Skewing Male

What feedback from my readers told me about them, about my book, and about me

Garry Knight (Flickr/garryknight)
Garry Knight (Flickr/garryknight)

Not long after my history of Polynesian voyaging was published in 2019, I began to get emails from readers. This was not an unfamiliar experience; I’d had letters from readers before. But this was a very specific set of correspondents, one I was not expecting to hear from, and I’ve been thinking about them ever since.

Among the first was someone who described himself as a “retired Rocket Scientist” and turned out to be a specialist in space navigation who had worked for NASA at Mission Control. This was followed by notes from a computer scientist, a professor of biochemistry, a paleobiologist, a linguist, a geographer, and someone in the field of environmental design. A number of sailors wrote to me, including a “delivery captain,” which I think means someone who will take charge of your boat. I got mail from the CEO of a tax software company, a manager in an energy firm, a civil servant, a lawyer, a couple of architects, some filmmakers, a sound engineer, and a handful of high school science teachers. These letter-writers had two things in common: they were expert in what are for the most part technical fields, and they were all men.

I am not what you’d call a technical person. I have a doctorate, but it’s in English, and I’ve worked as a literary editor most of my life. While it’s true that I love clarity and hate muddle, the part of writing I care most about is the poetry of the thing, that intricate dance of sound and meaning at the level of the sentence. I like characters and stories and have been a reader of novels all my life. The only other book I’ve written is a memoir, which, to judge from the people who wrote to me then, was read predominantly by women. So it came as a surprise to find that this time I had written a book for men.

It pains me to speak of books for women and books for men. Many of us would like to dispense with gender stereotypes, and it is impossible not to come up with exceptions even for those we recognize from experience as having some currency. (I had a son whose absolute favorite picture book was Inside Jet Engines, a book I had to steel myself to read.) Lots of women read sci-fi and books about how to make tons of money, just as lots of men read novels and memoirs. Men and women both write every possible kind of book—and yet, when you toss a book out into the marketplace, it will generally find more readers of one sort than the other.

Publishers know this and market accordingly. And, if I’m honest, I did get some early indications of where on the spectrum my own book would fall. Over the years, I noticed who brightened up when I described what I was working on and whose eyes tended to glaze over. I was struck by the number of women who said to me, “Oh, my husband would love a book like that.” I used my older brother as a test reader on the assumption that he might be likely to pick it up in a store. And in the lead up to Father’s Day, I joked with my publisher that they ought to think about advertising because it was definitely a “Dad book.” And yet, even so, I would never have predicted just how strongly the readership would skew male and scientific.

I did receive some mail from women, many of whom were also scientifically minded. But they were many fewer in number, and there was this interesting subset who self-identified as “primarily fiction” readers and went out of their way to thank me for “making nonfiction enjoyable.” One reviewer put her cards right out on the table: faced with the prospect of reviewing the book, she wrote, “I thought it might be hard work—improving, but not necessarily fun.”

My male readers did not seem to make this same equation. For them, the fact that the book was “improving,” that is, full of information (about coral atoll formation, or radiocarbon dating, or wind and current patterns) was what made it enjoyable, that is, “fun.” Many of them praised the research that had gone into the project. It was “apparent,” wrote one, “that it took an amazing effort on your part to compile that amount of information.” “I can’t imagine,” wrote another, “how much it took to put the words down, let alone to conduct the research.” Effort, it appeared, was a currency they valued, along with the time it takes to develop expertise.

Facts were extremely important to them, and a subset of my male correspondents were laser focused on the details. Some wrote to inquire about particular aspects of the story, wanting to know more about celestial navigation, or Polynesian religious concepts, or different types of sails. A few wrote specifically to correct me, pointing out places where I had mistaken a date, or the name of an island, or the accepted height of sea-level rise since the last glacial maximum. This was actually quite helpful, improving subsequent editions of the book, but also funny, since not a single woman ever wrote to me to say, “You got it wrong.”

It was all pretty much what one might expect from this type of reader—assuming one had this type of reader in mind. But something else about this correspondence took me by surprise. Many of these technically oriented, detail-obsessed, fact-loving readers also made a point of praising the book’s prose. They used words like ”lovely” and “captivating”—soft, bright words, which they applied to comparatively abstract expressions, arguments, ideas. “Your attention to delivering the goods at the level of the sentence and paragraph,” wrote one, “made it a pleasure to be lingered over.” Or, from another, “I love the tone and flow of its prose.” Or, from a third, “Such a big story and yet so swift and buoyant and vivid.” Attracted to the book by its subject matter, what a lot of them wanted to tell me was that they liked its style.

I found this incredibly affecting, but it also made me laugh—not this time because of what it said about them, but because of what it revealed about me. I am used to literary people, who know all about writing and words, and from whom one expects both this level of sentiment and the aesthetic angle of approach. But somewhere along the way, I seem to have picked up the notion that technically minded people, drawn as they are to Science, must be inured to Art. Having come to understand that my book was going to be read primarily for the information it contained, I had more or less surrendered the hope that it might be appreciated for its artistry. These letters—these letter-writers—with their delicate and unexpected enthusiasm for form, disabused me of that idea. But they also provided me with a salutary reminder that one should never give one’s reader short shrift.

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Christina Thompson  is the editor of Harvard Review and the author of Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, which was shortlisted for Phi Beta Kappa's 2020 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award.


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