Years ago I was pitching a book to an agent. He wanted more non-fiction, like my first published work; I held the common authorial prejudice that you haven’t properly made it until your fiction is in print.
He turned down my novel, and one of the reasons shocked me (even more than his inability to appreciate my genius): how little fiction is bought, despite dominating review sections. The split is an estimated 70-30 in favour of factual.
A further shock: hardly any men buy fiction. This man reckoned only about 10% of novels or story collections were purchased by blokes.
At first I didn’t quite believe this; then I got to thinking about the men I knew, specifically those who read books (sadly, not everyone does; you’d think it was part of the acceptance criteria for becoming an adult, but it’s an imperfect world).
And I realised, it’s true: most never read fiction. Some haven’t opened a novel, not one, since school.
They prefer books on history, humour, science, psychology, sociology, crime; at the fag-end of the spectrum, sports autobiographies, most of which barely count as books. Even relatively easy-to-read genre fiction – crime, fantasy, horror – is literary anathema to most men.
So great is the male aversion to fiction that you’d actually notice a man who does. Spotting a novel – any novel – on their desk, you’d almost do a double-take, maybe feel a little tingle of complicity: “This guy’s kind of like me. And we’re a small, special minority.”
Why don’t men read fiction? Nature, I think, trumps nurture. I don’t want to think that, having grown up in an era when it was assumed environment played a far greater role in shaping character than biology.
But it must be. The sexes consume more-or-less identical material as children; however chauvinist society remains, it doesn’t push little girls towards fiction and boys towards factual. Our parents read us the same fairy-tales; we study the same literature throughout school, up to adulthood.
There’s no overt pressure on teenage boys to throw away their novels. Indeed, there’s none on grown men. Nobody slags you off for reading fiction, or seems to care one way or another; they’ll just say, “Oh, I’d have no time for that.”
Yet by early adulthood, most males have lost interest in fiction. The cause, I’m sure, is genetics, neurological wiring, hormones, or some combination thereof.
Boys and men are, in general, more convergent and linear in their thinking; this would naturally draw them towards non-fiction. The most frequent male criticism of fiction is that it’s “not real”, “made-up”. Men seem to like straight narrative lines, provable facts, reportage – an architecture of external reality.
Women, by contrast, are more divergent thinkers, and also more attracted to the life of the mind: internal reality. What individuals think and feel is as important as a flat record of seismic events.
Most men are probably accurate when they say they find fiction boring: all that interior monologue, metaphor, obliqueness, tangents that don’t obviously go anywhere. And it is, by definition, invention; this never took place, they reason, so how can it mean anything?
They’re missing out on an awful lot, though – something much more profound than the accumulation of information, useful as that may be. Human culture has yet to discover a better way of capturing those moments, sensations or thoughts that happen all the time, yet paradoxically are almost inexpressible. We can’t put them in words – nobody can, not even novelists themselves – but we recognise them when somehow encapsulated by fiction, and are glad.
Noel Gallagher famously said he prefers to read about “things that actually happened” because fiction “isn’t fucking true”. But he’s wrong: real does not necessarily equate to “true” in art. Real is prosaic and quotidian; truth is universal and eternal, and so is fiction.
Oh, about that novel: several years, two agents and dozens of submissions later, it finally got published…nobody bought it.