Men, women and book clubs: a gender divide observed

October 26, 2012 | Maureen

Comments (16)

Not long ago I had the pleasure of 'leading' the North York Central Library Book Club. (I place 'leading' in quotation marks because this lively group needed no leading.) For a newcomer to the book club scene, it was an interesting experience in many ways. But what I found most fascinating and perplexing was the complete and utter ABSENCE OF MEN! This is the second time I've participated in the club, and there was not a male in sight, either time, not even outside the meeting room looking longingly in. I couldn't help but wonder why. Men who love reading, I know you're out there. I've seen you reading on buses, in subway cars. In my capacity as librarian, I've even helped some of you track down a book you were eager to read. So what's at the heart of this mystery?

The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah's Book Club
I did a little research, but other than confirming that men don't participate in book clubs anywhere near as much as women do, it became clear pretty quickly that nobody has figured out the answer to this question. Many have speculated, though. For men, the specter of Oprah's book club seems to cast a discouraging cloud over book groups - a cloud filled not with rain, but with female tears. In an article in Bookist, David Wright calls Oprah's book choices, "narratives fraught with domestic anguish." They are the type of books that "guys will cross to the other side of the street to avoid" he says. The Wheat Sheaf Literary Society, a Toronto men's book club, proudly displays the phrase "definitely not the Oprah" on their website:
Do men assume book club selections are all drawn from Oprah's list, or if not, are Ophraesque? Wright goes on to say that men, "tend to hunt and gather in obscurer corners of the literary universe." While women, apparently, slurp up whatever weepy, syrupy, anguish-laced brew Oprah sees fit to bestow upon us. I know, sarcasm does not become me.
The book we discussed at the North York Central Library Book Club was not from Oprah's list, and it was anything but 'girly', a word Wright uses in his piece.The book of the evening was Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers, which tells of two bickering brothers stealing, killing, whoring and drinking their way from Oregon to California in the gold rush years. They are also (SPOILER ALERT!) responsible for the death of a clan of admirable beavers. Add river polluters to their rap sheet and I think you'll agree -- nothing 'girly' about this tale. Okay, I admit, one of the brothers goes on a diet to impress a member of the opposite sex, which could be seen as girly, (shades of the 'chick lit' classic Bridget Jones' Diary...) but it's not long before he goes back to his old ways of hunkering down by the camp fire swabbing bacon grease out of the frying pan with lardy biscuits. My point is that nobody should assume that library book club choices are all domestic melodramas, which may or may not involve courtship and corsets, but always involve tears.
Here's another bit of speculation: In Publishers Weekly, Bob Lamm said that one of the reasons men don't join book clubs is because they are seen as "too feminist." "Since most men want their sexism to remain unchallenged, staying out of reading groups makes a certain kind of sense," Lamm says. Or could it be that reading men lean towards non-fiction? Brad Martin, President of Random House Canada, thinks so: "As a rule, men prefer non-fiction or intelligent, non-commercial fiction... but there aren't enough men (in book clubs) to move the needle." (Whereas we women prefer fiction, particularly the non-intelligent commercial variety.) Oops, there's that pesky sarcasm again... Got to work on that.
One possible answer to my question came up on blog posts on the topic of men and book clubs; several men wrote that they didn't join book clubs because they want to be the ones to choose what they read. (For some reason, men's supposed unwillingness to ask for directions comes to mind...) Or could it be that most men who like to read just don't want to talk about what they read? Women are more verbal than men, so the stereotype goes. Why don't more men join book clubs? It turns out the question is more complex than I imagined. Sidewalk social scientists, what's your theory?
I can't resist leaving you with this quote from novelist Ian McEwan: "Reading groups, readings, breakdowns of book sales all tell the same story: when women stop reading, the novel will be dead."

The North York Central Book Club meets again on October 31, from 7:00-8:30 to discuss The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery followed by a discussion of Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood on November 27. New members are always welcome -- men included! To register, call the Browsery Desk at 416-395-5672


Resources used in this post:
David Wright. "Uncommon pleasures" Booklist. 107. 9-10 (Jan. 1, 2011)
Greg Quill. Book lovers, social media add up to new literaryworld. Toronto Star (Aug. 6 2012)
Bob Lamm. "Reading groups: where are all the men?" PublishersWeekly. (Nov. 18, 1996)
Ian McEwan."Hello, would you like a free book" TheGuardian UK , Tuesday 20 September 2005