Do men read books about Mars while women prefer tales of Venus?

Defining who reads what and why is not as simple as publishers seem to think

A book.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

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Men aren't interested in fiction. It's the kind of generalization that's difficult to prove with a high degree of certainty, but also seems obviously true. Publishers have believed for decades that women buy the vast majority of novels. In recent years, women authors have also topped the bestseller lists. For a long time, men continued to enjoy the lion's share of prestige, including lucrative contracts, literary prizes, and high-profile media appearances. But that's changing too, as cultural institutions promote books written by and, commercially speaking, for women almost to the exclusion of those produced by male writers and aimed at a male audience.

Publishing is notorious for the unreliability of its market research and these observations may seem unreliable. But they're consistent with my own intuitions. As far as I know, I'm the only man in my social circle who regularly buys fiction. Yet I find it increasingly difficult to identify novels that I have the slightest desire to read. While it's true that you can't judge a book by its cover, the profusion of bright colors, fake handwritten fonts, exclamation points and other appeals to women's presumed taste make it clear that neither publishers nor bookstores are catering to my interests.

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Female dominance of literature shouldn't be shocking. In certain ways, it's just a consequence of the social economy of the novel itself. Even though we don't have reliable sales figures for the period, writers and publishers in the 18th and 19th centuries understood that most readers were women. In New Grub Street, George Gissing's depiction of the Victorian literary world, struggling authors understood very well that their livelihoods depended on satisfying middle-class ladies who bought subscriptions to lending libraries (before the advent of paperbacks, books were very expensive).

The prestige of fiction, and its appeal to men, rose later on, partly due to modernist techniques that seemed to distinguish serious literature from mere entertainment. Gestures toward high art were rivaled by separate efforts like Gissing's to merge novels with journalism, depicting seamy and sometimes brutal aspects of life that were previously ignored. After World War II, finally, novel-writing, like other cultural genres that had historically been suspect for their commercial associations, was reclaimed as a vehicle for individual self-expression. What critic Stephen Marche calls the literature of voice was all about an irreducibly personal encounter with the world, often described in pyrotechnically dazzling prose.

These movements created genuine artistic achievements, as well as plenty of junk that has been rightfully forgotten. Even so, I can understand why they might have been unsatisfying to many readers, perhaps especially women. The most prominent Anglophone literary authors of the late 20th century ended up writing a lot of books about brilliant men with personal backgrounds very like their own enjoying rampant sex lives. The turn against literary masculinity is partly a conscious reaction against the so-called "big beasts" of the 80s and 90s.

That reaction helps explain the moral case for publishing and reading books by and about women. In a piece for British GQ, writer Ash Sarkar chided her boyfriend for not keeping up with literary trends. "Literary fiction is how we can study human frailty, making the world of feelings, friendship, love, personal dilemma, rivalry, money, and psychology rich terrain for exploration," Sarkar observed. By ignoring the new crop of women writers, her boyfriend was cutting himself off from these dimensions of life.

The piece was mocked on social media because Sarkar's description of her boyfriends' reading habits belied her criticism. In fact, his bookshelf (or electronic equivalent) contained both women, like Ursula LeGuin, and male writers, including China Mieville, who intentionally subverts familiar tropes of sex and gender. Sarkar's objection seemed to be less about the authors or the contents of their books, than their ostensibly non-literary quality.

But preemptively excluding speculative fiction, like other "genre" writing, merely replaces one form of snobbery with another. If it's unreasonable for men to dismiss Jane Austen as writing chit-chat about feelings, it's equally silly to dismiss books that reckon with the implications of technology as boys' fantasies about going to the moon. As the work of William Gibson, among others, shows, there's plenty of scope for exploring rivalry, money, and psychology there. Similarly, the way that genre fiction tends to emphasize high-stakes plots over mundane experiences doesn't mean it's inattentive to personal relationships. Despite its swashbuckling components, Patrick O'Brian's series of nautical novels is really about friendship between the two protagonists — a subject that even male "literary" writers have rarely depicted so minutely.

Sarkar also doesn't consider the possibility that some of the books she likes may not be very good — or at least, not for everyone. Jane Austen is one thing. Sally Rooney, probably the most commercially successful representative of the current era in literature, writes a flat, impersonal prose. Contrasting the pursuit of a distinctive voice that obsessed both male and female writers in the past, Marche describes this approach as the literature of pose. This way of writing evidently appeals to many people — Rooney's books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide. To me, though, it seems very boring.

Sarkar has a point, then, when she concludes that the white, male "Big Dogs of prestige literature can't present themselves as the universal perspective anymore." At the same time, there's no reason to defer to the still mostly white, female leaders of the new generation in fiction and publishing as sole arbiters of quality. It may just be the case that men and women tend to like different kinds of books for different reasons. A healthy publishing industry will find ways to satisfy both.

That doesn't necessarily mean publishing imitations of postwar giants like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, who were themselves literary rebels against what they saw as stifling WASP gentility. One of the most impressive literary novels of the last few years was Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is most easily described as a speculative history of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976, except written with polyvocality of Faulkner in Jamaican patois. In my very unsystematic experience, that's a literary novel that men who don't think they like literary fiction enjoy reading.

There are other underserved markets. The domination of publishing and literature by highly educated women encourages an existing bias in favor of progressive politics, even when they're not the explicit theme. In the journal IM-1776, provocateur Michael Anton encourages donors to identify and support young artists of a more or less right-wing bent. Given the increasing correlation between gender and ideology, conservative or even reactionary literature might end up being more appealing to male readers.

That's where my own reading list is tending. Right now, I'm waiting for delivery of German writer Uwe Tellkamp's 2009 novel The Tower: Tales from a Lost Country. (I'm going to try it in German, but may surrender and pick up the translation.) Previously celebrated by the cultural establishment, Tellkamp, who published a new novel this week, has become controversial due to links with the German "New Right". Ideological commitment is notoriously dangerous for art and I don't know if Tellkamp's work was good before he became more famous for his opinions than his novels. But I'm more excited to read it than yet another chronicle of an unhappy marriage.

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