Gentlemen, we need to have a chat.
We were doing so well. Developing our sensitive sides. Exploring the nuances of masculinity. Rejecting heteronormativity. We played rugby in high school and did the musicals, and nobody cared. We bought trendy, slim-cut suits and listened to Taylor Swift — for the music, no less — and still went bow hunting for snow leopards on the weekends. We dated women who made way more money than we did, and we liked it. Gender stereotypes were imploding all over the place!
But then Ian McEwan (bestselling author of “Atonement”) called us out, and the act fell apart. He decided to test that troubling, phantom statistic which has been floating around for decades in publishing houses and bookstores — that men account for less than 20 percent of all fiction sales. Surely not anymore, right? All that stuff about women being more sensitive and emotionally attuned, and men being blunt instruments with no imagination — those must be outdated stereotypes. This is an enlightened era! Of course we read fiction!
Well, apparently not. In a widely publicized social experiment in 2009, McEwan and his son decided to hand out a stack of free novels in a park in central London. They gave away 30 books in five minutes — almost all of them to women. The novelist later told The New Yorker, “Every young woman we approached was eager and grateful to take a book. The guys were a different proposition. They frowned in suspicion, or distaste. ‘Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks mate, but no.’ Only one sensitive male soul was tempted.”
McEwan is not the only one to have discovered this. In a slightly more empirical study, the University of Prince Edward Island found that male students in grades one through six chose three nonfiction books for every four novels, even when 90 percent of the books in the library they had to choose from were novels. This epidemic has acquired the name “the fiction gap.” It has been around since the rise of the leisure class produced stay-at-home moms and working dads with very different time constraints on their reading habits. But times have mostly changed, and the gap persists. Why?
As it turns outs, we’re not totally illiterate. In fact, we read quite a bit — but as the UPEI study confirms, it’s all nonfiction. So what’s so toxic about the novel? I decided to peruse Esquire’s “Top Books for Men” article and The Art of Manliness’s “The Essential Man’s Library” to see what insight these supposed temples of masculinity could offer. The nonfiction stalwarts were there — John McPhee’s “A Sense of Where You Are,” about Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley; Freud’s “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”; Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Plato’s “The Republic” — as well as a few macho novels. Nothing you couldn’t guess: “The Great Gatsby,” “Catcher in the Rye” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
More telling, however, was the language used by Esquire to introduce their list. “Manhood, America, sports, politics, sex,” it reads. “These are subjects men should know — and these are the authors who can teach you.” Therein, I think, lies the answer. For whatever reason — pin this on your gender stereotype of choice — many men view reading as valuable only insofar as it is instructional. It’s all about knowledge acquisition; “reading for pleasure” doesn’t seem productive, and is thus a waste of time. Esquire suggests that if you’re not being taught something about manhood, America, sports, politics or sex — stuff you can really bring to the table, so to speak — you must have something better to be doing, like exercising all that manly knowledge.
Although I question Freud’s reliability when it comes to sex tips (the brave should try Byron), this seems understandable, if a bit misguided. After all, what are books, if not vessels for knowledge? Of course, there’s another can of worms here regarding the value of pleasure reading (in which I’m a big believer), but more problematic is the insinuation that most fiction is, by nature, non-instructive. Novels may not deliver objective tutorials in easily identifiable chapters, but you’ll actually learn something about yourself by getting lost in one, and you’ll be better for having figured it out on your own. And as much as I love Fitzgerald, try to venture outside the Esquire canon of fiction — not every novel has the explicit coming-of-age lessons of “The Great Gatsby,” but c’mon guys, did you really need Daisy Buchanan to learn spoiled blondes are bad news?
Riley Scripps Ford is a senior in Saybrook College.