["On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do
not read fiction.]
A tale of two genders: men choose novels of
alienation, while women go for passion
Camus tops the male 'milestones' list
Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent
Thursday April 6, 2006
The novel that means most to men is about
indifference, alienation and lack of emotional
responses. That which means most to women is about
deeply held feelings, a struggle to overcome
circumstances and passion, research by the University
of London has found.
Professor Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary
College interviewed 500 men, many of whom had some
professional connection with literature, about the
novels that had changed their lives. The most
frequently named book was Albert Camus's The Outsider,
followed by JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Kurt
Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. The project, called
Men's Milestone Fiction, commissioned by the Orange
prize for fiction and the Guardian, followed on from
similar research into women's favourite novels
undertaken by the same team last year.
The results are strikingly different, with almost no
overlap between men's and women's taste. On the whole,
men preferred books by dead white men: only one book
by a woman, Harper Lee, appears in the list of the top
20 novels with which men most identify.
Women, by contrast, most frequently cited works by
Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Margaret Atwood, George
Eliot and Jane Austen. They also named a "much richer
and more diverse" set of novels than men, according to
Prof Jardine. There was a much broader mix between
contemporary and classic works and between male and
"We found that men do not regard books as a constant
companion to their life's journey, as consolers or
guides, as women do," said Prof Jardine. "They read
novels a bit like they read photography manuals."
Women readers used much-loved books to support them
through difficult times and emotional turbulence, and
tended to employ them as metaphorical guides to
behaviour, or as support and inspiration.
"The men's list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of
puberty reading," she said. Ideas touching on
isolation and "aloneness" were strong among the men's
The researchers also found that women preferred old,
well-thumbed paperbacks, whereas men had a slight
fixation with the stiff covers of hardback books.
"We were completely taken aback by the results," said
Prof Jardine, who admitted that they revealed a
pattern verging on a gender cliche, with women citing
emotional, more domestic works, and men novels about
social dislocation and solitary struggle.
She was also surprised she said, "by the firmness with
which many men said that fiction didn't speak to
them". The historian David Starkey said, for instance:
"I fear fiction, of any sort, has never worked on me
like that ... Is that perhaps interesting in itself?"
In addition, some men cited works of non-fiction as
their "watershed" books, even though they were
explicitly asked about fiction.
For example, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative
party, picked out Robert Graves's first world war
memoir Goodbye to All That as his watershed book:
"Brilliantly written, wonderfully clear and his
description of life in WWI is harrowing but
fascinating," he told the researchers. Most of the men
cited books they had read as teenagers, and many of
them stopped reading fiction while young adults, only
returning to it in late middle age.
Prof Jardine said that the research suggested that the
literary world was run by the wrong people. "What I
find extraordinary is the hold the male cultural
establishment has over book prizes like the Booker,
for instance, and in deciding what is the best. This
is completely at odds with their lack of interest in
fiction. On the other hand, the Orange prize for
fiction [which honours women authors] is still
regarded as ephemeral." She noted that when Daniel
Defoe and Samuel Richardson had started writing novels
in the 18th century, the new literary genre was
regarded as strictly for women.
"On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do
not read fiction. This should have some impact on the
book trade. There was a moment when car manufacturers
realised that it was women who bought the family car,
and the whole industry changed. We need fiction
publishers - many of whom are women - to go through
the same kind of recognition," Prof Jardine said.
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