Washington Post book critic Ron Charles on men not reading fiction by women (and Women’s Prize for Fiction poll on which books men should read)

In his weekly Book Club newsletter today, Washington Post book critic Ron Charles addressed the issue of gender bias in men’s reading choices. (I highly recommend subscribing to it. https://www.washingtonpost.com/newsletters/book-club/)

My alma mater asked me to recommend some recent novels for a summer reading list in the alumni magazine. I chose five: 

  • “Search,” by Michelle Huneven (review)
  • “French Braid,” by Anne Tyler (review)
  • “Olga Dies Dreaming,” by Xochitl Gonzalez (review)
  • “Still Life,” by Sarah Winman (review)
  • “Small Things Like These,” by Claire Keegan (review)

My wife looked over the list and said, “It’s a bit girly.” That wasn’t her opinion; it was her warning. English teachers and book editors are highly attuned to the skittish sensibilities of male readers. A blouse, a dinner table, a garden – it takes so little to frighten men away. 

This is, partly, an historical bias. The novel as we know it developed as a form of entertainment for a new class of literate women, which is why men were so quick to disparage both the books and their readers. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, railed against novels, claiming they were a poison that infects the mind, resulting in “a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.”

The situation may have improved a bit over the last 200 years, though whenever I tell a man what I do for a living, he sighs and confesses that he doesn’t read many novels. “When I read,” he explains, “I like to learn something.”

I exaggerate (again, so girly – sorry). But when men do read fiction, it’s likely to be fiction written by men. The administrators of the Women’s Prize in England point to research on the readership of the top 10 best-selling female fiction authors, giants like Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood and Agatha Christie: Less than 20 percent of their readers are men. But when it comes to the top 10 best-selling male authors – e.g. Dickens, Tolkien, Stephen King – the readership is about half men and half women. 

The administrators conclude: “Women are prepared to read novels by men, but men are much more reluctant to pick up novels by women.” 

In response to this sorry state of affairs, the Women’s Prize is conducting a poll to compile a list of “the top 10 essential books for men to read this summer.” Vote here before the close of Monday, June 6.


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