Ten Reasons Men Must Start Reading Fiction Again

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?

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Comment by Victoria Dougherty on December 4, 2013 at 10:50pm

Thanks, Jackson - great books. I'll add them to the men's reading list I'm compiling, which I'll post at a later date.  So many books still coming in on my other blog, where I also posted this :)

Comment by Jackson Burnett on December 4, 2013 at 10:15pm

Great post, Victoria.  Thanks for taking the time to write it.  

Most of my male friends don't read fiction, but most watch movies and television.  It would be interesting to deconstruct the statistics.  Romance has been the biggest selling genre for decades.

I would add to the list these books, at least:  Old Yeller and To Kill a Mockingbird.  On the mystery side, I'd add at least one James Burke book.  Probably In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.

Comment by Victoria Dougherty on November 30, 2013 at 11:15am

Thanks for your comment, Dana. Agreed.

Comment by Dana King on November 30, 2013 at 8:43am

To be honest, I ignored the list. I ignore almost all lists, so no offense.

What I liked best here were numbers 10 and 9, especially 9, since most people will overlook it. Self-help books too often set up the situation to make the point they want, then lead you through it. Novelists do that to some extent, but good fiction gets you to think, "What would I do in this situation?" thereby getting people in the habit of exploring options, as well as how the final decision may be received by others, which should also enter into the decision.

Comment by Victoria Dougherty on November 30, 2013 at 5:27am

That's the spirit, Dan :)

Comment by Dan L. Coleman on November 30, 2013 at 4:01am

Well, there are any number of books of fiction I might name, though I'm certainly not the most well-read person one might meet; however, put that with my attraction to intelligent, well-read women and I get hot as a firecracker. For me, a woman's intellect glows in the dark, is a thing of strength, and I admire strong women most of all.

Comment by Victoria Dougherty on November 29, 2013 at 5:25am


May not get a man to pick up a book - you're right. But if for no other reason, I'll have a list I can give to my son, who is just now discovering fiction in a meaningful way.

Comment by John McFetridge on November 29, 2013 at 3:56am

Different novels inspired me at twenty and at fifty. But I think Jed is right, you have to stumble across the right ones at the right time. I looked at your blog and it's all the usual stuff for the usual reasons. Well, of course it is, what else could it be?

There's no harm in putting together a list, of course, there are a lot of them out there with these titles on them, but... will it really get someone who isn't reading books to read them? I have friends and relatives who read no fiction at all and they're fine people. I love books and reading but it's not for everyone.

It's funny, though, the only people I know who love Lolita are women. Oh, a few men have recommended it but they were pretty creepy guys... ;).


Comment by Victoria Dougherty on November 29, 2013 at 3:41am

Thanks for reading, Jed (my blog and fiction). I'm compiling a reading list for men based on suggestions from men on my (other) blog - www.victoriadougherty.wordpress.com - If you get a minute please stop by and throw your 2 cents in.  You'll also get some great reading suggestions on my comments page.

Comment by Victoria Dougherty on November 29, 2013 at 3:39am

Eric, I think you're right. Fiction has stopped catering to men.  As men stopped reading fiction and women began forming book clubs, the focus of the industry followed the customer base.


John, I loved Lolita :) And according to statistics, neither men in their twenties or their fifties are reading fiction very much.  If you two get a minute, please go to my blog - www.victoriadougherty.wordpress.com and comment as to what novels inspired you. I'm compiling a reading list for men. Thank you.

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