Briefly noted: Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation — Laura Kipnis

Men is charming but inessential; like many essay collections it is better taken from a library than bought, though I bought and resold my copy. That being said the essays within were detailed, thoughtful, good on a sentence-by-sentence level, and made me re-evaluate almost of all of the subjects (like Larry Flynt or a movie I’d never heard of: House of Games.

The Flynt essay shows Kipnis being thoughtful and non-dogmatic:

[Hustler] was also far less entrenched in misogyny than I’d assumed. What it’s against isn’t women so much as sexual repression, which includes conventional uptight femininity, though within its pages, not everyone who’s sexually repressed, uptight and feminine is necessarily female: prissy men were frequently in the crosshairs too. In fact, Hustler was often surprisingly dubious about the status of men, not to mention their power and potency […]

men_kipnisThe ending of the essay is also excellent for reasons I’d rather not spoil: if John McPhee read this sort of thing, I could imagine him smile.

House of Games is not as visually compelling as it should be; the movie is ripe for a remaking because Kipnis is right about the script, and, as she says (perhaps without fully appreciating it):

Every woman adores a con man—to steal a page from Sylvia Plath. Especially one who knows you better than you know yourself, who looks into your eyes and reads your dirty secret desires, who knows what a bad girl you really are under the prim professional facade, and then takes you for everything.

Is it true? Maybe, for some values of “truth.” That said, not all of the sentences are true: “As we know, modern market societies require ambition, because they’re premised on social mobility, which is essential to a flourishing democracy.” All of those clauses are untrue: we don’t know what the sentence says we know; market societies don’t require ambition (they may sometimes reward the unambitious with a quasi-basic income, allowing them to do other things) and are based on giving people what they want, and democracy doesn’t necessarily mandate market societies, at least in theory. Most people, however, want More (defining “More” broadly), and democracies attempt on some level to give people what they want.

Like so many culture writers Kipnis is missing evolutionary biology, and the addition of it would make her even less politically palatable to the chattering set (already her essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” at the link and included in the collection, is accurate and contrary to Right Thinking and therefore all the more despised).

Kipnis complains about clichés, which is a good sign, but she’s still willing to use the word “problematic” (5), which is a bad sign. But the rest of the book is fun enough to make the bad sign ignorable.

The links we click tell us who we are—

The most-clicked link in “Men are where women were 30 years ago?” comes from this sentence: “In addition, a lot of early socialization about sex and dating is so bad that men and probably women too need to learn how to overcome it.” Usually readers follow more links from the beginning of posts than the ends of post, and the fact that relatively many found this link compelling may tell us something important about what people in general or at least readers of this blog want to know.

I think there’s a level of systematic dishonesty or at least eliding the truth about gender relations and sexuality when many people are growing up, and as a consequence a lot of people hunger for real knowledge. But even as adults that knowledge is still often hidden behind ideology or signaling or wish fulfillment fantasy.

How I learned about assertiveness and reality from being a consultant

Like many people with such businesses, some friends with a design consulting business say they’re getting jerked around by potential clients. While they’re worried about offending potential clients and don’t want to lose the business, they also don’t like being plied for free samples and they don’t like long conversations that aren’t likely to go anywhere. In the course of talking to them, I realized that they’re discovering that the lessons they’ve taken from school and every day life are wrong or at least not optimal. So I described my own experiences as a consultant and how that taught me about reality and money.

A lot of us—including me—are told from an early age to be polite, take turns, be considerate of other people’s feelings, etc. This is good advice in many but not all circumstances. Among friends you do  want to take turns and reciprocate interests and be warm to other people who are warm. That’s how you build lasting friendship networks. In the business / consultant worlds, however, being overly polite and considerate often leads other people to take advantage of you. Consultants need one very important skill: they need to figure out who is going to give them money and who isn’t. They need to do so relatively quickly. Clients often press to get as much free stuff—often in the form of time and opinions that should cost hundreds of dollars an hour—as they can. They lose nothing by dallying and often gain stuff. Consultants need to learn the killer instinct necessary to know when to stop and say “send me a contract and check or don’t call me until you want to.” Almost all successful consultant learn how to do this and learn when to say no.

(c) Victor

(c) Victor

“Talk is cheap” is a cliché for a reason: it doesn’t mean anything. Any talk that’s not a billable hour should be leading, rapidly, to a billable hour. At some point—a point sooner than most novices realize—it’s time to pay or go away. Money talks and isn’t cheap: I’ve been on numerous calls about “collaborations” and what not, when the real thing happens is through subcontracts. I learned to end vapid conversations about “collaboration” that don’t go anyway. Show me the money, or it doesn’t exist.

Someone who wants to hire you knows relatively quickly whether they want to hire you. Anything other than “yes” means “no.” “Maybe” means no. “Later” means no. That’s a hard thing for many of us to accept. My parents founded Seliger + Associates 20 years ago and they learned, the hard way, about how potential clients dangle work that never arrives and waste a lot of valuable time and energy. That means consultants have to get to “no.”

Getting to “no” is actually quite useful and a big improvement over a nebulous maybe. Attention is often your most valuable resource. Don’t let it dissipate over weak leads.

Drawing a clear line can actually turn some “maybes” in “yeses.” Clients will respect you more if you eventually stop negotiating, talking, or communicating unless they pay.

Because of the issues described in the paragraphs above, anyone experienced learns when to stop talking and say “money or nothing.” That means continuing to flirt without cash in hand is also a signal of being inexperienced. The line between being brusque and being direct is thin but when it doubt err on the side of directness rather than meekness.

Directness can actually be a kind of politeness. “Professional courtesy” has an adjective before “courtesy” because it’s different from regular courtesy. Professional courtesy indicates that there’s a different way of being courteous than the conventional way, and one aspect of professional courtesy is there to avoid time wasting people.

That being said, it can be worth exploring new ventures even when those new ventures aren’t immediately remunerative. But money and contracts separate exploration from reality.

These lessons aren’t only applicable to consultant. They apply to almost any form of business and for that matter in dating: if she says “I like you but not in that way,” she means no. I think men tend to learn this faster then women do, in part  because men usually conduct the initial approach to women for dating and sex. There are of course exceptions to this, but as a general principle it holds.[1]

(c) looking4poetry

(c) looking4poetry

My friends are women, and from what I’ve observed guys in their teens have to learn to approach women and risk rejection if they’re going to get anywhere, and a lot of women wait for guys to approach them.

Consequently, guys who want to get anywhere have to get used to rejection in a way a lot of women don’t, and that socialization is probably part of the reason why women like Sheryl Sandberg write books like Lean In. Men figure out relatively early that they have to lean in—or suffer. Like a lot of guys I spent time suffering. I also learned, however, that with women too anything other than “yes” means “no” and that I should move on quickly. Sticking around to beg and plead only worsens the situation.

Disengagement is underrated. In many endeavors one important ingredient in success is fire and motion.

[1] See Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller’s book Mate for a long description of how and why men tend to initially approach women (giving men the choice of who to approach), women tend to accept or decline sex (giving women the choice of saying yes or no) and men tend to accept or reject long-term relationships (giving men the choice of say yes or no to becoming “official” or “married” or otherwise socially sanctioned).

You may think these principles are bogus or unfair, which is fine, and if you want to change society itself, I wish you luck, but you should at least know they exist. Even among my female friends who identify as hard-core feminists, very rarely will make the initial approach to men in a sex / dating context.

For Men Only by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn is missing evolutionary biology, behavioral economics, and psychology

For Men Only promises “A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women,” but it’s missing any acknowledgment of the vast amount of research that shows:

  • We don’t know what we really want.
  • What we say or think we want often doesn’t match how we behave.
  • We behave different ways at different times and places.

For_men_onlyThe book would benefit from close study of work by Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman. For most guys, it’s worth reading, but reading skeptically. I say it’s worth reading because much of the book, especially regarding emotional engagement, matches my mistakes.

The writers, for example, say that “Women tend to process things by talking them through. [. . . while ] Men, however, tend to process things by thinking them through, and not saying anything until they full understand what they are thinking.” That is, on average, true in my experience, and it took a lot of trial and error—and more error—to realize that talking without knowing why one is talking isn’t necessarily a sign of intellectual fatuousness or weakness. It’s a sign that a lot of women are simply “processing,” to use the Feldhahns’s language.

Elsewhere, the Feldhahns say that “When our wife or girlfriend is upset, we do what we would do with other guys: We give her space to work things out. But with very few exceptions, when women are upset they don’t want space. They want a hug.” Space increases feelings of loneliness, not feelings of competence and control. They also say that women often don’t necessarily want solutions to emotional problems—they want empathy, and a listener:

She just wants you to listen = she does want and need you to understand how she’s feeling about the problem. ‘It‘ = an emotional problem. This listening rule does not apply to technical conundrums.

To me, this makes no sense: why share a problem unless you want it resolved? But I’ve learned the the hard way that their reading is correct in many situations, and I’ve tended to discount emotions in favor of trying to solve problems. When this strategy failed, or elicited tears from girls, I would wonder what the fuck is the matter. I mean, when I have problems, I want them fixed, right? But, as the Feldhahns point out, I’m missing that the problem isn’t the problem—it’s a placeholder, in many situations, for something else. I failed to read the situation metaphorically.

The Feldhahns also point out that men overestimate the need to be seen as a “provider” and earn money, while underestimating the need for emotional and sexual closeness (for a literary example of this, pay close attention to the portrayal of Matt French in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me; he spends his life working, or worrying about work, in order to buy a big, crappy house, and neglects his wife to the point that she starts sleeping with another guy who probably makes less money but is sexy and available). Notice the words “overestimate” and “underestimate:” money and ambition matter, but not as much as many men think. The Feldhahns say, “For her, ’emotional security’ matters most: feeling emotionally connected and close to you, and knowing that you are there for her no matter what. Sure, providing financially is appreciated, but for most women it’s nowhere near the top of the list.” Clearly Jeff Feldhahn hasn’t dated some of the cold fish I have, but we’ll leave those stories aside.

From what I can discern, those insights are correct, even if the process that led to those insights is bogus, or at least not optimal. The authors say, “Besides conducting hundreds of in-person interviews, we gathered huge amounts of anecdotal information at dozens of women’s events where Feldhahn was presenting materials from For Women Only.” What people say they want and what they actually do often differ severely, as anyone who has ever listened to girls complain about the “assholes” they sleep with, compared with the “nice guys” they don’t, can attest. But my favorite study on the topic of the discrepancy between what people state in various situations is Alexander and Fisher’s “Truth and consequences: Using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self‐reported sexuality:”

Men report more permissive sexual attitudes and behavior than do women. This experiment tested whether these differences might result from false accommodation to gender norms (distorted reporting consistent with gender stereotypes). Participants completed questionnaires under three conditions. Sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior were negligible in a bogus pipeline condition in which participants believed lying could be detected [meaning that “participants are attached to a non-functioning polygraph and are led to believe that dishonest answers given during an interview or on a survey can be detected by the machine” (28)], moderate in an anonymous condition [where participants don’t believe their answers will be revealed at all], and greatest in an exposure threat condition in which the experimenter could potentially view participants’ responses. This pattern was clearest for behaviors considered less acceptable for women than men (e.g., masturbation, exposure to hardcore & softcore erotica). Results suggest that some sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior reflect responses influenced by normative expectations for men and women

In other words, what people say about their sexual habits and beliefs depend in part on who is listening and how the speaker believes what they say will be interpreted. Given that fact, “in-person interviews” and “anecdotal information at women’s events” are arguably the worst way one could gather data on what women “really” want. Every time the Feldhahns say things like, “70 percent of the women said they’d rather their husband take a lower-paying job that would require financial sacrifices if it allowed more family time” (emphasis added) I wanted to say, “they only say that.”

Beyond the issue of what people say in different contexts, there’s an issue about what people do in different states of mind. In Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein’s paper “The heat of the moment: the effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making,” the authors show that college-aged guys in a “cold” state systematically underestimate their likely sexual preferences and acts when they are in a “hot” state (which the experimenters elicit through showing each individual man porn, encouraging him to masturbate, and then asking the same set of questions). In Predictably Irrational, Ariely describes the difficult of conducting that experiment in the first place because of his university’s human-subjects board, and he speculates that getting permission to operate the same experiment with female subjects would be more difficult still.

The women the Feldhahns speak to are, presumably, in a cold state. What they say they want at that moment, speaking to somewhat high-status writers, may or may not bear any relation to what they want in hot states, or what they want in the private sphere that still exists between their ears. We are all hypocrites, but some of us are better at acknowledging it, and incorporating that knowledge into our thinking, than others.

Perhaps the second-best romantic advice I’ve ever heard is simple: “Don’t pay any attention to what she says—just look at what she does.” (The first-best is “The worst thing she can say is ‘no.'” Alter the gender pronouns to fit your preferences, as needed.) The Feldhahns are paying a lot of attention to what she says.

Jeff also plays himself off as stupid, like many men: “I doubted that a woman could ever be understood. Compared to other complex matters—like the tides, say, or how to figure a baseball player’s ERA—women seemed unknowable. Random even.” That’s because he’s either a) an idiot or b) has bought into large-scale cultural nonsense. Women can be understood. Evolutionary biology is a good place to start: take a look at Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, then the new introduction to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s The Woman That Never Evolved, then Thornhill and Gangestad’s The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality. All of them explain a lot about the pressures women feel, and, by extension, the pressures men feel in response (the pressures men and women feel are, of course, a feedback loop, with one side “responding” to the other).

Individual preferences can’t be understood based on group identification, because individual preferences can vary substantially, but understanding the basic evolutionary and cultural pressures operating on each sex will show why many people behave the way they do. Those “cultural pressures” I mentioned in the previous sentence are also important, and books like Neil Strauss’s The Game discuss them.

Let me return to Hrdy for a moment. In describing her path to the book, she says:

Competition between females is documented for every well-studied species of primate save one: our own. Once we leave the scientific realm, of course, and consider history, literature, and, for many of us, personal experience, examples of highly competitive, manipulative, and even murderous females flock to mind.

Competition between human females also exists—as “history, literature, and [. . .] personal experience” show us (we should get out of the lab and into culture if we’re going to study humans)—but it tends to exist along different dimensions than male competition. That’s why men tend not to notice it. In addition, male scientists suffer a failure of imagination, as Hrdy elegantly puts it: “The history of our knowledge about primate infanticide is in many ways a parable for the biases and fallibility that plague observational sciences: we discount the unimaginable and fail to see what we do not expect.”

Jeff doesn’t understand women because he doesn’t understand that women are also under competitive pressure, though he probably doesn’t realize what he doesn’t understand. Instead of thinking that women are “Random even,” he should be asking: What incentives operate on women that don’t on men? What’s it like to be female in our society? How can I learn more? He’s showing an empathy deficit and a research deficit.

Why are the authors ignorant about the vast literature on deception? They’re not researchers, and they don’t evince any interest in research, which is a major weakness. They’re may be inclined to massage their readers’ prejudice instead of challenging those views. They may also not want to know better, which I say because they say that “This book holds to a biblical world view. [. . . ] because Feldhahn and I view life through our Christian faith, we have seen that these findings are consistent with biblical principles.” In modern America, ensuring that “findings are consistent with biblical principles” is a code-phrase for militant, pointless ignorance. This is where I should point out that intellectual rigor and sophistication can (and should) co-exist with religious belief, but I don’t have the energy for culture-war crap.

The authors also sometimes evade important issues altogether, as their strategic use of passive voice shows here: “In this culture, women are not being protected emotionally. They are being humiliated.” Women are not being “protected emotionally” by who or what? “They are being humiliated” by who or what? As I tell students, cultures don’t just emerge from some amorphous cloud: they’re the result of aggregated individual decisions. Who should be doing the protecting? What does humiliation mean here? It’s hard to emotionally humiliate someone without their consent. This idea is simply asserted, and it’s asserted in a way that removes important information.

Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men — Roy Baumeister

I would emphasize this, from Arnold Kling, about Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men:

1. If you are a zero-tolerance reader (“I stopped reading on page 9, because he said X, which is obviously wrong, so I figured there was no point in going any further”), then don’t pick up this book. If you are going to finish it, you have to follow almost the complete opposite approach. “Even if a lot of this is wrong, what insights can I take away?”

And there are a lot of ideas per word and little wasted space, especially because Baumeister goes out of his way to avoid dogmatic thinking, which he says overtly:

This book is not about the “battle of the sexes.” I’m not trying to score points for men against women, or vice versa. I don’t think the “battle” approach is healthy. In fact, I think the idea that men and women are natural enemies who conspire deviously to exploit and oppress each other is one of the most misguided and harmful myths that is distorting our current views about men and women.

That being said, Is There Anything Good About Men? has an unfortunate title but many of those deep “insights” worth exploring—and perhaps an equally large amount of unsupported bullshit. It’s frustrating, for example, to see issues like one on page 54 of the hardcover edition, where Baumeister’s claims about sex drive differences between men and women have no citations to actual underlying research. Nonetheless, it’s hard to conclude that men don’t have, on average, a higher desire for sex more often and with more partners than women do; the very structure of dating markets points to this idea. He does cite work later in the book, but why not cite it when the issue is first raised?

But most of the ideas are implications are better; it’s hard to choose among his many observations to discuss in a short blog post, but here’s one I find intriguing; apologies for the length of the quote:

Mostly, men had recognized that dangerous jobs fall to them and, more important, that to be a man they have to accept them. Whether this will continue is not entirely clear. Today’s men are brought up on a rhetoric of equality, and at some point they may balk at letting women be exempted from certain unpleasant tasks.

Even more important, the psychological processes that enable men to do the dangerous jobs may be weakened. Men of past eras were famously out of touch with their feelings. Today’s men are brought up to be more like women, and that includes becoming more conversant with their own emotions. But might that undermine the ability to make themselves do what needs to be done?

To do the dirty or dangerous jobs, you have to put your feelings aside. Being a man in that sense meant that you focused on the task at hand. It meant others could count on you not to let your emotions interfere with getting the job done. One reason traditional societies put those jobs on men was that women might be too fearful or squeamish or tentative to do them. Traditional men weren’t supposed to admit to having such feelings. Yet nowadays we encourage young men to revel in their feelings. Having uncorked the emotional bottle, can we count on the men to stuff the feelings back inside and cork them away when we need them to do so?

The traditional male role has had definite privileges, but it also had duties and obligations. Our culture has come far along in doing away with those privileges. It has been slower about equalizing the duties and obligations. (to quote [Warren] Farrell once more, ‘Women have rights. Men have responsibilities.’) As we make men more like women and remove their traditional privileges, they may begin to object more strenuously to the duties and responsibilities. The obligations of fatherhood weigh far less on today’s man than on earlier generations, as indicated not least by the increasing numbers of men who abandon pregnant girlfriends or small children.

In other words, whatever the rhetoric that gender writers may espouse, when men and women face real problems and dangerous situations, men still tend to get the dirty and dangerous jobs. Equality is fine when it only means the good stuff, but when there’s a strange noise downstairs or coal mines to be stripped, guys still end up there. On the flipside, however, it may also be that society is evolving away from a space where men need not have feelings and toward one where men having feelings is more beneficial than it was in the past.

We may be seeing cultural evolution, live, even as people fight over whether it’s happening and, if it is, what it might mean. The “traditional male role” might be changing or evolving, and its supposed “privileges” or lack thereof too. See, for example, “Sex Is Cheap: Why young men have the upper hand in bed, even when they’re failing in life from Given the choice between coal mining and war or video games and babes in skirts, I suspect most men would rather get in touch with whatever their feelings might be and assume the latter.

You can see other examples of cultural evolution: I’ve been watching The Sopranos lately, and the tension between the “do what needs to be done” aspect and Tony’s supposed feelings and nostalgia for the maybe good-old-days, when men were men, makes The Sopranos intriguing: Tony continuously hearkens back to his father’s time, when men didn’t have (or at least show) feelings; by contrast, he’s being treated by a female therapist, who helps him explore repressed feelings that manifest themselves in dreams and panic attacks.

For whatever this passage might be worth, however, I don’t love the writing itself: vague mentions about “corking” and “uncorking” feelings among “the men” is too abstract for my taste: if this were a freshman’s paper, I’d write as much in the margins and encourage the writer to think about what, precisely, this means for individuals. Even if I know what it means, I can see reasons why it might help for men to uncork their feelings. Consider the experience of World War I, which shows the problems of men not being willing to express fear or tentativeness and willingly walking to their own deaths for no cause at all: that stupid, destructive, largely pointless war occurred in part because men were willing to let themselves be mass-brainwashed into walking into their own deaths for no reason, directed by ignoramuses who’d failed to realize that the nature of warfare had changed and that 19th Century infantry tactics will not merely fail, but fail spectacularly against 20th Century weaponry. So before we romanticize a lost era of male stoicism, let’s remember some of its costs, too, and the fact that turning off feelings and empathy may also allow men to do the many barbaric and cruel things men do.

There are other social changes, too: notice that the state is far more willing to pick up the slack for “pregnant girlfriends and small children,” which changes incentives for men and women; in addition, women appear to be much more willing to dump men who don’t suit their needs than they once might’ve. They write long articles that get turned into books like Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough that are all about female unwilligness to compromise. It’s also become much more obvious that women do not always tell the truth about fatherhood, and it’s hard to read articles like “How DNA Testing is Changing Fatherhood” and not realize what’s at stake:

Over the last decade, the number of paternity tests taken every year jumped 64 percent, to more than 400,000. That figure counts only a subset of tests — those that are admissible in court and thus require an unbiased tester and a documented chain of possession from test site to lab. Other tests are conducted by men who, like Mike, buy kits from the Internet or at the corner Rite Aid, swab the inside of their cheeks and that of their putative child’s and mail the samples to a lab. Of course, the men who take the tests already question their paternity, and for about 30 percent of them, their hunch is right.”

It’s possible in many states for a man who signs a child’s birth certificate to be responsible for paying that child’s mother for eighteen years even if that child isn’t his. That’s not an optimal way to encourage male responsibility or eagerness to support Baumeister’s pregnant girlfriends. But Baumeister doesn’t quite this far.

Nonetheless, his central insights about the sexes facing potential trade-offs that guide median preferences is fascinating and possibly true. Notice the language in the previous sentence: “trade-offs” and “median preferences,” rather than saying all people are this way or that way. From that one can extrapolate to current cultural conditions.

I would guess that Baumeister, like me, wants equal opportunities in all parts of life, but he would also point out that equal opportunities doesn’t mean people will want the same things. Men, in his viewing, are optimized towards risk taking; DNA analyses indicate that we’re descended from 40% of the men who ever lived but 80% of the women. Which means the median man died without reproducing and the median woman did. Which means the median man has an evolutionary incentive to take risks, given that his outcome if he lost the gamble was zero but so was his outcome if he didn’t take the gamble at all. Hence the hierarchies in all parts of life that men love to set up; Baumeister eventually says: “The pyramid of success is steep and cruel. Nature dooms most of the males to fail but impels each of them to try to be the one.”

I do not think most women appreciate that. Which isn’t to say most men appreciate what it’s like to experience female incentives, costs, and desires. One of the more unusual nonfiction books I’ve read attempts to do exactly that: Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man, in which she (a lesbian in “real life,” for lack of a better term) dresses and goes about life as a man for about a year. Baumeister says:

One of the most interesting books about gender in recent years was by Norah Vincent. She was a lesbian feminist who with some expert help could pass for a man, and so she went undercover, living as a man in several different social spheres for the better part of a year. The book, Self-Made Man, is her memoir. She is quite frank that she started out thinking she was going to find out how great men have it and write a shocking feminist expose of the fine life that the enemy (men) was enjoying.

Instead, she experienced a rude awakening of how hard it is to be a man. Her readings and classes in Women’s Studies had not prepared her to realize that the ostensible advantages of the male role come at high cost. She was glad when it was over, and in fact she cut the episode short in order to go back to what she concluded was the greatly preferable life as a woman. The book she wrote was far different from the one she planned, and any woman who thinks life is better for men will find it a sobering read.

He goes on to say that men and women don’t have it “better” than each other per se; they have it different, and his book is, among other things, an attempt to explain why.

Baumeister also said something that, incidentally, reminded me of a potential weakness of the novel as a genre, and that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: “If you consider the problems facing the world today (e.g., global warming, terrorism, pandemics), you can see that they are not likely to be handled by single persons—more likely by large and complex networks of organizations.” One problem for novels is that they focus on individuals and small groups; it’s very hard for a novel to address very large-scale issues save in the context of an individual or small group. Think of how Ian McEwan’s Solar uses Michael Beard and his foibles to discuss some of the technical challenges around global warming.

This may explain why many men prefer nonfiction to fiction: nonfiction is more easily dedicated to large, abstract ideas and organizations potentially involving thousands or millions of people. Fiction is intimate, self has more than a half dozen major characters, and often focuses on a single or small number of very intimate relationships. The fiction that men prefer on average—Elmore Leonard, murder mysteries, and so forth—often involve a single protagonist who is matching wits and brawn with a single antagonist or series of antagonists, which he must confront using an array of shallow connections to many people.

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