According to recent statistics, men have all but stopped reading fiction. Do they watch great television? Yes. Do they read non-fiction? Some. But the novel – that great interior journey – seems to have been lost to them.
It wasn’t always this way.
The path from boyhood to manhood used to go something like this: Boys got dirty, played with plastic guns, disturbed bee hives, and wandered the streets of their neighborhoods with their buddies un-chaperoned. By adolescence, they were expected to be rowdy and wild – maybe dabbling in the rebel art of cigarette smoking, drawing a sharpie tattoo, and practicing the skill of talking girls into peeling off their panties (beginning with the whole “I’ll give you a cookie” approach and graduating to “Come on, baby, you’re just so beautiful –I need you!”).
Next, somewhere in their twenties, boys began dressing like men – assertively and with a sense of style that wasn’t strictly reserved for gay men and the odd metrosexual. A man learned how to play poker, how to dance, and how to unzip a dress. Oh, and one more thing…a man read fiction.
In short, until fairly recently -sometime in the mid to late 1980s, I estimate – the kind of man boys aspired to be was culturally literate.
Playboy and Esquire used to feature fiction every month and a large cross-section of men felt compelled to read the latest by William Styron or Raymond Carver. Your average college-educated male knew damned well who won the Pulitzer and had an opinion as to who really should have gone home with the prize (even if he got that opinion from some other guy in a locker room).
But nowadays it’s the women’s publications like Elle and Oprah that feature Joan Didion, Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen. Men’s magazines have gone all Cosmo on us – Get Great Abs! Make Her Scream In Bed – For Real!
It is estimated some 80% of fiction readers today are women. The men who still read novels are to a large extent either thriller readers (i.e. troglodytes according to the cultured class) or soft, overly-sensitive men who read Margaret Atwood novels and feel a woman’s pain so acutely they need to go lie down.
A close male friend of mine – an extremely intelligent and otherwise cultured man – actually said he doesn’t read fiction because it’s “unserious.”
So, without further ado, here are my ten most persuasive arguments for why men need to start reading fiction again – STAT!
10. Fiction teaches you how to think rather than merely what to think, and this is one of the crucial differences between a leader and a follower. No matter how well done, TV and film do too much of the work for you. The curve of a woman’s face isn’t merely alluded to or described, but shown up close and often on an actress you’ve seen a dozen times in a similar role. A line is delivered the way the actor interprets the dialogue. But when we read, we are the interpreters, the masters of the experience.
9. It will make you better at your job.Why? Because good fiction, unlike the platitude-ridden business self-help genre, examines the way real human beings behave and react in a variety of situations. Want to understand the mind of a change-averse bureaucrat? Read James Thurber’s The Catbird Seat. Or how about the maneuverings of a power-hungry subordinate? Iago from Othello will give you something to chew on. And if you want to read about a boss who feels threatened by a talented subordinate, pick up my husband’s novel, Corporate America (#2 thriller on Amazon – what a man!). If you’re still shaking your head and don’t quite believe that fiction can help you succeed in your career, just take a look at Silicon Valley, where the most popular business book is The Fountainhead. Novel-reading seems to be working pretty well for all those billionaires over there.
8. Since so few men are reading fiction right now, you can claim some of the best literary quotes as your own and your (male) friends and colleagues will think you’re a genius!
7. Literature ads to reality. It does not simply describe it. (See? #8 works! And you thought I made that up, didn’t you? It was actually CS Lewis.) Nonfiction, the average male reader’s favorite “literature”, can teach you a great many things – like a cadaver can illuminate you about your body. But it cannot caress you with a turn of phrase, start a fire of heroic ideals, make you fall in love with the mortifying, saccharine emotion of a Harlequin Romance. Only fiction can do that.
6. Fiction can raise your testosterone levels. There is plenty of “men’s” literature that has an erotic element but doesn’t get all Fifty Shades on you. Anything by Milan Kundera can teach you about the art of seduction. What guy wouldn’t want to command a hot nurse to take off her clothes the way Tomas did in The Unbearable Lightness of Being? The Uncle Oswald books by Roald Dahl are also great literary rolls in the hay. If you want something stronger and are actually looking for erotica, read some of my friend TW Luedke’s books. They are every bit as dangerous as popping wheelies on a motorcycle.
5. Reading will make you a better citizen. Stories – not sound bytes – help you absorb politics in a way the punditocracy can’t. If you’re right leaning, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand will far better help you elucidate and express your heartfelt opinions than the pseudo-populists at Fox. If you’re left leaning? Try Upton Sinclair in place of the smarty-pants faux intellectuals at MSNBC.
4. To surrender your influence on the cultural landscape and on education – both of which are shaped in large part by fiction and fiction readers (i.e. women)- is simply wimpy.
3. Because in reading fiction, we are able to absorb a greater truth instead of an assemblage of facts. This is true when comparing the novel to the non-fiction book or to the film or television show. The difference between fiction and non-fiction is the difference between learning morals and learning manners. One will get you through a dinner party and the other will get you through life (and perhaps even the afterlife). The difference between reading a story and watching one on TV is the difference between making love to the love of your life and having a friend with benefits. Not knocking the latter, but…
2. The spoken and written word in the form of a fictional story has been as important, historically, in a man’s life journey as sports, trolling with friends, and becoming the master of his destiny. The novel has been an unfailing aid in his evolution – in learning to love, becoming a husband and a father, being a friend. Doing what is right and understanding the consequences of shirking his morals and ethics.
1. It’ll get you the women you want. And not just the ones who’ll have you.
If you don’t know where to even start – let me help you:
A Fable by William Faulkner
A Farwell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Macbeth, Henry V by William Shakespeare (yes, Shakespeare – don’t be a wuss)
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Corporate America by Jack Dougherty
The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
Now it’s your turn. What is the novel you think every man should read?