site Reading Group Guides very kindly did a giveaway of 100 copies of the galley of A GOOD AMERICAN.  They published the list of winners, and this list gave me real pause for thought.

Of the 100 winners, two were men.

Put another way (showing off my maths skillz here), 98% of the winners were women (unless there are a whole bunch of dudes out there called Amy.)  Now, I realize that the fact that the galley contest was run on a website devoted to reading groups may have skewed the numbers a little, since guys apparently don’t go in for that sort of thing much (although I would like to know why not.)  But 98%?  Really?

All of which leads to the obvious question: where the hell are all the boys?

Now, the idea that women read more than men isn’t exactly news.  When I mentioned this to a friend yesterday, she sent me this very interesting NPR article (a couple of years old now) which discussed some of the possible reasons why women read more than men, and suggests that men constitute as little as 20% of the fiction market.

The fact that there is a website dedicated to posting pictures of men reading books tells you what a rare breed male readers have apparently become.  It’s all a bit depressing.

There’s plenty of evidence of the phenomenon closer to home, too.  Of all the people good enough to write a pre-publication review of A GOOD AMERICAN on the goodreads site, only one has been a man.  And yes, almost all of the people who have put the book on their “to be read” list are women.  I also realized, thinking about all this, that in the past several months, precisely two men have posted comments on this blog.  (Thank you, Terry and Christopher.)  Does this mean that no men read this blog?  Well, I don’t think so.  I think they just choose not to comment.  Which is fine, although I’m curious as to why that is.  Now, I realize that asking readers to post a comment on a blog explaining why they don’t post comments on blogs would appear to be an exercise in futility, so instead I shall make this simple plea: if you’re a bloke, and you’re reading this, please wave at the rest of us from the comment box.  Are you there?  Or just shy?

And if anyone else has any theories about why men appear to be so reluctant to read novels, please do share.  (I’m skeptical about the “mirror neurons” theory in the NPR piece.)  Have you experienced or witnessed a similar gender divide?

Comments 20

  1. The article is correct to a certain extent. I personally read a lot but rarely do I read fiction. When I do read fiction, it is usually science (dystopian is my favorite) or humorist (love me some Twain and Thurber). And my favorite author was a perfect mix of both, a one Douglas Adams. The guys I know also read quite a bit, but they read the same kinds of things I do. I am usually listening to an audio book on my 2 hour commute and I have a book that I am reading.
    Like everything human, reading and writing are what you get out of it. Comments are written because you feel like you are getting something from it. For some that is a connection with the author or clarification of your own perspective by writing your thoughts. You, Alex, get something out of it because that is what you do, write and read. You breathe it. I am the same way with technology. That is my work and my passion that extents into all aspects of life. Like reading the Singularity is Near and just listing to the Steve Jobs biography. I do get something out of reading those books.
    Just one more thought about the lack of writers on you blog, or any blog. Most folk’s fear of looking a fool and writing to a writer might be intimidating. I know that I am a shitty writer with all kinds of errors. Fortunately I know you and I know you do not lay down judgment, so I am free to spew out my thoughts. Anyway, I got to get back to work, but those are my musings. Thanks for reading.

  2. Almost all my male friends who don’t read say they’d love to read if only they had the time. I have a hard time buying it, because a) their wives often work, do most of the cleaning, care for their children, and still have time to read and b) they have the time–they just choose to spend it doing things other than reading.

    Most of my guy friends spend some or almost all their free time playing video games. I see some playing games with their sons and find it discouraging. Not that I have anything against video games and people choosing to spend their free time how they please, but it’s sad seeing what’s become a habit with some people I know passed on to their kids. I grew up around video games, but I also grew up around books.

    I was raised by my mother and older sister–both avid readers. When I visited my father each summer, there were always new books waiting for me. Later, when my mom remarried, a step father I wasn’t crazy about at least came with even more books. His collection of John Cheever short stories was probably the first adult fiction I ever read. While I played video games and was always the last kid on the block to come in from playing outside, when I saw my big sister reading John Irving’s The World According to Garp, I wanted to read it, too.

    Quite a few of my male friends who don’t read came from households where the family watched TV together and didn’t have shelves of books on hand. I also watched a lot of TV growing up, but I always read. Thinking about it, though, so many of my friends back then didn’t really read. And now that they’re fathers, their sons follow their lead and don’t really read. The male friends I have are all smart and caring people–the kind of people you’d expect to read. But they don’t.

    Then there’s my neighbor, the self-professed redneck in his ever-present NASCAR t-shirt and hat. Everyday, I see him on his balcony reading. Every couple days, it’s a new book. He reads more than I read! He’s a busy guy who loves TV and getting out and doing things, but he always makes time to read. He’s the kind of guy my father would have hung out with, and my father and his close friends were all readers. Their days were spent in hot warehouses fixing heavy machinery, but they read and talked about what they read.

    I only have a few male friends with whom I talk about books. When we all get together, there’s talk about TV, movies, video games, and other geeky things. If reading comes up, it’s comic book related. If reading fiction comes up, it doesn’t last long, and it usually ends with most of the group wishing they had more time to read. At least with my male friends, they want to read, but don’t.

    I can’t remember how I first stumbled upon your blog, but A GOOD AMERICAN sounded like my kind of thing, so I set up your site in my blog reader so I can see how things progress with the release. (In fact, I took a break from typing this to go pre-order the hardback on Amazon.) I may not always reply, but I always read–and I look forward to February when I can read A GOOD AMERICAN because I take being part of that 20% of the fiction market seriously.

  3. I’m a bloke who reads and enjoys this blog and has posted a comment here (admittedly more than several months ago). I love to read. I spend approximately 10-12 hours each week reading literary fiction by authors of both genders. I don’t belong to a reading group for two reasons. One is that I have too many demands on my time: family, writing my own novels, and reading the works of others. Another is that the groups I belonged to long ago spent more time gossiping than discussing that month’s book. They may have been aberrations, however.

    Count me among the men looking forward to purchasing “A Good American” on February 7. We are the 2%! (Although I suspect the number will be higher.)

  4. I think this goes much deeper than gender. There is something deeply personal in men as far as what they read is concerned. For instance, I come from a household where we were surrounded by books of all sorts–fiction, nonfiction, you name it– and in multiple languages at that! I soaked it all in like the proverbial sponge, but my brother read very little. Currently he reads the sports page of the Washington Post, and some nonfiction; rarely, a novel recommended by me or a friend.

    My husband also came from a family surrounded by books. But…he reads everything– fully a third of the books stacked around this house are his! Our son will read anything he can get his hands on–his current favorite genres are science fiction and adventure. My brother-in-law is a voracious reader of mystery fiction, i.e., John Dunning, P.D. James, etc.

    Very interesting topic; definitely not a clean-cut issue.

  5. Definitely not a clean-cut issue. Even though I’m an avid reader (and writer) many of my male friends are not.

    BUT, I’d caution we don’t make logical errors in tallying up our testosterone-readers. My anecdotal evidence doesn’t clear the waters, and let’s be honest – I don’t know ALL that many more women who are avid readers. Also, I think there’s been quite a bit of evidence that as a general population, men are much less likely to engage in online social media than women (could explain a dearth of Good Reads to-reads, for example).

    That’s not to say that that millions of invisible, avidly reading men are hiding with unicorns where marketers just can’t tally them up.

    Certainly, everyone has their own motivations and issues. Time, money, personality, etc. I do wonder, sometimes, how much of men not purchasing books is partially the publishing industry’s penchant for pushing only what’s hot. And if men aren’t reading, we’re going to see a lot more YA and fiction geared toward women on the shelves. Seems like that could be a terrible cycle!

  6. i try hard to not think of things in terms of … ” … men are this way and women are a different way.” … still, i know that women are more likely to read than are men, especially fiction.
    without checking the stats i think there are as many men writers out there as women writers ( if we don’t count the mass of romance literature on the shelves and airways. … which brings up another question: why is there not a parallel genre? ) … so, why are not as many men readers? i don’t know.
    personally, i ALWAYS have three or four works of fiction going at any one time. usually something serious ( Cutting For Stone or Somebody Knows My Name ) … something semi-trashy ( Elmore Leonard, etc. ) … a short-story collection in the john. i do know that i enjoy a good book as much a my wife or daughter like what they read.
    growing up on a dairy farm, my dad often yelled at me, “… there’s work to do. you don’t have time to read.” … it didn’t take! … TEH

  7. Well Alex, you’ve done it….look at all the dudes on here! I am now the only woman commenting. No problem with it–as a journalist and broadcaster, I’m used to being the only female in the crowd…..
    Nathanael, it’s interesting you should bring up YA lit; my 14-year-old son is, figuratively speaking, gobbling up Rick Riordan’s work, which can appeal to both guys and girls. He’s also a huge fan of Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games) and Anthony Horowitz–those may or may not be YA in some people’s categories, but he gets on the wait list at the library for those authors every chance he can! Get ’em young, keep ’em going…..and if they read, they will, eventually write; not necessarily as novelists, but as good, able writers in whatever profession they choose.

    Because of the people I tend to hang with, I know lots of women AND men who read; their taste in books is all over the place, and I have learned of many different authors from listening to them. Perhaps that’s why I need more bookshelves……

  8. Don’t underestimate people’s hesitation about writing to a writer: it is intimidating. Also, we are increasingly time-poor as we get older, with full-time jobs and families — and let’s face it, blokes aren’t the best at multitasking. I never bother with anything I have to log into, or fill out or click on more than once. I also think a lot of blokes tend to shy away from reflective or relational stuff — stuff we can’t solve by sharing information or facts — for reasons I suspect we don’t fully understand. Unless we’re directly involved in the subject matter — as with a group of hobbyists for instance — a typical male response to a male friend’s blog is probably to give it a nod and say “Fair play to yer, mate” and to be honest that’s not the most edifying comment.

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    Thanks so much for all the interesting comments – and thank you in particular to the guys who haven’t commented before. It’s great to hear from you and welcome aboard.

    Of course it’s inevitable that when one considers topics like this one quickly descends into pernicious generalizations about these matters, but nevertheless there are perhaps kernels of truthiness which can be winkled out for our collective edification about all this. So with that caveat out of the way…

    I think the whole fiction/nonfiction dichotomy when it comes to male reading tastes seems well-established, both by empirical surveys and also simply anecdotally, even just within these comments. As for why it should be the case, I am stumped. Why would men be more willing to read a story just because it happens to be true? Still scratching my head about this.

    But I agree completely with one strand of thought that has risen here in Christopher and Mary’s comments (and also in comments on Facebook): how a child is introduced to books and encouraged to read throughout his or her youth will have a pivotal effect on whether or not they read when they reach adulthood.
    And yes: in the end, that will have a greater bearing on this question than gender ever will.

    I also agree that men appear to be less willing to engage in the social media brouhaha, and that this might make some of the observations noted more acute than they may actually be in reality. (Let’s hope so.) It’s not just online, though – I can’t remember the last time I had a serious conversation about books with any of my male friends. But I discuss books with my female friends all the time. What’s up with that? Is it because we men are only supposed to talk about grilling meat and football? Or is that just a Midwestern thing?

    (By the way, Chris Allen – if you like dystopian fiction, you might enjoy READY PLAYER ONE, by Ernest Cline. I just finished it yesterday.)

    Thanks, all! Keep the comments coming!

  10. Alex, as you know I am both reader and writer. But for some reason I would actually rather talk about grilling meat. I dislike literary discussion, but I like grilling meat. What you have identified is a trend. By definition, a trend is something general. Trends are necessarily explained by general ideas and point to a general truth. That’s what they are, that’s all they are and they ain’t no good for anything else. In general, men don’t want to comment on your blog. My suspicion is that, in general, men find it all a bit girly. What’s up with that? Gender conditioning, my friend. Don’t shoot the messenger.

  11. Reading, and writing, fiction here. But do I share that on a regular basis? Of course not. Sharing is caring – and real men don’t care.

  12. Well looky there, Alex … you got some testosterone-backed responses! Great post and I recall having read that NPR article when it first came out. Fascinating comments. My husband is among those who only reads (but reads voraciously) short articles about technology, web articles, etc. He’s read ONE book of fiction in his entire life, and it wasn’t my first attempt at a novel, either! 😉

  13. My final 2 cents (OK, 5 cents for the sake of inflation):
    Could it be a matter of –lacking a better term–“vulnerability”? That non-fiction is mostly preferred because it’s “just the facts”; but, getting into a novel, or short story, or biography, et.al., might allow the reader to identify rather too closely with a character and also make him perhaps feel vulnerable? And guys, in general, are not “supposed” to feel that way? Just a thought.
    Oh, and for any that are interested, my excruciatingly manly husband and I have been discussing the merits of Hemingway’s writing in “The Sun Also Rises”….
    Excellent topic–I have learned a great deal today.

  14. Interesting post, Alex.

    I tend to get your posts via my Outlook RSS feed at 11:45-ish in the evening as I’m about to doze off onto my keyboard and cleaning out my inboxes in preparation for another day of data overload. Within the last 24 hours, though, I decided to try Google Reader, and I like it.

    I’m very much looking forward to the launch of The Good American and reading it. My preferences probably fall a little more on the fiction side, but I read both fiction and nonfiction (not nearly as much as I like, as I’m inundated with blogs and emails and social media, which requires reading, though it is hardly literature). Most of what I read that is not for pleasure is work-related.

    I’m not a fan of the men vs. women arguments, typically, but sometimes there is some truth there. At any rate, I read and think about your posts often, even if I don’t pass them on or comment. Please continue writing! I’m sure your book will be a hit, if your blog is any indication.

  15. I have so often wondered this same thing — especially when I look at the numbers on Twitter and in my blog’s comments. That said, in my family, my husband and my son (young adult) both read absolutely constantly, everything and anything they can get their hands on. However, my husband rarely will order a book and I don’t think even has a clue what goodreads is! I’m not disagreeing with NPR at all, but I’ve also heard that women do most of the book (and other) shopping…. hopefully that’s part of it! And my husband also reads A LOT of blogs but has never left a comment! (p.s. I sadly completely missed the giveaway on goodreads. DARN IT!!)

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  17. I have two reasons that I believe that men like fiction. I am breaking up my thoughts into two comments. I am basing my opinion on the fact that I read the article from NPR and it described me pretty well. So describing my feelings on the matter might explain the desire to read non-fiction over most fiction (again with caveat that I love humor and sci-fi).

    I see it as character development. I find comfort and gratification knowing the characters in a book. When it comes to non-fiction with history and biology, I know the characters. Franklin, Earhart, Wright, Grant, Parks, Jobs, I know these people already. When I read a book about them, I want to know them better. They are friends that I want to get a deeper understanding of. I want to know that these giant figures had humanity to them. I want to know there struggles. And because I know them already, I do not have to tip toe into the shallow end the pool getting a feel for the water, I can go right for the diving board. The extra bonus of non-fiction is that if I want to walk the rooms of Franklin’s print shops, or see a Lighting Electra that Earhart flew, or see the field that the Wright first took to powered flight, or walk the battlefields where Grant and Lee walked, or see the bus that Parks decided she had enough and sat in the front, or hold in my hand every day the device that Jobs envisioned having the world in my pocket; I can go and see and feel these artifacts and places. I can get deeper into their thoughts. Mind enriching vs. soul enriching; I will let you decide.

    Fiction, especially in a stand-alone novel, does not work well for me. I come in not knowing these folks. I have to invest time in getting to know them, and then everything ties up in the end, and I will not really get to know them again. There is no investment for me. The reason I will read “Good American” and why I read “Wonderful You” is that I got to know the author a bit better.

    There is a big exception of me and character development and novels. When you look at a great novel series, like Harry Potter, the Dark Tower, the Hitchhiker 5 part Trilogy, Lord of the Rings, these devote an entire novel of the series to character development. Indeed, to me some of the best reading in these series is the development. Then the subsequent books are getting that deeper understanding of the characters. Again, after the first book defining the characters, I can dive right into each subsequent book already knowing them a people I love and care about. I again want to see more of their humanity, their development, and I grow with them.

    This is my own experience but I believe it is getting a deeper understanding of people and things that leads me, as a guy, to seek out non-fiction over fiction.

  18. Wow Alex! Way to post a topic that gets some good discussion. I am going to have to do that on my own blog…..why are all the teachers women? Oh I digress……

    I have some different thoughts on this. As a researcher rather than a fiction writer, I have to bring in some research on gender differences. Girls usually begin talking before boys their same age. As children age, the language difference remains fairly consistent. Women, in general spend more time talking than men.

    When you overlay those data on data from blogs, it may be easier to understand why more women post.

    Of course this is all just my theory on the issue. I, personally, do not think that women read more than men. We just like to talk about what we are reading, have read, or want to read more than men. As Richard put….he prefers to talk about grilling meat.

    I am one of those women who have your book marked to read. I suspect that Norm, my partner (who is also a reader) will read it when I finish.

  19. Mary’s point about whether or not men feel strange identifying with characters and feeling vulnerable is interesting, and something I’m sure applies to some guys. Before Anne Ursu started writing YA books, she wrote a couple adult books that I really liked. Even my guy friends who enjoy reading and appreciate good writing couldn’t understand why I liked Spilling Clarence and the Disapparation of James. One friend went so far to say I liked something a step above chick lit.

    The neighbor I mentioned who always reads…everything is James Patterson, Clive Cussler, and Tom Clancy. While not all my male friends who read necessarily read adventure fiction or stuff geared toward men, there’s usually a sharp edge to the things they read. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t want to feel vulnerable, because most of my male friends aren’t concerned with machismo, but there are books I’ve picked up when visiting my mom just because it was something new to read that my male friends wouldn’t touch.

    Most male readers I know lean toward genre fiction or something ongoing, like Chris Allen mentions. Most male friends I have who read look at a return on their investment as though they were still at work; they want novels with a big payoff, or something they can depend on, and with the exception of mentioning books in passing or sharing plots, they would never sit down in a book club setting and discuss books.

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