Not that kind of sex appeal. A more precise term for today’s post would be gender appeal, but the former is a great attention-grabber, don’t you think?
It is widely acknowledged that women read more than men, but the disparity is startling. A 2007 story by NPR, “Why Women Read More than Men,” put it at a ratio of 4:1. Click here for the NPR story. (Note the comment about the “spate of new literary blogs” made up primarily of women. Hmm…).
While I think quite highly of National Public Radio, I’m still not convinced that we’re looking at that big of a disparity, which the report backed up with anecdotal information from store owners and statistics from book sales, among other things. Perhaps I’m resistant to the idea because my own experience doesn’t bear this out, at least not in the social subset I gravitate toward. Still, book buyers and book readers may not necessarily be the same people in every case, so going by book sales doesn’t tell the whole story.
Then there are the social experiments, such as that of perfect strangers thrusting free books at random people (cited by NPR), and noting the difference between how men and women react. Turning it down meant you were a non-reader. Really? Seems to me that it’s testing one’s willingness to accept a book from a complete stranger.
The Fiction Gap
According to numerous sources, women also read more fiction than men. The NPR article in particular cites bookstore owners across the country who noticed that the women invariably head for the fiction sections and the men make a bee-line for the non-fiction. Why? No one knows for sure. Theories abound, of course – mirror neurons, female empathetic response, higher language ability in women vs. higher mathematical ability in men…don’t even get me started on that one. Maybe we could blame aliens. Or a vast left-wing conspiracy. Or zombies.
We’ve also heard the statistics about girls reading more than boys, that boys are a tougher sell than girls when it comes to falling in love with a book. Having three sons, I can relate to this. Parents struggle to cultivate an early love of reading in their children. It can be difficult to find good books that interest boys, although these days there are more of them than there used to be. Then there’s the challenge of getting the teacher to assign the ones that boys will read. Each of my children had to read The Secret Garden, and really struggled to get through it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a classic, but not as relevant to a Wii-mote-wielding, soccer-playing, minecraft-building kid.
Fortunately, the Harry Potter books changed the landscape for boys. Finally, boys were eclipsing girls in number of readers of the Harry Potter series, and the films helped add to the cachet.
The Middle Reader/Young Adult genre has become cooler that it ever was. Check out “Harry Potter: the Boy Who Made Kids Love Reading” and “Harry Potter and the Literacy Phenomenon” for more perspectives on this.
The upshot for writers
The topic of gender appeal has been on my mind lately. I’m at the stage where I need to consider how my book will be promoted. While it’s clear that Dangerous and Unseemly, with its female protagonist and female-centric, nineteenth-century setting will have more appeal for women, I don’t want to exclude half of my potential readership, where only men who know me will pick up my book. I’ve tried to write the book so that it has a more universal appeal than that. I suppose time will tell whether I’ve done the job. But is this a worthwhile goal? Is it even attainable? What is lost when an author tries to appeal to everyone?
So, what do you think: can a female-centric novel be appealing to men as well? And what about “cozy” mysteries – is that a sub-genre just for women? What’s your opinion of the reported gender reading gap? I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time,