literary reading & the status of men in social communication

Dana Gioia, serving as Chairman of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), released in 2004 an NEA study entitled Reading at Risk.  This study, which surveyed a representative sample of the adult U.S. population, found that 37.6% of men and 55.1% of women had read a work of literature in the past year.  The share of men and women reading a work of literature fell 11.5% and 7.9% respectively over the previous two decades.  The Gioia-led NEA emphasized the grave public danger of the decline in literary reading.  The NEA downplayed the large difference between men and women.  If literary reading has great public importance, then programs to encourage more men to read literature would seem to be sensible policy.  The male Chairman of the the NEA, deeply concerned about the extent of literary reading, seems to have been uninterested or unable to express concern about ordinary men.

Lisa Jardine, CBE, Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London, formerly Head of the School of English and Drama, and Dean of Arts, now Director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, also led an examination of literary reading.  The Orange Prize for Fiction, a prize that explicitly excludes male authors, commissioned Jardine for the project.  Jardine first focused on women.  In 2004, she and her colleagues surveyed “400 women from the worlds of academia, arts, publishing and literary criticism … including many previous judges of the Orange Prize.”  The results of this survey, called “Women’s Watershed Fiction,”  appeared in a press release and twenty-nine newspaper article references. Three years later, Jardine did a similar survey of “400 men from the worlds of academia, arts, publishing and literary criticism.”  This survey was called  “Men’s Milestone Fiction.”  It differed from the earlier survey of women primarily in alliteration.  This study also generated a press release and seven newspaper article references, as well as some carefully posed attention from scholars on a literary blog.

Professor Jardine’s statements reported in a newspaper article on “Men’s Milestone Fiction” provide an interesting counterpoint to the NEA study of literary reading. According to the newspaper article, Jardine and her colleagues were shocked by the sex differences that they found:

“We were completely taken aback by the results,” said Prof Jardine, who admitted that they revealed a pattern verging on a gender cliche, with women citing emotional, more domestic works, and men novels about social dislocation and solitary struggle.

For a post-modern creationist unaware of the social construction of the social construction of gender, these results would indeed be shocking. But they probably wouldn’t shock any scholar who had read the results of the NEA’s research three years’ earlier. Even a rudimentary appreciation for evolutionary biology makes sex difference in communication likely.  Comparative anatomy and ethology across primates is consistent with sex differences in communication.  So too is considerable human behavioral data.

Jardine’s communicative behavior differed significantly from Gioia’s.  According to the newspaper article, Jardine declared:

Prof Jardine said that the research suggested that the literary world was run by the wrong people. “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. On the other hand, the Orange prize for fiction [which honours women authors  – Guardian editor] is still regarded as ephemeral.”

Jardine was Chair of Judges of the Orange Prize in 1997. She declares that her survey supports more power and honor for the organization that commissioned her work and for persons like her.  But Jardine also has broader public interests:

“On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction. This should have some impact on the book trade. There was a moment when car manufacturers realised that it was women who bought the family car, and the whole industry changed. We need fiction publishers – many of whom are women – to go through the same kind of recognition,” Prof Jardine said.

Perhaps she would like fiction publishers to publish more works by women authors.  That would benefit the relatively small share of women authors in the overall population of Britain.  It might also lead to women reading more fiction, and men, less.  Perhaps that would also benefit women, or at least women not interested in having relationships with more imaginative men.  Like Gioia, Jardine doesn’t seem interested in encouraging men to read more fiction.

Gioia and Jardine exemplify elite behavior deeply rooted in human male and female evolutionary psychology. Men’s lives tend to be less valued than women’s because the fecundity of human communities has been more positively correlated with the number of women than the number of men.  In modern democratic societies, elite men gain their status by out-competing other elite men and elite women in delivering goods to ordinary women.  Elite women gain their status by out-competing other elite women and elite men in delivering goods to ordinary women. That the fate of ordinary men is of relatively little concern to either is a deeply rooted psychological problem that societies may eventually have to confront.

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