Before my husband and I left for a writing vacation in Spain, we had dinner with Ron Carlson and went over our summer reading lists. We discussed Lila by Marilyn Robinson, but I couldn’t imagine either man reading it. My friend Jim Tilley, sure, but Jim’s an animal, he’ll read any smart book, but Ron and Mark, I was pretty sure wouldn’t make it through Lila which is very much a woman’s book. I read Elena Ferrante’s book, My Brilliant Friend the first week of the trip. It was fun, but I cannot imagine a man reading it. Like Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, it gives us a world of girls. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See gives us that girl world in China. Women love these stories.
At the grocery store book level, women tend to read romances while men read action stories, but that’s a reduction of the idea that women crave romance while men crave adventure, stories that happen against a big backdrop. Women live big lives outside the house now, so how does the split in literary reading continue? Angela Merkel is arguably the most important leader in Europe and America’s on the verge of having a woman president. How are we in the 21st century still stuck in gendered reading habits?
As an editor, you think about who the audience is. Who is going to read this book? The answer when it comes to novels is that women tend to read books by women and men read books by men; however, more women will venture into male territory than visa versa.
Women read because the story itself interests us, because the lilt of the language is familiar, and because it feels like the writer is talking to us. Toni Morrison, Marilyn Robinson, Margaret Atwood are all writing stories I can walk around in and hear my heart beating.
Most men would rather read Cormac McCarthy. When I hear a man say that he loves David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers, I glaze over. I know they probably like Pynchon too. WASP with dough and gym time? I think. Let’s write about being a junkie, being fucked up and let’s make it sound male and pathetic and narcissistic but cool at the same time, and I want to scream, Hunter S. Thompson did it so much better. Men who’ve never had a problem their daddy’s money couldn’t solve usually love these books. I want them to read Razor’s Edge, now there’s a book about living without Daddy’s money, but Maugham isn’t clever enough for these boys. But let’s get back to what men read and what women read.
Men like a story where something is actually happening. Where something is going on. Not just talk, talk, talk. They get enough of that at home. They need a break. It doesn’t have to be fireballs and car chases, that’s in their favorite movies. Even in a thinking man’s book, something needs to happen. I peeked into my husband’s book bag, and I saw a little stack of Murakami, Marquez and because he’s a cerebral guy as well a smattering of Calvino. He likes a knife appearing in his stories; he perks right up then, somebody is going to do something bad in this book! Elena Ferrante would make him scream. What are these little girls doing wandering around the town square? That’s a story? Give me guns. Cars. Chainsaws. Something falling or being blown up. Big stuff. Big and men go together. Something needs to happen, a big mashup otherwise why did we come to the racetrack?
There are stories that cross gender lines. I read Dave Eggers The Circle on the train through Spain and then read all the reviews bashing it, saying that he didn’t get it right. But he did. He’s writing about all of us in the electronic world who have to tell everyone about every little thing we do. All of us who can’t unplug. Who can’t bear to let a minute go by without checking in. It’s a brilliant book. Everyone should read it and then ask themselves why they don’t kayak more.
My phone was stolen my first night of this trip and because I couldn’t check in, couldn’t post pics on Facebook, the whole trip has been a lot better. When I did post, it was about what I was reading and thinking and doing and I mostly just read and had the experience. The Circle is an example of a book men and women could equally enjoy. It’s a dystopian novel about what’s wrong with our culture crouched around a viewer screen as if it were the first campfire at the beginning of the world. Other examples of books either gender could read are Ron Carlson’s A Kind of Flying, T.C. Boyle’s The Women or Water Music, George Saunders The Tenth of December, Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, The Diary of Anne Frank, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Ian McKuen and Somerset Maugham, Doris Lessing’s short stories, but most novels lean fiercely into the gender binary.
We as readers will have bigger ideas if we lean as far out of our comfort zone as we can. We won’t discover what’s possible until we stretch past the edges. The best books might be surprises. Online dating hooks us up to a carefully collated version of what we think we’d like, but the best relationships aren’t like that at all, you find your way forward in the dark and you suddenly fall in love with someone who sees you as you wish you could see yourself. Try a story outside your reading comfort zone; you might find yourself part of something that like Alice in Wonderland is both bigger and smaller than you ever imagined. “I can’t go back to yesterday because