Are Novels Just for Girls?


I ran across this quote today, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it:

‘Reading groups, readings, breakdowns of book sales all tell the same story: when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.’

Ian McEwan

I didn’t know the context of it, so I didn’t know what point he was trying to make. Are women the only readers of novels? Are novels written for women? This could be taken in many ways, and I’m not saying I find anything necessarily offensive in it, I just thought it was curious. I had not heard about statistics tracking novels and women and reading groups and so on.

Anyway, I was puzzled enough to search out the source of this quote to try to get some context. It turned out to be a short article in The Guardian, from September, 2005.

An interesting attempt to give away redundant books turned into a small social experiment. Here’s another small bit of it:

Every young woman we approached – in central London practically everyone seems young – was eager and grateful to take a book. Some riffled through the pile murmuring, “Read that, read that, read that …” before making a choice. Others asked for two, or even three.

The guys were a different proposition. They frowned in suspicion, or distaste. When they were assured they would not have to part with their money, they still could not be persuaded. “Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks mate, but no.” Only one sensitive male soul was tempted.

Perhaps it was just the crowd that tends to gather at lunch outdoors, and I know from experience that young men aren’t great readers. Well, Evil Son #1 is. I buy him books for Christmas, birthdays, etc. which he happily accepts and digs into. I even alerted him to a book signing at Powells a couple years ago by a favorite author of his and his friends, R. A. Salvatore. A group of them went, bought books which were duly signed by said author, and a good time was had by all. I was sorry I hadn’t gone with them, even though I’ve never read his books. He sounded like he is quite a character and was very friendly and chatty. Evil Son #2 sort of lost his taste for reading at an early age, much to my dismay. I keep hoping someday he’ll run across one of those books that creates new synaptic pathways in the brain, leaving you forever altered. He’s young yet, it could happen.

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19 thoughts on “Are Novels Just for Girls?

  1. I love books, and I’m almost a man.

    Books provide me with a (very)tenuous link to sanity via guys like Charles Bukowski and even Victor Hugo. But I guess reading simply isn’t seen as a macho activity.

    Until you convince a lot of young guys that literature is a class A narcotic with mind altering capabilities that can take you away from the drudgery of life to a better place without giving you HIV or killing you from an overdose and is certainly a heck of a lot cheaper and healthier than blanking or escaping from ‘reality’ via booze or other drugs it will continue to be largely populated by women.

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  2. Eesh, you’re harder on guys than I was afraid I was being! 🙂 Sadly, I think there is truth in what you say. Most young guys would rather be out rock-climbing or riding their motorcycles or engaging in some extreme sport that endangers their lives than sitting around reading. If they survive all that, they may become readers when they mature a little 😉

    Maybe we read to know we’re not the only crazy ones, or at least there’s someone out there that’s the same brand of crazy we are.

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  3. Here’s my selective, most unscientific sampling:
    I live with a man who holds an advanced degree in education, but has never read a novel that wasn’t an assignment. However, he is the spawn of a man who was a voracious reader of both novels and non-fiction. (one of Mart’s last library book selections was “How to Blow Your Own Glass,” and he and I used to talk books all the time.) But he must see some value to it as he does encourage the family’s book habit.

    With this man we spawned 2 children: one only reads science text books as required (although she will own up to reading trashy tabloids) and the other is just like her mom and grandpa. I don’t think gender is the key dividing line, but it is interesting how there doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground to fiction readers: either you do or you don’t.

    I don’t think the population at large thinks of reading as a very engaging, “sexy” activity (boy, are they wrong!!). I think Mike’s post is spot-on….it takes a real man to crack open a book.

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  4. I’m with you, Rosie, reading is sexy. And as for being a mind-altering substance/experience, it certainly can be. It is probably the BEST escape from reality. When I finish a good book, I can dwell on it for days or weeks like a hangover, or a half-remembered dream you can’t get out of your head.

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  5. Hmmm… Thinking about the men in my world. Of my two teenage sons, one reads voraciously, the other only when forced. My significant other loves novels and is my best reader. Of the two men I work with on a daily basis, both are versatile and avid readers. My brother reads. My dad wasn’t much of a reader, but even he could occasionally be found with a Zane Grey. My young friend Joe reads, a lot, but then he’s also a writer. So, I’d have to disagree on the whole personal experience front.

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  6. I wonder what statistics Ian McEwan had seen that said it was all on women’s shoulders to keep the novel alive? And so many novelists are men, there must be men reading them. I don’t recall ever seeing my dad with a novel, or any book, but he was well-read in his field.

    I still think the results of the little book giveaway he attempted were due largely to the time of day, and where he chose to try it. I see guys in bookstores all the time.

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  7. I can’t immediately spot anything. A few of the items seem to go back into the nineties but there are some up to 2008. It seems more interested in literacy specifically than reading.

    Things like a research doc on whether low literacy increases the likelihood of committing crime.

    Bits on reading habits and people lying to impress – saying they have read a book so they look smarter at work or to a potential partner.

    I couldn’t spot much on Wikipedia either. I sometimes get the feeling that lot of this ‘research’ is tabloid research, in other words prejudice or assumption.

    Considering the tens of millions of sites there are supposed to be put there on the Net it can be damned hard work to find any decent intelligent ones.

    Lots of indecent ones, but that’s another matter.

    If I spot anything I’ll try to let you know. But don’t hold me to it – my reliability is hampered by my laziness.

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  8. Have you noticed that women like reading, and men like being read to? I mean it – among my students, a lot of the best male readers/writers turn out to be young guys who start to dig on the reading after we’ve talked about it a bit. I’m not sure what that’s about; maybe they don’t want to feel left out when they see the diligent readers (not to mention the cute young women) chatting it up.

    My husband read very little for the first 10 years or so of our marriage, which was odd, because he’s an articulate guy. A few years ago he took a creative writing class and I told him that every good writer is a conscientious reader – he thought this over, and now he reads quite a lot – novels, non-fiction, The New Yorker, you name it. He also writes short fiction occasionally. All this happened after he passed 40, so there’s definitely a chance for Son #2.

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  9. I had never noticed that about guys being read to. Maybe they just don’t realize how great reading can be until they see other people (the girls) getting excited about it. My boss is a great reader, as is his son. They each had their own copy of the final Harry Potter book over the summer! LOL He loaned me his copy after he read it.

    Evil Son #2 is young yet, so I have hope that someday the light will come on for him.

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  10. Hey D D,

    Here in Berlin, I see guys reading a *lot*. On the bus, on the u-bahn, in cafes…

    Some years back, I worked in a bookstore and we had tons of male customers. So frankly, I don’t give this article much credence.

    I did read somewhere that when Fonzie’s character got a library card on “Happy Days” that memberships to libraries greatly increased. I wonder if Sawyer on “Lost” has had such an affect. The show even has its own bookclub. 🙂

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  11. Hey Astro-Sis! Good to hear from you.

    Berlin?? Warum sind Sie aus Berlin?

    I’m glad to hear Mr. McEwan is reading the wrong surveys. That’s too funny about the Fonz, I never heard that but it wouldn’t surprise me. Incredibly I have never seen “Lost” so I don’t know who Sawyer is or what his connection to books might be. Good to know reading is still popular on the Continent. I still think McEwan was just approaching the wrong crowd with the books.

    How’s the writing going?

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  12. Thanks Astro-Sis! It’s good to be back from my offline retreat.

    I’ve been in Berlin a few years now. Reasons involving a member of the opposite sex. 🙂

    Oh, you should really watch Lost. You can watch free episodes on ABC.com.

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  13. Well shut my mouth! 🙂 I thought you were still a denizen of New England. How fun, I am jealous. ::::sigh:::: perhaps someday.

    I suspect Lost will go into syndication and be rerun for ages on the Sci-Fi Channel, or TBS or someplace judging by its popularity.

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  14. what a great conversation! Hi DD! i have been out of the loop for a bit, but have to add my thoughts- I think i read/heard somewhere once that women buy more novels, while men buy more non-fict, but I read both and most of my book budget goes to feeding my 12 yo son’s voracious habit [he reads faster than I and has to finish the whole series!] He is a third generation bookworm…my hubby thinks my booklove is a bit crazy…it probably is 😉

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  15. Hi Jan!

    Welcome back to the blogosphere 🙂 Nothing crazy about loving books. I have heard that too, about women+fiction, and men+non-fic. I’m still not sure if there’s any truth to it, and I don’t know if there’s a definitive way to find out. I certainly hope it’s not true. I know I read my share of non-fiction as well as fiction. I may conduct my own informal poll in my office this week. I work with a pretty good mix of people, it might be very interesting.

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  16. DD may remember the vague disgust a group of NJ adolescents had in the early 1970’s when “Happy Days” became the #1 show in America. My embarrassment that this pap would become known as the barometer of popular culture for my generation continues to this day. I take comfort in gypsyscarlett citing the “library card effect.” Thanks!

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