Why We Need a Literary Award To Engage Male Readers

It’s been the year of women on the Australian literary award scene - not only was the first Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing awarded, but the Miles Franklin shortlist was, for the first time in its history, all women. (It has been all-men four times.)

Paul Mitchell asks if it’s time to turn our attention to men - not by creating an award for male writers, but one designed to attract male readers to literary fiction.

Award-winning literary fiction titles seem the only ones general readers (i.e. people who don’t peruse the Wheeler Dailies) will even consider reading. So it’s time for an Australian award for literary fiction that engages male readers.

Why? Because, as is well known, men read even fewer literary titles than their female general reader counterparts. And writers – and the publishing industry – need men to read. Immediately. So let’s get an award going and aim high. Let’s aim to get my Dad reading a book of literary fiction.

He once headed off on a fishing trip with a few of his mates. They stopped for lunch at a pub in an outpost country town. He asked the grizzled bar lady for a light beer. The already quiet pub went silent. She shook her head then stared at him. She spoke slowly in the hope he’d understand: ‘And do ya wanna go over the road to the library and borrow a book too?’

No, he just wanted a less-than-macho beer. He may also have wanted to check out the library. But he would likely have searched the non-fiction shelves for a sportsman’s biography or a tale about a racehorse. Or a racehorse’s autobiography. My Dad hasn’t read a book of literary fiction since primary school.

Dad’s a poster bloke for the Men Who Don’t Read Literary Fiction Gang. He’s way outside the target market. So, not unsurprisingly, literary fiction that engages female readers (whether women or men have written it) is given a strong push in the market. At the same time, the Australian education system is constantly trying to find ways to encourage boys to read. And it’s doing a good job. But what should boys read once they’ve finished The Day My Bum Took a Bad Speccie on a Wicked Toad?

Women wrote three of the five favourite books of literary fiction I’ve read over the past two years: A Visit from the Goon Squad, Olive Kitteridge and The Women of Brewster Place. Female protagonists abound, and the books cover many subject areas traditionally (though unhelpfully) seen as feminine. If I look at my reading habits over the last decade, I’m closer to 50/50 when it comes to the author’s gender, and likewise to what might be dubbed the masculine or feminine concerns inherent to these literary works.

But I read the Wheeler Dailies. And, importantly, I didn’t wake up one morning with these books on my bedside table. It’s come about after majoring in works that spoke to my particular male experience through my twenties and early thirties (i.e. heterosexual and sport-loving; frightened yet enthralled by violence; God-haunted, yet drug and alcohol-confused): Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian, Luke Davies’ Candy, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Anson Cameron’s Nice Shootin’, Cowboy, Raymond Carver’s oeuvre, and Kem Nunn’s The Dogs of Winter, among many others.

I feel I’m now getting more of what literary fiction can really offer: insights into the variegated nature of male and female experiences, and therefore a fuller understanding of what it is to be human. But, that said, the literary fiction titles that still really get my heart beating are those that speak to me of the male experience.

We don’t need gender wars around literature. But we’ve got them. And when it comes to major prizes – whether gender-based or other, I’m with Richard Flanagan: I’d prefer, as he wrote in the Age, an Australian literary culture that didn’t need them. But it looks like we’re stuck with the award culture and its inherent raison detre: if we hand out awards to certain literary fiction titles, then there will be a trickle-down effect and others will fly off the shelves (or into the e-reader). It doesn’t work in the wider economy and it doesn’t work in publishing. But it will still put 100 The Rosie Projects (I haven’t met a male reader yet who wants to read Rosie) in the bookshop windows – with roses, bike tyres and champagne flutes – while we shove other titles in boxes and send them to the pulp mill. For recycling so that the next award winners can be printed.

Awards, however, won’t be pulped anytime soon. So I look forward to reading the long list in next year’s Award for Male Reader Engagement. Or better title, The Day My Bum Grew Up and Started Reading Literary Fiction.

Portrait of Paul Mitchell

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