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Fiction's gender divide
Plus: the comedy that gets women right, and Gen Z's ingenious party trick
Why can some men be so snooty about fiction? I first realised this at some point during my early twenties when, one night at the pub with a couple of male journalists, one of them told me he simply didn’t read fiction. He said it so brazenly, as if it didn’t even require nuancing, that I was left speechless. In fact, as someone whose happiest moments are probably spent squirrelled under the duvet with a mug of tea and a novel, I remember finding this personally offensive.
But then I got used to it: male relatives only ever wanted nonfiction for Christmas, my book clubs over the years have been entirely female, and each time I go on holiday with a mixed-gender friendship group my male friends all bring nonfiction to read by the pool.
On GoodReads, where I tend to go to read gleefully savage verdicts on books people in the media have been too nervous to disparage, I notice the usernames are usually female too, while when it comes to book reviews, I tend to see women reviewing fiction and memoir while men take on history and biography.
Of course, I know I am grossly generalising and that things aren’t so binary – no doubt there will be male readers of this newsletter who much prefer fiction to nonfiction, and women who don’t read fiction at all, and who will be affronted by my reductionism. Forgive me.
But anecdotally, I sense a divide. And there are stats: women, which a recent Deloitte study showed read more than men across the board, drive 80% of fiction sales in the UK, US and Canadian fiction markets. Ian McEwan once wrote: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”
Does it matter? Well, depressingly, I suppose I have internalised male snootiness towards fiction as snootiness towards ‘what women find interesting’. And more trivially, I’d love to share a book club – or at least more bookish conversations – with men. The novels read at the book club I’m part of always prompt such thoughtful conversations about life, love, work and politics, all things I’d like to hear the male perspective on. (As I’ve written here before, I’d like to read more first-person writing from men and I’ve always secretly wanted to read a male dating column).
But, as a Jezebel piece about the slew of female-fronted celebrity bookclubs, titled ‘Do Famous Men Read?’ pointed out last week, one reason why some men might be so reticent to read, or at least talk about novels with other people, is that this requires a certain amount of emotional vulnerability that the ongoing pressures of traditional masculinity can make difficult.
“I wonder if celebrity men’s hesitancy to embrace what they see as feminine frivolity keeps them from leading book clubs. Are they way too cool for school to grovel at the emotional undoings of fictional characters?”, writes Kady Ruth Ashcraft, who also points out that private book clubs in the US are also 88% female. “To admit they stayed up well into the night engrossed by the inner-workings of another person’s mind?”
If we are to believe the statistics, another issue might be that for some men, that ‘person’s mind’ needs to feel relatable – that is to say, male. A Guardian piece written by The Authority Gap author Mary Ann Sieghart last year, titled, ‘Why do men read so few books by women?’ found that “for the top 10 bestselling female authors (who include Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readers are men and 81%, women. But for the top 10 bestselling male authors (who include Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split is much more even: 55% men and 45% women.”
Novelist Jonathan Coe has said that what men and women seek from novels may also be different, and that since men generally prefer fantasy and thriller while women generally prefer literary fiction, “that suggests to me that women read books to understand themselves, and men to escape themselves.” With the exception of JK Rowling (whose nom de plume was chosen to appear more masculine) and Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer (who counts a highly female audience), authors who drive the biggest fantasy and thriller sales are men.
What’s also become apparent is how much contemporary fiction feels geared towards women specifically, focussing on themes that have historically been considered ‘domestic’ and (frustratingly) therefore inherently ‘feminine’: motherhood, heartbreak, family, mental health. Might that put some men off?
It’s a shame that there is still the feeling that ‘women’s issues’ are niche to our gender while ‘men’s issues’ feel universal, but I do think that in fiction – as well as in comedy – that is the nub of the divide. As a friend said the other day when we were talking about why she was hesitant to recommend a funny, female-driven novel to her male friend: “Most men don’t find ‘weird’ women funny.”
Even women can trivialise ‘feminine’ fiction, which surely contributes to the problem. Sheepishly, my sister admitted that she had recently mocked her boyfriend for reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, because it was what she described as a “mums on the beach” novel. She hadn’t actually read it, so why did she think that? (I loved the book, which is actually extremely sad and not exactly a ‘fun’ beach read). Perhaps it was the aesthetics: childish, big curly font on the book jacket, a twee design of a matchstick house.
In fact I have started to notice how much of contemporary fiction by female authors is marketed with an overly ‘feminine’ aesthetic: pink book jackets and typefaces, which is enough to put me off, let alone the average man. It feels telling, perhaps, that I have seen Eleanor Catton’s new climate change thriller, Birnam Wood, with its neutral no-nonsense black and white cover, posted about by some of the men I follow on Instagram.
There also appears to be an absence of debut male novelists. Is it because there aren’t enough men writing novels, or is the publishing industry – largely run by women – prioritising works that will appeal to their prime buyers (women), desperately trying to find the next Sally Rooney?
In 2021, the Guardian reported that the Observer’s annual debut novelist feature showcased 44 writers, 33 of whom were female, while book prize shortlists are also dominated by women. A couple of weeks ago, Granta published its once-a-decade Best of Young British Novelists list, and, as the literary editor of the Times Johanna Thomas-Corr noted, “the British novel is very female”, with just four male writers on the 20-strong list, and one non-binary person. (She also notes that it is very young, and very white).
When I was younger, I read a lot more fiction written by men, from Jeffrey Eugenides and Salman Rushdie to Jonathan Franzen and David Nicholls. But when I had a look at my much neglected ‘Books 2023’ Google doc, the only piece of fiction I read by a male writer in the last six months has been Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (which is actually my favourite on the list). It feels insane to me that the only other male-authored contemporary novels that come to mind from the last few years are Brandon Taylor’s Real Life and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Novel by Junot Díaz, which is from 2007 (both of which I adored). I’d like to have more balance.
Of course I am far from calling men to come and wrestle the publishing industry from women – it’s nice to have us dominate the odd thing for once, and it’s brilliant how liberated women’s writing has become – but I do think that when it comes to new fiction, the mainstream risks feeling a little homogeneous. Last year for the New Statesman, Thomas-Corr wrote: “If I receive yet another proof of a novel that claims to explore “women’s anger” or “women’s pain” I might actually inflict pain on someone”.
I have yet to reach quite such fury, but I am a little tired of reading about hot mess women trying to make sense of their dysfunctional middle-class families. And, while the grim reality of motherhood was a literary taboo for so long, I’ve now read so many memoirs and novels about lives oppressed and wasted by motherhood that the prospect utterly terrifies me.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Eleanor Catton revealed her frustrations with today’s novel, and the rise of autofiction. “It seemed to me that even novelists who were writing about the present were stopping at a point of apathetic self-awareness, rather than engaging with the issues,” she said, elsewhere talking about how the modern novel has abandoned plot for “feeling”.
It made me think of a piece I read recently by a female writer who called for more “epic” in women’s writing, calling for themes of “revolution” and “war”. Of course plenty of these novels exist (and actually two of my favourite novels, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, are across these themes, while my sister is teaching civil war play Ruined, by Lynn Nottage, to her students), but perhaps we don’t hear about them enough. In terms of what gets prime media coverage – and usually fills up my inbox – it’s the stuff that can be marketed with a personal essay or a juicy, digestible headline. Things that sell well: that is to say, more of the same. And who can blame the publishing industry, when it’s just trying to survive?
I don’t have the answers to any of these issues, which are all much more complicated than I can give them credit for here. But, on a positive note, I would love to see more epic, war and revolution in women’s fiction – maybe that would coax more men to our book clubs.
This week in links
I’ve been watching Colin from Accounts, the charming Australian comedy about a grisly meetcute – girl flashes her tit on a zebra crossing, distracted boy runs over dog – that turns into something rather adorable. In her Guardian review, Lucy Managan wrote about how refreshing it is to see a female character (Ashley) that’s not a hot mess, and I would add that Ashley is also wonderfully unpredictable – another trait often missing from women on screen. For instance, in one scene, she insists on having a tequila shot with Gordon (who ran over the dog) before her Uber arrives. When they down it and Gordon says, ‘another one?’ – leading me to think a night of drunk sex was on the cards – Ashley replies, ‘Fuck no’, and immediately goes home. I’ve taken to watching an episode as a kind of gentle palette cleanser after The Last of Us, so that I don’t go to bed dreaming of Zombies and sprouting fungus – it’s worked so far.
(And if you haven't watched the incredible A24 comedy Beef on Netflix yet, you must, then read this piece about the cancelling and then un-cancelling of one of its stars, David Choe.)
I’ve been reading Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfield, a novel about a male pop star who falls in love with a comedy writer, after hosting late night sketch show The Night Owls (clearly based on Saturday Night Live). It’s been the talk of all the celebrity book clubs (how long until Reese Witherspoon options it for Hello Sunshine?) with former SNL hosts describing it as highly accurate – much of the book contains intricate detail about how sketches come together. The one man I know who has read it said it “was categorically not funny” but then again, so did Johanna Thomas-Corr. I can’t say it left me chortling, but I did find it pretty entertaining. Snoots be damned!
Also, this Vice article about how Gen Z are now renting out music studios as a cheap alternative to subbing and clubbing party in has made me feel both ancient and impressed.
And this Vulture piece on Rachel Weisz’s ‘Gay Index’, pegged to her new, much lauded Dead Ringers adaptation (next on my watch-list) is very funny.
I’ve been listening to the HBO Succession podcast, simply because I am obsessed with writer Lucy Prebble and wanted to hear her segment on last week’s episode, in which she talked about whether Kendall’s name was crossed out or underlined (crossed out!), and writing the brilliant scene in which Frank comforts Kendall following Logan’s death. She also talked eloquently about grief, and how for some people, losing a father figure can bring a strange kind of relief and ‘energy’. Listen here – Lucy Prebble is from 20 minutes in.
I can’t stop thinking about the Ortolan I almost ate in the name of copy. On Tuesday my cat deposited the corpse of a tiny wren outside my bedroom, its head resting upon a trailing plug. As I went outside to dispose of it, crying in my dressing gown, joggers sprinting past me at 7am, I remembered the time I was once asked by a magazine editor to convince a French chef to break the law by secretly serving me the banned dish once adored by French presidents, the Ortolan, and write an entertaining feature about my ordeal.
Drowned in Armagnac so that its little lungs explode with the liquor in your mouth, it is consumed whole – bones and all – beneath a white napkin to shield your eyes from God’s scorn. Despite impressing upon my editor that I couldn’t eat prawns, let alone an Ortolan, it was decided that, as the only French speaker in the office, I would have to go to France and commit the crime. I convinced the Chef, and broke the news to my parents, both passionate birdwatchers. You can imagine my relief a week later when the Chef sent me a cryptically brief email telling me that, in fact, ‘ce n’est pas possible’.
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