Men Prefer Angst

The Sydney Morning Herald has an interesting story about differences in reading choices between men and women: “Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins, from the University of London’s Queen Mary College, interviewed 500 men – many of whom had a professional connection with literature – about the novels that had changed their lives. ” The conclusions of the study include not just the type of fiction that appeals to each sex, but also that most men don’t read fiction at all in their middle years — despite being the official arbiters of quality via fiction prizes such as the Booker — and the authors speculate whether there ought to be a revolution in publishing akin to the minivan revolution that happened when Detroit realized that women were the actual buyers of the family car. For those of you who like lists of books (the posting I wrote on top library holdings got a lot of readers), the story includes a list of the top twenty novels selected by men and women.

Here are some choice quotes from the story:

THE novel that means most to men is about indifference, alienation and lack of emotional response. The novel that means most to women is about deeply held feelings and a struggle to overcome circumstances and passion…

The most frequently named book was Albert Camus’s The Outsider, followed by J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The Men’s Milestone Fiction project, commissioned by the Orange Prize for Fiction and London’s Guardian newspaper, followed on from the same team’s research on women’s favourite novels last year….

“We found that men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life’s journey, as consolers or guides, as women do,” Jardine said. “They read novels a bit like they read photography manuals.”

Women readers used much-loved books to support them through difficult times and emotional turbulence. They tended to employ them as metaphorical guides to behaviour, or as support and inspiration.

“The men’s list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading,” she said. Ideas touching on isolation and “aloneness” were strong among the men’s “milestone” books.

The researchers also found that women preferred old, well-thumbed paperbacks, whereas men leant towards the stiff covers of hardback books.

She was also surprised, she said, “by the firmness with which many men said that fiction didn’t speak to them”. For instance, the historian David Starkey said: “I fear fiction, of any sort, has never worked on me like that … Is that perhaps interesting in itself?”

…Most of the men cited books they had read as teenagers, and many of them stopped reading fiction while young adults, only returning to it in late middle age.

Jardine said the research suggested the literary world was run by the wrong people. “What I find extraordinary is the hold the male cultural establishment has over book prizes like the Booker, for instance, and in deciding what is the best. This is completely at odds with their lack of interest in fiction. On the other hand, the Orange Prize for Fiction [which honours women authors] is still regarded as ephemeral….On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction. This should have some impact on the book trade. There was a moment when car manufacturers realised that it was women who bought the family car, and the whole industry changed. We need fiction publishers – many of whom are women – to go through the same kind of recognition.”