Theories attempting to explain the “fiction gap” abound. Cognitive psychologists have found that women are more empathetic than men, and possess a greater emotional range of traits that make fiction more appealing to them.
Apparently the theories for explaining the “fiction gap” even wander into the territory of “mirror neurons.”The research is still in its early stages, but some studies have found that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men. That might explain why women are drawn to works of fiction, which by definition require the reader to empathize with characters.
Liberman summarizes a study of gender differences in mirror neurons based on magnetoencephalography and discusses whether or not its results (based on a sample of ten young Taiwanese men and ten young Taiwanese women) are statistically significant and then moves on to the 2004 NEA report on reading and decides that since the differences between racial and ethnic groups were as large or larger than the differences between males and female that the argument that gendered differences in empathy explains the gap is dubious.
What strikes me as really weird about the various “theories” Liberman cites is their apparent failure to notice that if this gap actually does now exist in present-day US, Britain, and Canada (and Liberman notes that he’s by no means certain that it does), it is a reflection of a particular cultural juncture and not a hard-wired biological imperative controlling the behavior of men and women. I seriously doubt that the 80/20 split (if it’s real) has always existed for as long as fiction has existed and I would be surprised if the same results were reproduced in other cultural milieus. That any cognitive psychologists or neuroscientists could entertain for a moment the idea that women are hardwired to read fiction and men aren’t stinks of nineteenth century pseudo-science—the kinds of “science” that used calipers to “prove” that Caucasians are intellectually superior to non-Caucasians and that men are intellectually superior to women. I find myself wondering why these people are so obsessed with “the Great Divide” that they are apparently unable to ask reasonable questions. It shouldn’t be possible for someone still cherishing such discredited assumptions to get an advanced degree in any science. The amount of time and money spent trying to demonstrate hardwired sex differences for shoring up the credibility of the Great Divide is scandalous.
If I were certain there was a “fiction” gap between men and women (and of course I’m not), what I’d write about what it might mean in light of the domination by male critics and reviewers, male tastes, and male values of all literary discussion. The critic gap certainly exists: we all know that. But that’s not the kind of gap anyone but women are interested in thinking about, explaining, and discussing, is it. And certainly not the relation between the critic gap and the “fiction gap.”