Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins
When Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins asked women which book had helped them most during their lives, the clear winner was Jane Eyre, with Pride and Prejudice not too far behind. When they repeated the exercise with men, a very different reading list emerged ...
A little over a year ago, we conducted a survey of women readers to find a "watershed" women's novel - the book which, above all others, had sustained individual women through key moments of transition or crisis in their lives. We began by polling women who were prominent in the arts and the media, then moved on to women journalists, academics, university students, schoolteachers and sixth formers. By the end we were polling every woman reader who crossed our paths; in total, 400 women responded to our inquiry.
Absolutely every woman we spoke to had her favourite. The top titles that emerged were surprisingly varied. They ranged from The Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to Catch 22, Gone With The Wind, Rebecca, Heart of Darkness and The Golden Notebook. This was alongside such perennial favourites as Jane Eyre (our way- out-in-front eventual winner), Mrs Dalloway, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch and Anna Karenina. Jeanette Winterson's Passion and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale had bands of loyal followers.
This year, we tackled the obvious next question: what do men read to get them through life? If polling women's reading habits had thrown up such an astonishing variety of reading, surely men's reading would be equally revealing. After all, as two female researchers, we might have been prepared for women's reading choices; in the case of men, we admitted we really hadn't a clue.
Our sample of reading men was selected on exactly the same principles as the women - that way, we felt the results could be directly compared. The first thing we found, unexpectedly, was that the men were more reluctant than the women to discuss the influence reading might have had on them. Or, perhaps it might be more accurate to say, they seemed suspicious of the question. Women had responded to our questionnaire without hesitation, producing a number of key moments in their life at which they unselfconsciously acknowledged that fiction had offered them guidance or solace. Many men we approached really did not seem to associate reading fiction with life choices.
"Perhaps it's the gender of the interviewer," suggested Stephen Beresford, one of a number of informants from the world of theatre. "Perhaps certain men have a problem opening up to a female interviewer. I don't really see why, but maybe it's a macho thing." Jon Elek, lecturer in English at University College London, told us: "I guess that if you admit to having a watershed novel, then you're admitting to having a watershed moment, which is something that a lot of men don't necessarily want to admit to. And to admit to having five [as respondents were asked to do] - oh, come on!"
Where they did produce titles, men's reading did not show the same range as the women's had done. For the women's project we interviewed 400 women and ended up with some 200 titles. We found we had to approach a significantly larger sample of men to get a similar number of responses. From an early stage, the choices clustered around a set of out-and-out favourites: Camus's The Outsider, Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. These titles remained consistently popular, which was something that failed to happen with the women's titles, which changed daily, throwing up little-known books alongside familiar classics.
Still, in spite of a certain angst about revealing that fiction had any impact on their day-to-day lives, the great majority of our respondents were intrigued by our inquiry and happily offered us time, leading to some fascinating results. Men's formative reading does indeed differ markedly from women's. Only four titles were shared between the women's and men's top 20, and there was no overlap at all in the top five.
Our final top 20 of men's reading clearly shows a majority of books with strong active narrative themes - books that might traditionally be described at quintessential boys' books. No surprise there, perhaps. Except that both our recorded interviews and questionnaire responses show these choices being made on the basis of a conscious commitment to novels that take the reader in a direction of personal development. Men's reading choices tend to identify themselves with novels that include intellectual struggle. Personal vulnerability is represented as a more or less angst-ridden struggle against convention, a sense of isolation from social normality. Catastrophe and the struggle to rise above circumstance characterise the plots.
Part of the reason for this, we decided, was that, to a far larger degree than women, men's formative reading was done between the ages of 12 and 20 - indeed, specifically around the ages of 15 and 16. For men, fiction was a rite of passage into manhood during painful adolescence. Many men admitted that they had read little fiction since, though mature men returned to fiction reading in later life, and expressed increasing enjoyment in reading for "self-reflection".
Between 20 and 40, many men we talked to openly showed an almost complete lack of interest in reading which drew them into personal introspection, or asked them to engage with the family and the domestic sphere. On the other hand, those who had remained avid readers could see distinct patterns emerging in their choices which differed from those selected by women.
Professor Rob Dickins, a record-industry impresario with boundless energy for reading whom we had interviewed early on in our survey, pointed out that reading in later life was bound to be influenced by that emotionally shaping reading at 15 to 16, and that women and men would surely arrive in maturity at different patterns of reading based on adolescent choices. "Depending on whether you read Alcott's Little Women or Kafka's Metamorphosis at 15, your reading paths are bound to diverge later on," he said.
We found a strong sense of nostalgia among male readers as they looked back to their formative years; many had tended to lose interest in fiction in favour of non-fiction on entering into adulthood. One consequence of this was that several men admitted that they were reluctant to reread a book which had been almost painfully important to them at puberty. "I'm afraid I might find it mawkish now", "It might not live up to my memories", "It might read as dated now" became familiar responses.
Men also recalled a kind of "mentoring" by authors encountered as a teenager - the same word was used by a surprising number of those we interviewed. Having found an author who "spoke" to them, a man would have trusted them as a literary guide, reading all of their works, and also works quoted from or cited by them. Orwell, in particular, was cited frequently as having guided our male reader in his choices of author. This idea of mentoring had never cropped up in our survey of women's reading, though word-of-mouth recommendation by other readers regularly had (men mentioned word-of-mouth much less often).
And what of female authors? Six male authors made it into the women's top 20. Only one woman has made it on to the men's: Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird). Is it churlish of us to suspect that some men did not realise that Harper was a woman? Women consistently told us they read books by men and women indifferently, and this has been borne out by other research than our own. Men consistently told us they too were not influenced by the gender of the author, but they were much more specific and literal about the kind of plot and character they were interested in reading about. This may have produced an accidental concentration on male authors, for "adventure" and "triumphing over adversity" fiction. It was clear to us that men who continued reading fiction into maturity became increasingly open to novels by women - Iris Murdoch was a particular favourite here.
So how, in the end, do we interpret the men's list, and our outright winner - Camus' The Outsider, in translation? From the face-to-face interviews as well as the raw data a real pattern emerges: men use fiction almost physically as a guide to negotiate a difficult journey (but would rarely admit to this downright being the case). They use fiction almost topographically, as a map. Many of our women respondents last year explained that they used novels metaphorically - the build-up to an emotional crisis and subsequent denouement in a novel such as Jane Eyre might have helped negotiate an emotional progress through a difficult divorce, or provided support during a difficult period at work, or provided solace when things seemed generally dull.
This did not seem ever to be the case for men, though some men admitted to having made a sound investment in an author - such as Orwell - whom they used as a guide throughout their adult life on the basis of a first encounter in adolescence.
It is Orwell who leaves us with our final sense of fascination with men's choices of fiction reading. For Orwell's writing has traditionally been associated, by critics such as Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, with a transition from "grammar-school boy" to mature membership of a British intelligentsia whose feelings and beliefs transcend class and community. Is that aspiration still strong among men in culture and the media (our chosen constituency) today?
You can find the original article at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/apr/06/gender.books
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