Emasculated by fiction?

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark investigates the reasons behind boys resisting reading. Is a generation of boys being consigned to emotional illiteracy for lack of involvement in reading literature?

Two recent studies reinforce the gloomy picture of a generation of scarcely-reading males. Elaine Millard at Sheffield University found that three times as many girls as boys were interested in reading and that boys seemed to see reading as compromising their masculinity (TES, March 15). A survey of 9,000 young people aged seven to 16 undertaken by the Children's Literature Research Centre at Roehampton Institute (to be published in June) emphasises the point: boys read less enthusiastically, less fiction and altogether less than girls.

In the Roehampton sample, an almost equal percentage of boys as girls at key stage 2 (around 60 per cent) read fiction for three hours or more a week, in school and at home. For key stages 3 and 4 the figures start to dip. When it comes to reading for pleasure alone, 47 per cent of girls aged 11 to 14 read fiction for more than three hours a week, whereas only 32 per cent of boys do. As they get older, boys do read more non-fiction than girls, especially hobby magazines. At key stage 2, their favourite literary genre was adventure, and at key stages 3 and 4, horror. On the other hand, 15 per cent of key stage 2 boys read poetry for pleasure, on their own at home.

As the Roehampton centre's director, Kim Reynolds, reminds us, there is no need to think that reading essentially compromises masculinity. Victorian fictional heroes wept buckets: Tennyson wept for hundreds of stanzas over his dead friend Arthur Hallam; Disraeli and Gladstone were not averse to tears. Ms Reynolds traces the cult of male impassivity to a kind of moral panic at the turn of the century, linked to Britain's faltering imperial expansion. She places less emphasis on accepted reasons for boys' not reading lack of street cred, lack of enjoyment in school-based reading, attraction of other interests, lack of boy-oriented material and more on a kind of dead-end thinking which permeates children's publishing.

The more it is accepted that boys don't read, the more narrowly focused is the literature aimed at them, the more it sharpens the "boys' own" images which displaced the lachrymose sentiment of mid-Victorian fiction. So we end up with books for boys which appeal to the quick, easy sale, which beckon with familiar images from film and television, with sexy covers or with shock-horror ghoulish weirdness but which ultimately will not satisfy and which certainly will not make avid readers out of idle browsers. Boys are more sensitive and imaginative than we give them credit for. Wasn't Shakespeare a boy once?

Wendy Cooling, former director of the Children's Books Foundation, who researches boys' reading, finds that many factors militate against boys making the transition to successful reading adults. A chief one is irritation with the way literature is taught in schools: one teenage boy told her he had been turned off school-based reading by a teacher making a meal of a "perfectly ordinary" book like Catcher in the Rye. He was, however, an avid science fiction and non-fiction reader at home.

Other lads also told Ms Cooling how they privately read quite a lot mostly science fiction and fantasy but also a few writers like "that Anne Fine, she knows about life" but would not go public about it because reading lacked street cred. Reading is also tacitly discouraged in the education process, believes Ms Cooling, with worksheets rather than book lists routinely handed out in humanities lessons. And parents are also villains, with all too many rubbishing children's reading for pleasure and asking "Why isn't he reading Dickens? I was, at his age". Girls also may mock boys who read, as if they were protecting the stereotypes.

A generation ago women writers put boys at the heart of imaginative books as Philippa Pearce did in Tom's Midnight Garden, without necessarily excluding girls (the other main character in Tom's Midnight Garden is a girl). Today, so keen are publishers to catch the girls' market that most books show girls on the cover, most central characters are girls and, as one 13-year-old put it, "This book was not really for us, it's all about girls' problems."

The French writer Daniel Pennac has written a moving account of alienated boy readers in Reads Like A Novel. He calls the battle to read or not to read a struggle about love and power and sees in many boys' avowed disinclination for books their assertion of independence. But Pennac offers some hope. "The greatest things we read are owed to someone dear to us," he says.

Kim Reynolds's study would seem to bear this out. Boys who were keen readers at age 16 were those who were still being suggested books and even read to by people they loved. The experience of reading, though solitary, is all about communication.

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