‘You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time.’
‘The author should die once he has finished writing. So as not to trouble the path of the text.’
If there’s one thing that staggers me, it’s the idea that boys don’t like to read. In my other life I am faced with fighting the ever-present belief that boys don’t read, boys don’t want to read, and we must trick them into reading. Curriculums across the country are stacking text lists with books that feature male protagonists – usually playing sport, fighting, struggling with adulthood, swearing, having sex, not having sex – under the assumption that this will get them interested. This will finally break the shackles and turn the unenthused teenage boy into Harold Bloom.
The other belief that runs parallel to this is that girls will read anything, so they will just have to put up with male-targeted books.
Other suggestions are giving boys shorter texts (shorter attention spans, right?), find stories that contain practical and useful skills within them that boys can apply to their own lives (must be some use for this reading stuff), or just simply saying to them: ‘There’s a film version you can watch.’
The first problem here is the idea that we must trick people into reading something. As if they’ll get to the end of Crime and Punishment and not notice the seven hundred pages because they’re too busy paying attention the grisly detail of the murder. Boys like violence, right?
The second problem is the notion that boys are immediately oppositional to reading. This flies in the face of all statistical and anecdotal evidence from primary schools that report enthusiasm and application toward reading from both boys and girls. So, are we creating an expectation that boys are only living up to? Or are we doing something to dull the reading impulse?
How do you get your son to read?
The simple answer, and really, the only one: model it. Before anything can be done about getting boys (or girls) enthused by books in the classroom or in the shops or anywhere, they need to be raised in an environment where books exist. Any old or new book. Reading begets reading.
Now that that job’s sorted, we can get back to the furphy that they don’t want to read. They do. Everyone does. Some more than others, but we all do. Watching a film is reading. Talking is reading. Living is reading. It’s all part of communication and interpretation of the world.
Should we target certain books specifically for boys?
My big issue with all of this is that the discussion seems to be around making sure boys are reading. So long as they’re reading, we’re happy. If it’s about sport, doesn’t matter. Still reading, right? After all the struggling, a boy finally takes to a book and we sigh with relief and have a lie down. Phew. The boy’s reading. Thank god. Do we care what he’s reading? Hell no. Just that he is. We’re so wrapped up in the process that we don’t worry about the result. We might as well give them all American Psycho. Words on a page. Literacy skills. Come on, it’s all good.
The question shouldn’t be why don’t boys read. Instead: why do we expect (and force) boys to only read a certain type of book?
Because now that the boy is reading, we can really then just worry about what he’s reading. And on this note, I’m happy to run with the idea that anything goes. Absolutely anything. Boys and girls, men and women, we should all be free to read what we want. The notion that there are books for boys and books for girls is ludicrous. Certainly there are books that a boy may like and a girl may not, but not all boys and all girls.
The troubling thing is society seems to have decreed that not only are girls the readers (not boys), but boys are the writers (not girls). Men create the books, women read them. Of course, how silly of us to expect boys to read in a society where we tell them they are the creators of content, not the receivers. How awful to do something so passive as reading a book.
This nonsense of the Man as Writer and the Woman as Reader has to end. In a society where we are increasingly concerned with outmoded perceptions of women by men, it surely becomes a necessity to expose young men to a variety of perspectives, a spectrum of opinions and narratives.
Any book will do. So long as they’re interested in it. And they won’t know if they’re interested until they try it. And they won’t try it if we don’t let them. And if we don’t show to them that we do the same. Don’t judge lest ye be judged.
If it is correct, as one of the quotes above suggests – that writers can’t please all the readers all of the time – then we shouldn’t be so concerned with forcing one group to be pleased by one type of reading material. Nor should the original intention of the text determine who the book is for. Books will find their readers, and readers will find their books.
The author should have nothing to do with who reads the book, but be pleased the reader has found them. Similarly, for the young readers of today, we should give them the choice of what they want to read and how they want to read, and be pleased when they do so.
And that way we won’t trouble the paths they follow.