A few weeks ago a high-school teacher published a provocative article in the Toronto Star proposing that we stop "force-feeding" literature to teenage students. "Big books" are an anachronism, claimed Michael Reist: "The sustained reading of many pages of text is quickly becoming obsolete, like Latin."
Since "the age of print is dead," the study of English is no longer always useful, even for those who want to go on to do something creative, like designing video games. Reist suggests making the reading of "big books" optional in the final year of high school.
His bio says he has been teaching for 30 years. He is also – not by coincidence, I think – something of an expert in the interests of male pupils, having published a book called Raising Boys in a New Kind of World.
In publishing we too are having a continuous discussion about new literature and who is reading it, in particular the widely-held concern that men are not reading much fiction. I have pinned above my desk The Globe and Mail's bestseller list from Aug. 25 of this year – the first that I've been aware of in which all 10 hardcover fiction titles were by women. The authors' names alone are not proof, of course, that there are no male readers, but the titles are indicative of the audience: The top three were the Fifty Shades of Grey erotica trilogy and No. 4 was a Fifty Shades knockoff.
There are no clear answers why men appear to have ceded this particular narrative art – they are still writing and watching a lot of television shows and creating and playing a lot of narrative video games – but one fact must be true: If they are not learning to enjoy reading novels as children and teenagers, they will not develop a taste for it as adults. Hence the importance of the argument about high-school English.
The young Canadian novelist Stacey Madden (a guy) has just released a thriller called Poison Shy (full disclosure: a book I worked on), and he recently blogged about the problem of male readers.
Madden makes four suggestions for exciting the male child about made-up stories: 1. Tell them that reading is rebellious; 2. Tell them that if they read, girls (or boys) will like them; 3. Tell them the book is better than the movie; 4. Tell them that reading will make them rich. He admits that No. 4 is a "white lie." I would say the same about No. 2, but agree that such myths are not harmful to propagate.
There is another idea I would like to add to the list. Overwhelmingly, the guys I know who tell me they don't read fiction say it's because they are too interested in the practical – in "information" – to waste their reading time on the unreal. They say they read to learn.
Funnily, that's what I remember about reading novels in childhood: Many were historical, and largely about warfare. They were about the Roman legions conquering Britain or the Royal Navy demolishing the French or the Spaniards or some other barbarous lot. They were usually narrated from the point of view of the humble foot soldier or oarsman (who would often, as with C.S. Forester's Hornblower series, rise through the ranks as the series unfolded). These books were where I learned about longbows versus crossbows and cardinals versus dukes. This is information I have never unlearned.
This is difficult for me to admit, as I have been bashing adult historical fiction for the past few years. I had forgotten about my childhood reading. I will have to think about that. My flip-flopping might have something to do with the fact that adult historical fiction often tends to be dreary tales of victims rather than victors.
Here's another thing that cannot be explained: If most novel-readers are female, as every bookseller I have ever met assures me they are, why are at least half of Canadian novel writers still men? (I am basing this on the list of novels declared eligible for the Governor-General's Award from 2009 to 2011, statistics compiled by the web-based Canadian Women in the Literary Arts.) Five of the eight students in my creative writing seminar this year are men, the highest percentage of my experience.
They are not writing teen-oriented, fact-filled books about the Crusades and the Battle of the Bulge, though. The guys with that sort of interest must be working in video games.