I Am Not a Target Market: Every Man Is a Snowflake...

Earlier this year I reviewed The Time Traveler's Wife and tagged it "women's fiction." You, you wonderful readers, cried foul. What a crock it is that men read just hurly-burly treatises about manly men or dry tomes about the state of the global economy!

So I talked to booksellers. Regular, everyday readers. Authors. Critics. What have you. And now I've come back to you a month later and I can't say, well MEN are this, this and this. Men are not a species, they don't have some Dollhouse-esque hive mind. Each man is a snowflake, unique and special. Clearly, I've just come back from Sociable and had some wine. In all seriousness, though, the best part of this series was talking to people, not men, and hearing about the books that spoke to them, even to the point where they wanted to tattoo it on their body.

On the other hand, men are not women. They've been socially conditioned to "man up", to not share their feelings to the extent that women are and they don't face the same pressure to give and not expect to receive.

This social conditioning has ramifications for how men read. Men are less inclined to join book clubs, especially fiction book clubs, as this would involve some discussion of the inner lives of the characters and anyway, I would agree with Adam that talking about books with other guys is generally viewed as nerdy.

A large proportion of the guys I interviewed love science fiction/fantasy (Eric Roundtree, Mike Astbury, Robert Wiersema, Adam and Nick certainly did). Classic SFF tends to focus on world building, battle techniques and intellectual ideas concerning forms of society/government, not relationships. If discussed at all, it can be a safe way to communicate without seeming "weepy", if you know what I mean.

I'm reading American Nerdright now. It says that the classic Type I nerd is a man who is more comfortable functioning mechanically rather than emotionally. He wishes he could communicate in Morse Code as it is less ambiguous and more functional. And society punishes him for being less than human, even though this way of operating is comfortable and natural for him.

I'm not saying that all men who love SFF or less emotional works are Type I nerds but it does give you a sense of why men find non-fiction or genre fiction more appealing. Whether this is natural or a result of social conditioning or a little of both I don't know.
August pointed out in one of the comments that men feel pressure to be functional and since DIY culture and Thoreau-esque manliness seems to be coming back in style, this pressure will only increase. Thus, if men read they read practically and tend not to discuss it since, as Adam said, reading is perceived as "nerdy" i.e. not practical. This would explain why Brian Harvey said that boys usually only visit libraries when accompanied by girls and that a larger ratio of women borrow books than men.

However, I'm not so sure this situation is ideal, most of all for men themselves. In Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man, she describes situating herself in a monastery disguised as a man. Without the presence of women to ease conversation (and terrified about inviting homosexual advances) the men rarely discussed their inner emotional lives. They suffered crippling depression and loneliness.

Still, men don't appear to be turning to female writers, they still prefer books by male authors. As August said, "...I need a male view of maleness. Like anybody, I need to look in a book and see myself." A man has first hand experience in relating to men. It's entirely possible that with a female author a man could feel that, as Adam said about Laurell K. Hamilton, "That woman has no idea what men are really like."

It also appears that guys involved in the publishing/literary community are more likely to read fiction (Brian Harvey professed to read only 10% non-fiction). The fact is, men are more likely to read fiction and discuss it if it's their job. Talking about your job is practical, useful, necessary, dare I say manly. When I talked to men who didn't work in publishing, like Adam, well, he just didn't talk about books at all, nor did he feel he could talk to women about books.

What's the conclusion here? Well, even though I was able to tease out a couple of ideas above, what I really learned is that men are reading more broadly than I'd originally imagined and this could be a lesson for publishers. As Mike Astbury said about their gender specific marketing campaigns, "...this is a missed opportunity." Books tend to be "for chicks" or "for dudes" and then there's literary fiction, which is supposedly for both, though we're often told that few people read it.

The truth is, it takes all types, and often any one book can appeal to any one person. If publishers would think more broadly about target markets and try a more inclusive approach in their marketing efforts and if schools and parents encouraged a wide range of reading in boys, perhaps men would feel more apt to discuss fiction, to try female writers, and to wander into the library a bit more often.


Hubert O'Hearn said...

You know, you're absolutely right. Since starting the reviews I've been reading books sent by publishers that I would NEVER have picked up on my own and I'm increasingly convinced that (potential) readers would discover we're actually in a Golden Age right now. Alan Bradley (Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) and I talked about this during an interview. And it's REALLY a Golden Age for women novelists. Pick up Joan Thomas's Curiosity if you want to read a great book about the discovery of evolution with the "woman's touch" of Jane Austen type romance and male dumbness. Love your blog! Cheers!

John Mutford said...

Fun and educational series you ran here. I'm looking forward to your next project. Anything simmering?

B.Kienapple said...

Thanks John! Gosh. I'm going to be writing a bit about old-school romantic heroines and whether they're still relevant. I've also become increasingly interested in thriftiness, financial management and downsizing so likely you'll see a semi-series devoted to that somewhere down the line...

Hubert O'Hearn said...

Speaking of old-school heroines, for curiosity's sake have you read Curiosity? I have a review on my blog - absolutely loved the book.

B.Kienapple said...

Hi Hubert, as I just posted on your blog, I haven't had the chance to read Curiosity yet, though I am more curious to now that I've read your review. So before you wrote reviews professionally you wouldn't normally read novels by female authors..is that right? Do you feel that Curiosity is a book by a woman for women or if not, how would would it appeal to a broader audience?

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