A best-selling author explains.
What Men Read
I was doing an interview a few weeks ago for Women of Bad Assery when I started to wonder if it was actually true that men – and young boys – refuse to read books written by women or starring women. It wasn’t actually hard to disprove it – JK Rowling may have used her initials to hide her gender, or so I have been told, but I read quite a few other books by women when I was a child. The gender of the writer alone had no influence on me. Nor too did I automatically dismiss a book starring a girl.
What did have an influence was school. The vast majority of the books I was forced to read at school were boring. Teachers – both male and female – would select books that bored me to tears. Thankfully, by then I already had the reading bug. Boys who didn’t, who only knew reading as a chore, didn’t read when they didn’t have to read. They found it a tedious process – and preferred watching television instead.
So … what did all the books I liked have in common?
Most of them featured adventure. The characters would be pitted against a remorseless enemy or given a task to do. It didn’t really matter if the task was large or small, a thinking enemy or a force of nature; all that mattered was the challenge, the urge to overcome and triumph over one’s circumstances. The characters didn’t simply exist, the characters had something to do.
Harry Potter works, at least for the first five books, because it fits neatly into this pattern. Harry escapes the mundane world and flies straight into a world of magic, but gets pitted against a string of deadly foes. All of his books feature Harry being challenged – Goblet of Fire being the most dramatic example – and overcoming his challenges. Everyone who wants to argue that Dumbledore is a poor headmaster because Harry has to deal with the problem-of-the-book is missing the point. The series works because Harry is the one who deals with the problem.
This is true for a lot of my childhood favourites. The Famous Five and The Secret Seven all feature mysteries that have to be solved. Hood’s Army and The Demon Headmaster all feature battles against deadly enemies. And all of them are exciting reflections of the way young boys think. They want adventure.
Good children’s books also avoid gender politics. Both Danny the Champion of the World and Matilda are popular with children of both genders, even though one features a male hero and the other a female. Both books work for male readers because they fit into the pattern I detailed above – Matilda is pitted against her family, who try their hardest to drag her down, and her sadistic headmistress. Danny is pitted against his schoolteacher and the aristocratic moron who owns the nearby woods. To add to this, Danny and his father are effectively rebelling against unwanted restraints.
Matilda is, in some cases, an interesting example. Although Matilda herself is very definitely a young girl, women are not portrayed any more or less positively than men. There is no sense that Matilda is waging war on the patriarchy, but on people who want to crush her soul (her parents) or physically harm her (the headmistress). Indeed, the first person we are shown to get the better of the headmistress is a young boy. And, as gross as that scene is to an adult, it is precisely the sort of thing a young boy would find hilarious.
The closest thing Matilda comes to any form of sexism is Matilda’s mother remarking to her that men are rarely as clever as they think they are. But it’s hard to argue the point when she’s talking about her immensely stupid and crooked husband.
Good children’s books are also free of romance and sex. You’d think this was obvious, but still … Most young boys are significantly put off by any hint of romance – they don’t understand the facts of life, let alone how they relate to their own life. They certainly don’t want to consider the differences between males and females. Romance was never a big part of Harry Potter because young boys don’t want to read about it.
Successful female characters – characters who appeal to young boys – are often very similar to men. They take on challenges and overcome them; they have problems, but they overcome them on their own. Even when they are not tomboys – George of The Famous Five, for example – they are rarely completely feminine. They balance their strengths with weaknesses. Dinah Glass of The Demon Headmaster is incredibly intelligent, but she’s also the only one of the good guys vulnerable to the Headmaster’s power. That doesn’t stop her from playing a major role in his defeats.
This leads to another problem. It is much easier for a young boy to imagine being Harry Potter than it is to imagine being Hermione Granger.
These patterns do not change as young boys turn into men. The lust for adventure, for a meaningful life, is still there. Romance – even as readers become more aware of gender and sex – is still a secondary concern. Successful books always have the main character taking on a challenge and solving it. If there is a love interest in the book, the romance is still secondary to the overall story.
Books that do feature romance heavily tend to do poorly with young men. Twilight, for example, isn’t particularly popular with male readers, if only because they find it hard to identify with Bella and loathe Edward. Books that focus on the main character worrying over stereotypical feminine concerns are rarely interesting to young men. Indeed, books that concentrate on feminine issues often make men uncomfortable. Marketing them to young men is a waste of time.
Indeed, I’ve noticed a pattern in books written for teenagers and young adults. The majority of male writers concentrate on adventure, the majority of female writers concentrate on romance. Obviously, there are exceptions, but I think it’s largely true.
I think the most successful books – at least, the ones that attract young male readers – are the books that speak to our imaginations. We want to be free and independent, we want to pit ourselves against the world, we want to do great deeds and soar high. And we want to solve our own problems, to pick ourselves up after getting knocked down and carry on. In a sense, we all want to be ‘special snowflakes’ – but we want to earn it, not have it handed to us on a plate.
Books that are not successful tend to focus on characters who do not appeal to young male readers. A main character who is an idle layabout, a bully, a sneak, a coward, a whiner … they rarely appeal. And even if they do, what lessons are they teaching? Books that put men down, that make us out to be stupid or animals or just plain obnoxious … they appeal to us about as much as misogynist books appeal to women.
If you happen to be a teacher, or a parent, remember the golden rule. Reading should never be a chore. Indeed, reading is a learned skill. And the more young boys enjoy reading, the more they will read.