Thursday, September 6, 2007

Fiction gap

Language Log has a post on a piece by Eric Weiner in the New York Times, Why Women Read More Than Men, which cites an experiment conducted by Ian McEwan: McEwan and his son went out into a local park at lunchtime offering people free novels, within minutes they'd given away 30 -- all but one to women. Men gave them strange looks. Conclusion: If women stop reading the novel will be dead.

Weiner cited statistics showing that women read more fiction than men, then rashly went on to account for it by appealing to neuroscience. (Women engage more readily with fiction because their brains are wired to make them more empathetic, more attuned to feelings...) Since Language Log has been waging war for many, many posts on dodgy neuroscience as evidence for gender differences, he was asking for trouble; needless to say, he got it.

It's rare that I think I have anything to add to Mark Liberman's trenchant remarks on this subject, but in this case I was struck by the peculiar idea that the novel was the only medium through which one might engage with fiction. Apart from film, a fairly obvious example, there's a form which seems to have addicted generations of boys (readers of pp may remember Lawrence Power's great guest post on computer games, here). In the heat of the moment I dashed off a long e-mail, and you can now read it, along with Mark Liberman's trenchant comments, here.


philq said...

Not a day goes by without the NY Times printing some 'dodgy neuroscience.' No wonder- it's so simple! Just make up a reason why this behavior will get you laid, and you've 'proved' the behavior can never be changed. Instant Theological justification! Martin Luther overthrew the authority of the Church for the more arbitrary authority of Scripture; we in our Infinite Postmodern Brilliance have thrown away Scripture for the Saber Tooth Tiger.

I wonder if women find such analysis attractive. Perhaps evolution has 'created' me to post stupid comments to blogs!

Ithaca said...

I think the lazy man's (sorry, person's) 'selfish gene' argument depends on making up a reason why behaviour will improve your chances of maximising your genes' chances of reproduction. Playing Space Harrier, watching the Super Bowl, activities that make the role of mistress look compellingly more attractive than that of wife, how much more likely to lead to dissemination across a wide range of partners in the brief intervals left free...