Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Higher Learning: What I've Learned by Talking to College Guys about Books

I've interviewed four college students in the past few months about books and reading. I asked them what they read now, what they read as children and in high school, and what they think about Young Adult Fiction. I'll be continuing this series again in November, but this month I wanted to step back for a moment and think about what I've learned from speaking with these young men. Here goes:

1. If we base anything on four interviews, the first thing I've learned is that there is no "guy reader" demographic. When asked "what are you reading now?" two students responded with novels, and two with non fiction. Granted the readers of fiction are both English majors, but still..we can't really say "guys like non fiction."

2. Young Adult fiction is not something that touched the lives of these four students when they were in high school. One student equates Young Adult with romance novels, and the other three see it as a section in the library or book store. With the Golden Age of Young Adult fiction upon us, I expect this will change, but I still found their answers interesting.

3. While College Guys read broadly and have different reading preferences, they do share similar tastes in comfort reads. They like to go back to what they read as teens when in need of a break. Fantasy is popular (Garth Nix, Ursula LeGuin, Terry Goodkind), as is Historical Fiction (Patrick O'Brian) and Stephen King.

4. Three of the four students mentioned Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials as an important series for them in Middle School.

So, there you have it. I've learned there is no such thing as a typical "guy reader," something that surprised me. How one markets books to teen boys, I'll never understand.


david elzey said...

I am not at all surprised by #2. I would even go so far as to suggest that if you took a large number of YA books back in time -- say the mid 1970s -- a number of those books, if they were published, might end up in among the romance novels.

Even among stories that feature male protagonists I'm seeing a lot of characters I have begin calling the "fantasy boyfriend" type; a character so accomplished and sensitive that he resembles no human boy alive, but girls fall in love with them for that exact reason. No real boy could ever hope to measure up to some of these guys (yes, Dylan Fonataine I'm looking at you) nor should they.

Is it just me, or would boys rather experience relationships than read about them?

Colleen said...

Now that's an interesting thought Dave - and as a counterpoint, do girls enjoy reading about them (and endlessly analyzing them) to actually experiencing them?

Which is of course not to say that girls don't want to date and/or fall in love but I do think we could all agree that girls do seem to enjoy reading and talking about romance almost as much as the real thing.


Anonymous said...

yes, i've heard of this situation before.

i call it (probably stolen from somwehere) female pornography.

think about it. pornography, as it is commonly knonwn, is for men that get off to these unrealistic women doing unrealistic things. sometimes problems are created in porn viewers lives getting relationships, such as a girl not being perfect enough, or not willing to engage in particular things. (i realize this is most likely the exception, not the rule, but it's just for arguments sake.) but its because a perfect girl's body is (on a carnal level, at least) is what a guy likes.

now let's look at women. they get off to "the perfect guy" that is emotional, wealthy, attractive, and romantic. they read about these type of men in books or watch movies about them, or whatever. but this is also an unrealistic view of men.

i could continue to explain more, but i think my point is clear.

david elzey said...

Just yesterday I was listening to a group of preteens talk about how Zac Efron, the male lead in the HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise, would make "the perfect boyfriend." Because he can sing, and dance, and do sports, is cute, and basically do no wrong.

What are these girls going to do in a few years when they have to "settle" for the boys around them who can only be one or two of these things that don't meet their ideals?

I suspect they'll read more books about these fantasy boyfriends.

Seth said...

David--Chuck Klosterman wrote an amusing article on this theory, about how tons of women are sort of in love with John Cusack, but really they're in love with Lloyd Dobler, his character in Say Anything.... (Side note: I'll confess to being a little in love with Diane Court, although I have no particular feelings on Ione Skye.)

Dewey said...

I'm uncomfortable with the gender stereotyping and heterocentric focus in this conversation. I agree that both pornography and romance novels create unrealistic expectations and can be unhealthy for some consumers of them. But some men read romance novels and some women read/view pornography. Some men have unrealistic expectations about personality characteristics and some women have unrealistic expectations about looks. Some men are more romance focused than sex focused and some women are more sex focused than romance focused. Some men would rather read about relationships and some women (me for example) would rather experience them. For that matter, some women have crushes on Ione Skye and some men have crushes on John Cusak.

david elzey said...

Okay, Dewey, I'll grant that, but the fantasy portrayals are still there, still very deeply ingrained in the culture, and the problem still exists that these unrealistic expectations are fostered by various media.

It doesn't matter who the intended audience is for the "fantasy boyfriend," what matters (to me) is that they present a type of cultural mental illness in a society that prizes the unattainable and materialistic and gives readers -- and we're talking impressionable readers here -- unrealistic expectations.

Dewey said...

Yes, I agree.