Girls and Reading

January 9th, 2009


Some savvy writers were discussing the New Yorker article about teen reading.

The usual denigrating points were made about young adult literature not being literature to those who don’t actually read it, but that’s SOP.

More of interest to me was this quote:

MISHAN: Teen-age boys don’t read, apparently. As Caitlin Flanagan writes in [Atlantic Monthly], an adolescent girl “is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.”

Not long ago I was reading some seventeenth century letters and essays that dealt with this very subject. Alarm! Girls of that tender age, just before marriage, are devouring novels! Oh noes, it’s the end of the world! Girls are also writing reams of letters to their friends about same novels. Charlotte Lennox wrote her Female Quixote to make a statement about this very danger, but it ends up too preachy for most modern readers to enjoy. Jane Austen did a far better job in the first half of Northanger Abbey when she depicts two young women talking passionately about reading–and then comes that brilliant discussion of novels, why they are unjustly (and hypocritically) condemned, whereas fictional but pompous speeches put in the mouths of historical figures are considered respectable and worthy.

My exploration into the history of female writers has led me to two conclusions: that with the rise of literacy young women especially were reading, dreaming, scribbling long letters as they found like-minded companions, writing their own poetry and novels (and fan fiction), in an effort not just to satisfy those emotional and spiritual cravings, but to better their lives. Everyone wanted a better life, for whatever definition of better fit. The reading and writing of letters et al was a way of trying out the ideas, inventing scenarios, in a pleasurable way. Certainly more pleasurable than sitting with one’s hands folded and back straight, listening to long hectoring sermons about Female Duty.

It seems to me that despite all predictions of the death of literacy that young women now, with perhaps more liberties than ever before, are still reading. Are they reading for the same reasons their foremothers did?

The article goes on about teen boys’ reading. Some maintain they don’t read, with few exceptions–with one person saying, …Those men end up joining the bourgeoisie in two ways: law school and untouched home libraries full of leather-bound Shakespeare. which I think says more about the speaker than about teen boys who read angsty and angry poetry, or listen to same in musical form.

I think the article is dead wrong to assume that boys don’t read. Speaking as a junior high and high school teacher for 20 years, I found that, as in my youth, when my male peers devoured comics (which were dismissed as trash) a lot of boys’ reading passes under authoritarian radar. Many boys read non-fiction, complicated game manuals, all kinds of material lying outside the purview of those Summer Reading Lists chockfull of earnest books deemed Good For You.

There’s another possibility, and that’s that many boys aren’t seen reading—they don’t make it a social act as do so many girls. Do boys read for different reasons than girls?

I read the Atlantic Monthly article quoted above, but except for a couple of points, found it disappointing. The writer gave a vivid example of reading to learn the “how tos” of life, but I really think that point is a given for all young folk. Her “I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me” was certainly daunting.

My feeling is that, just as tastes vary not only from person to person but in a single person over time, so does the experience of reading. Is it possible that girls are more likely to make reading a social act rather than a solitary one? A social and creative act? Because what first drew me to reading about the history of the novel, specifically the early novels of the 1600s and the rise of the salons, was how women swiftly organized themselves as soon as they found one another and a shared venue for expression.

Here are some quick impressions from my own non-academic and entirely sporadic reading.

The Renaissance brought about a revival in learning, with an especial focus on classical literature. The Renaissance contributed not just new ideas, but a new paradigm–the idea that the world could be different. From monarch to middle class, the use of classical vocabulary gave you style points–meanwhile, the content of the classics led to extrapolations in various forms of writing about what the ideal world could be . . . which in turn led to ideas about what the ideal man could be. Of course this “man” was assumed to be literate, and Castiglione exhorted in his book of social climbing, The Courtier, “He must be of noble birth.”

But though the language of classical literature was male, guess who else was reading? With the spread of wealth came leisure time, and as women had been denied much involvement in seignorial concerns, they turned to books. Women read, talked, penned reams of letters.

In the 1600s Madame Scud?ry’s novels were not just romances, but long conversations and careful details about courtly behavior. A lot of those conversations were published separately in the latter part of the century as manners manuals. They were meant to depict an ideal of civilized life–but eager young women read them in hopes of emulating those up the ranks, to better their lives.

Meanwhile, Louis XIII’s court was so uncouth that a remarkable woman named Madame Rambouillet opened her house in 1618, and for three decades the haut French courtiers and literati came to her place, instead of the king’s court, to speak about refined love, and other polite subjects. She designed the ruelles, or alcoves, which were to become a standard of most salons; at first made so that the temperature of the room could be controlled, these intimate little partial rooms appealed so strongly that other hostesses raced to make their own.

The definition of public and private was changing. To be private, and intimate, among chosen people, was also to be exclusive. Madame du Deffand, a famous salonniere of the mid-18th Century, took eighteen months to design and furnish her place, to a very specific design. No detail was deemed too trivial; the buttercup yellow silk wallpaper in her entertainment rooms was copied by most wannabe salonnieres throughout Europe.

What did all this mean? The romance is tied up in the betterment of life–the happy ending if all live up to a standard. Unfortunately, the focus here was the betterment of an exclusive society, rather than the betterment of all. Or rather, the two things conflicted, which caused rifts among women publishing in the years before the Revolution. Not surprisingly aristos wanted to hold onto power and privilege, and women born lower down on the totem pole felt that civilization ought to benefit all.

During the patriarchal nineteenth century, there was one calling where women could hold their own with men: reading—and writing.

It’s interesting to me, watching the remarkable organization of fanzine fandom (specifically fan fiction) over the past thirty years, done mostly by women. What’s going on underneath fanfic? A whole lot of stuff. Women writers exploring sexual questions is usually the first thing brought up (or mudball slung); but there is so much more going on—including the notion of transformative story. Are our attitudes toward story, ownership, creativity, and the meaning of ‘author’ changing?

39 Responses to “Girls and Reading”

  1. [...] Smith has written in article in reply to come discussions about the natural design for young women and girls to have a [...]

  2. [...] over at Deep Genre, Sherwood Smith has some deep thoughts about Girls and Reading that I like a bit better than that Caitlin Flanagan article though it rests on some of the same [...]

  3. Veracityon 10 Jan 2009 at 5:42 am

    she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.

    That describes my teen years pretty accurately.

  4. James Engeon 10 Jan 2009 at 7:02 am

    It’s weird how cultures need to impose a gender identity on reading. There was a tradition of women writing and reading in classical antiquity (e.g. Sappho in the Greek world, Cornelia and Clodia in the Roman world), which was mostly suppressed because the norms of literary culture were presumed to be masculine. Now something like the reverse seems to be happening: when I see a statement like “teen boys don’t read” I have a sense that my ox is being simultaneously gored by two horns: first, the sense that (as you say, Sherwood) what teen boys read doesn’t matter; second, the sense that teen boys who do read don’t matter–for the purposes of the discussion, they have been statisticked out of existence. I say arrrgh to all this.

    It strikes me that the novel triumphs over other forms in the 19th century and becomes the basic medium of literary exchange precisely because it was inclusive–so many of them were meant to be read aloud to the family circle (i.e. women and children), as opposed to being addressed primarily to the man of taste.

  5. Sherwood Smithon 10 Jan 2009 at 9:13 am

    Veracity: I think some forget just how many boundaries and invisible walls were placed around girls and unmarried women in particular, until relatively recently.

    James: exactly. That snide comment about the few boys who will read becoming (implied) phonies with leather and unread classics on their walls frosted my chitlins.

  6. Julia Rioson 10 Jan 2009 at 10:09 am

    One thing I find confusing about the assertion that those teen boys who read (literature/YA) will grow up to be lawyers with unread volumes of Shakespeare lining their walls is that it would seem to negate the possibility of men who read the Atlantic Monthly. Or are we meant to believe that men who enjoy reading come to it later in life because they are more serious about it?

    In any case, it does seem that girls treat reading as a social activity, and the connections you’ve drawn through historical examples are very interesting.

  7. Graceon 10 Jan 2009 at 10:14 am

    I just saw this linked on LJ while surfing friendsfriends and popped over. Interesting post.

    What I always find irksome is these assertions that there’s some fundamental biological difference between men and women when it comes to reading.

    Because the thing is, that always assumes that the US is the entire world. Comics and novels for boys (children and teens) are a huge industry in Japan. (And many of them are *gasp* romance-focused, another western-centric gender illusion shattered!)

    Maybe if everyone didn’t go around saying “boys don’t read” boys in the US wouldn’t get the idea that they’re not supposed to want to read.

    (As for girls, IME, they’re just as likely to not read as boys. In my high school class (of about 25; small school) there were maybe two or three other readers besides myself, period.)

  8. Another Damned Medievaliston 10 Jan 2009 at 10:50 am

    Hmmmm … you know, I just had a wonderful time the other night talking with a 14-YO girl about … reading! Actually, not so much about reading as about books, and which ones we liked, and whether or not the Twilight books were any good. There was squee-age and eventually, the other women at the table joined in. There was very much a ‘books as bonding’ thing going on that seems to happen whenever I visit friends with adolescent kids.

    Note the “kids”. I don’t think that it’s that boys don’t read. I think it’s that boys tend to veer towards different things. Most of the boys I grew up with in the 60s and 70s were readers, and many of my students, who are still in their very late teens and early 20s, are readers. But the guys tended towards harder sf and technical/scientific non-fiction (then), and now seem more to read manga and graphic novels.

    Anecdotally, there does seem to be more of an attraction for boys to fiction that deals with Big Issues, or with simple battles between Good and Evil, where girls tend to read stuff that helps them to puzzle out people, or to Mary Sue into other worlds where they can feel more empowered. But honestly, I don’t buy it.

    Mostly, I think that boys tend to have a broader range of social activities open to them, even today. One of the things I’ve noticed among my students is that the women involved in practice- and game-intensive sports tend to interact less with books than their less-athletic peers. So I think your idea of books as bonding probably has a lot of merit. Of course, one of the things l loved best about the greatest love of my life (a male person) was that we bonded over Buffy, then books, and happily spent afternoons reading together. But then, he’s probably the least athletic guy I’ve ever known …

  9. Another Damned Medievaliston 10 Jan 2009 at 10:54 am

    eep — I forgot to complete the boys/manga/graphic novel thought, which is that I’ve noticed that the young men of my acquaintance (family, kids of friends, and students) are just as happy to run into adults who can talk about the same things (as well as video games) — so maybe it’s that we don’t always see the bonding between boys over books because lots of adults consider sf/f, manga, and graphic novels beneath them, and so never get to cross that threshold?

  10. readerdianeon 10 Jan 2009 at 11:38 am

    As a 25+ yr. middle school teacher I want to speak to the comment about what students read. I have just as many girls in my low reading class as I have boys. The girls will try to read the novels but the boys are not as interested. If I can find the right book to hook them, then I have a chance. I have had the best luck with Roland Smith’s books-teen adventure. I still read aloud to my class so I can model reading and maybe get them interested in reading.

    Many students will say they aren’t reading, but they don’t give themselves any credit for reading non-fiction, magazines or comics. My husband, one of the smartest humans I know, doesn’t read novels at all. But he is constantly reading articles in magazines or online.

    I am thinking of having my students read a Manga for their next book report, therefore giving importance to that genre.
    By the way our book reports are often technology or online presentations, another way to hook them into reading.

  11. Lois Tiltonon 10 Jan 2009 at 12:55 pm

    I find it hard to believe anyone connected with SF could credit the proposition that boys don’t read.

    After all, “Everyone Knows” that only boys read SF. This was the market that Gernsback was aiming at, the boys who were reading Popular Mechanics and Boys Life.

    In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were rafts of magazines and stories for boys, such as the Boys Own Paper, and they were quite popular, particularly the genre of “school stories.” Harry Potter is a recapitulation of this genre, and instantly recognizable as such.

    George Orwell http://ghostwolf.dyndns.org/words/authors/O/OrwellGeorge/essay/boysweeklies.html had an interesting essay on this phenomenon:

    Here I am only dealing with a single series of papers, the boys’ twopenny weeklies, often inaccurately described as ‘penny dreadfuls’. Falling strictly within this class there are at present ten papers, the Gem, Magnet, Modern Boy, Triumph and Champion, all owned by the Amalgamated Press, and the Wizard, Rover, Skipper, Hotspur and Adventure, all owned by D. C. Thomson & Co. What the circulations of these papers are, I do not know. The editors and proprietors refuse to name any figures, and in any case the circulation of a paper carrying serial stories is bound to fluctuate widely. But there is no question that the combined public of the ten papers is a very large one. They are on sale in every town in England, and nearly every boy who reads at all goes through a phase of reading one or more of them.

    These papers exist because of a specialized demand, because boys at certain ages find it necessary to read about Martians, death-rays, grizzly bears and gangsters.

  12. Julie Andrewson 10 Jan 2009 at 3:00 pm

    I’m going to counter the idea that girls read to be social. If I’d done that when I was in school, I wouldn’t have been reading all the sf I was reading. I don’t even know what I would’ve been reading.. the only thing I remember other girls reading are those teen girl magazines. (The best thing I ever got out of one of those is a tear-out of Wil Wheaton.)

    I don’t recall talking about the books I was reading with anyone. I wasn’t even reading the same things the few other geeks (boys) in the school were reading. Cthulhu? Never heard of him. Tolkien? Snooze. I didn’t write about what I was reading. I would read everywhere, even if other things were going on around me.

    The absolute worst part of English class was talking about and dissecting everything we read! You’re taking all the fun out of it!

    Even today, I don’t talk much about most of the books I read. I have to make an effort to write a review. And panels at conventions discussing a particular book or series are the ones I’m least likely to be interested in, even if I have read and even liked the books.

    I don’t read to be social.

  13. steepholmon 10 Jan 2009 at 6:45 pm

    As Caitlin Flanagan writes in [Atlantic Monthly], an adolescent girl “is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.”

    It’s hard to know where to begin with this, it’s so full of unexamined assumptions and objectifying language about the ephemeral creature that is adolescent girl.

    Of course it’s implausible that these are the elemental psychological needs of all girls but of no boys (or women, or men); but equally unlikely is the implicit suggestion that reading is capable of meeting the needs listed here but incapable of meeting different needs to the same degree. At the most trivial level, “to be hidden from view while still in plain sight” may be one desire catered for by reading; but then so is “to be locked in one’s room with a big ‘Keep Out!’ sign.” It’s an extremely narrow view of what reading can be and do.

  14. Sherwood Smithon 11 Jan 2009 at 9:56 am

    Another Damned Medievalist: As Lois Tilton said in her response, there has been a lot of boys’ reading either passing under the radar, or being outright dismissed. Maybe there has been more of an element of “They may be reading, but they are not reading the right things!

    Steepholm: Valuable points indeed. I took the “hiding in plain sight” to refer to the cultural boundaries sequestering young girls. To generalize, they couldn’t get out to see the world the way their brothers did, so they read about it. And I think they also wrote about it, again in ways that passed under the radar.

  15. Lois Tiltonon 11 Jan 2009 at 11:02 am

    I think it’s possible that boys may not be reading as much now as they used to, but I suspect this results from a relative lack of attractive reading matter, as contrasted with other imaginative outlets, such as games.

    But if so, it is not a reflection of the nature of boys, but of the nature of the reading material vs its competition.

    If you recall Tom Sawyer, there is the scene where he and Joe Harper ditch school and play out scenes from Robin Hood “by the book”, which they have not only read, but memorized.

  16. Sherwood Smithon 11 Jan 2009 at 11:23 am

    Lois: Yes–and I recall even older references, such as in letters, boys being caned for reading the “wrong” material at their boarding schools, etc.

    I do think that the commenter above who saw less of a gender divide than a divide between the “sport kid” of either gender and the kid who would prefer spending free time reading, whether books, manga, manuals, or on-line. In my years of teaching, I knew plenty of boys and girls who thought reading torture, though if you could get them to sit down, they didn’t mind being read to.

    (Speaking as an ex-teacher, I also love Readerdiane‘s idea of interesting book report approaches, as opposed to the boring old format. I used to let kids make plays, dioramas, or write ‘missing chapters’ and I was amazed how deeply the kid would read in order to get everything just right.)

  17. Mark Tiedemannon 11 Jan 2009 at 12:00 pm

    —”I think the article is dead wrong to assume that boys don’t read. Speaking as a junior high and high school teacher for 20 years, I found that, as in my youth, when my male peers devoured comics (which were dismissed as trash) a lot of boys’ reading passes under authoritarian radar. Many boys read non-fiction, complicated game manuals, all kinds of material lying outside the purview of those Summer Reading Lists chockfull of earnest books deemed Good For You.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Recalling my own onset of insatiable reading, the social hierarchy was different, of course—I being a reader was seen as weird, but all the girls relied on me to supply “certain books” (there was a big deal about the Falconhurst novels at the time, if anyone here remembers those, and I could get them). But the divide was most destructive from the teaching hierarchy that condemned just about anything not in the syllabus.

    In my memory, not even a majority of the girls read, just a larger minority than the boys. The difficulty with reading becoming a social activity is that it can’t really be until you’ve read enough to have something for a group to talk about, and in school those social spaces tend to be taken up by other things first.

    A couple years ago I was on a radio show and asked about the so-called decline in reading. I was about to give the stock answer, but caught myself and said “I think it’s a mirage. I think those polls are wrong. I think most reading happens off the grid, and may often not be considered Reading with a capital R by even the readers. Books sales keep going up (at that time)—someone is reading them all, they can’t all be going onto shelves just to look good.”

    Teens select their own areas of interest, much to the time-honored dismay of teachers, and if the teachers continually discount those selections, either the teens stop reading or stop reading around the teachers.

    As for girls reading more than boys….

    One could get into a very thorny patch discussing this. Until the 70s, I think, it was simply understood that they would, because nothing else was really expected of them. That has clearly changed but I don’t think there has been time enough to sort out how those changes will manifest into longterm trends. Though I suspect that with all other options being open to women, when it comes to their expectations of the men with whom they associate, something more literate is on the menu. So as women have moved into so-called traditionally male areas, men, I think, have had to make some changes accordingly. To be a bit crude, jocks are probably okay for one night stands, but for anything more the conversation has better be worthwhile. And reading is one way to achieve that. After all, women are no longer stuck making the old choices—they can leave if they’re bored.

    Just an opinion.

  18. [...] is a very interesting piece over on Deep Genre about girls and reading.  Check it out and the comments.  I’m still turning it over in my [...]

  19. Sherwood Smithon 11 Jan 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Mark: Statements that “boys do this” and “girls do that” tend to raise resistance automatically. We all know that “all” a given group does not behave exactly the same, outside of the physical limitations that human beings are subject to. At the same time we are creatures of learned behavior and responsive to patterns.

    So I think it’s worthwhile to share perceptions of cultural change, and to discuss the causes, even if those changes are not deemed universal by others, and nobody quite agrees on the causes.

    I do think that teachers like Readerdiane upthread are far more likely to see what her students are really reading when she doesn’t hammer them for not adhering strictly to the syllabus, as you say. (Also, in many schools, the syllabi are becoming more media- and genre-inclusive than they were in my day.)

  20. nicola griffithon 11 Jan 2009 at 2:47 pm

    I got pointed here by Mark Tiedemann (thanks, Mark).

    I think we all read to experience people, times, events, feelings we haven’t yet experienced in real life. It’s a mirror neuron thing(.

    Boys vs. girls, how much and when… Has anyone here heard of Guys Lit Wire? It’s worth a look.

    And I’d just like to add a notation to the reading/culture timeline. The Tale of Genji is arguably the First Novel–written in 10th/11th C. Japan by a woman, for women, in women’s writing.

    This is a great blog, btw. Thank you.

  21. Kate Elliotton 11 Jan 2009 at 3:47 pm

    I think the issue of reading as torture, vs being read to as perfectly acceptable, goes back also to learning styles and simply easy of reading. Oral learners may always prefer hearing over the visual. Someone for whom reading is a chore will never find it relaxing, and etc. But I would suppose that (leaving aside literacy rates) such differences would remain relatively stable in a population if all else is equal.

    “Reading off the grid” would make an interesting discussion/roundtable/what have you. I think one of the most overlooked points being made with this essay and subsequent discussion is about the reading being done that isn’t being counted as reading.

  22. Kate Elliotton 11 Jan 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Uh, I mean, overlooked in the sense of discussion outside this discussion; obviously, it is not being overlooked at all in this discussion. If you see what I mean.

  23. Daemonon 11 Jan 2009 at 8:46 pm

    It’s a bit odd to hear that teen guys don’t read, given the number of them involved in reading-intensive hobbies like gaming (you know, real gaming – with paper, pencils, dice and books, not computer games). Never mind the comic book industry, the manga industry (especially the fan-translation element, which is largely populated by teens), etc.

    And, they do sit around and talk about all of this stuff. Alot. Online, where it’s easy to find if you go looking for it, and presumably offline aswell. There’s no shortage of teens at sci-fi/fantasy/etc. conventions. I’m forced to suspect that they’ve decided to simply ignore anything geekish.

    Gotta love it when somebody makes a point by ignoring things that don’t support the point.

    Also, the entire “teen girls are perfectly suited for reading” thing seems to be hokey as hell to me. The descripion applies pretty bloody well to me now as an adult male, and did even more as a teen. It doesn’t describe teen female mentality – it describes being an introvert.

  24. Laurieon 12 Jan 2009 at 1:02 am

    @Daemon: Ooo, ‘real gaming!’ Game snob! ;)

    You and Kate touched on what I wanted to say, though. With the onset of more non-traditional forms of writing – video games, online comics, heck, even blogs – I think boys are probably reading more than ever. But it’s not ‘real reading’ with a book-in-hand.

    I know a lot of younger men who absolutely love the RPGs they play, be it pen and paper games or the newest fantasy title on the Playstation. There was a discussion among the men of my WoW guild the other night (Most of whom are in their early 20s, a little older than is being discussed, but not too much) about how they got teary during Final Fantasy 7. Most of them can give you long, involved histories about the various monsters we fight in the game, too. If you asked them to sit down with a book they’d probably snicker at you, but they’re as interested in a good story as any one I know. They’re just getting them via media other than the traditional words on paper.

    (This tangent reminds me of Giles ranting against computers and talking about the comforting smell of books.)

  25. Madeleine Robinson 12 Jan 2009 at 11:59 am

    The “teenage girls are perfect engines for reading” is such a swoony statement it makes me want to hit something–despite the fact that I was a book-devouring machine as a teenager. I keep wondering who the children are who get polled (and, as importantly) don’t get polled for articles like this. Yesterday’s Times Style section had a brief article on a series of middle-grade books explicitly aimed at boys: the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, in which the main character is (apparently) venal, weak, snarky, manipulative, and the story full of farts and pranks and bad behavior. The article treats this as if it were something new (hello? Captain Underpants, a decade ago, had exactly the same view-with-alarm-because-they’re-vulgar buzz, crossed with view-with-delight-because-at-least-they’re-reading). I do wonder if girls might be slightly more predisposed to reading as an immersive (not social!) experience.

    I should note that today’s Times Arts section has an article claiming that fiction reading is up for the first time in 25 years. I’d cling to this as a hopeful sign, except that such articles always fill me with doubt and yes-buts.

  26. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 15 Jan 2009 at 1:45 pm

    I remember doing a rant on this same subject about twenty years ago on GEnie, with it not being about boys not reading but about publishers having this bizarre delusion that boys don’t read, so once child novel readers get to a certain age, there are huge stacks of books for the girls and nothing for the boys except some insultingly thin low-vocabulary novels about boys who like to play baseball or stuff. And the end result was that boys who wanted to read fantasies with protagonists their own age would have to read about girls.

    As I said then (and still do) I lost count of the number of novels where the twelve-thirteen-something female protagonist met the wisewoman who told her about getting her period.

    The end result is that YA readers who are male will very quickly skip to the adult section because they get tired of this.

  27. Sherwood Smithon 15 Jan 2009 at 10:01 pm

    Nicola: Thanks for those links, and yes! About Sei Shonagan.

    Kevin: Girls got sick of those too, but so many writers had grown up reading exclusively about boys, there was a bit of a backlash there for a time.

  28. Little Brotheron 20 Jan 2009 at 11:18 pm

    I’m neither the author, nor the publisher, but wished nevertheless to point out a fine example of “YA” or “teen” fiction: Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow.

    This is a novel with a mix of male and female characters, mostly teens, caught up in some rather serious near-future action based on recent and current events. I’m 40, well-read and well-educated, and I could not put this book down.

    Cheers.

  29. Megson 25 Jan 2009 at 11:55 am

    I tend to think that some women resort to books because there is something ‘fulfilled’ in reading them. It’s all about exploration of emotions, and deeper meaning for some. Or romance and capture for others. It replaces that part of us that daydreamed when we were children.

    These women are the most reliable of readers, which is why so many books are geared towards them.

    Then there are other women who are built differently mentally. They don’t get that same feeling of fulfillment or excitement when they read books. Books are just words printed on a page.

    I’m sure guys are the same way, and probably it is a little more complicated for them. If you are bookish or whatever, you get teased by other guys. In movies and books the bookworms are either geeky outcasts or gays. Stigma.

    Anyway – I know plenty of guys who do read – and this is from childhood and on up. I know nine year old boys who have read every fantasy book they can get their hands on, including all of the Tolkiens. I know grown men who I keep running into at the bookstores while they celebrate their paychecks with new books, having never lost that joy of reading they had when they were younger. These aren’t necessarily scrawny bookish types. My brother-in-law played football all through school and has the nickname ‘Mad Dog’ – and he reads and writes more than I do. When the LOTR and Narnia movies came out, he was the one who explained the books and the deeper meaning to the rest of us who couldn’t drudge through the thick books.

    I DO think that men and women sometimes read differently. Boys shouldn’t be expected to read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in school, for example. I don’t know ANY guy who ever ‘got’ that book. By the same token, it takes a very special girl to struggle through the Tolkien books (no romance, no female leads, too much fighting, etc). Maybe the teachers and school systems just need to come up with seperate lists for boys and girls ?

  30. Anjaon 25 Jan 2009 at 2:31 pm

    > I DO think that men and women sometimes read differently. Boys shouldn’t be expected to read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in school, for example. I don’t know ANY guy who ever ‘got’ that book.

    I haven’t read it either, but there’s a WONDERFUL BBC series (with Colin Firth as Darcy) and my husband likes it well enough — OK, not as well as I like it, but well enough that one evening he stayed to watch instead of going out with the guys.

    > By the same token, it takes a very special girl to struggle through the Tolkien books (no romance, no female leads, too much fighting, etc).

    Ah, but I devoured it. For a decade afterwards, I tried to find anything as good, ending up frustrated, wishing I could read LoR again for the first time. Who says girls need female leads to identify with? I prefer male leads. Someone said to me recently that girls shouldn’t be forced to read “Treasure Island” in school, it’s only interesting for boys. Sorry? Loved it. Another of my top-ten best-loved book as a kid. Wish we’d ever read anything nearly as good in class! (Oh, we did once, in 6th grade, because I suggested it. An adventure story featuring five boys in Ancient Rome! :o)

    So maybe I’m not a typical specimen of the female reader, preferring male leads. I don’t like spending too much time in another woman’s mind. I get angry and very much annoyed if she is being irrational, childish, obnoxious, manipulative, überbabe sexy, always gets the guy, or when she turns out just plain better than men in every regard (yeah, that’s not what the word “fantasy” in “fantasy literature” stands for).

    Trying to think of novels with a female lead that I actually like … still thinking … um … err … ha, yes! Cordelia’s Honor! And Summon the Keeper. And: One mainstream novel. Four historical novels. One romance. Two urban fantasy. A nine-volume YA series (pre-1933) by Else Ury. One youth series about a girl (being a bit of a tomboy) solving mysteries. Period.

    Take James Bond as the example of a typical guys story. Now that I’ve always found boring. Yaaaaaawwwn. And yet my sister, who is usually the romance-reading type, tried to drag me into the movie theatre (unsuccessfully) to watch the first James Bond with Pierce Brosnan, because she thinks he’s cute.

    All this generalizing… doesn’t work for me.

    One of my strangest experience regarding false expectations of this sort was when a guy from my role-playing group told me what he was reading. He was this really devoted death metal kind of guy. Looked absolutely wild. Worked for some company that organized metal concerts. A bit macho (Spanish father). One day he says, sorry, I’m too busy right now to prepare a new adventure, I have to finish “Buddenbrooks” first! I can’t put it down! It’s the best thing I’ve ever read!

    (If you don’t know Buddenbrooks, read “Pride and Prejudice” for the same effect.)

    My jaw dropped.

    (breaking my toe when it landed ;o)

  31. Megson 25 Jan 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Heh, well – the guys in my life like to ‘watch’ P&P too. But they won’t read it.

    By the same token – I was bored to tears by Tolkien. I might have gotten over the lack of female main characters (no women in the fellowship! Where’s the justice!!!), but I kept wishing the guy would get to the point with his writing. I appreciate the books and WORSHIPPED all the movies, but they would kill my love of reading were they all that was available.

    And I like guy movies and TV shows. I’m just there for the spectacle. LOTR, for example, had very many pretty men… :P

  32. Sherwoodon 25 Jan 2009 at 9:10 pm

    Megs: Some of these things are taste–like others have said, I adored Lord of the Rings when I first read it at age fourteen, and love it now at 57, but for completely different reasons. There is so much complexity that the reading experience changes like a kaleidoscope as my life changes.

    I don’t know about separate reading lists, unless for kids who really hate reading. Even then, gender isn’t always the most reliable indicator. When I taught junior high, for example, both boys and girls who hated reading would tackle The Day My Butt Went Psycho, just as an example.

    And again, isn’t it a good thing when we can encourage kids to see from a new point of view?

    Anja It sounds to me like you prefer stories in which the protagonist is the agent of change. In the past, this was always a male. Female protagonists were culturally limited to domestic concerns. That is no longer the case, of course.

  33. Megson 25 Jan 2009 at 9:10 pm

    I appreciate the books and WORSHIPPED all the movies <- I meant, I appreciate the books BECAUSE I worshipped the movies. Sort of like tolerating the egg because of the omelette it becomes.

    And Tolkien did… open the door for other fantasy writers in some way. He did open the door for me if only because I walked into a store and fell in love with their Middle Earth pieces. And because my favorite authors and game-creators took inspiration from his books, I must give him kudos for that.

    I just can’t take any joy out of reading his books myself. ./

  34. Anjaon 26 Jan 2009 at 3:34 am

    > It sounds to me like you prefer stories in which the protagonist is the agent of change.

    Or maybe I’m just personally affronted if a female protagonist does something stupid, while I suffer male stupidity with perfect equanimity. ;o)

    No, seriously, I’ve read one too many novels where I felt very strongly that all the problems for the female protagonist were her own damn fault. If she behaved so silly, why should others suffer to help her clean up the mess she herself caused? Why should I suffer reading about her struggles? And yet she never even realizes it was her own mistake but feels sooo hard done by, looking for fault elsewhere, anywhere except her own selfishness or carelessness or immature behaviour. And those books were written by female authors.

    Also, I’m not interested in: shopping, clothes, make-up, talking about other people’s relationships … Female authors with female protagonists often spend much time on describing these things — bores me to tears.

    And I’m heartily sick of any and all discussions about why women are suppressed, but really better, and how all men are like that, all women like so, and how the male and female brains function differently, and oh, about everything that’s wrong between men and women — which tends to come up in books with female protagonists by female authors. Male protagonists are usually happily unaware of it.

    The female protagonists in Cordelia’s Honor and my other favorites are all down-to-earth, sensible, practical, non-fussing, non-whining women who get things done. They don’t feel hard done by the world even when they are. (I still intend to read the Bridge of D’Arnath Quartet one day soon, so perhaps I’ll have to add four books to my short list then ;o)

    When I started writing, oh, 12 years ago, I chose a female pov character just to prove that it is possible to write a female protagonist who has some common sense and understands what’s really important in life. ;o)

    So if anyone here has some tips on books with SENSIBLE female protagonists, I’m all ears.

  35. Kittson 05 Feb 2009 at 2:40 pm

    I’ve never understood this whole “boys don’t read” thing. In fourth grade, I managed to make friends with some of the boys by our shared interest in the Redwall books (there was also a fistfight or two, but that’s another story). And my younger brother devoured novels until his illness got bad enough to make it hard for him to read. If anything, he has a broader taste in novels than I do, because I rule out anything without interesting female characters unless I *really* like the writing. I honestly believe that much of the difference between boys’ and girls’ reading habits is cultural– boys who grow up in an environment where there is plenty of opportunity and motivation to read novels will read more novels. To use my brother as an example again, he was not a “natural reader.” He wasn’t reading until late 1st grade, and even then he was much slower than his peers. But he slogged through novels out of a desire to keep up with his older sister and not feel left out, and by third grade was reading Tolkein.

    The “boys read comics, girls read novels” is also somewhat of a silly distinction. Boys read comics because traditionally, comics have been written for boys. But take a look at the manga section of a bookstore today, and you’ll see dozens and dozens of series about girls’ romance (much of which has some pretty awful gender-role messages in it, but still). These are not being read by boys. My students in China were similarly into reading novels and comics both, and I saw girls and boys reading adventure stories and carrying manga-branded school supplies.

    I think that reading is a social bonding exercise for children and young adults of both genders. I’m sure there are statistical differences between boys’ and girls’ reading habits, ut from the ground they seem pretty similar.

  36. Jessicaon 05 Feb 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Just as a comment to Megs about guys not ‘getting’ Pride & Prejudice (the book): I have counter-anecdotal evidence in that when I read it in school, all of the boys in my class enjoyed it. Granted, there were only five of them, but still. They exist.

    Moreover, I think it’s an awful idea to base school curriculum on whether they ‘get’ it (in the sense of liking it–I assume you don’t mean they don’t understand it but rather that they don’t understand the appeal of the book). Especially since it’s boys, and so much of the English education canon excludes female authors. Getting Austen in there is just the beginning to tip the scales towards even. Perhaps if boys were exposed to other similar texts (especially from a young age), they would be more likely to ‘get’ it. All of which is not a criticism of your comment, but rather a possible explanation for your observation.

    As a response to the post to the whole, I find it really interesting. I do worry, however, that the history you give is so general as to be inaccurate. In the 19th century, women certainly did NOT hold their own within reading and writing–England has a more existent tradition of female authors, but if you look even so close at Italy that trend fails. The inclusion of women is by no means universal (it’s not even true within a European historical context). It also fails to recognize that the “spread of wealth” that allowed for leisure time allowed for only certain classes of women (who were confined to the home) to engage in reading. Working class women (and men, for that matter) were never able to access literature to the same degree. Which I think you could argue is a problem still being perpetuated into the world of fanfiction…..

  37. Foz Meadowson 08 Feb 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Regardless of gender, I think people only ever read – books, articles, comics, manga, stories, whatever – because they like reading. They might have a preferred genre, such as crime, or a preferred medium, such as news media, but when it comes to people who genuinely don’t read, it’s because they find the physical act of trying to resolve words into concepts taxing, difficult or unpleasant. One of the best decriptions of this I’ve heard is from a family friend who works with kids who struggle to read, whether through dyslexia or other complaints. She said they asked two young readers, one capable, one not, what they ‘saw’ when reading a particular book: an adventure story about caving. The capable reader describing themselves as standing in cold water, watching the protagonist from a distance as they mentally inhabited the same environment. The poor reader took a long time to understand the question, and then, finally, said that he only saw the words – no pictures formed in his head.

    At any given time, society places different emphases on who should be reading what; which media are considered literary or lowbrow; and which gender is the better, or more appropriate, audience for books. Something which I feel to be socially conditioned is how well different genders perform in school: the more we tell boys that they don’t read and act unsurprised when they evince no interest in books, the more likely they are to become so, because it stereotypes into a normative social perception. That doesn’t mean boys are any less interested in reading: they’ll just find other outlets for it, or be quiet about it, or, more commonly, transfer onto a medium which comes with fewer expectations, like comics. It’s a bit like operating under an arbitrary handicap. If you know someone can read and would like a certain story, it doesn’t matter if they subsequently rebuff the offer: you go to more effort to find something they’ll like, because it doesn’t feel like a waste of time, so much as shopping around for the best option. But if you’re uncertain of whether that person reads at all, you give up more easily, and assume that the ‘right’ book doesn’t actually exist. Which feeds into the problem.

    For most of history, girls weren’t taught to read, and when they were, they weren’t encouraged. It’s only been quite recently that the switch from English as a male-dominated subject to a girls’ arena has come about, and largely as a result, I think, of, one, women finally getting in on the act, and, two, the social expectation of successful, prosperous masculinity branching away from academia in a major way. Whereas one might make an argument that the skills used in maths or science tend to preference male brain chemistry or an orientation towards spatial reasoning, the same cannot be said of reading. The genders might have some broad preference for a different kind of story, but that, to me, is as useful a generalisation as saying that all women want to go to movies and watch chick-flicks, because though lots of women do this, it’s not *all* they enjoy. I’m more inclined to accept this bias when it comes to younger children, but even so, it’s hardly the be-all, end-all.

    Anyway, long point short: everyone who reads, reads because they want to, and because they’ve found something they like. Teenage girls don’t suddenly wake up en masse hankering for books if they never read as children. And so on.

  38. Megson 20 Feb 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Just as a comment to Megs about guys not ‘getting’ Pride & Prejudice (the book): I have counter-anecdotal evidence in that when I read it in school, all of the boys in my class enjoyed it. Granted, there were only five of them, but still. They exist.

    Moreover, I think it’s an awful idea to base school curriculum on whether they ‘get’ it (in the sense of liking it–I assume you don’t mean they don’t understand it but rather that they don’t understand the appeal of the book). Especially since it’s boys, and so much of the English education canon excludes female authors. Getting Austen in there is just the beginning to tip the scales towards even. Perhaps if boys were exposed to other similar texts (especially from a young age), they would be more likely to ‘get’ it. All of which is not a criticism of your comment, but rather a possible explanation for your observation.

    But my point was simply that it would kill my love of reading if I were forced to read something I considered horrible dull and written for the opposite sex. And P&P is a girly ideal book. It was written possibly as an observation of the times, but the main object of the book is this: guy falls for girl, she tells him to scram, guy still pines for girl, girl falls for guy, they pine for each other but event happens and nearly messes everything up, they confess their love to the point of discussing exactly when it began, happy ending.

    Somewhere out there somebody wrote a P&P book for guys – from what I understand, E is an action hero and there are lots of zombies running around. I didn’t read the book or express any interest in it, because zombies and action are yuck. I much prefer the girly well-written original. :]

    What I was saying is I think boys should be allowed to read ideal books for them. Books that would enthrall them in a guy way. Eragon was an example. I don’t really get that series, but I know grown guys (at my work) who ran to the store to buy the new books when they came out.

    *A month older than I am, I guess it wouldn’t really work to have seperate books going on in a classroom. And to be honest, P&P is an excellent book for kiddos of both sexes to read. Much to learn from the book – and that has nothing to do with zombies running amuk.

    At the same time, if the books are geared towards female readers, we shouldn’t be surprised if they are more absorbed in the books than their male counterparts. The same can be said if books in a classroom were all geared towards boys – if we are talking manga, it’d be like forcing the entire classroom to read one of those types of books where the characters are all ugly with ridiculous muscles upon muscles (which they can mysteriously power up to make bigger) and always ramming their fists into each other’s faces during extremely long fighting sequences. ;]

  39. Sòlrökon 30 Mar 2009 at 11:38 pm

    The article goes on about teen boys’ reading. Some maintain they don’t read, with few exceptions–with one person saying, …Those men end up joining the bourgeoisie in two ways: law school and untouched home libraries full of leather-bound Shakespeare. which I think says more about the speaker than about teen boys who read angsty and angry poetry, or listen to same in musical form.

    I have to say that I agree whole-heartedly on this particular comment, and I’d just like to add from a personal perspective that reading and writing for men is ultimately just an entire different beast all together from that of women.

    I’m a professed writer, through and through, and I believe it is my lot in life to create with my medium being that of the word… but when it comes to taking the time to read and digest other people’s works of my own genre (Fiction), I find very little to enjoy. I think this is primarily due to stylization, however; I’ve not found type a of writing that draws me in so whole-heartedly as my own writing does (Have to love your own brand, no? If not, what’s the point.). But in this same light, I must admit that my writing itself is more action based and quite a bit more appeasing to that particular interest (Not to say its seclusive to that concept, but does emblazen it more so than others I’ve experienced.). I personally think that it’s not farfetched to conclude that in lieu of items like graphic novels and manga, that to boys (And men, although in our current society, it’s not a common practice and looked down upon as “trash”, as you so eloquently put.), reading is simply too slow or uninteresting on average that other forms of entertainment. There’s a cataclysmal difference between that which captivates the male and the female when it comes to reading, and I think as a consequence of writing leaning more towards the female’s aptitudes, men seem to fall to the way side.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply