Angst ridden stories dominate list of books that changed men's lives

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The Independent Culture

If ever a survey proved that men were from Mars and women from Venus, this is probably it.

Two years ago, the organisers of the Orange Prize for women's fiction asked several hundred women to choose the novels that changed their lives.

The choices ranged from works by Mary Shelley and George Eliot to Jeanette Winterson. Female writers dominated the list, but half a dozen male heavyweights, including Marcel Proust and Joseph Conrad, managed to slip in.

Now the exercise has been repeated for male readers - and the results could not have been more different. Of the top 20 novels chosen as milestone books by men, only one is by a woman - To Kill a Mockingbird by the ambiguously named Harper Lee.

Moreover, the men's choices of watershed fiction prove to be a catalogue of angst first encountered in their teenage years. The Outsider, Albert Camus's story of an alienated man who commits murder, was clearly out on top, followed by Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger's tale of teenage trauma, and Kurt Vonnegut's surreal war-inspired story Slaughterhouse Five.

The differences between the choices of men and women were so great that Lisa Jardine, the author and professor who carried out the research, said they made her laugh out loud.

Women had often chosen stories about relationships and families, but these were books that men spurned. "There was an overwhelming reluctance to place themselves within the domestic sphere, so soppy, indulgent books don't appear [on the men's list]," she said. "The men we interviewed had a tendency towards identifying themselves with angst-ridden books showing intellectual struggle, violence, personal vulnerability, catastrophe and the struggle to rise above circumstances."

She added: "Men were much more reluctant to admit to having a watershed moment and displayed a certain angst about revealing that fiction has any impact on their day-to-day lives."

David Starkey, the historian, said: "I fear fiction, of any sort, has never worked on me like that."

Only four novels appear on both the men's and the women's top 20: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Catch 22, Heart of Darkness and To Kill a Mockingbird.

But there was no agreement over the most influential, where the women chose Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Professor Jardine said that they had "leant over backwards" to make the surveys comparable. The 400 men chosen were from the worlds of academia, arts and publishing, to match the women who were all connected to the Orange Prize.

Whereas hardly any women could choose their milestone book straightaway, a substantial number of the men did.

And the men were more nostalgic. Childhood books came up frequently and many of the choices were books read at school. "Men were quite clear that they had read their formative fiction around the age of 15," Professor Jardine said.

By contrast, the appearance of authors such as Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson in the women's list confirmed other evidence that women read throughout their lives.

But Professor Jardine stressed that the survey was supposed to be lighthearted. "This isn't about feminism, it's just really interesting cultural diversity," she said.

But men were not finding it funny. "I'm awash with slightly aggrieved e-mails from men who say they don't read like that as if they don't understand what a survey is," she said.

"You couldn't have made it up. I was very surprised. I obviously hoped that the men would read differently, but I had no way of knowing that they would be that different."

But there were also important conclusions to be drawn from the study. Professor Jardine said: "Women who were not wildly sophisticated had read some bloody sophisticated contemporary women's fiction," she said. Men chose Nick Hornby.

"I think it means that every book prize ought to have three women and three men for balance. Fiction is really read by women," she said.

The men's top 20

1. The Outsider - Albert Camus (1942)

Meursault's mother dies, he kills an Arab and faces trial and execution for murder, a period when he ponders the absurdity of life and death. Arguably the best-known Existentialist book.

2. Catcher in the Rye - J D Salinger (1951)

Holden Caulfield, 16, is kicked out of school and sets off for a few days' drinking and loneliness in New York. Recounted as he recovers in some kind of psychiatric unit.

3. Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

Inspired by the author's own experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allied firebombing, Billy Pilgrim, its protagonist, travels between periods of his life, including the Second World War.

=4. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)

The story of the village of Macondo in Latin America reflects the political fluctuations and changes of dictatorship and government. A central work of magic realism.

=4. The Hobbit - J R R Tolkien (1936)

The precursor to the great Lord of the Rings trilogy, this children's tale of Bilbo Baggins and friends in the Shire was Tolkien's first bid to combine ancient heroic Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian epics.

6. Catch-22 - Joseph Heller (1961)

The Second World War as experienced by Captain John Yossarian and US Army Air Corps colleagues, with incidents repeated from different points of view and with a keen sense of the absurd.

Others (listed in alphabetical order)

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald

Brighton Rock - Graham Greene

High Fidelity - Nick Hornby

Ulysses - James Joyce

Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

1984 - George Orwell

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

The Lord of the Rings - J R R Tolkien

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain