The Orange Prize for Fiction was founded in 1996 to provide an outlet for female authors who had been '... passed over ...' out of concern for apparent literary discrimination by 'many of the biggest literary prizes [that] often appeared to over look wonderful writing by women.' Their goal is, through a literary prize, to help female authors find an audience among male and female readers. The Orange prize is privately sponsored by British telecom Orange, who publicizes their concern for social responsibility with numerous prizes and endowments.
Prior to this in 2004, Professor Jardine and had conducted a similar study of watershed fiction for women. According to the press release, in that study she also interviewed '400 women from the worlds of academia, arts, publishing and literary criticism [that] took part in the Orange Prize project including many previous judges of the Orange Prize.' who were each asked to select a title as their 'watershed book.' The books that made the top five watershed works for those women interviewed were such titles as 1) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; 2) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; 3) The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood; 4) Middlemarch by George Eliot; 5) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Primarily works which feature strong women overcoming societal limitations or relationship troubles to find solace through epiphany and catharsis.
With this second study complete, Professor Jardine offers certain contrasts between the types of books that men select compared with those the women had selected in her prior research. According to her the results show a highly divergent set of tastes, with '... almost no overlap ...' in the choice between genders. Whereas, according to Professor Jardine as quoted in the press release, the men: "... we interviewed had a tendency towards identifying themselves with angst-ridden books showing intellectual struggle, violence, personal vulnerability, catastrophe and the struggle to rise above circumstance ..." in comparison, according to The Guardian article, the women: '... readers used much-loved books to support them through difficult times and emotional turbulence, and tended to employ them as metaphorical guides to behaviour, or as support and inspiration.'
Further, according to her, men appear to lose interest in fiction once they enter early adulthood. Jardine, as quoted in the Guardian article, was surprised "... by the firmness with which many men said that fiction didn't speak to them ..." and when they did read fiction they 'preferred books by dead white men' with only Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird appearing on the list of top 20 female authors selected by men. She offered historian David Starkey's words who said, presumably about whether fiction provides a means of support or inspiration within his life, that: "... fiction, of any sort, has never worked on me like that ...". Jardine, summing up her results for The Guardian, was quoted saying: "On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction." One of her study participants, leader of the British Conservative Party, couldn't even offer up any fiction which had inspired him lifelong, instead referring to Robert Graves's first world war memoir Goodbye to All.
When men do read literary work they select vastly different titles than women for their five most important novels: 1) The Outsider by Albert Camus; 2) Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; 3) Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut; 4) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; 5) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Why is this? According to Professor Jardine, as quoted in the Guardian article, she found that: "... men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life's journey, as consolers or guides, as women do, [instead they] read novels a bit like they read photography manuals." To her: "The men's list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading ..." Which suggests to Professor Jardine that the literary profession '... is run by the wrong people ...' Further saying: "What I find extraordinary is the hold the male cultural establishment has over book prizes like the Booker, for instance, and in deciding what is the best. This is completely at odds with their lack of interest in fiction." Which is in stark contrast to her affiliated Orange Prize for Fiction, which honors only female writers.
What is a male reader to think of her statements? That men prefer different work than women seems an unextraordinary statement. Looking outside the insular world of the literary establishment shows a wide divergence between the tastes of men and women. Genre fiction, for example, is written and published primarily to attract a gender and demographic specific audience. Presumably the publishers of such material have conducted numerous market research analyses and know their buyers' habits better than do the buyers themselves. In the pulp fiction market, men tend to prefer spy and adventure, detective, and science fiction novels primarily, whereas women prefer romance, contemporary period, and mystery novels. Filmmakers understand and exploit this gender cleave as well, often naming categories of film shoehorned for men Guy Movies while those primarily for women Chick Flicks. Why should it surprise a University professor that such gender specific tastes in popular entertainment mirror the haughty world of literary fiction?
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of Professor Jardine's statements, from a male perspective, is the apparent bias implied by such condescending statements as that male readers preferred 'all angst and Orwell' and that this was 'puberty reading' for a gender that only read novels like 'photography manuals'. Are these really the statements of a University Professor? How is she to know the internal reasons why the men she interviewed stated the preferences they did? Her words read more like pop-psychology from the likes of Oparah Winfrey than true academic discourse.
Assuming her study results are valid, and not meaningless due to selection bias or -- for the cynical among us -- simply a means to present her predetermined results to justify the worthiness of the Orange Prize for Fiction, there are two underlying questions she doesn't even attempt to answer. The first: have men as a population truly stopped reading novels, or do they simply consider it entertainment and not 'a constant companion to their life's journey' as Jardine's statements seem to imply were asked. The second: is fiction about angst, violence, disenfranchisement, and solitary struggle truly not literary, as she seems to assert. Implied within her words is a value judgment about what is and what is not important for literary work. If one untangles the underlying assumptions of her words, Nobel Prize winning authors such as Albert Camus and Gabriel Garcia Marquez do not write literature. She seemingly claims it is not literary to write about violence or solitary struggle because such topics do not support readers through 'emotional turbulence' or do not seemingly provide a 'life companion' between their covers for readers. Yet are these subjects not important to men? Have men not waged war, fought intransigent and unemotional bureaucracies, pursued the singular prize of a woman, or sailed vast uncharted oceans with but a small crew to accompany them across the spans of history? Is this not the plight of man? Who is she to say such topics -- these things that men experience -- are not worthy of literary measure?
Or, perhaps, there's another explanation for why men aren't reading contemporary literary fiction. Suppose, instead, that there is a dearth of serious modern authors who speak for men, and this is the reason male readers have fled recent literary work. If so, might this be due to University level Creative Writing departments that do not nurture male voices about male issues because to do so seemingly violates the current norms of what is and what is not literary among the establishment; such material being verboten. If so, do Professor Jardine's results show a lack of interest among men because men don't enjoy reading, or because men don't enjoy reading the material she -- and the literary establishment she represents -- hoists upon us and terms: literature?
Or maybe Camus and Marquez and Salinger et all simply suck. And perhaps she's right, men don't read because they prefer the solace of 'photography manuals.' Right.
Text Copyright ©2006 J. Maynard Gelinas.
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