Gender, Fiction and Reading Preferences

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Yesterday I came across this article (published a week or so ago) in the Guardian UK about gender, fiction and reading preferences. Frankengirl and Mysticgypsy, you'll be pleased to learn that Jane Eyre was the novel most often cited by women as having the greatest influence on them. The novel most men cited as influential was The Stranger by Camus.

The report is fascinating and draws some interesting conclusions: Women's favorite novels were "surprisingly varied" and women found it easy to discuss the influence fiction had on them, "producing a number of key moments in their life at which they unselfconsciously acknowledged that fiction had offered them guidance or solace," while men's preferences were limited to a much smaller cluster of works, and "men were more reluctant than the women to discuss the influence reading might have had on them." As for why that might be,

Jon Elek, lecturer in English at University College London, told us: "I guess that if you admit to having a watershed novel, then you're admitting to having a watershed moment, which is something that a lot of men don't necessarily want to admit to. And to admit to having five [as respondents were asked to do] - oh, come on!"

The researchers summarize some of their findings thus:

Our final top 20 of men's reading clearly shows a majority of books with strong active narrative themes - books that might traditionally be described at quintessential boys' books. No surprise there, perhaps. Except that both our recorded interviews and questionnaire responses show these choices being made on the basis of a conscious commitment to novels that take the reader in a direction of personal development. Men's reading choices tend to identify themselves with novels that include intellectual struggle. Personal vulnerability is represented as a more or less angst-ridden struggle against convention, a sense of isolation from social normality. Catastrophe and the struggle to rise above circumstance characterise the plots.

Part of the reason for this, we decided, was that, to a far larger degree than women, men's formative reading was done between the ages of 12 and 20 - indeed, specifically around the ages of 15 and 16. For men, fiction was a rite of passage into manhood during painful adolescence. Many men admitted that they had read little fiction since, though mature men returned to fiction reading in later life, and expressed increasing enjoyment in reading for "self-reflection".

Between 20 and 40, many men we talked to openly showed an almost complete lack of interest in reading which drew them into personal introspection, or asked them to engage with the family and the domestic sphere. On the other hand, those who had remained avid readers could see distinct patterns emerging in their choices which differed from those selected by women.

A final conclusion is that

men use fiction almost physically as a guide to negotiate a difficult journey (but would rarely admit to this downright being the case). They use fiction almost topographically, as a map. Many of our women respondents last year explained that they used novels metaphorically - the build-up to an emotional crisis and subsequent denouement in a novel such as Jane Eyre might have helped negotiate an emotional progress through a difficult divorce, or provided support during a difficult period at work, or provided solace when things seemed generally dull.

Even if you get bored by the reseachers' commentary on their study, make sure you scroll to the bottom of the page and read the summary of both Jane Eyre and The Stranger--very witty!

6 Comments

Jane Eyre!!!

But you must be pleased that Jane Austen's P&P is not far behind - ;)

From the article's description of JE:

"Fortunately Bertha burns the house down, killing herself, so Jane gets her man.

"Fortunately" is rather an unfortunate (if funny) word choice!

But you must be pleased that Jane Austen's P&P is not far behind - ;)

Indeed I am. I'm glad that reading women as a whole have such good taste.

I'm trying to decide what my own list of most influential five novels might be....

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Grendel by John Gardner
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Orlando by Virgnia Woolf
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (though it's really a short story collection, but it reads like a novel)

If we don't limit the list to novels, but just to influential books, it would be

A Room of One's Own by Woolf--this book saved my life
Pride and Prejudice
The White Album by Joan Didion--I don't care for it nearly as much as I used to, but it's one of the main books that made me want to write nonfiction
Through the Narrow Gate by Karen Armstrong--reading it was like reading my own book, except set 20 years earlier in England
A History of God by Karen Armstrong--it made me realize I wasn't crazy for feeling as I did about God.

Anyone else willing to share?

Hi Holly
I find it interesting that both Rochester and the protagonist in The Stranger are Byronic heroes. Also, Meursault reminds me of Heathcliff. I do think the depiction of violence and remorse(or lack thereof) is what sets Wuthering Heights apart from conventional more "feminine" novels.

I found a lot of books to have been influencial to me so it is hard to choose only five amongst them. However, Jane Eyre is definitly on the top of my list.
And let's not forget poetry books as well :)

I find it interesting that both Rochester and the protagonist in The Stranger are Byronic heroes. Also, Meursault reminds me of Heathcliff. I do think the depiction of violence and remorse (or lack thereof) is what sets Wuthering Heights apart from conventional more "feminine" novels.

Interesting points. I admit I dislike Heathcliff violently, whereas Meursault just bores me, and that's worse. I've read The Stranger in both French and English, and its appeal just escapes me. I can't see why people find it so compelling--I may not be crazy about Wuthering Heights, but I have little trouble understanding why other people are.

Here are my five books:

1. Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature
2. Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, vol. 1
3. Jeff Harrod’s Power, Production and the Unprotected Worker
4. Marx’s Capital, vol. 1
5. Isabel Allende’s Of Love and Shadows

I came up with this list when asked which five books had the biggest impact on my thinking in a job interview several months ago. I wrote a rather lengthy explanation of my choices (and one modification I would make) but rather than post a 1000 word comment on Holly's blog, I just put it on my own. Maybe "five books" -- or, to be true to the spirit of the Guardian piece, "five novels" -- could be another meme?????

Jane Eyre for girls. The Stranger for boys. That's priceless.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on April 13, 2006 9:25 AM.

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