Friday, May 7, 2010

Reading and the Gender Gap

A couple of weeks ago, Jason Pinter, writing for The Huffington Post, argued that men don't read as much as women because the publishing industry, for various reasons, doesn't offer books that men find appealing. Actually, that's not exactly what he said. He said that men do read...or wait, does he? Let's have a look:  
I'm tired of people saying Men Don't Read. Men LOVE to read. I've been a reader my whole life. My father is a reader. Most of my male friends are readers. But the more publishing repeats the empty mantra that Men Don't Read the less they're going to try to appeal to men, which is where this vicious cycle begins.
So men do read, apparently, but the publishing industry somehow doesn't get that men want to read. I guess. My point here is that Pinter, like many who fret about the state of reading, gets lost in a chicken-and-egg casuality maze. Not only does he refute the premise that men don't like reading as much as women, he blames he publishing industry for it, if it were true. Hmmm.

But here's the reality of the situation: women read more books than men. Let's get this out of the way:
1. According to an Associated Press poll conducted in 2002, American women read an average of nine books a year; men read 5.
2. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that 55% of American women read a play, novel, or short story in 2004, compared to 38% of men.
3. Perhaps most tellingly, The New York Fed's study on college major choice found that 62.5% of students who graduated from college with a degree in the humanities were women and that 76.9% of education majors were women.
What Pinter wants to do is hold the publishing industry accountable for these gender disparities, using a rather simplistic supply-side argument and unhelpful anecdotal evidence. If you want to get to the bottom of why men don't read as much as women do, you're going to delve deeper (and this seems like a good place to start).

Pinter also imagines some bizarro past, in which men roamed, conquered, and read with gusto:
[Men have] been alienated for a long time and might need to be roused from their slumber. But as I've always said the biggest problems facing the publishing industry are not ebooks, or returns, but the number of people reading. This is a way to bring back a lot of readers who have essentially been forgotten about.
I suppose if you want to argue that sometime in the 19th Century (when bound-book reading took off, thanks largely to the interest of the fair sex), the publishing industries of the West made some kind of egregious  and persistant error about what men want to read, then championing more "male" texts would be reasonable, but wrong-headed.

But the question Pinter doesn't address, and to which the Ape has no answer, is why should we care? We seem to want reading habits to be the same for men and women, but why exactly?

We agree with Pinter that "number of people reading" is something to care about, but what is less clear is why the gender breakdown is of such concern. Is it really so bad that women like to read more than men? Perhaps this is one of those questions of contemporary culture that is troubling because it seems to suggest some basic gender "inequality," and such things undermine our hard-own and justly-guarded progress toward civil equality.

The Ape is willing to be convinced that we should be banging out more sports novels or wrestling biographies or whatever, but pinning such a wide-ranging cultural phenomenon on publishers and editors is as reductive as it is short-sighted. The issue here isn't about reading; it's about our fear that we aren't teaching our children well. This is both understandable and good, but let's not romanticize the way men used to read. 


  1. This discussion sounds remarkably similar to a scene in the new Ian McEwan novel where our protagonist explains why more men go into physics than women - which causes quite about of consternation among more than a few British women.

    But, as a male, I could care less that my gender reads less than women. Doesn't affect my reading habits in the least - there's still PLENTY out there for dudes. And if I want a particularly male novel, there's always Jonathan Tropper and Vince Flynn.

    Another point - many, many more women, in fact even more disproportionately so than the men/women reading divide, blog about books than do men. Just check the membership at the Ning Book Blogs network for evidence of that...

  2. I came on over from the Hop. Interesting post. I never thought of how the publishing industry appealed to men.

  3. this is a really excellent post. extrapolating beyond the book-world, the whole idea that equality must mean exact mathematical similarity is a simplistic and ubiquitous error.

    the question 'why should we care?' is a telling one, that sometimes has a legitimate answer (And so we SHOULD care) and sometimes doesn't.

    came here via the blog hop, btw. following now.

  4. Great post, Ape. My husband and I continually discuss this, second in fascination only to why all people, regardless of gender, don't read more.

    Seems like trying to focus on the gender disparity pushes away the real question in favor of irrelevance.


  5. A related issue is the gender gap between men and women in college attendance and graduation rates. That does seem like cause for concern; I would be interested to know whether the difference in book reading/book buying is somehow related to gender differences in test scores, college attendance, and college graduation rates.

  6. based on 1.5 years of observation-book bloggers are about at least 85 percent women-I have wondered why this is true-I have some ideas but none I am confident in-maybe this relates to child rearing practices in which boys are more pushed into physical activities than girls-of course publishers care most it seems about the sale of brand new books not classics-in deciding what or when to read it never occurred to me to read or not read based on the percent of men in the publishing industry-I am man and have read compulsively since about age 10-interesting topic

  7. I'm glad that I took the time to read this post. It's very interesting. I've heard that girls are "more verbal" than boys, which could be a reason they're more attracted to books. Nature or nurture? Could it be that society still encourages girls to stay inside, with a book, while boys are encouraged to go outside and play? Or is it biological? I don't know. But I do know that things have changed a lot over the years--girls play sports and boys read books--but as a book blogger I've noticed that most of my "fellow" book bloggers are female, and I've also noticed a multitude of new novels penned by women. However, I was very pleased recently on a Saturday afternoon when I strolled into Barnes & Noble and saw many people, men, women, and children, in the store, browsing, as well as sitting at tables with books, reading.

  8. Hey, am here from the hop. I really liked this post, and your critique/observations on the Huffington Post article.

  9. Interesting take. I found you from the blog hop. I must admit I'm one of those who believe that men read less than women. I liked your observations.

  10. I had never really turned my mind to this before. When I think about it, what I find more unusual is that of all the men that I know that read, they all read science fiction and fantasy books. There is no variety in their reading. I wonder why that it?

    I saw that someone else mentioned the fact that most book bloggers are women as well... weird. Maybe its because blogging about books is perhaps a touch nerdy, and men more generally don't want to seem less 'manly' to their mates for doing something like book blogging? I could be way off, just thinking off the top of my head.

    I found you through the blogger hop and haven't seen such a unique blog for quite awhile. I have become a follower and will definitely be back.

  11. I read, but I often have difficulty directing my reading. A friend distributes a list every Christmas of his recommendations from the prior year. As a result, I've loved novels I would have never read. Likewise, I've labored through novels I would have never read. I like to research everything to which I commit time / resources (electric Shimano and indestructible luggage have been recent obsessions... wine is a constant obsession). The examples represent a finite set of possibilities. With literature, the possibilities are limitless. Thus, the recommendation from a friend provides a 'lazy' way for me to narrow the possibilities because someone I trust has recommended. The library request system determines the order.

    The theory on men reading less... well, I always get stuck driving when we get away, and my wife reads... on a 16 hour return trip to Portland, she gets through 2 novels... I get a sunburn on my right arm.

  12. Most of my friends that are avid readers are men. Yet if these satistics are true, my guess is that men will pick and choose their five more carefully and read something very worthwhile. Whereas if women are reading more, it's usually horrendously boring drivel - romance, YA, 'dark fantasy'.

    Says the woman, who reads none of the above.

  13. Yet another interesting and thought provoking post. Great blog!

  14. It sometimes does seem more women than men are readers. I used to work in a public library and saw more women than men most of the time, but those women were also getting books for their husbands. Someone also mentioned that women are also the ones who blog the most, that's because women have more to say than most of us guys. I've had a blog for over 2 years, and I have less than 20 posts on it.

    Anyway, when I was little, my mom instilled in me a love of reading, she has a mild form of dyslexia, so she wanted to make sure I didn't miss out. My dad does a lot of reading himself, so both of them were very encouraging. Now, I'm a fair to middling writer who is an avid reader.

  15. I've been thinking about this post and I came back to mention the gender gap in book blogging but apparently I'm not the only one who has noticed this. :)

  16. Whatever the cause of fewer men reading, I don't think it has anything to do with choices. Many of the men I know read romance and mainstream novels as well as adventures, thrillers, crime and male escapist fantasy. It probably depends on the company I keep and me pushing all kinds of books on them that I have read and reviewed.

    As for Pinter, someone should edit his copy. If he expects to bring back readers, it would be helpful to lead by example so no one is forgotten. (Leave off the about, Pinter, and dangle your participles elsewhere.)

  17. I had no idea that anyone thought men don't like to read. I thought everyone liked to read. ;) Thanks for being on the blog jog today. This is fun.

    Yvonne Perry
    Writers in the Sky
    Follow @writersinthesky on Twitter

  18. Well this sure turned out to be generative. Thanks for all of the comments here; it looks like a follow up post or two might be in order.

    This blog is new and in my research on book blogs I did notice the predominance of women in book blogging. I'm not sure what exactly that means/doesn't mean, but I'm going to do something thinking about it.

    Thanks to all for thinking along with me.

  19. Was just hopping by and found this post...interesting stuff. It also seems true to me, which my friends and I have discussed at great length, that men don't form book groups or book clubs. I know of only one book group that has any men in it. I don't think all women read because their in book groups, but it seems to be part of the phenomenon. It's interesting to think about what Pinter might mean about "books for men." Great blog. I'm a new follower.

  20. The author at the HP raises a relevant topic but he couldn't have gone further off track. If the publishing industry has shifted its focus to women, a plausible claim, I suppose, it is an effect of the fact that more women than men are reading. This trend needs to be viewed in terms of a larger cultural phenomenon that is also reflected in the fact that  women are graduating from college more often than men even as men are graduating in greater numbers than ever.   The fact of the matter is that women have been on a tear as sex discrimination has waned, even if the fruits are not yet fully reflected in terms of equal pay and promotions to certain positions. While I haven't combed through all the statistics, I believe the disparity has arisen not so much because men are reading less, (I bet they are reading even more than in the past) but because women are reading that much more, and have leapfrogged ahead. If I am wrong about any of that, I welcome correction.  

    "Department of Education statistics show that men, whatever their race or socioeconomic group, are less likely than women to get bachelor's degrees — and among those who do, fewer complete their degrees in four or five years. Men also get worse grades than women......women are walking off with a disproportionate share of the honors degrees." 
    At Colleges, Women Are Leaving Men in the Dust