The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Father’s Day: Men and Reading

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Thriller writer Jason Pinter recently rattled some publishing china by suggesting that a stubborn belief that Men Don’t Read is alienating male readers:

I’m tired of people saying Men Don’t Read. Men LOVE to read… But the more publishing repeats the empty mantra that Men Don’t Read the less they’re going to try to appeal to men, which is where this vicious cycle begins.

Publish more books for men and boys. Trust editors who try to buy these books, and work on the marketing campaigns to hit those audiences. The readers are there, waiting, eager just under the surface… They’ve been alienated for a long time and might need to be roused from their slumber. But as I’ve always said the biggest problems facing the publishing industry are not ebooks, or returns, but the number of people reading. This is a way to bring back a lot of readers who have essentially been forgotten about.

Pinter is right in a sense. The idea that men don’t read books is a glib generalization and publishers really should be worried about literacy and declining readerships. But are men really turning away from reading because the book trade isn’t trying to reach them?

The scandal engulfing former Penguin Canada CEO David Davidar is a prickly reminder that the upper echelon of publishing is still largely a boy’s club. And even if you accept Pinter’s assertion that “that most editorial meetings tend to be dominated by women”, Rebecca Smart, Managing Director at Osprey Publishing, ably demonstrates that women can publish effectively for a predominantly male readership.

And even if you ignore all the books on football mentioned last week (not to mention the endless number of books on baseball and cricket), and the entire output of writers like Cormac McCarthy, George Pelecanos and the late (but still in print) Patrick O’Brian, the New York Times best seller lists reveal more than a few new books have been successfully published for men.

Recent bestsellers have included The Big Short by Michael Lewis, Crisis Economics by Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose, Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, and Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern.

The perception that publishers are marginalizing men is just as much an illusion as Men Don’t Read. At least if men read the NY Times and like books on economics, war and expletives. (And who doesn’t?)

But this is, of course, completely subjective. The New York Times bestsellers — war, history, politics, and angry (funny) old men — may not be the kind of books Pinter had in mind. I certainly didn’t read the book that caused Pinter so much angst, A Lion’s Tale by pro-wrestler Chris Jericho, but then I don’t read much Roth, Amis, or Coetzee either, though I suppose plenty of men do. Perhaps the real problem is publishing along stereotypical gender lines? Not all men (or women) want to read the same books…

I was thinking about this because of two books I finished recently: War by Sebastian Junger (Twelve 2010) and Colony by Hugo Wilcken (Harper Perennial, 2007). Both are books by men about men — and I enjoyed them both — but otherwise they have almost nothing in common.

Full of piss, vinegar, and shit blowing up, War is a nonfiction account of Junger’s time embedded with the Second Platoon of Battle Company in the Korengal Valley, eastern Afghanistan.

Dexter Filkins, author of the excellent The Forever War, reviewed the book for The New York Times:

At one level, Junger’s book is a chronicle of Second Platoon’s days. He takes us up the mountains, along the valley floor, on helo-lifts, into firefights. We sit with the men in their bunks — infested with fleas and tarantulas — and we listen to their low-grade (and sometimes hilarious) ­philosophizing as they pass the hours… But Junger is aiming for more than just a boots-on-the-ground narrative of the travails of American fighting men. As the book’s grandiose title suggests… “War” strives to offer not just a picture of American fighting men but a discourse on the nature of war itself.

With it’s acronyms, hot military hardware and bunker philosophizing War is, without question, a compelling read. But it is also a deeply troubling book. Junger’s intimate dependence on this closely knit platoon clearly affects his journalistic perspective, and Junger’s narcissism aside, I was left wondering whether there is a psychological condition in embedded journalists similar to Stockholm Syndrome.

Lewis Manalo, a former sapper in 82nd Airborne Division, describes Junger as a “war tourist” in a scathing review of the book for Publishing Perspectives:

[W]hat a fantasy it is. All the thrill of being in combat with none of the responsibility of knowing what to do. He endows the different engagements with the excitement and clarity of a Hollywood action film… As Junger paints them, these fights are where all those big words like “heroism” and “courage” and “sacrifice” come into play, where men achieve amazing things and where they die dramatic deaths. Over and over, Junger and the men he depicts rave about how exciting battle is. In Junger’s world, war is a glorious thing where everyone should want to be.

“Fantasy” is an interesting choice of words. Certainly, the phrase ‘war-porn’ came to mind when I was reading it. Perhaps not surprisingly then, Junger’s experiences in Korengal are also the basis for a feature-length film called Restrepo co-directed with photographer/filmmaker Tim Hetherington:

If War is a dirty nonfiction hypemachine, Colony by Hugo Wilcken is a beautifully constructed — if largely ignored — literary novel.

With echoes of Conrad and Camus, Colony is a sophisticated post-modern adventure story. Sabir — a war veteran and petty criminal — finds himself on a boat to a brutal penal colony in French Guiana. He escapes the camp, but as his plans unravel, the book takes an unexpected tack, throwing the previous narrative into doubt. The past, present, and future mix in memory and imagination.

John Self, who has long championed the novel, had this to say about it:

The book’s sometimes elusive nature seems to be reflected in the references to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. But what impresses most is Wilcken’s unwillingness to try to impress the reader: the prose is unfussy, the scenes uncluttered. There is no ‘fine writing’. Instead, there is very fine writing indeed.

The theme of Colony is escape: from captivity to freedom, and vice versa; from reality into dreams and memories; from one identity to another; from life to elsewhere.

Colony is simply an extraordinary book. It also feels like an old-fashioned one, especially compared to War‘s heady multimedia blend of insider reportage and violence stuck together by hasty research and memoir. My sense is that it is War‘s template that will be imitated by publishers trying to capture Pinter’s elusive male reader. But personally it will be Colony that endures, and lives long in my mind.

The  past, present, and future mix in memory and imagination. The prose is simple and uncluttered. Familiar characters become surprising and complex.

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7 Comments

  1. Wonderful piece, and I’m so pleased that you liked Colony. I believe that Wilcken has recently completed his third novel, so I hope it finds a publisher.

    I was thinking about men and reading when I saw a display in my local Waterstone’s of suggested presents for Fathers’ Day. Most were military, adventure or crime stories (fiction and non-fiction), with the odd Bill Bryson or David Mitchell thrown in. Altogether the store had three displays of books suggested “for Dads”, and I counted these up and found that of 114 books on display, just six were by women. Are men really, like Vladimir Nabokov, “exclusively homosexual” in their literary tastes?

    I find Jason Pinter’s suggestion that potential male readers “have been alienated for a long time” rather curious. This suggests that publishers or booksellers have been somehow ‘at fault’ for not supplying men with what they want – or pandering to them, to put it another way. But readers have to make the effort themselves: nobody ever found a great book by sticking to what they already know. All the authors we now love were once new to us. There’s a larger problem that reading is seen by many boys and men to be an unmanly pastime. Attempts to get men into bookshops at any cost lead to the sort of risible displays we see, where no infrequent reader is going to discover anything exciting.

    I’ll be raving soon on my blog about a forthcoming book by Greg Baxter called A Preparation for Death. In some ways it could be seen as a ‘man’s’ book – there is certainly a lot of explicit heterosexual sex in it – but its complexity and stylish prose will probably put off publishers or booksellers from marketing it as such. A shame.

  2. Real men read.

    Look forward to reading Colony. Lovely cover too.

  3. Hey Ian. The cover of Colony is by Clare Skeats. Hope to run a Q & A with her soon.

  4. I realize that for a lot of people the literary validity of comics is too uncomfortable to throw into the mix here but I’ll do so anyway– many, many men read comics (or “graphic novels” if I have to say it) and the publishers I deal with have been faring well in the troubled publishing climate. Thirty-five year veteran publisher, Fantagraphics Books, for example, has cut no jobs but added positions that didn’t exist a few years ago and their list has consistently grown.

    I recognize the very different experience of reading prose versus comics, but the fact that more men are reading comic books than ever before is worth bringing up here.

  5. Hey Jacob. Thanks for your comment. Always appreciated.

    I was actually going to talk about comics and then the post start to sprawl so I had to let it go. And to be honest, I didn’t really want to characterize comics as only for boys, especially as they already have that reputation and indie comics publishers have actually done a lot in recent years to encourage female artists and readers! But your point is a good one. Thanks again. :-)

  6. Hi John. I’m glad you liked the post and thanks so much for recommending Colony — I’m sure your blog is where I first heard of it.

    And I think your comment made the point I was trying to make in about a quarter of the words! I wanted to touch on the subject of men reading women authors — Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall sprang to mind as a recent example — AND getting out of ones comfort zone, but I felt they were both subjects for other posts…

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about A Preparation for Death. Thanks again. :-)

  7. I only trust men who do read. :)

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