Tomorrow, April 23, is World Book Night, the annual UK event which encourages the people less likely to read on a regular basis (about 35 per cent of the population in the UK) to pick up a book for pleasure. They do this by compiling a list of 20 books and then delivering any of those to people desiring to read them, for absolutely no cost. Free events are also organized as part of the night, in the hope that they will encourage more people to take part and get reading. The unofficial theme for this years World Book Night is to address the problem of why boys are not as into books as girls and as a result they have aimed to create a list of novels specifically geared towards the taste of male readers.
Despite having a fairly impressive record in terms of promoting equal numbers of books by men and women in their previous annual lists, this year the WBN has decided to significantly reduce the number of female authors it features. Why? Well because they hope that by including more novels by men that boys will feel more inclined to delve into the pages of a more masculine adventure. Indeed, the main reason WBN decided to introduce a deliberate bias in favor of male authors this year is a due to the belief that boys are not reading because most books on the market are written by women and are therefore geared towards female readers.
Just to be clear here are some key facts:
1) Girls do read more than boys – there are endless statistics that testament to this, including lower levels of literacy displayed by male students, smaller percentages of male high school graduates (in the US), better exam results for girls etc etc.
2) The majority of books are written by women, they are also the dominant authors of children’s stories and much more inclined to write popular fiction than male writers.
3) The majority of readers are women.
4) Men are much more likely to read books by male writers, a fact often reinforced by the use of just first name initials for women writers, or their use of pseudonyms or pen names.
5) Women show little gender discrimination in what they read.
However, there are some very important and intriguing statistics which go along with these facts. Despite women writing and reading the majority of books in the market, they are much less likely to win the prestigious literary prizes than their male counterparts. Works that feature women as the title character (written by either gender) are also less likely to do well than those with a male character at the forefront of its pages – the Man Booker Prize has only been awarded to novels featuring a main character of the female persuasion twice in the last ten years. Books with female authors are also less likely to be reviewed and publicized than those written by men, a fact that is related to the problem of having very few female literary reviewers at many publications. Those female authors who have been successful are all the more notable because they are not a common occurrence. Agatha Christie, J K Rowling and Hilary Mantel are all obvious examples of this. However, it should be noted that they all tend to write strong, leading male characters, and J K Rowling was advised not to use her full first name, Joanne, in case it did not appeal to male readers. Some might argue then, that it is quality fiction written by female authors which should be promoted, and not the male authors already receiving most of the critical and public attention. . .
So as the facts stand men read and write less, but are more successful in literary best selling charts and awards than women, most of the books taught in schools are by men and feature male characters and yet people,and WBN, still insist that the reason boys are not into reading is because of a female dominated market. This does not seem to tally up. Yet if that is not the reason then what is? Many other reasons have been cited in the past, one of the most notable being different rates of development in boys and girls and their ability to cope with an increasingly demanding curriculum in schools at younger ages. Another theory is that reading has gained a distinctly female association as the majority of teachers are female. Equally, women are much more likely to read fiction than men are, and most of the books on any high school curriculum are fictional. However, the one idea which is the most convincing when it comes to explaining the literary gender gap is the impact of video games.
Although there is still limited data on the correlation between playing video games and lower literacy and comprehension skills, as a theory it makes a lot more sense than any of the other reasons given. For a start the video games industry is dominated by both boys and men, as many never grow out of their love for online gaming. Games are generally comprised of military themed content created by men, for a male audience. They are often the main hobby of young men the world over, replacing more educational or physical activities as a source of pleasure in their spare time. Part of the appeal of these games lies in what they can offer over a traditional reading experience, namely personal involvement in the plot, action and dialogue of the story. Video games are in many ways a conflation of film and book with the added excitement of personal agency heightening the level of attraction. They also take a lot less effort than reading a book would require, although by extension they are much more limited in what they offer their audience in terms of an extended vocabulary and increased knowledge.
With this in mind and the increasing sophistication of the gaming industry, what can be done to bring the same level of excitement to reading for the average young man? For a start how literature is taught in schools should be seriously reconsidered. The focus is nearly always on how to pass the exam and on rigorous textual examination, often at the expense of discussion over the pleasurable merits of the story telling on offer. While classic literature should certainly not be razed from the curriculum, perhaps increasing the number of contemporary novels taught would help to at least make a lesson seem less archaic and more relevant for a great number of male pupils. Also the entertainment value of a book should be introduced as an imperative and legitimate evaluation of the text – that is, after all, the primary aim of literature. Instead of preaching to pupils on the much lauded merits of texts produced in a by gone era, how about introducing them to literary discussion with novels they can easily engage with, such as, Trainspotting, Lord of the Rings, We Need to Talk About Kevin, or The Bell Jar. For younger children stories like The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, Artemis Fowl, The Diaries of Adrian Mole and even the classics penned by Enid Blyton – all of these books are equally appealing to both sexes and provide easy, fast-paced and entertaining reads (they are also written by a mixture of men and women).
As well, boys should be encouraged to read at home and to read whatever they like, from fiction of all genres to non-fiction, memoir or the newspaper. Many boys choose not to read because their parents never showed any interest in books, but more particularly boys do not read because their father’s do not read and this needs to change if men do not wish their sons to be constantly outstripped in exams and literary ability by their female peers. Most importantly though, reading should be viewed as both an enjoyable activity, a form of escapism, and an easy means of education. Book choices should be made on the merit of plot, character and setting, not on the gender of the author and reading as a whole needs to be stripped of the label of a purely female occupation. The way to do this though is not to, as World Book Night is suggesting, actively discriminate against female authors (who are already under-represented and under-rated by the literary establishment); if people want to change the fact that boys are not into books then they should show them the merits of reading as a whole, the attraction of individual works and the enchantment that can result from immersing oneself in the alternative places of the written word.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion