Monday, June 26, 2006

Why Doesn't Johnny Want to Read?

When I was in high school, I had nine English teachers: three men and six women. I never consciously realized this until today.

When I was in college I had four English professors: two men and two women. In grad school I had ten English professors: six men and four women. Among Graduate tutors in the University writing center I worked in two years ago there were eight women and four men (including myself). I am the second male English teacher on the high school faculty I just joined (I'm a little vague on how many women there are). Again, I didn't consciously think about most of these things until today.

I'd been hearing for a few years about how the English teaching field was coming to be dominated by women, but really didn't give it much thought. Then I read this David Brooks column a few weeks ago and was extremely interested, but didn't much apply it to my own life.

Then today I attended the first day of a week-long session for A.P. Language teachers. (I actually had no idea what A.P. Language teachers teach before today, but was pleasantly surprised to find out it was a lot like the way I designed my ENG 101 class I taught last fall at U of L. End digression.) In my group of 20 (I'm not sure whether to call us 20 students or 20 teachers), there was only one other guy, and I strongly suspect he wouldn't have come if he hadn't been from the same school as the woman presenter. I scoped out the other group of A.P. Language teachers and it was about the same, so overall there were 90% women.

If 90% of A.P. Math teachers were male, I think we would have a public outcry (and justifiably so). To clarify, I don't think males are being discriminated against in hiring. I think the problem is that not enough males go into English, which starts with the fact that males don't read as much as females.

Other than that Brooks column, I haven't seen a lot of media attention paid to this trend. Brooks's hypothesis is interesting. He seems to think that the situation is a vicious cycle. As women ascend to positions where they determine what is read, they pick women-friendly literature. I think Brooks is absolutely right that women tend to prefer women writers. My wife is representative of this. She is a non-English major but a voracious reader, and consumers at least 80% female-written books. In Brooks's view, men are the same way: they prefer masculine authors, but are being turned off to reading in general by being assigned too many women writers.

I'm not sure I buy his theory that male authors are being discriminated against (at least at the middle and high school levels, which is where he argues tastes are developed). I also think it's interesting to note that books aren't the only media that are having trouble courting young males. Televison is also having a heckuva time getting guys to tune in--they'd rather play video games.

Which leads me to speculate about an admittedly partial but perhaps novel solution (Puns are awesome. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise). How about video games based on Hemingway, Tolstoy, and Homer? Most classic liteature is in the public domain. Between the mystery and the war and the epic length, War and Peace would make for an awesome video game. After a young male conquers the game, desperate to continue the adventure, he'll pick up the book. Or so the theory goes anyway. If the video game companies get on this now, I might have some fellow male colleagues to bond with some day.


Blogger kevin said...

interesting topic, i never tought about gender selection when i read. i definitely do lean toward male authors however. the majority of books i have read are stephen king novels. even in poetry, i would lean towards frost. its like playing an RPG. it is easier to follow when you can be in the same (or a similar) mind set as the author. i don't think, as hard as i may try, that i could think like a woman.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


but, i just don't like it, when the book is in first person and i find out it's a guy when i always thought it was a girl. happens.


9:56 AM  
Blogger Heidi said...

hey, you know what? you have nothing against Tim, this blog is totally better. No Beaver bashing, not hatn'. just plain old love. the best kind.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

Males generally lean toward male authors because women generally write about female issues. I don't know many guys that would read meg cabot or margaret atwood (who is canadian by the way) simply because nothing in them interests males.
About not many males going into English...the males I know like everything to be black and white. 1+1=2, no room for argument. A book could have many different interpretations, and women are better at finding the interpretations.
PS: Stephen King sucks.
PPS: Love the pun.
PPPS:You're dumb Heidi

11:35 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Kevin- I wonder what the implications of your point are for male writers trying to write female characters. Hemingway, for one, has been accused of not being able to write women well.

Sandwhich-- Your comment about males generally wanting one correct interpretation is a pretty popular one among researchers. Brooks hints at it in his column, explaining that there is a biological difference between the sexes that drives their academic interestes. I'm not sure what I think about that.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

i agree heidi. more intellectually stimulating and less hostile commenters than the tim show. also, azor tends to reply to our comments, unlike the tim show.

8:44 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I think, generally speaking, difference in interests between the sexes goes far beyond just book genres. It's everything in life.

I'm really not that interested in chick singer Beth Orton, and it's one of Jess's favorite musicians. Similarly, I've never caught her playing my At the Drive In or Mars Volta albums. However, we find common ground in bands like Wilco. In fact, we each count them as one of our favorite bands.

So I think, in reading, men will shy away from authors like Kate Chopin while women will shy away from writers like Chuck Palahniuk. Again, generally speaking.

But if we want to appeal to both genders in the integrated setting of a high school English class, you have to find some sort of middle-ground authors like, for instance, Mark Twain.

6:25 PM  

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