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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Reading and Difference

Posted by Laura Carroll on 04/07/06 at 08:42 AM

Maybe you’ve seen it already, the report in the Guardian about the latest instalment in a current English research project into fiction-reading patterns and gender.  Personal Political has a very good post up about the article, and various other bloggers including Echidne have commented as well. 

The project, directed by the magnificent Lisa Jardine, asks readers to nominate fiction that changed their lives.  Two years ago, the Women’s Watershed Fiction study asked four hundred women to identify the significant books in their lives:

When we talked to one another, and to the many wonderful women we interviewed or canvassed by questionnaire, the common ground in the responses concentrated itself around memory, a certain kind of nostalgia, a moment of personal crisis, or simply something that had been meaningful and thought provoking at a critical juncture.

The respondents’ final selections can be seen here. (A separate national radio poll followed, not to be confused with this qualitative study.)

This week’s Guardian article is about the results of the corresponding second stage research, this time done on men.  Reading between the lines, the Men’s Milestone Fiction project might not have been envisaged from the beginning, but instead taken up because the results of the women’s research were so interesting, and not only because they raise the issue of comparison with findings about the other gender.

I think this is fascinating, innovative, and deeply worthwhile research, and I’m looking forward to reading a full report about the findings of the Men’s Milestone stage.  The emphasis on memory and personal engagement makes it a meaningfully literary study, rather than a kind of trends & marketing report which happens to be about book products.  The large samples give it some weight and authority, as opposed to dismissible anecdotal stuff pointing to similar conclusions, (like this Mythbusters-style report by Ian McEwan about trying to give away free books to passersby, and mostly only succeeding with women.) By establishing which books endure with readers of different genders, they add temporal and psychological depth and shading to the understanding of the gender factor in literary book publishing which the Orange Prize organisation has been assembling over the course of this decade. 

“We were completely taken aback by the results,” said Prof Jardine, who admitted that they revealed a pattern verging on a gender cliche, with women citing emotional, more domestic works, and men novels about social dislocation and solitary struggle.

She was also surprised she said, “by the firmness with which many men said that fiction didn’t speak to them”. The historian David Starkey said, for instance: “I fear fiction, of any sort, has never worked on me like that ... Is that perhaps interesting in itself?”

In addition, some men cited works of non-fiction as their “watershed” books, even though they were explicitly asked about fiction.

For example, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party, picked out Robert Graves’s first world war memoir Goodbye to All That as his watershed book: “Brilliantly written, wonderfully clear and his description of life in WWI is harrowing but fascinating,” he told the researchers. Most of the men cited books they had read as teenagers, and many of them stopped reading fiction while young adults, only returning to it in late middle age.

Prof Jardine said that the research suggested that the literary world was run by the wrong people. “What I find extraordinary is the hold the male cultural establishment has over book prizes like the Booker, for instance, and in deciding what is the best. This is completely at odds with their lack of interest in fiction. On the other hand, the Orange prize for fiction [which honours women authors] is still regarded as ephemeral."

The risk taken with studies of this kind, of course, is that they are liable to be co-opted into supporting Men/Mars Women/Venus kinds of hypotheses, as indeed some parts of the Guardian article tend to demonstrate.  Any interpretation which unproblematically classifies The Outsider (but not Jane Eyre) as about “social dislocation and solitary struggle”, for instance, is obviously in trouble. 

A study such as this (and I hope there’ll be many more like it) doesn’t need to have its data dressed up in vast, nebulous oversimplifications about the “kinds” of books each gender values.  It tells us enough via the plain facts, such as the almost even distribution of male and female writers on the women’s list, contrasted with the solitary female writer on the men’s list.  35% of the women’s list are pre-20th century works, compared with 10% of the men’s list.  There are similarly wide discrepancies in other categories too.  Perhaps the slenderness of the overlap between men’s and women’s choices is the most remarkable finding.  I would not have believed, myself, that the crossover could be so small.

(My personal blog has an extended version of this post, replete with bonus gauche story about one of my “significant” books.)


I’m glad you linked to this, and I agree with your take on it. (I’m surprised The Awakening didn’t make the list for women. Senior year of high school, changed my life.)

A couple of bits come to mind here: first, the “boy crisis” in the education system (good coverage here) and the slight underrepresentation of young men in college. Second, the very sensible comment Mark made a while back that “[w]e’ve done such a poor job of training young people to appreciate the value of literature that most of them see no point, and nothing at stake, in their engagement with it.” Clearly, many of the women surveyed by Jardine and Watkins did take their engagement with fiction seriously and did see value in it, certainly in terms of affect. Would showing the emotional use value of fiction help students to engage with it more fully?* I’m not trying to say that all this is connected, but these were my first free associations.

* To qualify this question somewhat: I think it’s important to note that there’s a lot of contemporary art that college students do engage with even if they haven’t read canonical texts, and I want to point out that researchers of print culture (want to jump in, gzombie?) have argued that literature is something that has always been consumed by a small minority.

By Clancy Ratliff on 04/07/06 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that Echidne’s right (in the post that you linked to) about the two studies being incommensurable.  In particular, I question whether the plain facts referred to in “It tells us enough via the plain facts, such as the almost even distribution of male and female writers on the women’s list, contrasted with the solitary female writer on the men’s list” are really plain facts.

I do think that there is more gender bias among men (i.e. men choosing to read male authors more or less exclusively) than among women, for classic reasons of the stereotypically male voice sounding ordinary or standard and anything else sounding nonstandard, and men having fewer reasons to question this than women.  But I don’t know whether there has been a study that supports this.

By on 04/07/06 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In what way are the two studies incommensurable, Rich?  (Other than being done two years apart on two quite different groups of people.) I just reread Echidne’s post and she is comparing the men’s research with a Radio Four popularity poll - not with the women’s research I linked to.  Is that what you mean about plain facts not being so plain?  If you instead meant that the gender imbalance isn’t a ‘fact’, then do you see authorial gender as constructed / not relevant somehow?  Just curious.  As for what that kind of data tells us, I think it tells us what questions we can legitimately ask.  Like *why* do male readers prefer books by men? Anecdotes and hunches won’t do to answer that question.

Thanks for those ideas, Clancy.  Kate Chopin perhaps isn’t much read in the UK?  In Australia I’d expect to see Miles Franklin and Helen Garner high up on such a list.  It’s almost surprising that the lists are not even more UK-centric.  The people surveyed were all drawn from high literacy fields - lots of graduate students and teachers - & that perhaps makes extrapolating to general educational principles a bit tricky.  So maybe some similar research asking people in general which texts have changed their lives would turn up interesting results.

Slightly off topic, I read about the male/female quotas issues when Timothy Burke posted about it, and was amazed.  Seventy percent of students who take literature and related subjects here are women.  Imposing gender quotas would cause riots - at least I bloody well hope so.

By on 04/07/06 at 08:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I just reread Echidne’s post and she is comparing the men’s research with a Radio Four popularity poll - not with the women’s research I linked to.  Is that what you mean about plain facts not being so plain?”

Yep, it’s based on my misreading.  Both your post and the post of Echidne’s that you linked to were talking about the same men’s-reading study (I assume—I haven’t checked, despite the lesson that I really should) and I assumed that they were both linking to the same women’s-reading study, despite not actually looking at both links.  Oops!  Never mind.

By on 04/07/06 at 08:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Great post and wonderful links, thanks so much.

For years I have taught a seminar for undergraduates on the history of books and readers. The first few times I did it, I brought the course to an end with Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, and asked the students all to read a romance novel as well. All female members of the class--and the groups were varied--immediately said they had read many, while all male ones denied ever having seen or touched one, and sneaked into CVS early in the morning to buy theirs.

Now I have them read Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader, and students of both genders stagger into class, equally blown away.

The reading habits reported in this course--every year I poll the students about their reading of books, magazines, newspapers, and now blogs and websites--show relatively little gender differentiation--lots of passionate male and female readers of fiction, with fairly similar tastes: they all seem to love Eugenides and Lahiri, for example. But I suspect paths diverge almost as soon as they leave college. Female alumni with whom I keep in touch seem to join book groups when they go to work, males not.

Do others poll their students? And what do you learn if you do?

Again, thanks so much for the post.

By on 04/08/06 at 07:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re more than welcome, Tony. 

I like the thought of your students being blown away by The Common Reader.  That must be great fun to witness. 

I do sort of poll my students, as it happens.  I teach at a small country campus of a forty year old university in Australia.  This year, my new students were asked to write something about their previous reading experiences.  Many responded with commentaries on books they particularly remembered.  Most wrote about recent bestsellers or genre fiction: SF and fantasy, romances, thrillers, crime writing.  A few wrote about things they’d read and liked at school.  I didn’t see much gender differentiation either.

By on 04/08/06 at 08:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Fascinating, Laura.  I agree, there should be lots more of this kind of stuff.  I’m wondering why I haven’t been polling my students.  I do find when I teach 2nd year students a survey of the American novel initial reactions to James and Hemingway split markedly on gender lines.  No surprise, I suppose, though, I think those reactions change with familiarity.  My completely unreflective impression has always been that my women students tend on average to be more flexible, curious, and inclusive in their tastes than their male peers.  Without much thinking about it, I’d attributed that to maturity.  But noticing the study results you mention, I have to wonder.

I wonder, fascinting and illuminating as it is, if the information the surveys give isn’t shaped by two features--the self-reporting and the emphasis on life changing books.  I’m not sure I’d trust myself to give really frank answers in that situation, and I’d think eminences would have still more reason to be thoughtful about self-presentation.  Among what’s necessarily left out is the non-life changing stuff. 

An anecdote on point that the study brought to mind in a new light.  I was once surprised to hear a prominent and quite excellent literary/cultural critic say that he hadn’t read any fiction in years.  He said that when he was young he needed to read a lot of novels to get advice on how to live, but since he’d figured out how to do that, he didn’t really hunger for fiction any more.  At the time, I thought that was unusual.  But I guess not.  I remember thinking that life advice was definitely one reason for reading fiction, but not the only, and wondering: what about pleasure, diversion, entertainment, pathos, etc.  I wonder if men on average read fiction less for those things, too, and if they do so less as they mature.

By on 04/08/06 at 08:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder, fascinting and illuminating as it is, if the information the surveys give isn’t shaped by two features--the self-reporting and the emphasis on life changing books.  I’m not sure I’d trust myself to give really frank answers in that situation, and I’d think eminences would have still more reason to be thoughtful about self-presentation.  Among what’s necessarily left out is the non-life changing stuff.

That’s a really good point.  It’s the kind of thing that men and women might manage differently, also.  No doubt about it, it is a tremendously hard subject to be frank and accurate about.  The blogger at Personal Political who I linked to at the top of the post raised this: she pointed out that, by definition, books which figure in life changes are books that appealed to a different self.  So they are hard to recollect accurately and hard to own up to. 

Taking all that into account I still think pinning the studies to the milestone / watershed idea is heading in the right direction, because it is not just asking that pointless question about favourite books. It is asking about books that have made some kind of mark & not been only the flavour of the month. 

I’ve been thinking about how else you could get at that kind of material but in a less potentially embarrassing way: maybe you could ask about books that the respondent has re-read, or plans to re-read?

By on 04/08/06 at 09:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura--one of the delights of my life as a teacher has been seeing big athletes who wear baseball caps backwards in class (again, little gender differentiation here) come in bleary eyed and say they’ve been up all night reading Woolf. I try to get a contemporary man or woman of letters to attend this class, and my pleasure is only enhanced by seeing them break out in smiles as the kids start reciting “An Elizabethan Lumber-Room.” Magic.

Sean--good points. There’s also the simple question of memory: these oral accounts are retellings of experiences long past, in many cases, and must be far more orderly and directional than the actual events.

By on 04/08/06 at 09:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the poll question was asked pretty well. I immediately understood and identified with what was being asked. The big books/authors—seemingly marking, to a point—for me were as a teen Robert Heinlein’s libertarian novels—Number of the Beast, Stranger in a Strange Land, Moon is a Harsh Mistress, some others, and in particular, Job: A Comedy of Justice, a novel that was, my father said, the sort of thing he was never allowed to read when young. (I think when I was younger the Tarzan books had some real but much dimmer significance too—as with some books into early childhood I could name. But neither the Tarzan series nor the others have the significance I think of the sort the interviewers are looking for—with one exception maybe, My Side of the Mountain, the award winning work of children’s fiction of living in the Caatskills Mountains (woman author but “male” themes perhaps).

I guess I would fit pretty typically into the study. I did recall first two nonfiction books that had marked effects on me: Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing and just all of Chomsky’s political writings, a name I first encountered in my early twenties. I have a strong sense of visual very precise time and place moments associated with my taking in these works—fiction and nonfiction both—and even, looking back on it, corresponding actions.

It seems there were 2 or 3 other works but these are the ones I still vividly recall.

As far as having re-read or having plans to re-read, etc...that would be too many. A couple works though serve as great markers for me regarding the immense power and potential of fiction, of profound work: Geoge Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. So I think I’ve been also profoundly impressed and I think shaped by those works—or, my work has been. And then there are some important markers and figures I’ve mentioned here regarding criticism. I suppose as one’s career begins to become a bigger part of one’s life, these works seem to accumulate a similar sort of life significance, maybe especically as one looks back, but it’s not only retrospective by a long shot.

By Tony Christini on 04/08/06 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I should probably also mention that the website ZNet (http://www.zmag.org/weluser.htm) had a similar effect on me—one which I also realized at the time was very similar to that of a landmark/watershed book. In fact, I remember being surprised (and delighted) at the time to note the similarity of experience it was. And like such a book, only moreso perhaps, you can continue to refer to it. You can interact with it and by it too.

Of course, the researchers’ question could easily be expanded to include websites, etc, too.

By Tony Christini on 04/08/06 at 05:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Apologies for going off-topic, but speaking of the boy crisis...a just-in-time reality check from the Washington Post.

By Clancy Ratliff on 04/08/06 at 06:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My good friend Phantom Scribbler has written a very interesting post about this research and the general question of reading patterns and gender.

She wonders whether children who’ve grown up in the era of ubiquitous Harry Potterdom will have substantially different approaches to fiction and self-fashioning becasue of it.

By on 04/09/06 at 09:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think the poll was very scientific:

>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.

They did the same for men.

By on 04/10/06 at 07:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From the Washington Post article:

>Although we have been hearing that boys are virtually disappearing from college classrooms, the truth is that among whites, the gender composition of colleges is pretty balanced: 51 percent female and 49 percent male, according to the National Education Association.

Here is the NEA article:

The numbers of white men and women in college are almost equal: 51 percent female and 49 percent male. Among African-American students, 63 percent are female and only 37 percent are male. Among Hispanic college students, 55 percent are female and 45 percent male.

Here is an NCES study:
In 1999–2000, women made up a greater percentage of Black students than they did among White, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students (64 percent vs. 56, 56, and 51 percent, respectively).[/url]

page 16 of the report (38 of the pdf)

The table on page 14 of the NCES report (38 of the pdf) gives a detailed breakdown.

It looks like the author of the NEA article misread the NCES paper (or a similar paper) and gave the asian % for the white %.

By on 04/10/06 at 08:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Women out of luck? Novels change nothing, after all? Peter Ackroyd turns to satire, here:

and I couldn’t resist, here:

By Tony Christini on 04/19/06 at 01:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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