Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's (Not) Raining Men.

Tragic, I know, but nobody talks about the landing. Or the cleanup. But I'm not talking about the weather. I'm talking about the reader.

There's a discussion going on in the world of writing, and certainly in the world of publishing: where are the male readers? Specifically, where are the young men?

There is a perception that young men don't read, and I think the perception is accurate. First, let me say that most people of every age and gender don't read. They watch TV, spend time on Facebook, play video games, watch movies, whatever. But when you look at the few, the proud, the readers, there is a missing group: young men. I have offered the theory that they are drawn more by World of Warcraft and porn than to fiction, and I think that's part of it. More of it is probably down to the unsolvable problem of excitement.

Reading used to be the main source of excitement and adventure for those of us who were not going to sign up to crew a clipper ship or be discovered as the missing heir of some remote kingdom. As time passed, war fiction and science fiction could still provide surrogate thrills to the young man struggling with high school or college or a first job. Then came all the other draws: movies, television, video games, and the Internet. Sorry, books, but for the casual reader you can't compete.

You're mad now, but it's true. Only the die-hard readers remain. And people who want something more sedate, like romance, or more difficult to replace, like epic fantasy.

So the young men aren't reading. Young Adult fiction is, for the most part, female-oriented. Fantasy is read by young women. Romance is almost entirely read by women. Yes, older men are still reading. They are reading what they have always read: science fiction, war fiction, literary fiction, and non-fiction. But what happens when today's leveling-up WoW young men replace the former D&D-playing older men?

I visited a couple of bookstores last Wednesday. One was the Lihue Borders, and as I surveyed the new and notable fiction, I realized that most of the books were written by women. And I also realized for the first time that my favorite author list split pretty evenly between the genders. Think of what the literary world looked like fifty years ago, and you'll see some major positive change for women writers.

I predict that trend will continue. But I don't think we'll see this wonderful balance last long. I think we will tip to more women writers of literary fiction. Vastly more. A few reasons here:

1. Publishers know there is a wave of young men out there to whom they can't sell a book at gunpoint. Think they will make a major effort to solve this problem, or will they instead try to reach the reading women? Publishers are trying to survive; they have to serve the largest possible audience. I'm afraid the current generation of young men, and the future generation of older men, has been written off.

2. Do men, especially young men, want to do "girl stuff?" Nope. So what happens in twenty or thirty years when the majority of writers in every genre except science fiction and war fiction are female? What happens when the majority of literary fiction writers are women? Think young men will aspire to join that rank as they once did?

3. Think the Nobel Prize committee, which has already declared that it will never again give the literature award to an American, will be more or less likely to give the prize to a man? You'd better be from an oppressed community, buddy. Yes, we are all made stronger by recognizing the breadth and depth of human experience, but cutting off one group completely is a mistake.

Last Wednesday I also visited a used bookstore that sorted literary fiction by gender. Yep, male writers on one side, female writers on the other. Strangest thing I've ever seen. We're supposed to be on a level playing field in literature. Our only chance is to help the reader reach for a book without thinking of the gender of the writer. We can't risk making the male reader look down that aisle and see "girl stuff."

I suppose, in the end, that's the point I'm trying to make. I hope we aren't losing a generation of men. I hope we aren't losing men entirely.

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