Take it as read: men prefer angst

Sydney Morning Herald
April 7, 2006

... but a study shows women like some passion between the covers, writes Charlotte Higgins.

THE novel that means most to men is about indifference, alienation and lack of emotional response. The novel that means most to women is about deeply held feelings and a struggle to overcome circumstances and passion.

Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins, from the University of London's Queen Mary College, interviewed 500 men - many of whom had a professional connection with literature - about the novels that had changed their lives. The most frequently named book was Albert Camus's The Outsider, followed by J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.

The Men's Milestone Fiction project, commissioned by the Orange Prize for Fiction and London's Guardian newspaper, followed on from the same team's research on women's favourite novels last year.

The results are strikingly different and there is little overlap between men's and women's taste. On the whole, men preferred books by dead white men - only one book by a woman, Harper Lee, appears in the list of the top 20 novels with which men most identify.

Women, by contrast, most frequently cited works by Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Margaret Atwood, George Eliot and Jane Austen.

Jardine said women also named a "much richer and more diverse" set of novels than men. There was a much broader mix between contemporary and classic works and between male and female authors.

"We found that men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life's journey, as consolers or guides, as women do," Jardine said. "They read novels a bit like they read photography manuals."

Women readers used much-loved books to support them through difficult times and emotional turbulence. They tended to employ them as metaphorical guides to behaviour, or as support and inspiration.

"The men's list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading," she said. Ideas touching on isolation and "aloneness" were strong among the men's "milestone" books.

The researchers also found that women preferred old, well-thumbed paperbacks, whereas men leant towards the stiff covers of hardback books.

"We were completely taken aback by the results," said Jardine, who admitted they revealed a pattern verging on a gender cliche - women citing emotional, more domestic works, and men nominating 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". For instance, the historian David Starkey said: "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 Britain's Conservative Party, picked out Robert Graves's World War I memoir Goodbye to All That as his watershed book. "Brilliantly written, wonderfully clear, and his description of life in [World War I] 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.

Jardine said the research suggested 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."

She noted that when Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson had started writing novels in the 18th century, the new literary genre was regarded as strictly for women. "On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction. This should have some impact on the book trade. There was a moment when car manufacturers realised that it was women who bought the family car, and the whole industry changed. We need fiction publishers - many of whom are women - to go through the same kind of recognition."

The Guardian


1 Albert Camus The Outsider

2 J.D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye

3 Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five

4 Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude

5 J.R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit

6 Joseph Heller Catch-22

7 George Orwell 1984

8 F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby

9 Milan Kundera The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

10 Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird

11 Vladimir Nabokov Lolita

12 J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings

and Fyodor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment

14 Graham Greene Brighton Rock

15 Nick Hornby High Fidelity

16 James Joyce Ulysses

17 Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

18 Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness

19 Franz Kafka Metamorphosis

20 John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath


1 Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre

2 Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights

3 Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale

4 George Eliot Middlemarch

5 Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice

6 Toni Morrison Beloved

7 Doris Lessing The Golden Notebook

8 Joseph Heller Catch-22

9 Marcel Proust Remembrance of Things Past

10 Jane Austen Persuasion

11 Mary Shelley Frankenstein

12 Jeanette Winterson Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

13 Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude

14 George Eliot The Mill on the Floss

15 Louisa May Alcott Little Women

16 Gustave Flaubert Madame Bovary

17 C.S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

18 Margaret Mitchell Gone with the Wind

19 Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness

20 Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird


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