Whatever happened to lads’ lit? Why don’t men read books by women? And how do we change the fact that many men haven’t picked up a book since school, asks Chris Moss.
Think of a man. Think of a book. What do you see? A shiny sci-fi novel? Crime, or horror perhaps? A “how to” car manual? Or a serious work of “literature”?
Gender and genres have a relationship that goes back centuries. While there is no “men’s section” in a bookshop or website, there’s no end of texts tailored for males. Do women read Roy Keane’s splenetic memoir any more than men read Jojo Moyes’ tearjerking tales of love and loss?
In its Books and Consumer Survey 2015, Nielsen Bookscan – the principal auditor of British reading habits – found that 46 per cent of all books bought in 2014 were for males (i.e. men and boys). That’s a little below half, but not perhaps hugely significant.
More interestingly, the same survey showed that 39 per cent of adult fiction works and 56 per cent of non-fiction were for males, suggesting men are not so keen on keeping up-to-date with storytelling, but slightly ahead of women when it comes to reading history, politics and biography.
A November 2014 survey of 20,000 men and 20,000 women by the Amazon-owned Goodreads website found that women read the same number of books as men overall but twice as many books published in that year.
Furthermore, while half of the readership of a new book written by a man will be female, when women write books, their readership is a whopping 80 per cent female. Is this because women’s interests – fictional as well as non-fictional – are too girly, or because men’s books are coolly ungendered? Or is it a reflection of sexist reading habits?
As Simon & Schuster’s fiction editorial director Clare Hey points out, “Does Jonathan Franzen really have more to say to men about society and family than Elizabeth Strout, for example?” Did I hear you say: who she? Lads’ lit – books by men about emotions and relationships at the turn of the millennium – was largely a media invention, a peri-millennial blip that never expanded far beyond a couple of entertaining romantic novels by Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons. David Nicholl’s One Day was principally a hit with women readers. Meanwhile, the shelves of “chick lit” continue to sag under the burden of a myriad sub-genres, from wedding-lit to cupcake-lit to separation-lit.
So does this mean men are not turning to contemporary writers for ideas about love, sex and family?
“There are still examples of great books in that area,” says Clare Hey. “Matt Haig’s The Humans, for example, and The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. We’ve just published The Two of Us by Andy Jones – it’s a love story, yes, but it’s told by a man from a man’s perspective and that gives it a freshness.”
The exceptions seem to prove the rules here. Publishers wrap women’s books in pink covers to make them stand out as works of the heart. New general fiction for men tends to be packaged as either comic or “literary”. The latter is not only a specious, often sexist category, but also begs the question: are we putting some potential male readers off by making books seem more demanding than they actually are?
If women read more contemporary novels, it’s partly to do with the fact that they have more magazines touting books at them. Newspapers give very limited space to commercial fiction. Also, booksellers are creatures of habit; if women have seemed to buy more books in the past, then there is more retail space given over to their tastes so that they carry on being the main consumers.
As they exit their teens, many men are leaving reading behind, giving up books for other hobbies. A poll of 2,000 British men and women ahead of World Book Night last year found 75 per cent of men would opt for the big screen version of a story, while 30 per cent admitted they had not picked up a book since they were at school.
“More work still needs to be done in transitioning boys into reading adult men,” says Ed Wood, senior editor for men’s commercial fiction at Sphere. “There is now much more fantastic fiction for boys than when I was a child, when Terry Pratchett was our bridge to adulthood. But aside from Harry Potter, fiction for boys hasn’t had the Hunger Games/Twilight effect, where talking about books is something they carry over into young adulthood and beyond.
“Perhaps we men also have a tendency to return to trusted authors, much as we do a barber or a clothes shop. But if you do introduce new books to men, we will buy them. Books aimed at men can still be a big breakout hit, such as Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim, or Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography.”
For publishers, the male-reader market remains something of a Holy Grail. Everyone, of course, is looking for the next Dan Brown (religion, crime and dubious factoids tick a lot of men’s boxes) or Jo Nesbø (murder, madness and dubious morality tick a load of other boxes). Even though women read such books, they appeal directly to men through their male protagonists.
“Speaking as both reader and editor, what I look for is a killer concept and strong male voice with which I can connect,” says Ed Wood. “One of the most amazing books I’m publishing this year is called Made in Sweden Part I: The Father, by Anton Svensson. It’s a novel inspired by the true story of three brothers who robbed ten banks in two years in Sweden, and about the bonds they formed in childhood – and written by their real-life brother. It’s astonishingly good on what makes a boy become an criminal man, as well as being both heartbreaking and thrilling.”
But I wonder if there’s something in the world of the genre that suits the males psyche. Men’s magazines are, after all, organized according to hobbies and pursuits. Men like things in boxes – and crime, thrillers, sci-fi, sports and other clearly identifiable genres still show up strong in the annual and decade bestseller lists amid all the cookbooks, celebrity puff and books for women. Female chicklit readers are often formula-addicts. Perhaps male genre readers are autists of the imagination?
There may be a deeper issue here, which connects our reading habits to recent reports about male depression and loneliness.
“For men there can be very few areas of life where they are allowed to show emotion or talk about how things make them feel,” says Dr Jane Davis, founder and director of The Reader Organisation, a charity that works to connect people with serious literature.
“In our shared reading groups we find that reading and discussing what they think of a poem or story creates a safe way to discuss emotional issues without needing to say it is about them because it is just about the person in the story.
“Tony, one of our group members recently said, ‘It’s done me a lot of good. It’s all right going the pub and having a laugh with your mates but sometimes you’ve got to, y’know, enrich your soul. I don’t sleep well at the best of times but this helps me relax. It’s a lot better than taking a Prozac!’ This way of reading boosts confidence and can lead away from depression, anxiety and social isolation.”
Or, as Ed Wood puts it: “A good book changes you. It can help you recognise aspects of yourself or others that you’d never appreciated; or it can be simple entertainment, in itself a healthy part of the balance of life and something we need to recognise as important. It’s in stories that we connect with ourselves – or perhaps the person we would like to be.”
Last year the public and publishing professionals alike embraced the social media campaign #readwomen2014, which was started – by author Joanna Walsh – as a response to male-skewed coverage in the reviews pages. Perhaps it’s now time for #ManReads, for the good of our health.
By Chris Moss