Apr 12

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

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."

tags:   | comments: 6   | Sphere It

Previous  |  Next

0 TrackBacks

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Comments: 6

  Mark Bracewell [04.12.06 05:43 PM]

Ah, but there's a flaw in the methodology: real men don't do interviews ;)

  Thomas Lord [04.12.06 10:15 PM]

Seriously, Mark. How did we get from a survey of a subset of people "many of whom have a professional connection with literature" to sweeping conclusions about people of a particular sexual gender? Studies like this do not report on the nature of sexual gender, nor do they deconstruct social gender -- they construct and reconstruct social gender. In this case, there isn't even much reconstruction -- more like reinforcement of existing constructions. How apt, then, that the authors here pimp themselves as reconstructing social gender in the form of marketing advice and compare themselves to something as socially misguided as selling gas guzzlers by appealing to a female (upper middle class) demographic.

"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." -- Jardine

Really? We need that? You got a frog in your pocket?

I can certainly understand Tim's interest in what amounts to a marketing demographics study. I'm just disgusted to see these news reports emerging out of the academy.

Anyone had any luck locating the actual paper on-line? Perhaps it has some redeeming quality that is going under-reported.


  rupert [04.13.06 12:45 AM]

I found this really interesting, not in the least because I myself read VERY little fiction and always thought myself an anomaly (I do read voraciously, just more how-to and news stuff).
Also, JD Salinger is one of my favorite authors (5 Short Stories, anyone?), as is Chipp Kidd's Cheese Monkey's, which also has to do with solitude. Based on my observations of myself and, eg: the women I work with, I suppose I found this research to be startlingly bang-on.
I find this to be an interesting entry angle into the psyche of the human mind, and how it changes over time (as do tastes; eg young Eric Clapton vs soft rock older Eric C).
The poster above is clearly an academic, of caucasian middle class background; forgive his stereotypical response.

  Thomas Lord [04.13.06 12:56 AM]


> The poster above is clearly an academic, of
> caucasian middle class background; forgive his
> stereotypical response.

I am not an academic. I am caucasian. I am not of a middle class background. I have read a lot of good philosophy and had many good discussions in that area.

It is not your place to beg forgiveness on my behalf, especially in the context of your ad hominem attack.


  acm [04.13.06 08:54 AM]

the "men's preferences" and "women's preferences" studies can't really be compared -- the groups and the questions asked were both completely different. it's just sad that the (forgone if misguided) conclusion has gotten so much coverage...

(if I come across the debunking link from a couple days back, I'll come back and post it here)

  Kevin Farnham [04.13.06 10:03 PM]

It is a curious study (when you click on the link). The fact that "men preferred books by dead white men" is noted as being quite interesting.

Meanwhile, the study felt that women are apparently quite different, most frequently citing "works by Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Margaret Atwood, George Eliot and Jane Austen."

Now.. isn't this description of the women's list comprised mostly of "dead white women"? (for non-English majors: George Eliot is a woman).

I (male, an English and Physics major, software engineer and technology writer) find the men's and women's lists of similar quality, though different in emphasis.

Post A Comment:

 (please be patient, comments may take awhile to post)

Type the characters you see in the picture above.