Male Brains, Female Brains and Fictional Narrative

People aren’t buying literary fiction, we are told. Male readers in particular aren’t buying it. The reasons given these days are sometimes based on what academics call “essentialist” explanations; in other words, these activities — or lack thereof — are the result of genes. Women, we are told in recent articles by Ian McEwan, Boris Johnson and others, are hard-wired to empathize and be interested in relationships. Men are more interested in practical issues and, that catch-all word, “facts”. Or, according to this line of thought, they are not interested in reading at all.

An interesting response to this argument was made recently by Lakshmi Chaudhry of In These Times. Chaudhry begins her piece by criticizing David Brooks of the NYT for stating that boys are reading less than girls because schools are teaching “feminized” books.

Chaudhry’s initial point is that Brooks was indulging in neo-conservative thinking. While allowing that there may be a cognitive — that is, genetic — explanation for different reading patterns among men and women, she emphasizes the importance of social conditioning:

“But in a culture infused with polarizing messages about gender, such small differences can be magnified into vast disparities. If the act of reading novels today seems more “girly” — because of female-dominated book clubs or a publishing industry increasingly geared toward its most loyal customers, i.e., women – then men are less likely to do so.”

In short, Chaudhry wants to emphasize the importance social attitudes play, and ends her article by declaring we “we may be headed back to the 19th century, when the novel was considered a low-status, frivolous pastime of ladies of leisure, unfit for real men.”

It needs underlining that this is not an outcome Chaudhry wishes for; in her piece, she suggests that we need to re-engage male readers, especially at the high school level. And this is true. But in her counter-argument to Brooks’ socio-conservative overgeneralizations, Chaudhry misses a crucial point (and also makes an inaccurate overgeneralization of her own: she claims that during the 19th Century, novels were derided as frivolous and the past-time of “ladies of leisure”. In fact, this was clearly untrue during the Victorian period). Before the mid-20th Century, the novel was narrative form. Or rather, it was narrative in its long, stylistically “real” form. As Michael Allen has pointed out, the novel had no competition as a form of narrative from non-print media. And this cultural milieu in which the printed word was paramount was a major factor in the novel’s success as an artistic medium.

The last sentence is key; for if that point at which culture and technology meet were to remain eternally static, it is unlikely the novel would be in danger, as Chaudhry claims, of losing its prestige as a centerpiece of culture if society became more sexist. And that, of course, is because technology does affect culture. Very much so, where the production of narrative is concerned. As a result, when we think of fiction we should not think of novels versus non-fiction books. We should think of novels and movies and TV shows versus non-fiction. For most of the movies and TV shows that are popular are still fictional in nature; they are made up. And their audiences, one presumes, are both male and female.

This is the mistake of the current debate over the fate of the novel: it does not include all fictional narratives in the same large group. It does not recognize that fiction – when defined to include fiction that exists in all media — is having zero trouble retaining its popularity amongst both sexes.

In short, there is no biological drive on the part of men to avoid fiction. Instead, there may (I repeat, may) be a biological drive on the part of men, generally speaking, to prefer image-based media to certain kinds of print-media. In other words, this drive may have no significant depressive effect on men’s overall amount of reading, but may incline them, as a group, to read factual material that can “compete” with the great temptation of images.

More clinical research will need to be done to understand these nuances between how male and female brains process cultural stimuli. (In fact, more research will need to be done in to the question of just what we mean when we use terms such as “male” and “female” brains.)

And, in the meantime, literary commentators attracted to this issue — which, after all, is not unimportant, since the perception that male and female readers buy different sorts of books is having a tremendous influence on the choices publishers are making these days — might do well to think a little more carefully about what we mean when we use terms like “literary fiction”. After all, literature is ultimately another word for good writing. And good writing exists in mediums outside print.

3 Responses

  1. sad but trueI’m a bookseller
    sad but true

    I’m a bookseller for one of the juggernauts of the industry and I often try to assess what larger demographics of people tend to buy literary fiction.

    Although this is clearly a non-scientific study and only based on my astute observations, I’ve come to the conclusion that nobody buys literary fiction. This is a sad, heartbreaking fact for those of us who love literary fiction and, like myself, write literary fiction.

    I’ve come to the realization that the largest demographic of book consumers is middle aged women. This is no new fact. Although things are clearly changing for the better in the workplace, for the majority of American families the man is still the breadwinner while there’s a huge number of stay at home moms. In our particular store, as I’m sure it is in many others around the country, these stay at home moms and the elderly make up a majority of the customers. Naturally, they start book clubs. I’ve asked many of the women why they join book clubs. The answer is often times to give them something to do. I’m a huge fan of book clubs because at least they tend to push literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction.

    In my own opinion I believe this has a lot to do with the larger numbers of women reading literary fiction. I hope this hasn’t come off as trite or sexist, just a simple observation from a 23-year-old male who happens to love and write literary fiction.

    Oh and on a side note, if we are to get the youth into enjoying fiction we need to stop feeding them the same anthologized prose over and over again. They need to learn the classics but it wouldn’t hurt to infuse some contemporary fiction they could connect better to ie. “On the Road” or “Jesus’ Son” or anything by Ray Carver. Even contemporaries such as Charles D’Ambrosio, David Means or James Salter.

  2. Isn’t life a blastRe:
    Isn’t life a blast

    Re: “Chaudhry’s initial point is that Brooks was indulging in neo-conservative thinking.”

    That is not a point or an argument but ad hominum.

  3. Passive Learners, One and
    Passive Learners, One and All

    There are many cultural reasons why people aren’t buying (i.e. reading) literary fiction today . . . and it’s true: they (especially males) aren’t. I think it has to do less with male brains vs. female brains and more to do with the technological society to have its whatever-gender-brains trained to be lazy, passive receivers of information of whatever kind. The fact is words are harder to process than images, and images are everywhere.

    That said, I do agree that there is something gender-oriented going on in this picture as well.

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