My husband and I both read a couple of novels over the recent holidays. Turns out, the fact that we both read some novels, and routinely do, makes us unusual. Well, it makes him, especially, unusual. I just finished reading John Irving’s “Avenue of Mysteries.” The main character, a novelist, talks about women being the main readers of novels, something I hadn’t really thought about before. So I did a little digging, and found that this isn’t really a new insight, but something I just hadn’t come across, or at least recalled hearing about, in the past.
In 2005, Ian McEwan wrote: “when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” A 2010 Harris Poll reported a gender gap in fiction reading too, with 84% of US women who read books (at least one in the past year) reporting reading a fiction book, versus 73% of the US men who read books. You can read about that survey here. But why do women consume more fiction than men do?
In 2000, Steven J. Tepper reported that some of the gap between male and female reading incidence, of any material, can be explained by parental encouragement (with females more likely than males to be encouraged to read as children). Pertaining to fiction reading only, he found that the gender gap disappears once childhood socialization into the arts more generally was accounted for. I found some other findings fascinating here too; for example, Tepper reports that reading skill actually inflates the gender differences in reading at higher levels of reading proficiency. And finally, he reports that the gap isn’t just due to more free time (less full-time work), because when work status is kept constant, the gender gap for fiction are drops just a little bit. He concludes the story is a socialization and gender stereotype one: men who crossed gender boundaries in other aspects of leisure, and were encouraged to do so by parents, were more likely to become readers of fiction later. The gap hasn’t really shrunk much: a 2014 study found that 69% of U.S. men reported reading at least one book in the last 12 months, versus 82% of U.S. women. Fiction reading, as an activity, seems to be gendered. Hhhmmm.
Which brings me to the consumption of fiction and marketing to those consumers. (I won’t discuss the extensive coverage of the quality of fiction, and the role of author gender in literary awards; that is a huge ongoing debate). Although dated now, this NYTimes article is characteristic of the coverage of the fiction market, with its conclusion that fiction must appeal to women readers to sell well, and publishers and literary agents are quite aware of this. These commentators argue that not only do the novel’s themes need to appeal to female fiction readers, and that female authors have a large advantage, but also that successful novels must have strong female characters in order to be marketable. But this seems curious to me, as all the data I’ve found so far seems to indicate that the gender readership gap in fiction, with women reading far more fiction than men, has been around for more than a century, or more. And 100 years ago, women fiction readers could not have only been reading female authors and books with strong female characters, because there were fewer of those then.
I am certainly not against strong female characters, and my favorite authors include men and women, but I enjoy good stories, well-written, regardless of the sex of the characters. I think the data point to a much larger cultural shift at play in fiction marketing, which seems at odds with cultural shifts in other domains. As we so rightly “de-gender” toy departments and McDonald’s Happy Meals (a friend recently asked for the “boy toy” only to be told there are no such things in Happy Meals anymore) we seem to be deliberately gendering fiction, to boost sales. What’s going on?