Rob Kennedy, an Australian poet (and male for the purposes of this discussion) asked this question in a blog post recently:
Do real men read books?*
He had several issues with this question:
- What the hell constitutes a “real man” anyway? To which I nod my head furiously because yes, what the hell are we discussing when we talk about “real men”? What makes one man more “real” than the next, apart from the fact that maybe he isn’t some intangible figure in your brain…… moving on.
- The reason he asked the question in the first place was because he had found a lot of American based programs and websites and groups that all used “real man/men” in their title and their mission was to get more men to read by making them think that whatever their perception of what a real man was it also included reading. To which I nodded furiously again, because you have to make people think that they want the same end goal that you do if you want anyone to help you do anything.
- Then he wanted to know why there weren’t any such programs for Australian men – why, leaving aside the issue of “real” for a moment, were there no challenges or programs or groups or sites for Australian men? At least he couldn’t find any and when he did try to start them up, it seemed men weren’t interested in participating perhaps because it was perceived as something that “real Australian men” don’t do? Why if the Australian Women Writers Challenge exists (open to all regardless of gender/location so long as you read Aussie female writers in any genre for it) can there not be something similar for men?
To which I said, “Oh.” And then I mused. And commented.
And I made the following points based on my very limited experience and my inherent grumpiness (warning: prepare for snarkiness ahead and your mileage/experience may vary)**:
- Australian men do read but then they can be absolutely stupid about it.
I know this because, well, once I used to work in a bookstore. And WITHOUT FAIL, young men, let’s say 26-32, would, obviously since we were in a bookstore, start going on about their favourites. This was heartily depressing for me because again WITHOUT FAIL, they were wannabe hipsters (and you have no idea HOW tragic THAT is), who worshipped Kerouac, thought they were as cool as Hunter S Thompson, scared the living daylights out of me by saying they liked Bukowski (because he was horrible towards women) because he swore when he wrote, either cited Henry Miller or some equally obscure novelist which hinted that they may just be depressed and the only thing that hinted that they may have any redeeming sense of humour was that they also read Terry Pratchett because otherwise they are completely incapable of making a joke.
Give them long enough and they would tell you about the fact that they are writing a manuscript that has a wonderful opening scene that describes in great detail the rotting carcass of a dead dog by a highway (you know as a metaphor for the town the protagonist cannot wait to get out of), with the protagonist a lone male figure against whom the world clearly has a vendetta and with possibly more than the required number of swear words because they don’t really know how to describe anything anyway. Oh, and if they have read a Australian male author – it’s Tim Winton who himself is some weird kind of fanboy of the ’70s surfing period though one is never entirely sure why this is the case.
My point about these people being depressing is that they don’t read anything else. They don’t get the references in literary jokes. The handful of books they have read don’t come across as well thumbed favourites when they talk about them, they come across as books bought, gathering dust on a shelf, read once, to bring out into conversation for their credibility’s sake but of course as soon they profess an one sided, rose glasses on type of desire for ’60s America and/or ’70s let’s be boys forever and go surfing Australia, their credibility is kind of shot to pieces. As if they haven’t read a book since they were forced to when in high school.
By all means if you must only stick to a few books, don’t be an idiot about it and don’t assume you can be a writer either. Writers read widely because it terrifies them to write if they don’t.
- Australian men do read but they read different things and often what isn’t always in the mainstream.
I also do find that it varies by age/generation. Often men older than me read biographies or memoirs (typically of men usually, tsk, tsk, you people). I know this because I would line up to get cricket tour diaries and memoirs signed for my father (I read the books before he ever got them though but the signatures were for him) and if it was a biography, there were always more older men in the line who were rather amused to see petite me queuing up as well. And ok, I dressed up a bit more for Adam Gilchrist and Steve Waugh.
Some of them follow their interests. I fully expect an ex-music director friend’s bookshelf to have music related books – memoirs, behind the scenes and so on and I can probably guess that Anthony Keidis‘ Scar Tissue is on there as well as some Beatles or some Dylan. Then you have got the cricket fans. My father read crime and airport novels and pulp fiction and often forgot what he read and brought the same books home over and over. And there are people younger. A philosophy tutor friend of mine probably has a collection of fantasy novels on his shelf. Another geoscience editor friend would have books on geography, landscape and geology as well as style manuals, Shakespeare plays and poetry volumes. And I know that he would have A Sense of Place which is this book that anyone who does anything geographically related in WA, hunts for and hoards.
Out of those who are younger – well, you have the usual LOTR fans. If they are into fantasy, they adore Neil Gaiman. I held hostage a whole series of Neil Gaiman‘s work from a friend of a friend once. I often think that was the best thing about him – the fact that he had those books.
I also meet younger people who are self named and self styled entrepreneurs who are doing well and they come offer me recommendations from the self help and business genres.
Books like The Secret (“Wait, what it came out years ago and you only just heard about it and it’s just someone bringing up the positive thinking idea yet again and you’re this excited?” is usually my internal reaction but I am nice, I just smile sweetly and nod and go to my happy place), or How to Win Friends & Influence People (“Um, yeah I have friends, what art thou implying?”). And of course, anything by Seth Godin or Richard Branson who now seem to co-rule this genre.
I have to say, these guys mean well, but then they offer me books on how to manage employees. I’m a freelancer, I don’t have employees. But this is what they read – things that will help them get ahead. Books that offer them information that they may need know in order to do better. I understand this because I do this too and I do advocate it – knowledge is power.
The truth is that even big collections of ordinary books distort space, as can readily be proved by anyone who has been around a really old-fashioned secondhand bookshop, one of those that look as though they were designed by M. Escher on a bad day and has more staircases than storeys and those rows of shelves which end in little doors that are surely too small for a full- sized human to enter. The relevant equation is: Knowledge = power = energy = matter = mass; a good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.
– Quote from The Colour of Magic/Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
- Australian men do read but they are silent about it.
I have to say that often unless I ask, they don’t tell, they don’t offer – unless of course they are a) already talking about a book I am writing or b) trying to recommend a book they think will help me or sadly in the case of some of the misguided Thompson wannabe hipsters c) trying to hit on/impress me.
I think it’s because even if they do love to read, it is not perceived to be something that is important to discuss. Unless they are an actual writer or an editor, they don’t fully understand how valuable it is for authors and readers to have their books, verbally, in print, online, discussed, debated, passed on, recommended, pulled apart to pieces and reassembled. They don’t understand that one’s reading habits aren’t necessarily to do with the individual and can be of great use in various ways to the people around them.
- We now come to the important part.
If there are more Australians writing and publishing books than ever before and;
If most of them are women (someone, find the statistic because it must be somewhere as to which gender is most prolific by title number – the ABS does not know) and;
If as according to the stats collected and cited by the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it’s only the male authors that get the most press and;
If male readers mostly read books by male authors;
Then:1. Most of Australian contemporary Literature is probably not being read at all
2. Most of the male readers in Australia are not reading most of the Australian contemporary Literature being produced.
Is that not scary?***
- Therefore we come to point five wherein Rob goes “Let’s start an Australian male reading challenge!” and I go “YAY!” and then he tells me that I am not male and therefore I must leave my ovaries at home if I am a guest member (this was humour and non-offensive to me so I responded that I would turn up in drag -which you know I am actually serious about doing) because the point is to get more men to read. And to get them to talk about what they read. So that we can see that they read instead of having to blindly assume that they do not which would be dumb.
So if you are male, Australian (or actually from anywhere because the more the merrier) and you are keen to say “Hey! Guys, this is the best book in the history of ever!” or even just a thumbs up/thumbs down on what you have read, then you need to go tweet at Rob (@kenrob2037) so that he knows you exist and he can start making plans for what I have termed the Australian Male Readers group. And if you are doing any Australian Author challenges or the AWW 2013 one, then whatever you would read would count towards that so you’d be killing several birds with one stone.
As an incentive, I am willing to give away a copy of Ron Elliot’s Spinner to one of the first thirty male readers who want to be part of the group and who contact Rob. Spinner is about cricket and history and is a great read.
And so we come to this where I give you a) a man reading and b) the kind of book that he is reading that would make me go “Hey, you. You are interesting.” You know, if that was your goal and you weren’t merely a closet bibliophile…
* I am an editor – I like things nice and neat so I added the “Do” to this question where Rob left it out.
** Seriously, massive snarkiness and much pent up frustration at the fact that said males do not know who J.K. Jerome is. Or anything pertinent about Hemingway except to assume that I must not know about his lifestyle choices, his awesomeness in adventuring, his cats or his six word short story and therefore talk down to me about all things books related when I have already said I share a birthday with the man and I have a Literature degree.
*** All this is hypothetical till someone finds the numbers but people seem to think it’s highly likely that this may be occurring.
**** Why did you not get his name Ruthanne? Why?