Monday, February 23, 2009

Who's Reading?

The most recent issue of THE NEW YORKER includes a long profile of Ian McEwan, by Daniel Zalewski. The entire article is interesting, but one small bit especially caught my attention. Three years ago, McEwan and his son conducted an experiment in a London park. They handed out thirty novels from McEwan's library (not his own novels) to persons chosen at random. In an essay in the GUARDIAN, McEwan gave the results: "Every young woman we approached...was eager and grateful to take a book," but the men "could not be persuaded. 'Nah, nah. Not for me Thanks, mate, but no.'"

Are women just more acquisitive, or do they read much more fiction? McEwan is convinced of the latter ("When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.") The Romance Writers of America boast that 68% of fiction sales in the United States are category romances, whose readers are overwhelmingly female.

Yet it seems to me that I know just as many men who read as women who do so. This is, of course, a small sample and probably not representative: I tend to know people because they read. And the SF community, a large fraction of my acquaintanceship, has a strong tradition of being male. But if it's true that, overall, many more women than men read fiction, the question becomes: Why?

11 comments:

Pug said...

A suggestion is that men seem to have a clearer idea of what they dislike than women. And if a man doesn't know the book, they will probably turn it down, while a woman will be more likely to try it out before she makes up her mind about it.

We men are kind of stupid that way, if we don't know it we will probably avoid it until someone we know recommends or mentions it to us

John Nicholas said...

I'd also wonder if it was clear what was being offered. I'm an avid reader but would probably think twice about accepting a book offered to me in a park because I would assume it was connected to a cult or at least some kind crank topic.

Mark said...

I've noticed in my work that if we run a promotion to give away a service or item *for free* people are suspicious ("What's the catch?") and refuse it. If I offer the same thing for a discount people are more apt to try it. The discount doesn't always have to be real, either. Jewelry stores are infamous for this; everything is always "on sale, 99% off!!!!!!!"

Mike Flynn said...

I wonder what the results would have been if, instead of trying to press free books onto passing strangers, he had set up a table and sold them to browsers at $1 apiece. Some people dislike being accosted.

Self-selection there, too. Readers will stop to browse.

Time of day may also matter. Who is out and about at that time and place?

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Not enough information to judge, Nancy. =Who= was offering the books? Was it a little girl saying, "Would you like to read this book? My daddy wrote it!" Or a decrepit derelict saying, "Take this! It will change your fucking life!"

Lots of ways to do it. I see a PhD thesis here!

Luke said...

It may be politically incorrect to suggest that men and women differ in any way, but I know far more female readers than male. In my own family and the workplace, the default is that the women read some fiction, the occasional novel or what have you, while the men read close to nothing beyond periodicals. (This general tendency is the opposite of my own immediate family-- my wife does not read at all and I am an avid reader). Even among my male friends that I grew up reading SF with, their intake of fiction has absolutely plummeted.

Any speculation as to why this is would be even more politically correct, but I can think of a few. It's kind of the same reason why men flick through the channels at a rapid pace while women usually spend a bit more time on each channel. Reading a book requires "listening" and being open to another's "voice" for a long period of time. Men, whether by temperament or culture, generally aren't as good listeners as women and are taught that the excel by pushing their voice onto others. There's also the idea in the professional world that you should something related to your chosen profession or self-advancement, and recreational reading is frivolous and feminine.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Luke, women talk more than men. That is a simple =fact=, and anyone who denies it hasn't spent much time observing people. Now why might that be? Well, for one thing, mothers teach their babies to talk!
"All right, Sara, we're going for a walk now. Mommy will put your pink sweater on now...can you say pink? Pink? Oh, what a good girl! Say it to Mommy again? Pink? Pink?"

I think women invented agriculture too, but that's another story...(grinning smiley).

John N., I gotta say I enjoy reading "fringe" literature. It's a delight to see what happy horseshit people--many of whom are just as 'smart' as you or me--take as the Word. But then, I'm a Fortean...

Eric said...

Bluesman: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002637.html looks at some data that shows that men and women talk at pretty much the same rate.

Eric said...

Whoops! Link got munched. Try this one:LanguageLog article

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002637.html

Luke said...

You're right, my theories are probably half-arsed. ;)

James A. Ritchie said...

I remember a similar experiment several years ago, only they were giving away dollar bills instead of books. Most men refused the dollar bills, and most women accepted them.

I suspect this all goes to the personality differences between men and women, rather than to which group reads more.