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In the mid-60s, when I was a sixth-former studying English literature for A level, one title we were all required to study closely was Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel. This wise and lucid book instructed us that the readership of the early novel was almost entirely female. A new class of leisured women not only made possible the development of this emerging literary form, but in some important degree shaped its content. The triumphant first flowering of the 18th-century novel was Richardson’s Clarissa. Perhaps there had never been such a thorough examination of the minutiae of shifting emotions. According to David Lodge, whose judgment can be trusted, it is pre-eminent as the earliest and most complete representation of an individual consciousness.
I was thinking of Ian Watt the other day when I went with my son Greg into the gardens near my house to give away some novels. Vintage Books had sent me the complete set of their new Future Classics series. Every single one of the books was already on my shelves in another edition, and shelf space is becoming precious. We mixed in a few old American paperbacks of my own novels, and copies of various other duplicates. We moved through the lunchtime office crowds picnicking on the grass. In less than five minutes we gave away 30 novels.
Every young woman we approached – in central London practically everyone seems young – was eager and grateful to take a book. Some riffled through the pile murmuring, “Read that, read that, read that …” before making a choice. Others asked for two, or even three.
The guys were a different proposition. They frowned in suspicion, or distaste. When they were assured they would not have to part with their money, they still could not be persuaded. “Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks mate, but no.” Only one sensitive male soul was tempted.
As in the 18th century, so in the 21st. Cognitive psychologists with their innatist views tell us that women work with a finer mesh of emotional understanding than men. The novel – by that view the most feminine of forms – answers to their biologically ordained skills. From other rooms in the teeming mansion of the social sciences, there are others who insist that it is all down to conditioning. But perhaps the causes are less interesting than the facts themselves. Reading groups, readings, breakdowns of book sales all tell the same story: when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.