Monday, August 6, 2012

Gender Shift in Reading

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...


  1. Ugh. YA bestsellers aren't the only books out there, and in fact, YA and romance are the only two genres I can think of where female writers predominate. Men & boys don't read and write less than they did, it's just that girls have now outnumbered them.
    And frankly, this whole debate is completely useless. The only thing that matters IMO is that young people read at all.

  2. The fact that it's tougher for male writers to break through (be published and achieve success) in certain genres where the majority of readers are now female probably hinges mostly on the fact that they target their stories wrong. Men and women are interested in different things, not radically different but different aspects of things, and if you direct your attention in your fiction toward one "side" you can't expect the other side to swarm all over it, regardless if you're male or female as a writer.

  3. There are so many fantastic women authors..and fantastic male authors. I don't know how many female agents or authors or whatever, there are out there..but good for them! I think it's only fairly recently that women have been encouraged to be writers.
    Women, culturally, were thought so little of that it was normally considered a waste of time to educate a women...(some cultures still treat women as second class citizens, property of their father and then their husband), the way I see it, what we (women) wrote back in the days of Mary Shelley, Jane Austen and George Eliot, took so much more...what's the word? ....gumption?...(yes, that's right, I speak Grizzled 19th Century Prospector.)...because many times the writing had to be done under such oppression, and even incognito, that only those women who were desparate to say something actually did.
    I think at that time it would have been scandalous if it were found out that a women was actually writing a book.
    One of my favourite novels is 'The Stone Angel', by Margaret Laurence..

  4. It does seem most of the young adult is aimed at girls. But there wasn't young adult when I was a kid, so I went straight to reading adult science fiction and fantasy. And there are still a lot of those titles being released.
    Never read non-fiction as a kid. Didn't appreciate it until I was an adult.

  5. Dammit - I can't be insightful on my phone. I can't type fast enough. Needless to say, I have thoughts.

  6. Maybe it's just a trend? I have no idea. I do know quite a few boys that do like to read, and they like fantasy with wizards and dragons and such. Boys like knights and assassins and monsters. That's a generalization but maybe people aren't writing enough of these kinds of books.

  7. Vero: Actually, I'm not basing my statement that men and boys read less on a perception of that but on data that shows that men and boys read less. Male readers have been declining over the last few decades. It's at the point where publishers are concerned with it, and, if publishers are concerned, then it's something that's actually happening. In researching for this post, I read a number of studies, etc all reporting the same thing.

    At any rate, I do agree that the goal is to get young people involved in reading and keep them reading; however, the current issue is engaging boys in reading, because girls are not having the issue that boys are in finding material that they are interested in.

    Eve: When Frankenstein was first released, it was anonymously. 5 years later, when the second edition was released, it was credited to Mary, and it began to be blasted by critics and other authors because it was written by a woman.
    I like that women write, and many of my favorite books are by women.
    I don't think that makes it okay to push the men out altogether, though. :P

    Alex: Sci-fi has been a shrinking field over the past couple of decades also. Fantasy has been doing pretty well, but, then, fantasy is dominated by female readers also.

    Rusty: Well, I hope you can remember your insights when you get home!

    Michael: In part, it is a trend; however, I think it goes deeper than that, too, in that it's not just a fad.

  8. Just in case anyone is unclear on this point, Andrew is a total feminist. He's certainly not advocating for women to stop writing or reading or editing or publishing or agenting, or for women's voices or interests/concerns to be subordinate to men's. He's just pointing out that we've got a new and developing issue with men and boys as readers. Reading has become a "feminine" domain in cultural perception; "real men" don't read or write, they grunt and point at the TV. It's sort of akin to how men are stereotypically portrayed in media as inept at communication with women, or childcare, or household management. The perception that any domain belongs to one gender is bad for the domain and bad for people as a whole.

    Sarah aka Andrew's wife

  9. I generally feel that most YA is crap - whether it's aimed at girls (which it mostly is) or boys. MG is where it's at. There's a lot more gender neutral books in Middle Grade fiction, which I think is a really good trend. Harry Potter, yes, but then there's also Percy Jackson and Peter and the Starcatchers - both series with male protagonists that can appeal to both boys and girls. Young kids should start there and mostly just skip YA and go right to adult fiction.

  10. my wife: Bah! I am not a total feminist! Me REAL MAN! Go beat chest now!

    S.L.: That's been my experience with it so far. Unfortunately.
    I hated Percy Jackson, though. Starcatchers was awesome!

  11. Another thought-provoking post, Andrew. Oh how the tides have turned. This issue is much the same in Australia too. I'd love to see it balance out more, and I will encourage my children to read, regardless of their gender. (two weeks till I find out the gender of the one in my belly!)

  12. I only have the one son (fifteen) and he's a high ability learner who's been reading at a twelfth grade level since he was like ten years old, and yet I can't get him to read a novel unless I or a teacher mandate it. I made him read The Hunger Games and he did finish the trilogy because he enjoyed it. He has a handful of books he loves, but he continues to prefer reading non-fiction. He's a walking encyclopedia of information, but fiction? Meh. If he hadn't come out of my womb, I might not believe we were related. :P

    Interesting topic, though I have no idea what to make of it on a broad scale except, um, go women writers? :)

  13. Cally: Yeah, I think that's part of the problem, right now: people tend to just dismiss boys from reading -because- they're boys, and that's just not okay.
    What do you hope it will be?

    L.G.: You should see what he thinks about my book. My oldest is 16, and he loves it (apart from being my son, even).

  14. Huh. I've heard of the problem with boys not reading, of course. I hadn't thought about boys reading nonfiction, but now you point it out, that was a trend when I was younger, certainly. And when I gave my brother a nonfiction book and two (fiction) Neil Gaiman books for Christmas, what did he read first? Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Who knows if he's read the Neil Gaiman books.

  15. I've heard of this issue frequently and it is a concern, because my oldest is a boy. He loves to read right now, and I will encourage him to read adult novels I have loved when it comes to that time. I never read YA, just skipped to adult (Stephen King first). Funnily enough, My YA/MG ideas are always boy centered, while my adult ideas tend to be female centered.

  16. Callie: Boys and girls do certainly approach reading differently.

    Shannon: Well, if he's reading now, he's probably going to be okay. I mean, if he's reading fiction now.

  17. I would ultimately like a boy and a girl. One of each. I don't mind which comes first.

  18. Cally: Well, let us know when you know!

  19. Andrew, he reads both. It was only this year that he started bringing home a lot of non-fiction books, but they were always accompanied by fiction books. ~Happy~

  20. Shannon: That's interesting. What kind of non-fiction is he interested in?