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15 June 2022

What the “men don’t read novels” debate gets wrong about fiction

Instead of turning literature into an arena for virtue-signalling and culture wars, let’s make room for complexity, mischief and mess.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

Everyone loves generalising about other people; no one likes being generalised about themselves. This, I suspect, is the animating force behind the attention economy, the secret sauce in the Twitter like, the fairy dust in the clickbait.

It’s what all those push-button culture war headlines have in common: “Are takeaways and Netflix to blame for young people failing to get on housing ladder?”; “Is Brexit revenge on the arrogant metropolitan elite?”; and, fast becoming the equivalent in the books world: “Why don’t men read novels anymore?”

Mary Ann Sieghart, the chair of this year’s Women’s Prize, has noted that 64 per cent of novels sold in the UK in 2021 were bought by women. Women outnumber men as buyers of fiction in all categories except fantasy, science fiction and horror.

Men seem particularly reluctant to read female novelists – a point Sieghart explored in her book The Authority Gap. In May she started a campaign to redress the balance (#menreadingwomen); Salman Rushdie and Andrew Marr stepped up to evangelise about Virginia Woolf and Ali Smith. Cue mean-spirited social media sneers about condescension and cries of “#NotAllMen!” from male readers sharing pictures of their well-thumbed volumes by Toni Morrison and Ann Quin. Publishing industry data suggests, however, that these avid male consumers of literary fiction are in the minority, with large numbers sticking to genre fiction, non-fiction and other media.

Every theory and countertheory in the male readership debate plays into some aspect of the culture war. There are those who take a gender essentialist view (“men are interested in things, women are interested in people”), sometimes reaching for outright misandry (“reading fiction requires empathy, which man lack”). There are those who point to social conditioning. “Reading, that’s feminine, writing, that’s feminine. It’s insane, it’s really insane, but it is still in me,” the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard has said.

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There are those who say men are turned off novels because literary culture has become too female: the zeitgeist has shifted from Martin Amis, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo to Sally Rooney, Rachel Cusk and Maggie O’Farrell. “Is it less inherently cool to be a male novelist these days?” the writer Megan Nolan wondered when I interviewed her on the subject last year. Meanwhile, contemporary male novelists like Rob Doyle and Luke Brown have argued that #MeToo has made it almost impossible for a man to write honestly about his sexuality in the manner of 20th-century titans such as John Updike. And if men can’t publish gloves-off accounts of their sexual urges – as today’s female authors are encouraged to – then male readers will feel disenfranchised and disengaged by fiction.

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The situation may not be helped by the fact that the vast majority of those working in publishing these days are female; a 2020 diversity survey found that women made up 78 per cent of editorial, 83 per cent of marketing and 92 per cent of publicity roles (the report confirmed suspicions that the industry remains overwhelmingly white and middle-class). This inevitably feeds not only into subject matter but promotional campaigns and cover designs. “There are Deborah Levy and Elena Ferrante books I’ve enjoyed, but covers with high heels and bikinis do nothing to suggest how interesting these authors are,” says a male writer friend. Women who work in publishing publicly deny that demographics leads to imbalanced commissioning but privately concede that they are getting fed up of having to compare each new novelist to Rooney to lure female millennial readers.

The writer Ben Judah sees a deeper malaise. He felt moved to tweet his despair from the new fiction table at a bookshop last week (10 June). “I think something has gone deeply, deeply wrong in fiction commissioning in America and Britain,” he wrote. “Overwhelmingly, the new novels look… so incredibly boring.” He dismissed the offerings as either “paint-by-numbers identity politics columns with plots” or “unreadable privileged millennial solipsism”. If the novel continued to neglect its “great Balzacian task” of “creating a theatre to think about our tumultuous, screwed up society”, he suggested, then it would soon go the way of opera.

I take issue with some of Judah’s assumptions. He appears to pit the novel as a place of interiority against the ideal of the novel as a “mirror carried along a main road” (as Stendhal had it) and in many ways, this is a false opposition. There are numerous contemporary novels by women that do engage with our “tumultuous, screwed-up society” – from Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This to Natasha Brown’s Assembly – but which do so via interiority rather than 19th-century style realism. Such books don’t come with a big State of the Nation label but they do represent contemporary life. The great dramas of the world now play out, thanks to our phones, within the theatre of our own minds.

And yet I don’t think Judah is entirely wrong about the modern fiction landscape. If I receive yet another proof of a novel that claims to explore “women’s anger” or “women’s pain” I might actually inflict pain on someone. There is, among many men I’ve spoken to, a feeling that fiction is an indulgence at a time when the complexities of the world require vigilance. Quite a few say they want to read the sort of 21st-century social panorama that Judah conjures. So would I.

But overwhelmingly, as both a reviewer and a consumer of books, I’m depressed by how gendered and predictable the reading landscape has become. Women dominate the literary prize shortlists; men dominate the non-fiction bestseller charts (women on Twitter shared the 12 June Sunday Times nonfiction paperback top 10, despairingly pointing out its all-male line-up). There are many factors at play here, including gender expectations within publishing and the wider culture.

James McConnachie, editor of the Society of Authors’ journal, says: “A major problem is in the long-standing tendency in publishing to make assumptions about what kinds of authors should be writing what kinds of book and which kinds of readers they can reach.” Just as books by black and ethnic minority authors were once marketed (consciously or not) almost exclusively at black and ethnic minority readers, books by women are being marketed at women. “Publishers love to segment markets,” says McConnachie. “And they love following data and copying existing models. This tends to mean they risk embedding structural inequalities in what they publish.”

Privately, publishers confess that there is too much bandwagon-jumping within the industry, a reliance on “if you liked X, then you’ll like Y”. It behoves the more creative publishers to take a more imaginative approach and try to break down these gender silos.

Male reading habits are more complicated than many of us like to claim. I have a tendency to get fixated on men confessing they no longer read novels, forgetting all the exhilarating discussions I have had with other men about fiction. I wouldn’t have come to Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and Donna Tartt when I did without the enthusiasm of a male schoolteacher; nor Patricia Lockwood, Zadie Smith and Elena Ferrante without the prompting of my husband; nor Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett and Carys Davies without one of my male colleagues. The most passionate debates I’ve had about the works of Hilary Mantel, Rachel Cusk and Ali Smith have been with men.

Would these men have recommended these novels to me had I been a man? Impossible to say. But my feeling is that less eat-your-greens hectoring and more playfulness in literature would do us all a lot of good. Instead of making contemporary fiction yet another arena for virtue-signalling, sanctimony and bad-faith assumptions about the contents of each others’ souls, let’s make room for genuine mischief and mess, experimentation and individuality. Otherwise, there will soon come a time when neither men nor women feel much like picking up a novel.

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