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A tale of two genders

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Charlotte Higgins
A tale of two genders: men choose novels of alienation, while women go for passion

The novel that means most to men is about indifference, alienation and lack of emotional responses. That which means most to women is about deeply held feelings, a struggle to overcome circumstances and passion, research by the University of London has found.

Professor Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary College interviewed 500 men, many of whom had some professional connection with literature, about the novels that had changed their lives. The most frequently named book was Albert Camus's The Outsider, followed by JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. The project, called Men's Milestone Fiction, commissioned by the Orange prize for fiction and the Guardian, followed on from similar research into women's favourite novels undertaken by the same team last year.

The results are strikingly different, with almost no overlap between men's and women's taste. On the whole, men preferred books by dead white men: only one book by a woman, Harper Lee, appears in the list of the top 20 novels with which men most identify.

Women, by contrast, most frequently cited works by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Margaret Atwood, George Eliot and Jane Austen. They also named a "much richer and more diverse" set of novels than men, according to Prof Jardine. There was a much broader mix between contemporary and classic works and between male and female authors.

"We found that men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life's journey, as consolers or guides, as women do," said Prof Jardine. "They read novels a bit like they read photography manuals." Women readers used much-loved books to support them through difficult times and emotional turbulence, and tended to employ them as metaphorical guides to behaviour, or as support and inspiration.

"The men's list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading," she said. Ideas touching on isolation and "aloneness" were strong among the men's "milestone" books.

The researchers also found that women preferred old, well-thumbed paperbacks, whereas men had a slight fixation with the stiff covers of hardback books.

"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.

She was also surprised she said, "by the firmness with which many men said that fiction didn't speak to them". The historian David Starkey said, for instance: "I fear fiction, of any sort, has never worked on me like that ... Is that perhaps interesting in itself?"

In addition, some men cited works of non-fiction as their "watershed" books, even though they were explicitly asked about fiction.

For example, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party, picked out Robert Graves's first world war memoir Goodbye to All That as his watershed book: "Brilliantly written, wonderfully clear and his description of life in WWI is harrowing but fascinating," he told the researchers. Most of the men cited books they had read as teenagers, and many of them stopped reading fiction while young adults, only returning to it in late middle age.

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] is still regarded as ephemeral." She noted that when Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson had started writing novels in the 18th century, the new literary genre was regarded as strictly for women.

"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.

The list in full

The Outsider by Albert Camus

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Ulysses by James Joyce

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

1984 by George Orwell

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Charlotte Higgins

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