Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Remasculating" Reading

A recent survey of 2,000 adults in the United Kingdom found that 48% of women were "Page Turners", or regular readers, compared with 26% of men. Conversely, 32% of men were "Slow Worms", reading only one or two books a year, compared with 18% of women. Sounds like a literary brouhaha in the making! And the Guardian's bookblog is never shy about weighing into a literary brouhaha. Jean Hannah Edelstein's column reckons that "publishers need to 're-masculate' books if they want to get more men reading."

The battle of the sexes is always good for a laugh, and Edelstein's piece is tongue-in-cheek - she suggests re-packaging chick lit with blokey covers and creating a TV show with a foul-mouthed librarian. But jokes are rarely just jokes, and usually tap into some social anxiety. Edelstein's article is not a million miles away from more familiar arguments about the crisis of boys not reading. Which in turn are not a million miles away from the moral panic that attended the birth of the novel in the late eighteenth century, when a striking majority of readers were female. It's such a problem when women outperform men - even at something as facilely described as "page turning".


  1. Hey, on my argument that this is not a new strain of complaint, I just found the below quote - a different approach to 'solving' the problem:

    "It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel - the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel - seems to exist only for women."

    George Orwell, 'Bookshop Memories' in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, vol 1, An Age Like This, 1920-1940 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1969; article first published 1936) p. 244.

  2. Oh no. Don't remasculate books! Something I've observed doing author talks in schools is how many teenage girls are not reading (okay, I concede possibly not admitting to reading) compared to boys. In a co-ed class, when I ask 'who reads books?' there are always a few boys who will stick their hands right up, boys clearly across the social spectrum. In some areas not a single girl will put her hand up. There's been such a huge push towards 'remasculating' children's lit that girls aren't getting the books they need - books that engage them on a social and emotional level, books that encourage empathy and exploration of the interior landscape.

    Of course all this is based purely on observation and discussions with other kids and YA authors. A friend said the other day that she taught a selective writing group at school (they had to enter a competition to attend). It was by far male majority.

    'Isn't it wonderful?' the teacher said. 'All these boys?'
    No, it's not wonderful that the girls are still getting submerged underneath this perception that male literacy is the most important issue in education.


  3. I like this post's original title better...

    People who read only a couple of books a year fascinate me. How do they decide which couple of books to read? Does it take them months to read each book, or do they read quickly then take months to recover before they can face the next one? Why do they read only a couple of books instead of, say, no books, which is almost the same thing, unless said books are really dense and reward slow, close reading?

  4. Well the cold hard fact is that boys can go on to achieve a whole lot more without reading--in terms of the Western ideals of success ie professional job, own a house etc-- than girls who do read voraciously.

    This is why I get annoyed with the whole moral panic over boys' literacy, as much as novel reading is any indication of that, because it doesn't do them much harm in terms of their social and economic capital. Of course if you introduce class and race into the equation then there are some men who are enormously disadvantaged by their insufficient literacy.

  5. I'm interested in what they read and why, as well. In my experience (mostly friends and relatives), people who only read a few books a year are limited by lack of time to read, and tend only to read books that they 'fall over' at airports or are given by friends. They'll usually work through them in bits, spurred on by the friend asking them how the book is...

    Or they read them on holidays.

  6. Well presumably efforts to lift literacy rates for one sex tend to spur on advocates for the other sex to greater efforts - eg, boys literacy rates lift one year, causing advocates for girls literacy to cry "Oh no! The rate of girls achieving literacy has fallen in relation to the rate of boys achieving literacy!" Kind of illustrates how groups of caring and concerned people can create problems in order to solve them.


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