Three Taboos 1



1. The Missing Males


This is the first of three short pieces on new taboo subjects. And it’s something I first noticed on the last tour – an almost total absence of male readers in the audiences. The only men who turn up now are students or retirees. Anyone else is an anomaly. A talk with my New York agent confirms that there’s trouble ahead; in the USA males of working age have all but stopped reading fiction.

There’s a combination of culprits behind this. First, working hours are expanding, the lines blurred by our ability to carry our jobs around with us on devices.

Also, the traditional ‘guy with a book’ image has been replaced by ‘guy with an iPad’. Working males browse emails and subscription press sites while commuting. E-readers are partly responsible for wiping out mass market novels, with thrillers particularly suffering. More women are writing for women.

But this is no middle-aged-white-guy-moans-about-females diatribe; women writers are finally getting their due, and it’s been too long coming. In particular female thriller writers are proving something many of us already knew; they handle suspense magnificently.

When a great chunk of the market vanishes overnight there should be a conversation about it, but it’s tricky. The disappearance of male readers is a phenomenon that has nothing to do with sexual politics. It’s about time-poverty, multiple device technology, multi-platform market grabs, fragmented attention spans. It’s also about long-tail loyalty to certain authors’ careers ending. US publishing now is largely dominated by debut authors, one-offs and multi-media stars.

It’s also harder to start reading again the longer you stay out of the loop. I have extremely well-read friends whose reading seized up about three years ago, when most of them purchased iPads. They own Kindles too, but these get little use.

How do we fix it? Where are the new Michael Crichtons and Robert Harrises? Can we revive mass market books? A new small-sized format could refresh fortunes by making the paperback something to carry around again. Margins are tighter on physically smaller books, but if hardbacks can become attractive objects of desire, so a new format could be a status symbol.

20 comments on “Three Taboos 1”

  1. Denise Treadwell says:

    I have read , On the beach, !

  2. Denise Treadwell says:

    My husband has no time to read, he works 40 hour weeks, at 66 but I have read since I was 14 no matter what!

  3. Brooke says:

    As one male friend told me, by the time he reads with his children at night (all different ages so timing is difficult), tackles professional journals to keep up to date, reads headlines from the business and economic press, he is done for. What works is audio media– he listens to podcasts and audiobooks while driving. He is just one example–makes me want to apologize to my dad who did all this and ran a farm to feed us. Please, leave the poor males alone.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    Life can be a mixture of passive and active phases. Neither are bad, but we need both. The passive things are browsing in a bookshop or library, randomly searching the net, replying to messages, bearing up under the burdens of existence, times when the only honest answer to ‘what are you looking for’ is ‘inspiration.’ In the active phases, or at least in my (very and increasingly rare) active phases, I’ll manage to read a lot, write, design, make, and generally create, calculate, go running 5 times a week, meet friends, …. . One of the problems of tablets and smart phones is being trapped in the passive, looking active, yet often achieving very little.

  5. Ken Mann says:

    Perhaps cars are the problem. I do most of my reading on my commute to work by train.

  6. Mike Brough says:

    I’ve always made time to read.

    None of us is time-poor – we all have exactly the same 24 hours in each day but we each choose how to use that time.

    I discovered at 40 that no one was giving me any credit for spending 14 hours in the office every day, so I stepped back and started doing my contractual 40-hour weeks.

    And you know what? It made not a blind bit of difference to my salary or my prospects. I still earned as much as my peers. I still got the good opportunities. I got to bed at 10. And I got to read!

  7. Richard Burton says:

    This made me pause and worry a bit. I do read a lot less than I used to just a few years ago, and I’m a lot less adventurous I think. I’m a self employed illustrator so I don’t think the time argument applies, but I do think that online media has taken over. It’s certainly replaced nearly all my TV viewing.

  8. Wayne Mook says:

    Stress and worry also mean you just don’t read, but one of the big things is gaming. A lot of computer games were aimed at males, and a lot of us in our middle ages still play, as do the youngsters in their 20’s & 30’s.

    Agreed work & social media play a part.

    It will be interesting to see how it will effect female readers as more go online & play games nor. My 2 nieces (14 & 16) are avid game players & net users, the eldest is still a reader. I guess if there are books in the house it makes a big difference.


  9. Eleanor Massey says:

    Perhaps men still like fiction, but now access it through media other than books. Small, light paperbacks would certainly help, I think.
    Sorry, I left a comment for Helen Martin (one of your readers) on your previous blog instead of this one – probably quite out of line – but hope it gets through.
    Thank you again, Christopher. I’m sending men novels for Christmas.

  10. To find enough time to enjoy reading again, this guy had to retire (from teaching English, no less). Now I have two uninterruptible reading periods each day, and I make sure that thrillers and mysteries (including Bryant & May, of course)
    are included in the mix. It took 50 years but I’ve rediscovered the joys of reading.

  11. admin says:

    I’m tempted to remind some colleagues that nobody’s gravestone ever read; ‘He delivered his work on time’, but of course I understand that we have to work to live and our leisure time is precious. Nobody wants to nag ‘Read more, it’s good for you’ at people, but it is important to keep the imagination alive.

  12. David Ronaldson says:

    I was perhaps blinded to this, as my two closest male friends are also big readers. We’ve recommended books to each other, even swapped 10-book reading lists. A few weeks ago, however, I was in the Parcel Yard bar at King’s Cross and found myself sat near someone I vaguely recognised. We nodded cautiously in a very English way before the penny dropped and he said “You’re from Stevenage too, aren’t you?” He glanced at my novel. “You’re the bloke who reads.”
    I suppose there are worse ways to be pigeon-holed…

  13. SimonB says:

    The key word I picked up on here is Fiction. The older I get, the more I find I still want to learn about the world and how it works and my choice of reading has skewed accordingly. I know we had a couple of encyclopedias, books about space and (inevitably) dinosaurs but as a child I craved stories and escapism. That definitely lead me into fantasy and sci-fi and a bit of disdain for books and tales set in the “real world” as I only had to turn on the tv/radio or look out the window to experience that. School and college forced me into text books and related works in order to learn and research what I was studying.

    On leaving college I guess I kind of rebelled against that and pretty much dropped the real world again, but over the past 15 years it has crept back to the point that I now read two works of non-fiction to every story. And the stories themselves have expanded in scope to include crime, mystery and the real world (although I’ve not dipped my toe into literary fiction as yet). I’ve seen this in a lot of fellow males – many of my acquaintances don’t read at all, and a high proportion of the rest are just magazine/news consumers – those few I do see with a book are more likely to have Phillip Hoare’s “Leviathan” than Moby Dick or the biography of a pilot than a Biggles adventure.

    The other thing I notice is that I’m slower these days. A lot of that is down to the technology problems identified above. When MrsB is watching tv I am not bothered about I used to sit next to her and read, but these days am more likely to be fiddling with phone or iPad so the number of pages turned per day has dropped accordingly. And because I am a detail person I have the facts at hand… I have just finished re-reading “Diamond Mask” by Julian May, and what with one thing and another it has taken me over three weeks to get through. Looking back at my spreadsheet I see that when i last read it (2003) I was done in three days.

    I am resolving to put the devices down more next year.

  14. Martin Tolley says:

    I’m not convinced that this is entirely a new phenomenon. Mrs T, when she worked in the town library (youngsters in rural areas will probably have to google that) did a survey of reading for a student project by looking at borrower records. She found that men largely read non-fiction, war and history books. And the fiction they read was closely related to war and history. Men were the minority of borrowers (about 30% or less if I recall correctly) and women read mostly fiction, with cookery books and gardening and stuff being the most non-fiction content. Men read male biographies and women read female ones. Crime fiction was sort of evenly spread across the genders with men preferring the thrillers and women the Christie puzzle-type ones. That was just over 35 years ago.

  15. Peter Dixon says:

    Ken Mann makes a valid point. When I used to commute I read 3 books a week. Recently travelling on a Metro train I counted myself and two others reading books. Fourteen were twiddling with phones and four with tablets. I just turn my phone off. Maybe it will change when driverless cars become the norm.

  16. Bob Low says:

    Martin’s posting confirms a suspicion I ‘ve had for a good few years – most men just don’t like reading all that much. The only reason so many men read books in years gone by was through a sort of soft social pressure. I’m old enough – and lucky enough – to have lived through a time when the weekly, or fortnightly family visit to the library was a part of my childhood, and that of most of my peers. I suspect many Dads took part in this to set a good example to the children, rather than through any love of reading for its own sake. They’d rather have been off doing something else, and societal changes now allow them to do just that.

    I became a bookworm mainly as a result of a childhood affected by serious ill health, which kept me indoors a lot. I was also lucky enough to have parents who both genuinely loved reading, encouraged the habit in me and could recommend authors as I got older.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    My husband could have written Simon B’s comment. He always read everything and still does. He reads a lot of Clive Cussler and mysteries and geographically based fiction, biography, and science. he’s been in hospital for a month now and has turned to magasines probably because they’re lighter to handle. It’s harder to focus in that setting, too.
    I am surprised that Mrs. T.’s survey turned out so close to what people would expect. We don’t provide surprises, I suppose. Interesting.
    Off to the library in the morning as I’m finally walking a little better and am desperate for something new to read.

  18. steve says:

    I just spent 20 minutes reading a couple of your blog posts and these comments.

    Reading for pleasure — yes

    Reading a book — no

    I still read for pleasure, or at least listen to audio books, but other media has garnered a portion of what used to be my pleasure reading hours.

  19. John Griffin says:

    Another who is like SimonB. I read both print and ebook, voraciously; I manage about equal amounts of fiction and non-fiction. In fiction I used to read Scifi, passed through thrillers briefly, but stuck with crime – being a Holmes fan at 11. Non-fiction? While I have never read a war book, I have read a lot of popular science, psychology, politics, geography, human and animal evolution and period pieces such as Paul Howard’s “I read the news today, oh boy”. I read every day unless events overtake me. I have NEVER listened to an audiobook EXCEPT when entertaining small people on a car journey with Roald Dahl (whose short stories I loved). I have never played a modern computer game, watched X Factor, watched a movie on my phone or tablet…..there are some of us left!

  20. Wayne Mook says:

    I too had parents who both read and that’s a big thing. We encourage my 6 yr old daughter to read, it’s a joy picking books for her, she has a lot of books & still goes to the library.

    one thing that was different between myself and my sisters was the way we were spoken to, on a summers day if one of my sisters was reading in doors they were told either to ‘Go outside and read it’s lovely’, or a ‘Oh your reading again. ‘ As they older there was the suggestion, ‘You know you can sunbath and read at the same time?’ In those days you only got skin cancer if you were really unlucky and lived in far of places by the sea, way down south like Brighton and Clacton. But never at places like Blackpool, let alone in land.

    Even though my mum and dad both read, I was asked, ‘Why don’t you go outside and play?’ or just a straight ‘Go out and play.’ or ‘Go and call such and such.’ The unthinking way parents say things to sons and daughters.

    Plus between the ages of about 8 to 12 boys books are next to non existent, Biggles and Billy Bunter were still around, the newer were Dr. Who and Douglas Hill (I’m talking late 70’s and early 80’s), the only sport I can think of was Hunter Davies. Even looking now there is little aimed at boys of this age group, Higson’s Young Bond, Horowitz’s Alex Rider plus Goosebumps and Darren Shan.

    You ever move quickly to adult books, usually in a genre of choice, or you disappear from reading.

    This is the age group most mail readers are lost, even science aimed at this group are lacking, I guess for boys you have superhero comics, so what more do they need. There used to be lots of books aimed at male kids in this age group in the past but very little now, the 70’s seemed to have it in for kids drama, on TV and in book form especially for lads. For me the 60’s & 70’s seemed to be the time when young male readers were forgotten and so it adds to the problem.


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