Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Oh, I don't read novels."

I was thinking today about how often I meet people, men usually, who say "I don't read novels". They usually say they only read non-fiction. One of the main reasons seems to be that they have little time for reading, so if they're going to read, they want to learn something.

Of course I think that you can learn something from novels, but that's beside the point. I just realised today that you never hear people say, when talking about films, "I only watch documentaries." Surely there are so many people (*cough*men*cough*) who think nothing of flopping down in front of TV for the evening to watch a drama or a comedy, and certainly those who, even if high-minded and anti-TV, will go the the movies to watch a good shoot-em-up or a well-crafted, thought-provoking piece of arthouse cinema.

So why don't they look at novels in the same way?

Incidentally, those readers who claim to only read biographies etc, also seem to take forever to read their chosen books, reading a couple of pages a night before falling asleep. I would venture that if they gave a good novel a try, they might learn something and be engaged enough to read a good chunk at a time. They could even read a book instead of watching TV.

Any thoughts?

Actually, further to this, I was interested in a survey the Guardian did recently about male and female reading habits. Men read significantly less fiction than women (no surprises there, I worked that out when I was a shopgirl in a bookstore - they also don't read books written by women*), and the novels they name as being their favourites seem to be the ones they read as angry young men or studied at university 5, 10, 20, 30 years ago. Anecdotally, I have come across just these types, who name books such as The Crying of Lot 49 as their favourite novels, but who haven't ever bothered to pick up something that's come out in the last 20 years which might be just as good. One guy even said to me once "fiction these days is crap"! Well how does he know if he never reads any? Oh, that's right, he doesn't have time, and he wants to learn something when he reads. As far as he's concerned, he's read a good novel. Why bother looking for any more?




*Of course I'm not talking about all men; there are plenty of exceptions, including my husband who not only reads novels, but novels written by women. I think that might be why I married him. But on the flipside I have a male novelist friend who says he doesn't read novels. That's even more scary.

19 comments:

artandmylife said...

I "mainly" read non-fiction and actually "mainly" watch documentaries :-). A well crafted novel is a joy but I got fed up of reading them and feeling at the end that I had wasted several hours (or days). I hardly ever get that feelign with non-fiction. Maybe I shoudl just be more selective. Part of it maybe that with non-fiction I know what I am getting into but it is more "hit and miss" with fiction ?

Right now I am reading "After Bathing at Baxters" by Greg O'Brien and last night's Tv was watching the documentary "Road to Jerusalem" about Baxter

Becky said...

To artandmylife, I hear you. I too hate wasting my time on a pointless novel, unless that novel is extremely entertaining.

I just had the pleasure of previewing a book titled, "Letters Between Us," written by Linda Overman. I read it because my friend was able to get me a copy to review before it's release date- October 6th. I thought what the heck. I was amazed at how much I enjoyed this book. Really had some good substance.

Ruth said...

Good to see you're not bitter or angry about this at all ;)

But that would really irritate me as well... especially if people actually say that kind of thing to a published novelist! How stupid/rude.

whitihereaka said...

I found a list of 1001 novels that you "should" read and was horrified that if you've been published in the past ten years and made it on the list I probably haven't read ya. Well covered on the classics though. According to the formula on the spreadsheet I'll need to read 18 of the books a year to make it to the end of the list before I die - which means if you have been published after this list you're plumb out of luck!
Apparently boys kind of drop out of reading when they're young maybe it becomes a habit that they don't break out of. Is there some good YA aimed at boys? Or is it too late by then? My nephew loves books now but will he grow out of that?

I'm worried that as a self professed playwright that I don't see enough theatre. I read plays but that's really not the same. (And maybe I'll have to cut out that habit too if I'm ever going to finish that list!)

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm sure you're right. I have to say I've found my whole reading/writing life to have been a solitary one. Even with my first wife – who read voraciously – we read very different things. Books have never been a source of entertainment for me, not that I haven't been entertained as an aside but that was never why I chose my books, I was always looking to learn something and that is still my driving force when buying a book. This book is going to take up several hours of my life and I want that to be a meaningful experience. But I can't recall ever having a conversation with anyone about a book I was reading with the possible exception of the science fiction books. Only now, online, do I feel comfortable. This is not to mean I have spent my life surrounded by the illiterate (far from it) and most read but no one talked about it; the most you might expect was, "That was a great book," and that would be about it.

Tania said...

My husband WILL read novels but usually only if I have suggested them to him (it has to have been a "must read" - he must trust my judgement or something) but if given say, a collection of short stories to read that have a mix of male and female authors he will ALWAYS read the men first. He doesn't read near as much as me but given a few days away on holiday or a long weekend he will ask me to pack him something to read, so I guess I am lucky too!

Mary McCallum said...

Hi Rachael - I found a man on the net who waxes lyrical about women's writing... see my blog!

Sarah said...

I learn a whole lot of facts from fiction - that's what I love about it. I just read Tim Winton's Breathe and now feel semi-expert in the mechanics of surfing and auto-erotic asphyxiation. I finished Sylvia Brownrigg's The Delivery Room and learnt a whole lot about the Serbo-Croat conflict, particularly from a Serbian perspective. There is so much fact secreted away in novels, and often it's far more seductively written. When I read non-fiction I sometimes feel alienated, whereas when I read fiction I am offered an intimate insider's view. I suppose there is an authority about fact, whereas fiction is potentially riddled with lies and inaccuracies... bring out the post-modern feminist discourse...

Gondal-girl said...

Mr Gondal is a selective novel reader, very selective, as I think there is that yearning for facts over fiction, reason over emotion - when men read, I think they want to discover, whereas women want to escape. This I don't think means that men don't read novels, but perhaps they just read them in a different way

LiteraryMinded said...

Wow, what an interesting post + comments. I always had this theory that people who don't read much fiction just haven't read the right thing yet. Once they read a book that blows them away they'll be hooked. I have never thought about the male/female thing before but many men around me read more in the realm of genre fiction (sci-fi etc.), as opposed to literary fiction and character-based stories.

Rachael King said...

Thanks for everyone's comments - an interesting discussion. I was talking about this with my husband, especially the aspect I brought up about people who are perfectly willing to go and see a film that is fictitious, but who only read non-fiction books. He reckoned it's because reading a novel is a lot more like hard work - even if it's entertaining - because the reader has to put so much of themselves into the experience by trying to conjure up the image of what they're reading in their heads, whereas with a film, it's all laid on for you (not to say movies don't have to make you think; they just don't require such an active imagination). I think he may have hit the nail on the head. Some people just don't have the kind of brain that can easily picture something from a written description; perhaps the male brain is less inclined that way than the female brain.

Anyone interested in that Guardian survey, by the way, should go here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/may/29/gender.books

and

here

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/apr/06/gender.books

The second article also talks about the novels men prefer being about alienation, while more women prefer novels of "passion".

Rachael King said...

But then that doesn't account for all those sci fi fans out there...

Sigh. Just best to take everything in the world as random.

Jim Murdoch said...

Just to add fuel to the fire before it goes out, I ran across this list this morning which I suspect you might be interested in:

The 75 Books Every Man Should Read

Rachael King said...

Wow. Only one woman on the list. Nuff said.

Tim Jones said...

So if men are less likely to read novels because of the time commitment, does that make them (us) more likely to read short stories?

Going through my own library as I enter it on LibraryThing, I was surprised to find how few books I own are by women - only about 25% of my collection, and that 25% is concentrated in the poetry. That's partly because there's a lot of 1970s and 1980s SF, from a time when women authors (with such notable exceptions as Ursula Le Guin) were not so prominent in the genre as they are today. But I can say that I am working my way through, and tremendously enjoying, Elizabeth Jane Howard's four-volume Cazalet Chronicles at the moment.

Anonymous said...

To me the more interesting question is why women novelist don't write novels about men. Their main characters are almost always women.

In contrast some of the best "chick lit" has been written by men including Anna Karenina, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Steel Magnolias.

In short, men have demonstrated that they are capable of understanding women, but women have shown that they understand men about as well as a cow does algebra. Their lack of understanding appears to result from a self-centering and lack of effort to even try to see the man's viewpoint.

Rachael King said...

You make an interesting point anon, but I think you are wrong. Off the top of my head without even doing any digging I can think of many: my own novel for a start, written from the POV of a man; Emily Perkins; Kate Atkinson; Donna Tartt; any number of female crime writers; Rose Tremain; actually the list goes on and on - those are just authors I have read recently. There are many more who have both male and female protagonists. I don't at all think the fact that you just named three novels written by men about women proves anything "in contrast".

Anonymous said...

I am probably not a very good representative male, but my reading preferences do follow the statistical norm for men.

When I say I like to read in order to learn, it's not just to learn any old thing. I understand that I can learn something from reading fiction. The point is that I have particular subjects I want to learn about or particular questions I am trying to answer. And in my case most of those subjects are subjects one could spend a life time studying, without gaining complete mastery. I would much rather spend my time reading non-fiction in pursuit of those informal research projects than pick up a good novel, at least most of the time.

I am a fairly slow reader and due to health issues, I have a much more limited amount of energy than before. Why wouldn't I spend my scarce reading time on the reading which I find most engaging?

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I don't actually watch TV (don't have a hook up for cable) and almost never watch movies these days. I don't feel much need to for imaginary people. I'm sure that makes me sound like some awful caricature of a utilitarian, in a Dickens novel, but basically: bah, humbug.

But, of course, it takes much less time to watch a movie than to read a novel. So it's not hard to see why someone who doesn't find the time to read novels might turn to film to satisfy a desire for fiction.