Where can women find real men? In a book, of course…
Look at her in the Tube opposite. No, you fool. Look at what she’s reading.
You’ve made it through to the middle of the Telegraph and, if you are anything like me, you have scaled your personal intellectual Everest for the day. But look at the girl over there, and that damn thick square book on her lap. She must be on page 181, and when she turns the page she’s going to be on 183, then 185, 187. It’s unbelievable. Where does she get the hunger, the concentration?
Look at women in airport lounges, and look at their men. The men loll and scratch. The women are transfixed, with the glassy expression of souls fled to a happier world. Men mooch off to have a drink or flip through the DVDs. Women read, and read, and read; and I do not believe we have sufficiently considered this growing difference between the sexes.
It’s not just slush, my friends; it’s not just stuff with embossed pink covers. Women are now outreading men in virtually every category. The other day, I saw a girl cantering through Money, by Martin Amis – supposedly the most blokeish novel of the Eighties. Women read more classics than men.
They read more action stuff. Wilbur Smith is now more read by women than men, even though his plots are about crag-jawed South Africans who spend their time shooting hippos, foiling hijacks, crashing Israeli fighter planes and wresting golf-ball sized diamonds from the sunbaked veld.
I was stunned the other day to discover that Flashman is just as popular with women as with men. Yes, Flashman, the outrageous Victorian bounder who kicks off the first novel in the series by raping his father’s girlfriend. What is going on? Why do women read so much more than men, and what drug are they finding between the covers?
Part of the answer, of course, is simply that girls read more than boys and, as every parent knows, the difference in literary appetite can be frightening.
A survey six months ago for the National Literacy Trust found girls far more likely to say that they read every day and that they enjoyed reading “very much”, whereas 20 per cent of boys said they would be quite happy never to open a book again.
You might say that this gender difference has long been in operation, ever since the bookish heroines of Jane Austen. But you could also see this inter-gender “reading gap” as part of a more worrying trend. It is a colossal and unremarked social change that this year far more women than men enrolled at university, and the gap is growing every year.
That is a stunning turnaround, when you consider that it was only 20 years ago that the male-to-female ratio was about four to one. Women are advancing to the front of the service-based economy, not just literate but emotionally literate. It is a fantastic change, wonderful, irresistible.
The question is whether this girl-friendly educational system is starting to be skewed against natural male aptitudes – and there are signs that it is.
Dr Tony Sewell, an educationalist attached to Imperial College, London, says the whole process of instruction has become “feminised”.
There is too much coursework, he says, and not enough of the adrenaline-pumping terror of the exam. Boys need competition, he says, or they slump back into apathy and thuggishness.
They need facts and dates, not empathy. Dr Sewell is dead right. Here is the terrible truth about us boys. We may be devoted to our subjects. We may be interested in learning for its own sake. But what really actuates us, what makes us flog our way through the books on the syllabus, is the simultaneous hope of coming top and the fear of coming last.
I am afraid we want to thrash the other guy, in a way that girls, being less aggressive, do not. If you take away those twin incentives, hope and fear – and every effort is made to bleach them out of the system – then boys can become apathetic and, as Dr Sewell points out, unsure of the point of their studies.
Our schools are kinder and gentler, and of a piece with our generally nicer society. If children are naughty, they cannot be asked to pick up crisp packets unless they are issued with a special grabber, to spare their little backs. They certainly may not be hit, and indeed there are very few male primary teachers, since we are all in the grip of a paedophile hysteria.
Boys leave these well-padded incubator schools and go out into a new type of economy, cossetted, protected, regulated, in which the old male advantages – being a risk-taking braggart – are at a discount. It is a world in some ways perfect for women; and yet women, of course, are increasingly aware that something is missing.
That is why the publishing industry (dominated by loving, anxious mums) has produced this Dangerous Book for Boys. The publishing mums hope that their little darlings will stop playing GameBoy and picking their noses and do the kind of thing their grandfathers might have done, like skinning a rabbit, darling. I fear that hope is forlorn.
And as for the girl on the Tube, with her nose buried in her novel, she is on the same quest. The reason women devour so much fiction is that it is the only place where they can find a certain idea of masculinity. It is a spirit that has been regulated out of the workplace and banished from the classroom.
Women turn to fiction, I would guess, because it is the last reservation for men who are neither violent thugs nor politically correct weeds, where a girl can still get her bodice ripped without the bodice ripper being locked up.
As for boys, they may never even acquire the habit of reading.
It is too much to call it a crisis, but over the next 10 years we need to steer education back towards some of the things that have been disdained: success, failure, glory, disgrace, triumph, disaster – all the things, in short, that spur the male ego to feats of competitive exertion, the kind of thing that women are obliged to look for, these days, in books.