Men Don’t Read Fiction? BULL! – Writing on the Ether

26 December 2013 iStock_000025135044Small photog Oleh Slobodeniuk texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. I’ll Hold the Door for You if You’ll Leave That Baggage Behind
  2. BULL Men’s Fiction: Heartbreaking Pants
  3. They Read It. You Can, Too.
  4. “I’ll Get in This Space”

I’ll Hold the Door for You if You’ll Leave That Baggage Behind

Here’s the last Ether of 2013.

I heard that sigh of relief.

As the gas escapes, I’d like to try the reverse of a new year resolution: instead of resolving to do something, I’d like to see folks resolve not to do it—or say it—ever again.

If I could choose one and only one publishing industry myth to leave behind in 2013, it would be the one that says men don’t read fiction.

And I have a response to that old scribe’s tale for you.

BULL Men's Fiction three editions

Before I tell you more about BULL Men’s Fiction, let’s look at what’s wrong with saying men don’t read fiction, and even simply men don’t read.

These lines are pernicious in at least two ways: one is business-related, the other is culturally important.

Porter Anderson,, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker(1) In business. We need men to read more.

As our good colleagues at Bowker’s Market Research team (now owned by Nielsen) told us in the 2013 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Review, the responses of women surveyed suggest that they out-buy men in books, and this trend might be rising.

From the report:

Women accounted for 58% of book spending in 2012, up over 55% in 2011.

That’s the spending metric. In terms of unit sales, the trend holds but did show a brief dip in 2011:

In 2011, women accounted for 57% of book buyers, which was actually a drop from 2010, when women accounted for 58% of book buyers. These numbers are up in 2012, with women accounting for 60% of book buyers. Women also bought more books, and spent more money on books, in 2012. In 2011 women accounted for 62% of units sold, whereas in 2012 they accounted for 65%.

From Bowker's 2013 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review.
From Bowker’s 2013 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review.

(2) In culture. Almost anyone you hear chanting men don’t read fiction will tell you that he or she wants men to read fiction. The line is normally delivered in tones that run somewhere between sorrow and anger, between regret and derision.

Ironically, saying men don’t read fiction in any tone is an incredibly bad way to encourage men to read. Each time someone says men don’t read fiction, you can almost hear a book snapping shut.

This is especially true if you say it around younger men who are still finding their masculinities. They’re naturally sensitive to our hyper-sexualized society’s fondness of “guys do this and women do that” nonsense. They’re eager not to do anything outside “what guys do.” Any suggestion that “what guys do” doesn’t include reading fiction (or reading at all) makes it much harder for them to get back to that book again.

Books, fiction or nonfiction, are not innately pink. Turning them that color by pushing around such a chestnut as men don’t read fictiona line that implies that only women read fiction and that reading is for girlscan profoundly derail what might have been a guy’s healthy habit and enjoyment of buying and reading literature.

Guyland by Michael KimmelThose earlier years have expanded for many American men, of course, in the construct laid out by Stony Brook University Prof. Michael Kimmel, who heads up the school’s new Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities.

In Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, Kimmel has described a delayed entry into male adulthood that’s endemic in our culture and hardly conducive to inspiring bookish interests among fellows who are told that reading is for girls.

Kimmel writes:

Guyland is the world in which young men live. It is both a stage of life, a liminal undefined time span between adolescence and adulthood that can often stretch for a decade or more, and a place, or, rather, a bunch of places where guys gather to be guys with each other, unhassled by the demands of parents, girlfriends, jobs, kids, and the other nuisances of adult life. In this topsy-turvy, Peter-Pan mindset, young men shirk the responsibilities of adulthood and remain fixated on the trappings of boyhood, while the boys they still are struggle heroically to prove that they are real men despite all evidence to the contrary.

Guyland sounds like a place in which a man could sure use a good book, doesn’t it? But no wonder the Bowker study shows men’s spending on books not picking up until the guys are out of their twenties:

The age groups where men spent the most money was in the 30 to 44 year-old group at 46% and in the 65 and up group where men accounted for 45% of spending.

It’s my belief—based entirely on my own experience and backed up by not one whit of evidence I can produce for you—that the best thing to happen to men’s reading is the advent of ebooks.

On a Kindle Fire or a Kobo Aura or an iPad or phone or any number of other screens, you can’t tell what a guy is reading. I think guys like it that way. I know I do: it’s none of your business what I’m reading. I think that for the most part, men are less demonstrative than women about their reading. And without some honking dust cover on the plane, for example, our guy can tell his company associate in the next seat that he’s reading the PDFs from the office on that Kindle. And go on with his Alissa Nutting.

Honestly, I’m not sure guys even tell survey takers as much about their reading or buying habits as the researchers might wish. It’s none of their business, either, you know?

Do you keep a record of who recommended which books to you? If you did, you could put together such irritating lists as this one: men have recommended to me in the last six months that I read the following fiction:

Isn’t that a remarkable thing?

Because men don’t read fiction. Everybody knows that.

And yet they’re making recommendations to each other based on all that reading they don’t do.

Guys are telling other guys right now about Howey’s Sand—which, of course, they haven’t read because men don’t read fiction—even as it rolls out in installments; even as Howey’s own descriptive note on the first part suggests waiting until the full book is published in a single unit; and even though people are telling them that men don’t read fiction.

Wait a minute.

Wait a minute.

A guy just told you about Sand. And men don’t read fiction. It’s a fin de 2013 publishing crisis for the industry! the industry! Let’s get badly and pointlessly upset, as only we publishing people can do, and hurl screaming blog posts at each other about it, shall we?

No, no, better yet, this: what I want you to say, the next time you hear someone intone, men don’t read fiction?BULL.

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BULL Men’s Fiction: Heartbreaking Pants

Jarrett Haley
Jarrett Haley

“In 2009, I’d just finished a graduate program at Notre Dame, and all my friends took off.”

The friendless Jarrett Haley, founder and editor of BULL Men’s Fiction, had a wife pregnant with their first child. “I was going to be staying home taking care of the baby, and I knew that without some outlet to talk to writers and work on things, I’d go crazy. I wanted to keep in contact with writers.

“I thought about what I’d want to work on,” Haley says. “We were hearing the same things about publishing. ‘Men don’t read,’ blah, blah, blah—I was sick of it. I wanted to do something that was progressive, you know?”

“That’s when I came up with the idea of men’s fiction. There was an opportunity there. Once the notion hit me, I thought of it as a project, an experiment—what would I get when I put out the call for ‘men’s fiction,’ quote-unquote?”

The BULL site, 2009-2010
The BULL Men’s Fiction site, 2009-2010

Maybe not the tech-savviest among us, writer-dad Haley first put together “a rudimentary Web site” that carried along the idea at ground level for a couple of years. As soon as the fledgling site “got a little traction, we got to a point,” Haley says, “where we had to decide, ‘Well, are we doing to do this or not do it?'”

And what encouraged Haley to stick with it was pants: a Dockers “Wear the Pants” competition for a $100,000 national campaign. The idea was to formulate a goal and a plan to achieve it; become one of five finalists chosen by a panel of judges; and then to win the popular vote on Facebook.

“We almost got it, we got second place,” Haley says. “It was so heartbreaking, man. The guy who won was some college kid with a huge online network.”

A Dockers ad, from a NY Daily News article
A Dockers ad, from a NY Daily News article

As it happens, Dockers’ “Wear the Pants” advertising copy is some of the best Guyland/Kimmel-esque material you may read today.

In this instance, for example, you read, in part:

Disco by disco, latte by foamy non-fat latte, men were stripped of their khakis and left stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny…For the first time since bad guys, we need heroes. We need grown-ups.

Haley says the competition experience “gave us enough momentum to say, ‘OK, let’s do this thing for real.'”

So after that, we got a new Web site, and we’ve been doing print issues” of BULL Men’s Fiction “for about two years. With this second version of the site, I think we’ve really just started to come into our own. At each point, it gets a little more polished.

Haley is a native of Clearwater, Florida. He went to the University of Florida, then to Notre Dame’s MFA program, and recently has moved with his wife and three children to San Diego. The oldest of the kids is 4 years old. His wife has family in San Diego.

“We can use the help.”

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BULL Men's Fiction site look, 2011-2012
BULL Men’s Fiction site, 2011-2012

They Read It. You Can, Too.

BULL Men’s Fiction is a newly relaunched site (just this month) and a print magazine, about 130 pages, published twice a year. 

A lot of us would say walks like a journal and talks like a journal. Don’t tell Haley that. He’s not fond of calling it literary, either.

I want the quality of a journal, but the fun and style of a magazine. I don’t want to bash anything but there are pros and cons to both of them. I don’t want to call it a ‘literary journal.’ I think it’s a turnoff, honestly. We’re marketing ourselves to regular guys. ‘Literary’ sounds like homework, sounds like something they aren’t attracted to. So I go with ‘fiction magazine,’ because that’s really what it is.

BULL Men's Fiction relaunched 2013 site
BULL Men’s Fiction, the relaunched 2013 site

Haley heads a staff of close to 20 people who are working on BULL. They’re all over the country. They’re unpaid. 

You subscribe for $20 per year. You can also buy back issues. Here’s the store.

The site has a wide range of BULL writers’ work sampled free in its archive. Most of those are truncated articles, not full-length. Haley would rather tempt you to subscribe with these samples than put the thing behind a pay wall.

“I really don’t like paid Web sites,” Haley says, while conceding that his next step is to get into digital delivery channels, such as a subscription edition for Amazon’s Kindle Magazines.

“I’m trying to make the operation as streamlined as possible,” he says. “It has to be as low-maintenance as possible and as fun as possible” to keep his team engaged and pulling together. “We never could have done what we’re doing now without this staff.”

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“I’ll Get in This Space”

Members of the BULL Men's Fiction staff include, from left, Tim Chilcote, Senior Editor; Jared Yates Sexton, Managing Editor; Michael Goodell, Editorial Board member.
Members of the BULL Men’s Fiction staff include, from left, Tim Chilcote, Senior Editor; Jared Yates Sexton, Managing Editor; Michael Goodell, Editorial Board member.

“What we’re doing” at BULL Men’s Fiction, it turns out, involves presenting new fiction by writers including National Book Award nominee Padgett Powell; Canadian bassist and writer Chris Tarry; McSweeney’s John Warner.

There’s also a “Prison Book Review” series of pieces by Curtis Dawkins, an MFA graduate from Western Michigan University who writes about books and the incarcerated life from the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia.

And each print issue is led by Haley’s interview of an author. His past subjects have been Chuck Klosterman (The Visible Man, Scribner) and Donald Ray Pollack (The Devil All the Time, Anchor).

Most recently, Haley writes up Allan Gurganus, whose trio of novellas, Local Souls, was released by W.W. Norton’s Liveright in September.

In an era in which many in publishing talk about almost nothing but the business and its struggles in the digital transition, the Haley interviews frequently change that tune by talking about the work, itself.

Local Souls by Allan GurganusIn his interview with Gurganus, Haley runs a line from Local Souls past the author and develops a point about fathers and their sacrifices to achieve types of success that their children may not recognize. Haley asks about:

When the narrator is describing the fancy house that his father coveted, then finally attained, he says, “It had been Red’s great wish for himself, meaning me.” Can I ask you…what that line means to you?

Gurganus responds with insight about parents’ projection on to their kids an idea of success they can’t gain for themselves.

I think Red seems his son as his own best self. He feels that by making an easier life possible for the son, he is in fact redeeming and immortalizing himself.

As the conversation develops, you learn that the underlying concept of personal unworthiness that suffuses such misperceptions by parents of their children’s eventual interests, is behind Gurganus’ name for the setting.

I named the town Falls after the fall of man. The townspeople call themselves the Fallen instead of the Falls-ites. It’s a kind of play on our fore-parents’ having eaten of the fruit of the knowledge between good and evil. We are all living post-Eden but struggling, that’s for sure.

There are cases in which Haley has cultivated a writer’s interest and wants to make a payment from the magazine’s limited funds. Articles that come in over the transom, however, if used, aren’t usually paid at this point.

  • Three editions of the print magazine have come out so far.
  • The “Trouble Issue” is next in the spring, following the “Humor Issue” and the “Improvement Issue.”
  • The magazine has about 200 subscribers.
  • Over time, a single issue will sell some 1,500 copies.
Writer-dad Jarrett Haley
Writer-dad Jarrett Haley

This is small and it’s early, but the potential of the operation shows in the curation of material and the consistency of presentation. There are better established poetry and prose publications in the journal world selling at this level; these numbers are not bad for an outfit the staff of which has no PR or advertising person.

Ball and Buck (“presenting the last belt you’ll ever buy”) has become an advertiser, taking the back cover of the latest edition of the print magazine. The hookup there happened in Boston, where Haley and his staffers had a BULL party during the AWP Conference there earlier this year.

And when Haley tried a typical call for submissions, he says, using the platform, he found that the transom may not be the right channel for what he’s doing.

“It really didn’t feel good,” he says.

They were deluged with material. “It felt like people saw the ad, went straight to ‘submit’ and just wanted to throw their stuff at us. What I really like is hearing from people who like what we do” and want to develop a relationship with the magazine.

“After all, that’s where it started for me,” he says. “It was me wanting to meet people” who are writing. “We give feedback, we make an effort to really reach out.”

He’s torn on the question of calls for submissions, though, he says, having had encouraging response from editors at Playboy once, when he submitted a piece. “I wanted a place like Playboy, where I could send something and somebody might read it.”

BULL Men’s Fiction has published women as well as men. “We don’t get many submissions from women,” Haley says, but the first print edition includes a story, “Houseboy,” by Sara Lippmann, that’s “one of my favorite pieces of everything we’ve run, it’s really, really good.”

And in an industry that’s better at times at reciting assumptions than addressing them—men don’t read fiction—push-back can come in the form of a fledgling semi-annual magazine gamely finding its footing in persistent focus, non-combative but also unapologetic.

“I said, ‘Well, no one’s in this space, so I’ll get in this space.'”

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This quote from CS Lewis' "The Four Loves" drew 17,142 likes on Goodreads in 2013. Courtesy: Suzanne Skyvara
This quote from CS Lewis’ “The Four Loves” drew 17,142 likes on Goodreads in 2013. Courtesy: Suzanne Skyvara

Main image – iStockphoto: Oleh Slobodeniuk

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