Why Women (and Some Men) Read Fiction



                                                           Why Women (and Some Men) Read Fiction

Liz Dexter who is a prolific blogger about books, both fictional and otherwise, and who has occasionally commented on my own AE blogs, has recently published a review of a book that had been on her ‘to be read' pile for some little time. It was called Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives by Helen Taylor. As this was a subject that had particularly intrigued me during my years spent as an adult education tutor I set out to read her review carefully. My WEA literature classes were almost always predominantly made up of women.


The book itself, Liz Dexter says, is a mixture of primary and secondary research. Taylor is a director of literary festivals, so she has a good grasp of the latter and in pursuit of the former she had sent out a questionnaire which gave her information on what, how and where women read. Taylor also refers to gender and race issues in the book, something that as a follower of her blogs, I knew that Liz Dexter was particularly interested in


This would seem to have satisfied her but then she realises something. She begins by saying that she thought the connection Taylor was making between women's life stories and their reading was ‘stretching it a bit’, but then she recalls her own life and how particular books such as Henry James’s The Golden Bowl and Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil had done the same for her. She notes particularly how reading Iris Murdoch’s novels had had a powerful effect on her personal life.


She includes in her review a very significant comment from Taylor’s book which I will quote in full as it seems to encapsulate the essence of the research that Taylor has undertaken and is likely to be what Liz Dexter herself was responding to.


I have been moved by the different ways the simple practice of reading resonates in daily and larger life narratives. Reading lives cross over with and complement our real lives, each giving substance and depth to the other. Women have described to me their lifelong passion for novels and short stories, their gratitude to those who taught them to read, and nostalgia for earliest childhood books. They’ve named writers and books that have comforted, challenged and transformed them.


I found echoes of this comment from Helen Taylor’s research in my memories of the adult students to whom I had taught fiction - short stories, novellas and novels - for a number of years, both men and women, although as I said, women tended to make up the greater part of the class numbers. I remembered Tony grappling with William Faukner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) and eventually agreeing that it was a worthwhile read. I recalled how Mary had argued passionately against the supposed greatness of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and how we were able to compromise by viewing the film “Apocalypse Now” (1979) which transposes Conrad’s theme of colonial destruction to the USA's 1960s intervention in Vietnam. I thought about Greta's letter to me about the course I ran on African Novels: "Thank you for introducing me to lots of books I would never have found on my own...Reading is one of the comforts of my life and you have certainly enriched it." 


Thinking further on the idea, I found an echo of the research in myself and my own reading which I have mentioned in past AE blogs. This is a short extract from a memoir I am writing: 


My first real reading memory of that time is a book called The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne (1857), a Christmas present in from my Auntie Joan and Uncle Derek, who owned a white Ford Anglia and who visited us that Christmas in the snow from the other side of the city. The book was an adventure story for boys which stated in the marvellous preface, told by Ralph Rover, that if the reader couldn’t enter into the regions of fun within this book, he would be seriously advised to close it and put it away because it wasn’t meant for him. Ralph Rover, the storyteller goes on to relate the tale of how he and his two young friends, Jack and Peterkin, are shipwrecked in a freak storm and end up on a coral island. The scene is set for their adventures.


These involved diving in deep and enchanted waters for oysters; discovering and taming a wild cat which led them to the discovery of two skeletons and a pistol; and a battle with a group of cannibals that they encountered on another island. Ralph is separated from his friends, he is captured by pirates, he escapes and single-handedly navigates a schooner back to The Coral Island. He is reunited with them; they are subsequently imprisoned by more islanders and they are eventually freed by missionaries who have been sent to convert the savages to Christianity. And all of this is accompanied by the most wonderful illustrations.


My childhood reading of The Coral Island gave way in my subsequent reading years to works like Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2) which gives the lead character, Dorothea, a second chance after her disastrous marriage to Casaubon; and Joseph Conrad’s Victory (1915), where the lead character, Axel Heyst, after attempts to distance himself from the central current of life following disastrous failure, finds a kind of redemption through his chivalric rescue of Lena from a vicious bully. Although the rescue does not have ‘a happy ever after’ ending, it is the struggle which Heyst has to endure which leads the reader to identify and empathise with his character. I credit this particular book with returning me to my love of reading fiction after a break of more than a year.


Reading fiction can be as important to men as it is to women. Last July I was staying in Vietnam for my nephew’s wedding when during a lunchtime conversation I made a literary connection with Connagh, the partner of my niece. We were discussing books that we were reading, and he began to talk enthusiastically about Slaughterhouse Five or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty- Dance with Death (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut, a semi-autobiographical Science Fiction Novel partly set during World War Two. As he talked, I remembered that I had borrowed the very book from the library before I came away. I will start it when I get back, I thought. 


It did not disappoint. It was a challenging and comforting read, and it fitted well with my thoughts about the surreal and absurd nature of war, a subject I had first met with in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 (1961). Whether or not Vonnegut’s book will be transformative, as Helen Taylor indicates that some books are, and which I found Catch 22 to be, is probably too early to say, but I am sure that there will be a whole host of others waiting in line to fill my need for good fictional reading in the future. 




Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives by Helen Taylor (2020)


Why Women Read Fiction: Book Review by Liz Dexter in Adventures in reading, running and working from home (June 2024)

How I Became a Reader by Peter Leyland in AuthorsElectric, July 2nd 2023


A Book About Books by Peter Leyland (in progress)











LyzzyBee said…
I'm very flattered that you were inspired by my review to start off this post and it's certainly very interesting reading in itself. I certainly agree that reading can be transformative as I mention in my own post and you reiterate here. Of course it doesn't always have to be, but it can be, and that's important.
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks so much for responding Liz. You will be pleased to know that I've now bought Helen Taylor's book which arrived in the post this morning. Looking through it, I think it may relieve the log-jam that has happened to my reading of late, and maybe I will get on with producing my reading memoir!!
Griselda Heppel said…
This is such an interesting subject, barely tackled, as far as I know ie why is it mainly women who read fiction, and only a few (enlightened!) men? You clearly are one of the latter, and from your analysis of novels you admire, I get the impression you agree with the women interviewed by Liz Dexter, that books 'have comforted, challenged and transformed' you. But why there aren't more men who respond to fiction as you do (and your niece's partner) is a mystery. I don't think the UK GCSE syllabus helps, concentrating as it does on dark, mostly tragic works, giving the message that reading makes you miserable (Heart of Darkness, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Things Fall Apart, Death of a Salesman, Frankenstein... great works, all of them, but not a single laugh to be had).

As it happens, you referenced 2 of my English A level set texts, which fortunately didn't put me off English (I knew there was enough to enjoy out there) but were certainly challenging. Victory: beautifully written but my goodness, what a weird, weird hero with a total inability to relate to women - or was that Conrad's problem? And I never got to grips with As I Lay Dying at all. Vardaman: My mother is a fish. Eh?
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks for your comment Griselda. The research was by Helen Taylor who wrote the book not Liz Dexter who was just reviewing it. I may not have made that clear.

How interesting that I had mentioned two of your A Level texts. As I recall Vardaman is the mentally challenged son in As I Lay Dying so he might say that about his mother. Faulkner took this idea to greater heights in The Sound and The Fury, part of which is literally 'told by an idiot', Benjy-the Compson's son. As for Victory, Conrad is often challenged about his understanding of anything not white male, particularly women, but which of us...? I will leave that queation open.
Griselda Heppel said…
Do you know, I'd never grasped that Vardaman was mentally challenged but of course that makes perfect sense. I found the whole book so weird, Vardaman's strangeness didn't really stand out. I think possibly it wasn't a great text to set for A level, I certainly wasn't ready for it.

I was trying to remember what my third set text was and guess what... Death of a Salesman. So you covered them all.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Navigating by the Stars

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

No, The Times Journalists at the Hay Literary Festival, Burglarising is Not What It's All About, says Griselda Heppel

Little Detective on the Prairie