Why men opt out of the (women’s) fiction world

by Leonce Gaiter

Fewer and fewer men read fiction. They compose only about 20% of the fiction market according to surveys. Some lay this off to genetics, suggesting that the way men’s minds work discourages them from entering into another’s experience the way fiction demands.

“Boys and men are, in general, more convergent and linear in their thinking; this would naturally draw them towards non-fiction,” wrote author Darragh McManus, pondering the question.

Others, like Jason Pinter, suggest that the overwhelmingly female publishing industry simply overlooks books that appeal to men because they fall outside the female experience. In other words, men now suffer the same fate women suffered at the hands of a male-dominated publishing industry for so many years.

Others suggest that boys are discouraged from reading at a young age by children’s books that fail to engage them. Give them the proper material, the story goes, and young boys will engage with reading. They point to the fact that young males were principal consumers of the Harry Potter books as proof. “More boys than girls have read the Harry Potter novels,” according to U.S. publisher, Scholastic. “What’s more, Harry Potter made more of an impact on boys’ reading habits. Sixty-one percent agreed with the statement ‘I didn’t read books for fun before reading Harry Potter,’ compared to 41 percent of girls.”

I always balked at these rationales because I read fiction all the time. However, thinking on it, I had to admit that I avoid modern fiction like the plague. I have tried the popular plot-thick page-turners and the feel-good tearjerkers and the occasional cause célèbre with a literary reputation. So many have left me so cold, that I simply won’t shell out the cash for a paperback or e-book version, much less a hardcover.

Trying to assess what I find lacking in most of the current novels I attempt, I believe their utter reliance on the world around them (and me) is supremely dull. So many work so hard to place characters in a world I will recognize. Too many work hard to create characters with which I (or their prime demographic audience) will ‘identify’ with and recognize as someone they could be, or someone they know.

It then made sense that men would ask why they should read something “made up” about this world when there is plenty of factual reading material on that subject. I have never approached fiction to re-visit “this world.” I’m already here. Instead, I want an alternative—a vision of this world exhaled through the writers’ and characters’ hearts, minds and eyes. Exhaled with the distinction of the smell of an individual’s breath. Fitzgerald’s Long Island in The Great Gatsby is his own creation, no kitchen sink recreation. Fitzgerald’s people and prose warp this place into something utterly unique.

Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles is his distinctive projection of that city. You don’t pick up Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me with the idea of identifying with the protagonist. You don’t grab Faulkner to meet the boys next door or titter with recognition of your kith and kin. You don’t visit Patricia Highsmith to look in a mirror. You pick them up to enter worlds as fantastical in their way as Harry Potter’s. I read fiction to meet characters I otherwise would not. I read fiction for the larger than life—not a retread of this one. I want to watch and think with characters who are nothing like me, who dare what I never would, who experience in ways that I cannot.

In an article titled, “Why Women Read More Than Men,” NPR suggested a biological reason why women read more fiction than men, quoting Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain. “The research is still in its early stages, but some studies have found that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men. That might explain why women are drawn to works of fiction, which by definition require the reader to empathize with characters.”

Reading fiction does not require that you empathize with characters in the sense of “ascribing… feelings or attitudes present in oneself.” It requires that you regard and grow intrigued by characters such that you may come to a greater understanding of them—perhaps even to the point of empathizing with them. However, you need not imagine yourself as them, or believe that they behave as you or as members of your social circle would. That’s not reading; it’s narcissism.

Perhaps more men stopped reading fiction when fiction stopped regularly presenting unique, literary revisions of this world, and settled for presenting a photographic facsimile such that readers (most of them female) could better “empathize.” Maybe we’re too megalomaniacal and obsessed with grandeur for that, and thus want words recreated and re-imagined, instead of rehashed.

“Shall I project a world,” asks Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Somewhere along the line, in tandem with the female domination of the publishing industry and fiction readership, the ideal of doing so fell from vogue. Instead, writers rely more and more on identification with this one. Male readers seem to have checked out.

Leonce GaiterLeonce Gaiter is a prolific African American writer and proud Harvard Alum. His writing has appeared in the NY Times, NYT Magazine, LA Times, Washington Times, and Washington Post, and he has written two novels. His newly released novel In the Company of Educated Men, published by Astor + Blue Editions, is a literary thriller with socio-economic, class, and racial themes.

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The 10 Tips For Getting the Most of Readings ( And This Program )

by Lance Eaton

The following is a handout I provide for participants on the first meeting to help them think about literature and how the program runs. What they receive is the numbered items, and the text below each is usually what I explain as we go over the handout.

1. Learning is a building exercise, not a filling station.

The research increasingly shows that one’s approach to learning can be pivotal to their ability to learn. To this end, it’s important to understand that learning is something they can continue to do throughout their lives and that their mind is not necessarily finite. Basically, so long as they maintain a belief that they can learn, they will continue to learn.

I make this point first because we often carry the limited view in our heads about our learning abilities and I hope to help them break negative expectations about their ability to do well in this program and life in general.

2. Reading fiction further develops your empathy and understanding.

Reading is often the closest thing we have to being put into someone else’s mind or to learn another’s point of view. By immersing ourselves in fiction, it helps us to stretch our mind and understand the world around us. Emphasizing the importance of empathy, I go further and explain that it’s more than just a “feel-good” emotion to connect with other people. Being able to understand and connect with other humans allows us to make better decisions, as well as present ourselves better in situations .

3. All stories are 1 story.

This seems strange, but I’ve taken tips from Thomas Foster’s How To Read Literature Like a Professor. He says all literature is telling the same story, and that story is the human condition. At the cornerstone of every story is an author attempting to convey some truth or element about what it’s like to live in this world as a human—even (and especially) when the story has no humans in it. Therefore, if all stories are about the human condition, it makes it easier to understand why there is so much literature and why we can interweave all the readings in the program.

4. All stories are a mystery.

No matter the genre, all stories are a mystery. The mystery is determining where the author is leading the reader and why. I encourage participants to think about the stories in this way because just like an advertisement, the author is trying to sell us something. Instead of selling us products, they are selling us ideas and we want to be quite aware of what we are being sold. To do that, we have to be constantly reading and questioning the story.

This also comes from Foster and his discussion of intentionality in literature. I explain to the participants that nothing in a piece of literature is an accident. When bad things happen, they didn’t happen accidentally. The author chose it to happen, and in choosing things to happen, he or she is communicating something about the story’s purpose. Dying of heart disease is different from being crushed to death by a piano, which is different from being struck by lightning. Each might tell us something different about a character and his or her role in the story.

5. Anticipate the story.

I am constantly trying to guess what is going to happen next and I’m wrong at least 75% of the time. I tell the participants this so that they understand that the guessing game in literature often goes wrong, even for people well-versed in literature. Getting it right isn’t the goal—continuing to guess is. The guessing means that the reader is thinking, projecting, and ultimately, immersed in the story enough to want to think about where it is going. It means the reader will get more out of the story.

6. Read the Intro sheet.

For each reading, I provide an introductory sheet that identifies the author (often a picture too), publication information, trivia, some background about the author or writing, other good pieces by the author, and other authors that readers might enjoy if they liked this story. Most importantly though, I include an essential question. The question is vague enough that it doesn’t give away much about the plot, but specific enough that readers can have it in the back of their minds while they make their way through the story. It’s a useful way to prime focus and attention so readers get the most out of the story.

7. Re-Read the story. Always.

Our first encounters with stories are usually attempts to wrap our heads around the plot. If we want to get more (and for a program like this, getting more is beneficial), then re-reading is useful. It’s also good because we pick up things that we missed and it can help to clarify things that we were confused by.

8. Read aloud.

We are much better listeners than we are readers. In part, that’s because we have been listening more often and longer than we have been reading. Reading a text can be challenging in many ways but one way to make it easier is to read it aloud. This doesn’t mean standing up on a table and shouting it to the masses, but it can mean mouthing the words under breath. Hearing the words can help to make sense of them in a way that otherwise might be inaccessible.

Read in an accent

It sounds strange but in addition to reading aloud, it might be useful to read in an accent. Adding an accent (I often like English), can provide an element of tone that can provide additional meaning to the text that reading flatly might not produce. Furthermore, by adding an accent, it requires more attention and thus reinforces the content in a reader’s mind.

10. NARPH! Notate, Actively Read, Paraphrase, Highlight.

I often reiterate the importance of physically interacting with a text. Doing so makes the reader a more engaged reader and allows for the reading to stick longer in his or her head. Additionally, it means when the reader re-reads or comes to the meeting, he or she can more easily move through the reading with clear markings around things that are of interest or importance.

That’s my tip sheet for participants! What kinds of tips do you provide to your participants? What would you add from this list? What would you borrow?

Lance Eaton is an instructional designer at North Shore Community College, where he also teaches courses in American Literature, popular culture, and comics. He writes for several magazines and websites. He also serves as a social media consultant for several companies. His musings, reflections, and ramblings can be found at his blog. You can find out more about him on his website.