Friday, August 06, 2021

On Men Reading

 M. A. Sieghart had an essay in the Guardian a while back on the question of why men read so few women authors; it makes a number of obvious mistakes, one of which is assuming that there is any particular reluctance among men to read women authors as such. There is actually no mystery at all as to why men read so few women authors; the whole of the answer consists in the fact that (1) men do not read much at all and (2) as a result, very few genres or authors are marketed to men at all.

Let's take a basic set of comparisons. The genre that has the greatest woman-dominated readership is romance. Something like 90% of the readership of romance novels is female, most men have never read a romance novel, the genre is marketed almost entirely to women, with only occasional feelers for things that will have broader appeal. It is consistently the best-selling genre, to such an extent that most bestseller lists deliberately exclude large portions of romance, because if they did not, almost all bestsellers on every list would be from the more explicitly erotic branches of the sprawling genre.  Romance is a billion-dollar industry. The genre that has the greatest man-dominated readership is Westerns, which is about 90% male. It is a tiny genre, the nichest of niches. It mostly survives because (1) it has a steady group of hardcore fans who read most of what is available and (2) it gets occasional minor boosts from the fact that the genre is easily adaptable to movie and television and its adaptations are sometimes moderately successful. If you are not the next Louis L'Amour (and you are not), you will never make a career writing Westerns.  If you market your books to men rather than to women, you necessarily have to take a long view, which Western authors do; you are trying to craft something that endures and lasts a long time rather than something that will explode in sales this year. The entire Western genre is smaller than the romance sub-genre of Western Romance. The genre with the widest appeal across the sexes is science fiction. Almost all men read science fiction occasionally; about 80% of men who read regularly at all read science fiction regularly. A minority of women readers regularly read science fiction, but almost all indicators suggest that this minority of women readers is a large enough group to balance out the majority of men readers, so that the genre readership is about fifty-fifty.

Women generally read. Men generally do not. Women generally read widely. Men who regularly read generally have narrow reading interests. Outside very specific situations, publishers market to women because they are the primary book-buyers. Given this, let's look at Sieghart's argument:

For the top 10 bestselling female authors (who include Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readers are men and 81%, women. But for the top 10 bestselling male authors (who include Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split is much more even: 55% men and 45% women. 

In other words, women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women. And the female author in the top 10 who had the biggest male readership – the thriller writer LJ Ross – uses her initials, so it’s possible the guys thought she was one of them. What does this tell us about how reluctant men are to accord equal authority – intellectual, artistic, cultural – to women and men?

Notice how this argument is structured. The percentage of readers of female authors is overwhelmingly women; the percentage of readers of male authors is more or less even; therefore "women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women"; therefore this is relevant to men according to less authority to women. 'Bestselling' and 'read' are not necessarily the same thing, although bestselling tends to be more easily accessible, and thus increases your chances of being read, but if we set this aside, there are at least two points to make about this argument.  First, we know that the population of women reader dwarfs the population of men readers; thus we would expect the percentage of men readers of female authors to be considerably less than the percentage of women readers of female authors. The thing that is noticeable is that a lot of women read male authors, but not enough to overwhelm (as they very well could in most genres) male readers. The obvious interpretation of the numbers here is that women are considerably less likely to read male authors than they are to read female authors. A second point is connected to this. Several of the bestselling female authors are Romance novelists, and thus are bestselling novelists who write in a genre almost no men read and is rarely marketed to men. LJ Ross, the author Sieghart mentions as being the female author with the largest male readership, is one of the world's most popular writers of mysteries and thrillers, which would be in and of itself an adequate explanation of why she has a larger male readership than Danielle Steel or Jojo Moyes. Mysteries and thrillers are relatively large genres; they are perhaps the genres after science fiction that are most read by men in general.

Sieghart continues:

Margaret Atwood, a writer who should be on the bookshelves of anyone who cares about literary fiction, has a readership that is only 21% male. Male fellow Booker prize winners Julian Barnes and Yann Martel have nearly twice as many (39% and 40%). It’s not as if women are less good at writing literary fiction. All five of the top five bestselling literary novels in 2017 were by women, and nine of the top 10. And it’s not as if men don’t enjoy reading books by women when they do open them; in fact, they marginally prefer them. The average rating men give to books by women on Goodreads is 3.9 out of 5; for books by men, it’s 3.8.

Nobody cares about literary fiction, which is a fake genre for pretentious people. Margaret Atwood is read not because she writes literary fiction because she writes science fiction that is marketed specifically to people who don't usually read science fiction, and has managed to get a lock on that relatively difficult demographic without losing much science fiction readership. She is on the bestselling authors list because she is massively more likely to be read by women than most science fiction authors are; 21% male is about what you would expect. Male readership is not large enough to push the number much higher for any author extremely popular with women; if the percentage of men readers gets very much higher, it is because fewer women are reading that author rather than that more men are. Women are large enough a population of readers that they can guarantee that an author ends up on a list of bestselling authors; men as a group could just barely do so under optimal conditions. And, of course, Sieghart's point about Goodreads tells against the entire line of thought into which Sieghart is trying to distort the data: there is no evidence that men who read regularly treat women authors as less readable or deserving to be read than men authors.

This is not to say that there might not be minor preferences of men who regularly read for men authors, but if they do exist they are minor and being moralistic about them fails to take into account both genre differences and how large a portion of books by women authors are marketed specifically toward women.

Sieghart continues:

If men don’t read books by and about women, they will fail to understand our psyches and our lived experience. They will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default. And this narrow focus will affect our relationships with them, as colleagues, as friends and as partners. But it also impoverishes female writers, whose work is seen as niche rather than mainstream if it is consumed mainly by other women. They will earn less respect, less status and less money.

This is obvious nonsense. There is no sense whatsoever in which Danielle Steel is impoverished by being primarily read by women. If money is your goal, getting an unusual number of male readers is icing on the cake, never the cake. Respect and status, to the extent that they are meaningful here, have less to do with sex and more to do with genre. You don't come to understand lived experience from books -- books are, by their very nature, articulated and not lived experience. There is no such thing as 'the male experience'. And, last but not least, men as a population are not big readers and so will not generally read books by and about women because they will not generally read books, so if your solution to getting men to understand women is to have them read, it is not a solution at all.

It's an interesting question why men are so unlikely to read, and I don't have much of an idea of what the primary reason for it would be. I do know, as an unusual case of a man who reads on a scale larger than most women, that men who read a lot are penalized in various minor ways -- none serious in themselves, but very identifiable. There was a minor stir on some social media platform (probably Twitter) a while back, in which some young lady, talking about dating, noted that she stopped dating men who claimed to read a lot. Her reasoning was that a man who claims to read more than occasional science fiction and nonfiction is almost certainly lying. Despite some protests, the majority of her female commenters agreed. And it's entirely reasonable; the statistics and psychology are with them. People often exaggerate their qualities in the context of dating; a common rookie mistake is to overemphasize your reading, to make yourself look cultured or intellectual or what not; the result is an implausibly large number of men making implausibly grandiose claims about their love of reading. Pick any random man out of the crowd, and it's just not likely at all that he reads much. If you are male reader and dating, your best bet is to hide or play down your reading, and let it come out slowly as a secret; there are only very few circumstances in which this is not the case.

It's probably also the case that women in general prefer to be the primary readers in a relationship. I can absolutely assure you that, if you are a man, women are often disconcerted at discovering that they read less than you do. It sometimes becomes a kind of competitive thing for them, or else they treat it the same as if you were showing off in an attempt to make them seem less. I don't know why this is, either, but, again, I can assure you it is true.

Nor is dating the only context in which this is the case, nor are women the only ones who make judgments of this sort. The number of people who, on learning how much I read, respond as if there were something at least slightly wrong with me has been quite large in my lifetime; by no means everyone, but nonetheless it's a common thing. One reason this weblog covers so much literature is that blogging is one of only a handful of contexts in which I can seriously talk about reading, despite its being one of the major components of my life. I have no idea whether this minor bias against male readers plays a role in so few men reading, but I wouldn't be surprised. But it's absurd, in any case, to ignore the fact, whatever reason there might be for it.

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