Over the last few decades, something has happened to the reading world. Some people probably think it's about time and, in some ways, that's true; however, that doesn't make it a good thing. Maybe it's a necessary thing; I don't know.
Historically, reading (and writing) has been a man's game. Like so many things, reading was for men and writing was done by men, and that's all there was to it. Part of that is because education was for men. Sure, girls got some basic education, but higher education was for men, and, therefore, writing was done by men. This is not to say that there were not exceptions, like the Bronte sisters, but, by and large, it was all for men by men. Even Frankenstein was somewhat of a fluke, because what Mary really did was manage Percy's career, so to speak. She was never trying to be a writer; she just ended up writing that one, excellent novel.
Then the 20th century came along and equal rights for women and everything began to change. Not noticeably at first, but most changes don't happen all at once; they happen by degrees, and you don't notice them until you've been boiled like a frog. Which is not to say that I think we have been boiled like frogs, except, maybe, men have been boiled like frogs with these current changes.
I'm not going to go tracing back through all of what I think brought us to where we are. There are really only two important things of note:
1. Women began to realize that they could write, so they did. Mostly under male sounding pen names, at first, or using their initials. This is still somewhat true today in the midst of our female-centric writing world. Note J.K. Rowling, because the publisher didn't want to scare away male readers.
2. Because women began writing (women like Judy Blume), girls began reading. Not that girls hadn't read prior to that, but the ones that did read read the same stuff aimed at male readers. When women began writing, they began, more and more, to gear their writing to female readers, so girls started reading more.
From that point on, it became a cycle rather in the same sort of way that a hurricane starts, and, so, now, we are in the midst of a storm of women writers and girl readers. Don't get me wrong, I don't have any problem at all with women writing and girls reading; I'm all for it, in fact. The problem, though, is that boys have quit reading because of all of this. In effect, reading has become a woman's game, and men don't want to play anymore.
Of course, culturally, we want to blame it on the boys. As if it has always been a problem getting boys to read, but that's just not true. I don't have any statistics for you (because, frankly, I couldn't find anything that appeared even remotely reliable (everything seemed geared toward proving whatever the author of whatever study wanted to prove with the study)), but there are a few things that were consistent among several reports:
1. Girls (traditionally and currently) begin reading fiction at an earlier age. In fact, girls begin reading by reading fiction.
2. Boys (traditionally and currently) begin reading non-fiction. (This was certainly true for me. I started out reading about things I was interested in: dinosaurs, astronomy, historical figures.)
3. Traditionally, girls' interest in reading would taper off as they got older and interested in whatever it used to be that got girls got interested in. That's where the stereotype of the nerdy girl that read all the time came from; it used to be weird for a teenage girl to be interested in reading. Not so anymore. It's rather expected, these days, for girls to be reading.
4. Traditionally, boys' interest in reading would morph from non-fiction to fiction and boys would continue to read. Not all, of course, just like not all girls continue to read these days, but it was normal for teenage boys to be interested in reading, i.e. not seen as weird. However, today, boys are no longer morphing to the fiction stage. Instead, they are losing interest in reading.
Let's focus on point 4 for a moment.
There are all sorts of arguments about why this is happening and they encompass everything from TV to video games to the fact that "boys are boys," as if that should be enough to explain it. But I really don't think any of that is what's at the root of the issue. Sure, there are many distractions to reading these days, but there have always been distractions to reading. I read a lot when I was a kid (as in I won the school reading contest in 4th grade and should have won it in 3rd grade, but that's another story (and I didn't win in 5th and 6th grade because I changed schools)), and it was still the last thing I did every day. I mean, I only read when I didn't have something more exciting to do, so distractions have always existed. Also, parents are no less likely these days to encourage reading than they've ever been, so that, also, is not a factor. So what's changed?
Books have changed. Yeah, yeah, I know. All of those older books still exist, but you also know that people don't naturally gravitate to what's older. I mean, you don't see anyone out there boasting about their Atari 2600 anymore, right? Or, even, their Wii. Generally speaking, people become invested in what's new before they begin to explore what's old. At least, if they're left to do it on their own, as most kids are with reading.
What this means is that you get books that are new and hot and geared toward... girls. Like The Hunger Games and Twilight, books that boys just aren't all that interested in. Not that no boys read them, but most boys do not. Most boys have no interest in those stories. We have a remarkably feminine market, and it doesn't have a lot of room for boys at the moment.
The writers are women. The agents are women. The publishers are... well, they're probably all old men, but they're just in it for the money and probably don't read anyway. And, so, if you're trying to sell a book through traditional publishing, as most people are still trying to do, you're writing to the market. Just recently, I was reading through the first couple of chapters of a book I was asked to critique by a male author. Good voice. No real grammar issues. Female main character. Why? Because that's what the market wants. At least, that's what we think the market wants. (And I'm not saying there's anything wrong with guys writing female leads, but, really, unless you have a specific need for that, why not write what you know?)
Oh, and before anyone says "Harry Potter!" at me, yes, I know. Harry was a male lead character, but, really, who was the backbone of that story? Who got Harry through all of his predicaments? Who was it that was talented and strong and smart? Let me just say, it wasn't Harry.
So what am I getting at here? You know, honestly, I don't know. This is all from a series of conversations I've had with my wife about how books today are not the same as books when we were kids. Honestly, when I was a kid, I didn't read anything aimed at my age group. I did read new stuff, but I shopped in the sci-fi/fantasy section of my book store, because there wasn't really a young adult section. Well, there was, but that's not what it was called, and it was full of teen romance books aimed at girls. Stuff I had no interest in. The books in the young adult section are not much different from that today. Mostly. They're still teen romance stories, they just have a bunch of paranormal stuff and killing thrown in to disguise them. So it's no wonder that boys aren't interested.
What we do know, as a society, is that we want kids to read. I mean, we say this, but we don't do much about it. Especially, right now, we want boys to read. This is not something that needs to be an either-or situation. It's not either girls read or boys read. There should be plenty of opportunity for both. Bringing boys back into the game is going to take two things:
1. Parents willing to invest the time to make their boys read. Yes, I said "make." Learning to read is like learning to ride a bike; it's hard at first, but it's easy once you get the hang of it. If you've ever taught a kid to ride a bike, you'll know that it's (generally) not a pleasant task. We used to enforce reading on all of our children just like we made our kids learn to ride bikes. It was never a fun thing making the kids sit and do reading, but, now, all of them do it because they want to do it.
2. Getting guys back into the writing game and getting them back into writing their own stories, not stories for the market. I think guys have it a bit rougher in the publishing world, right now, because of the whole thing from agents about needing to "be in love" with the story before they'll give you representation. Most agents are women. I'm not going to spell that out for you. You're smart people. I'm sure you can figure that out on your own. At any rate, what it means is that stories geared for boys just aren't making it out into the market.
I'm not preaching any kind of conspiracy here. That's not what I'm saying at all. There's nothing nefarious going on. What is going on is human nature. However, if we really want boys to start reading again, we have to start making the reading world a place that's more friendly toward boys than it currently is. And that doesn't mean pandering to them either. Boys aren't looking for books about action and mindless violence. When they want that, there are plenty of video games that do that better than a book ever will. Boys want books that speak to them, about the kinds of issues that they face, just like girls want books that speak to them. They want something deeper and more meaningful than a video game. They want something real.
Maybe it's time we start giving it to them...