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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

HIgamous hogamous

So began a famous Dorothy Parker poem about the differences between men and women. Rather more recently the book A Billion Wicked Thoughts argued that a close analysis of how men and women access and respond to porn sites revealed a key difference: men like porn women like romance novels. Why? Men are hard wired to objectify – to reduce the object of a hunt, be it a mate or a meal, to a set of data points — the old 36 24 36. Women respond viscerally to attractive cues, but then filter that immediate reaction through a set of social filters.

The NYTimes review of this book was hesitant at best, and I neither endorse this study nor claim that if males tend to respond this way that is “good.” but I think there is an important clue here. From thus marriage plot novels of the 19th century on, a great deal of excellent literature has explored the territory between desire and social cues. In fact it makes up the OVERWHELMING majority of upper middle grade and ya books.

The world of the pure hunt — the world of stats, the hunt in pure essence, combat that in some sense speaks to many men is almost entirely absent. And I do think that imbalance that slant — and most importantly the fact that few people who create or share books with young readers see it as a gap — is problematic. We elevate one kind of experience and treat it as all experience. My plea is not for porn, but for seld questioning among adults: when are we really reading for all readers and when are we treating the girl reader (indeed one sort of girl reader) as THE reader? Whether Wicked Thoughts is right or wrong it should prompt us to question which frame we use to define the young people we serve.


  1. Deborah MacInnis says:

    I just read an article in Women’s Day June 6/1/11, “How to Raise a Good Man,” That stated

    “Encourage him to read novels. Ongoing studies at York University in Toronto show that people who read more fiction than nonfiction score higher on empathy tests. Why? Researchers theorize that the parts of the brain we use to understand how fictional characters feel are the same ones we use to figure out how real people feel. And the more we use those parts of our brain, the stronger our ability to empathize.”

    Maybe girls need to read some “pure hunt” books and boys need to read fiction.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I believe that idea — that reading fiction will increase empathy — is one very strong reason for the tilt to fiction in the schools: we want reading/literacy to also perform a social function of creating greater depth and empathy. My concern is that we swing so strongly that way and consign the world of the hunt — facts, figures, strategy, pure ambition — to textbooks, and thus turn potential readers into (as they believe) non-readers. The first step is for us as adults to recognize our bias — then we can begin to sort out the right mix of hunt and empathy.

  3. Marc, what sort of more “hunter-oriented” books are you suggesting we need for MG and YA?

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    good question. There are several answers, since I am talking about an approach, a mental attitude, more than specific topics. So while in fact I do think we could use more books specifically on hunting, that is not what I was implying here. Rather I was saying that so much of the focus in trade books (not textbooks) is on story, context, making a personal connection. But I think some readers, perhaps especially boys, want information — stripped to essentials, facts, competition, winners and losers; but, also, knowledge of the world — obviously The Way Things Work does this brilliantly, but why is there one such book (and some derivations of same)? Reasoning backwards from adult, the male population of the US is consumed with facts, figures, and interpretations about upcoming sports seasons and events — how will the All-Star Philadelphia Eagles do? Will Cam Newton triumph or flame out? Is Tim Tebow for real? Can Tiger catch Jack or is he done for? Of course these are about-to-happen questions that do not fit a print book’s timetable. But in e-books, why not? And as a mental approach it is event, inside info, numbers, strong views, winners and losers — the focus is not on story or personal identification but on facts, results, and proving you are smarter and know more than the next guy. It seems to me that that hunter’s view — while available in some upper elementary and MG books — is overshadowed by a presumption that the way to a reader’s heart and mind is through story and personal identification rather than through knowledge and ideas.

    If this sparks ideas for you, let us know.