Why don’t men read fiction?

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.


4 responses to “Why don’t men read fiction?

  • Malcolm McClintick

    When I grew up in the 1950s girls read fiction, boys went to movies and played sports. In college in the 1960s girls read “literature,” boys went to movies and watched sports. In law school in the late 60s and early 70s, girls read fiction, guys went to movies and watched sports. I started reading books in grade school and kept reading books until a couple of decades ago when the only novels I could find were written and published by women, about women, and for women. Now I watch movies and occasionally read one of the old books I used to read.

  • Keith Adamson

    Nobody ever seems to ask the obvious question: “So … don’t you watch movies? Only documentaries?”

    Could it be that men are really only interested in the action, but never the internal reality, the nuances or the subtlety?


    The genres that appealed to men are the ones that today’s publishers are turning their backs on. Publishers don’t want the next Tom Clancy or John LeCarre. They want the next J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer. They don’t want the next Mack Bolan. They want the next Fifty Shades of Grey.

    It must be said that a significant number of male oriented genres are widely considered dead and outdated genres. Hardboiled Private Detectives, Sword and Planet or Lost World stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Male fantasy adventure in the style of Robert E. Howard. And the colonialist explorers in the vein or H. Rider Haggard’s Alan Quartermain. These are all considered dated due to certain politically incorrect tropes that they all had in common such as the representation of women as femmne fatales or objects to satsify men ‘s desires.

    The technothriller genre established by Tom Clancy, Craig Thomas, and Robert Ludlum is traditionally male oriented and often has a cast of all males with female characters again as lovers, wives, or, once again, the femme fatale.

    Science Fiction tends to be plot oriented rather than character oriented, especially hard SF. These tend to be written by male authors who don’t really know how to write plausible female characters. There is a reason why SF is stereotyped as appealing to nerds.

    The adventure stories that appealed to boys and men are being increasingly seen as not inclusive enough. Women want “strong independent female” characters they can not only identify with but see themselves as. Men don’t really need to relate to the male characters in sci fi or spy thrillers in regard to their background or personal lives. Men are there for what the characters do, not for their struggles as (insert identity group here). Women want character drama, emotional content, and to be able to see themselves in the character. Men want action, adventure, escapism, even if it means that the characters are totally removed from the readers’ experiences (Conan, Jason Bourne, etc). Publishers just keep publishing Star Wars/Star Trek novels for the guys and leave it at that. But we all know that in the eyes of many, sci-fi doesn’t count as serious reading, let alone SW/ST. So we are back to the notion that men don’t like to read fiction. They just aren’t recognized much for reading the type of fiction that they actually prefer. And when they are, they are accused of being overly male chauvinist in their tastes. Can you see the double standard here when you think about for whom Fifty Shades of Grey was written? As well as the fact that Rowling greatly favored Hermione to her titular character.

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