November 16, 2009

Books Men Want


On Friday the world received the latest email newsletter from Oprah’s Book Club. Just under the invitation to watch the webcast of  Oprah with Uwem Akpan and Anderson Cooper, I found “Books Men Want” edited by former Publishers Weekly editor-in-chief, Sara Nelson. The teaser reads, in part, “Find out more about these and other books that the men in your life are sure to be asking for this holiday season.”

As we all know, the question, “What do men want?” is thought to be much easier to answer than is the same question of women. Nowhere, apparently, is this more true than in the book section where, it appears, men don’t want much.

Each of the books selected by Oprah has its own page. After clicking through three pages, I found that I was being directed to other features. I tried this several times, thinking that I must have made a mistake, but, after all, it seems that only three pages are needed for the Books Men Want: Open, by Andre Agassi; True Compass, by Edward M. Kennedy; and Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer.

For men, by men, about men.

66.6 % of the titles have to do with an athlete. Zero percent, it almost goes without saying, are fiction. All are biographies of public, accomplished men, although the subject of Krakauer’s book, Pat Tillman, the professional football player turned soldier, was not so well-known until he was killed in the war in Afghanistan.

If anybody knows who’s reading what, it’s got to be Oprah and her crew (Sara Nelson must have a pretty good idea, herself). After all, Oprah regularly decides just what that will be — for millions of people. A feature like Books Men Want, I have to think, must be close to the mark. On such anecdotal evidence as this, then, it looks as though uncoupling gender stereotypes from reading is a lost cause.

This makes last week’s flap over Publishers Weekly‘s list of the best books of 2009 even stranger. If PW’s list had consisted entirely of books written by women, as could easily have been the case — see this list, for example — is it possible that no man would have protested?

In June, Ron Charles, Deputy Editor of the Washington Post’s Book World posted a review that included this cheerful facing up to facts:

Back in olden days, before we started worrying about the survival of novels, we used to worry about the survival of novels for men. But that battle was lost so long ago that we should declare the field a national park and open a visitors’ center (Look, kids — Norman Mailer published right on this spot!).

Who the “we” is that worried about the survival of novels is hard to say. Most American men don’t seem to have missed them. As indefatigable Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote last year, in one of her frequent essays for the New Yorker,

By the end of the eighteenth century, not just novel readers but most novel writers were women, too. And most historians, along with their readers, were men. As the discipline of history, the anti-novel, emerged, and especially as it professionalized, it defined itself as the domain of men. (Women might write biography, or dabble in genealogy.) Eighteenth-century observers, in other words, understood the distinction between history and fiction not merely and maybe not even predominantly as a distinction between truth and invention but as a distinction between stories by, about, and of interest to men and stories by, about, and of interest to women. Women read novels, women wrote novels, women were the heroines of novels. Men read history, men wrote history, men were the heroes of history. (When men wrote novels, [William] Godwin suggested, this was regarded as “a symptom of effeminacy.”)

A lively, if scattered, discussion of whether men read fiction can be found on the web. Among the assertions I gleaned: we have only 80,000 reliable readers of fiction in this country and 75% of them are women. The exactitude of the numbers may be disputed but the dispiriting conclusion has become folk wisdom. (In more than one online conversation — such as this one — reader’s comments invoke genetics to explain men’s love of killing and disdain for such fiction as is being forced on their male children by misguided educators.)

Even Oprah has thrown up her hands.