Adventures in Reading

Reader demographics
August 3, 2008, 9:27 am
Filed under: thoughtful | Tags: , , , , ,

Though I have no statistics on hand, recently Publisher’s Weekly had an article that referred to men’s reading preferences versus women’s. More or less, adult males often seem to prefer nonfiction to women’s preference for fiction. I admit that for years I have fit more or less into this demographic as I voraciously down one fictional book after another. Granted, recently I have been broadening my horizons with such nonfiction works as Isabel Allende’s The Sum of Our Days, Children’s Literature by Seth Lerer, Revolution! by Nikolas Kozloff, and First Step in the New World by David Lida. Additionally, my reading stack definitely is leaning towards the nonfiction side of things.

But I am curious, why is this? Why do women prefer fiction to men’s preference for nonfiction? Women are plenty intelligent to read nonfiction and in my own experience I confess that many a fiction work has been far more demanding and complex than any nonfiction work I’ve come across. First I stumbled onto the idea of escapism, which is one glaring difference between fiction and nonfiction. But that also seems fairly depressing because I can only infer from this idea that women then feel or have a greater need to escape.

My partner just asked me why I tend to prefer fiction to nonfiction. (I assume he’s hoping it’s not to escape from him!) And I suppose for me it’s because I don’t always see such a clear distance, and sometimes no distance at all, between fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction is never not subjective. Fiction, even the wildest fantasy, always contains pearls of nonfiction. Part of my attraction to literature and my degree in English has to do with cultural study and interpretation. More or less, I love literature for the cultural fragments found within the novel, etc. Like an archaeologist digging for pottery shards, I pick through the lines of literature for cultural relevance.

Not to mention the sheer enjoyment of reading is an added benefit.

Nonfiction though is definitely growing on me, which results from a mix of reading nonfiction applying to things I already have an interest in (e.g. Jane Austen or Latin America) and moving away from stuffy nonfiction texts to more inspired and interesting works (e.g. David Lida).

So demographically why do women have a tendency to prefer fiction while men prefer nonfiction? It’s no easy answer.



That’s a good question which I suppose has a bunch of possible answers, but if I went with my gut I’d have to say the reason is emotional. If I allowed myself to make a big wacky generalization, I’d say that women are “feelers” and they prefer books that make them feel something. My favorite books are usually ones that tap into my feelings – I feel sympathy for the characters, I cry if tragedy befalls one of them, I want to be the girl who is being swept off her feet by that handsome guy, etc. I like non-fiction as much as the next person (and probably more than your average woman, apparently), but I’d be the first person to say that it doesn’t appeal to my emotions the way fiction often does (though this isn’t *always* the case, of course) which is maybe why I continue to prefer fiction. I like to be wholly engaged in my reading both mentally and emotionally, so I guess if other women are like me, then maybe they prefer fiction because it is more likely to play into their emotions.

Comment by Megan

I only know one man who prefers nonfiction. He’s an antique dealer and I think the history books just fit into his passion for antiques.

The rest of the men I know well enough to know what they like to read are fans of genre series (fantasy, scifi, mystery) and believe it or not, chicklit. Yes, the men in my life read more fiction aimed at women than I do.

Comment by pussreboots

Megan: I read your response yesterday and have been thinking about it since then and I think it’s a useful insight. Fiction, it seems, has so much humanity in it or the possibility of humanity. For me, this of course includes so much emotion. It’s also why I find it a more attractive alternative to read Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning or Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn rather than a nonfiction look at the early 20th Century. While it’s not always true, nonfiction seems to disregard much of the passion that can really vitalize history. (That and a lot of nonfiction seems to get lost in overly academic language.)

pussreboots: Interesting comment! I confess that my life mostly follows Publisher’s Weekly‘s comments on demographics. I have to beg and plead with my partner to read something that is nonfiction while he attempts to sway tempting morsels of nonfiction before me. Not that I don’t know exceptions to the rule and I think your comment of “fans of genre series” is insightful. I know at least two men completely obsessed with Star Wars (and who I doubt have read anything nonfiction unless it’s in regards to Star Wars) and have at least one very good lady friend who never, ever reads fiction.

Comment by bookchronicle

I am a man; so please season this opinion with a generous dose of bias. But in that bias, please understand that I must state the way things are, in reality. A majority of men are less capable than women to understand and assimilate a hypothetical to their lives. They simply cannot detach from their perception of reality long enough to appreciate a simple query, “what if.” We are impatient to a fault. And “what if” inquiries, if they take longer than the time it requires to watch half of a TV commercial, are not to be considered in our corral of reality. Most of us have a lot of difficulty processing all the ways our children might be hurt by whatever means presented, and as an extension of that shortcoming in us, we just cannot extrapolate our lives enough to put ourselves in the shoes of a “what if”, fictionsl, character. Therefore, appreciating, as opposed to understanding, fiction is beyond most men’s comfort zones. (But we’re damned good at a lot of other stuff!)

Comment by Mark

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