By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
At Brookings: ‘A Number of People Warned Me’Many of the best authors are keenly impacted by reactions to their work, of course, but Richard V. Reeves‘ third book has led him to make a major career change: He’s leaving the Brookings Institution on Washington’s “Think Tank Row,” where he’s been a senior fellow in economic studies since 2015.
“I’ve decided to create the American Institute for Boys and Men,” he tells Publishing Perspectives in an interview.
“I’m going be at Brookings to the end of June,” he says, anticipating a soft launch of the new institute in September, as he works to “raise funds, recruit a board, get support staff into place.” That launch will come one year after the release of his third book.
Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, was published by Brookings Institution Press (September 27, 2022, 256 pages), with the audiobook narrated by Reeves for Blackstone.
Ironically, when Reeves opens his 15-minute Big Think video on the book and his research findings, the first thing he says is, “A number of people warned me against writing a book about boys and men because it’s such a fraught subject, particularly in politics right now and because so many people are afraid that merely drawing attention to the problems of boys and men is implying somehow less effort being paid to girls and women … sort of a ‘Who’s side are you on?’ question, [as if] you have to be on one side or the other, rather than just being on the side of humans flourishing.”
When Lydia Polgreen at The New York Times heard Reeves speak, she said on Thursday (May 25) in the podcast Matter of Opinion, “I was really prepared to sort of have a strong, kind of political reaction to this. And one of the things he’s really trying to do with this book is get away from politics. … It’s fascinating to me that, at this time [when] there’s a highly politicized conversation going on about all kinds of aspects of gender, that there is also, I feel, this need to really ground the conversation in data, in facts, and how we’re actually living, and have a really practical approach to it.”
For Reeves, however, political reactions are never far away. On his Of Boys and Men Substack on May 23, he answered criticism from Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, in What Josh Hawley Gets Wrong About Me: “I think it is indisputable,” Reeves writes, “that gendered ideas of occupations, the social signaling that certain jobs are ‘men’s work’ or ‘women’s work’ makes it harder to go ‘against type.’ That’s a consistent finding from the identity economics field. It is much harder to be a female engineer when you’ll be only one of 100 in the classroom or workplace; the same is true the other way round, for example, for men entering nursing, psychology, or early years education.”
If you haven’t yet had a chance to read Reeves’ book, that Big Think video offers an overview of the trends, issues, and statistical revelations that Reeves concedes are more concerning than he’d predicted when he embarked on his study. Here are just three of the points Reeves and his associates have developed extensively in the book’s hard-hitting exposé of alarming patterns, both in the States and in many international markets. Quoting from his work:
- “In elementary and secondary schools across the world, girls are leaving boys behind. Girls are about a year ahead of boys in terms of reading ability in OECD nations, in contrast to a wafer-thin and shrinking advantage for boys in math. Boys are 50-percent more likely than girls to fail at all three key school subjects: math, reading, and science.”
- “In the United States, 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees are now awarded to women, and not just in stereotypically ‘female’ subjects: women now account for almost half (47 percent) of undergraduate business degrees, for example, compared to fewer than one in 10 in 1970. Women also receive the majority of law degrees, up from about one in 20 in 1970.”
- “The wages of most men are lower today than they were in 1979, while women’s wages have risen across the board. … Women are now the main breadwinners in 41 percent of US households. … Many men are left feeling dislocated. Their fathers and grandfathers had a pretty clear path to follow: work, wife, kids. But what now?”
At Quarto: ‘It’s an Opportunity for Us’
As Reeves reveals the plans coming together for his new institute, Quarry Books at the Quarto Publishing Group has a new project in development, tentatively called He Can HEAL, according to senior acquiring editor Jonathan Simcosky.
Having read Reeves’ book, Simcosky approached the author, an early signal that Reeves’ research is beginning to influence world publishing. An imprint at Quarto is examining how it can address the needs and potentials of male readers along with those of female consumers.
Simcosky is developing what he refers to as a “She Can STEM-style collection of illustrated biographies of amazing women in science.” He and the Quarto team are considering having Reeves create a parallel collection of as many as 50 examples of leading men in the “HEAL-ing professions”: health, education, administration, and literacy—walks of life in which male practitioners have become remarkably scarce and critically needed as models for boys and young men.
“I think about this,” Simcosky says, “as not at all about ‘boys are oppressed and need to be liberated,’ but as just publishing for boys to give them the kind of inspirational, instructional material that we’ve published for everybody. It’s an opportunity for us.”
Book publishing is, after all, a part of the HEAL framework of professions, with the book business’ essential reliance on literacy and its crucial role in education.
Simcosky points out that Reeves’ research shows men accounting for only 18 percent of social workers and just 22 percent of psychologists. “Like teaching,” Reeves writes, “these professions are ones where a big gender gap really matters. Seeking help can be difficult for many people, and it often seems to be even harder for men. We know that men are less likely, for example, to seek mental health counseling.”
The dearth of male psychologists is “an incredible statistic,” Simcosky says. “The repercussions just of that fact, particularly, are huge. If men don’t have professionals to talk to about their mental health—and if professionals aren’t experiencing the issues of being a man, themselves—how can they actually provide that service?”
In one of the anecdotes that marks Reeves as the caring and good-humored personality he is, his book comes close to Simcosky’s compassion in a memory from when one of Reeves’ sons was very young. Reeves is a native of Peterborough, England, hence his reference to British physicians.
“Cameron was about 6,” he writes, “when I was driving him home after seeing the doctor. ‘Dad,’ he said, ‘I didn’t know that men could be doctors.’ I was perplexed for a moment. Then I realized that the two or three doctors he had previously encountered happened to have been women, which was not that odd given that more than half of the primary care doctors in the UK are female. Having encountered only women working as doctors, it was reasonable for him to wonder if men could do that job. I reassured him that men could indeed be doctors, but I was careful to add, ‘and nurses, of course.'”
In the Press: ‘A Landmark’
Reeves’ development of his new institute and Simcosky’s concept at Quarto of literature supportive of boys and men as well as girls and women are coming together at a critical juncture.
A steady surge of articles and accolades have followed Reeves’ book’s release. In his native England, for example, where the book is published by Swift Press (September 29, 2022), it’s been named a 2022 Book of the Year by both The Economist and the Daily Mail and called “one of the most important nonfiction books of the year” by The Sunday Times.
In the States, David Brooks at The New York Times in “The Crisis of Men and Boys” calls it “a landmark, one of the most important books of the year, not only because it is a comprehensive look at the male crisis, but also because it searches for the roots of that crisis and offers solutions.” One of those solutions is redshirting boys, having them start school a year later than girls because a girl’s prefrontal cortex and cerebellum tend to develop earlier than a guy’s.
“The culture is still searching for a modern masculine ideal,” Brooks writes. “It is not instilling in many boys the nurturing and emotional skills that are so desperately important today. A system that labels more than a fifth of all boys as developmentally disabled is not instilling in them a sense of confidence and competence.”
And Idrees Kahloon at The New Yorker in “What’s the Matter With Men?” writes of Reeves as “a self-described ‘conscientious objector in the culture wars” who “would like to skip past the moralizing and analyze men in the state that he finds them: beset by bewildering changes that they cannot adapt to.” In Of Boys and Men,” Kahloon writes, Reeves “argues that the rapid liberation of women and the labor-market shift toward brains and away from brawn have left men bereft of what the sociologist David Morgan calls ‘ontological security.’ They now confront the prospect of ‘cultural redundancy,’ Reeves writes. He sees telltale signs in the way that boys are floundering at school and men are leaving work and failing to perform their paternal obligations.”
In Gender: ‘We Have To Rise Together’
The British-American Reeves served as strategy director to UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg between 2010 and 2012. London’s press has focused, understandably, on one of the most alarming statistics that Reeves’ work has brought forward: Suicide is the main killer of the United Kingdom’s men younger than age 45.
“When you mention to somebody that you’re writing a book, they will usually ask what it’s about. [I’ve] found that many people are really worried about boys and men, including the ones in their own life.”Richard V. Reeves, 'Of Boys and Men'
But there are also the compelling strides made by women on British campuses: “In 1970, the year after I was born,” Reeves writes, “just 31 percent of undergraduate degrees went to British women. When I left college two decades later, it was 44 percent. Now it is 58 percent. Today, 40 percent of young British women head off to college at the age of 18, compared to 29 percent of their male peers.”
In the States, where Reeves is based now, he has been involved since the book’s release in producing a lively round of essays, op-eds, and speaking engagements, among them an appearance last month in a Canadian TED2023 event in Vancouver. There, in a discussion of the developmental conditions that make many boys later bloomers than girls, he told his audience, “The future cannot be female. Nor of course, can the future be male. The future has to be for every single one of us … We have to rise together.”
But there, of course, is one of the toughest messages of Reeves’ research and his book–and of the institute he’s forming: For all the gains that girls and women rightly have made, many people believe that when today’s deepening crisis of boys and men comes up, it means abandoning support for women. Nothing could be farther from the truth, Reeves argues. “We can hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time,” he writes, promoting continued, robust advancement for girls and women while creating corresponding support for boys and men.
Reeves is adamantly clear both in his writings and in his conversation that what women have been able to achieve must continue and grow; nothing should be taken away from that. But too little, he writes, is being done for men and boys, sometimes because of the fear of looking “anti-women” if it’s suggested that the guys need help:
“What is required here,” Reeves writes, “is a simple change in mindset, recognizing that gender inequalities can go in both directions. I said simple, not easy. The fight for gender equality has historically been synonymous with the fight for and by girls and women, and for good reason. But we have reached a point where gender inequalities affecting boys and men have to be treated seriously.
“Many people on the political Left seem to fear that even acknowledging the problems of boys and men will somehow weaken efforts for women and girls. This is the progressive version of zero-sum thinking. Anything extra for boys and men must mean less for girls and women. This is entirely false as a matter of practice, and creates a dangerous political dynamic. There are real problems facing many boys and men, which need to be addressed, and if progressives ignore them, others will be sure to pick them up.
“Our politics are now so poisoned that it has become almost impossible for people on the Left to even discuss the problems of boys and men, let alone devise solutions. This is a missed opportunity. We need the strongest advocates for gender equality, many of whom are on the liberal side of the political spectrum, to take a more balanced view. Otherwise, the danger is that boys and men will look elsewhere.”
In Hindsight: ‘A Difficult Plane to Land’
When Reeves began looking for how to get Of Boys and Men published, he says he was hardly met with open arms by the publishing industry.
“Of one or two publishers who were interested in taking the book and ended up not taking it,” he says, “one of them said to me that” the decision to pass up the book “was after one of the most bruising editorial meetings he had experienced in his 30 years in the industry when he tried to take the book through committee. The discussion, the backlash.”
At the Brookings press, Reeves says, Bill Finan, who signed the book at the time, pointed out that the Brookings Institution Press had published his work on the upper-middle class in the United States, Dream Hoarders (2017). Finan told him that in the end, Brookings took Of Boys and Men “‘Because we trusted you. We know you and we trust you.’ It was just that kind of book,” Reeves says, “that required the publisher to have that trust and support.”
Over the years, our coverage here at Publishing Perspectives has picked up worrisome indications that male reading and book-buying patterns were moribund, if not deteriorating in many world markets. It has also seemed that some publishing houses are quite rightly pleased to be the beneficiaries of women’s consumer loyalty, but willing to leave male money on the table rather than purposely seeking to encourage and promote men’s reading and consumerism.
Book publishing has much to be proud of for its concerted efforts in the last decade to develop and provide enriching and empowering content for girls and women. But the statistics Reeves and his associates have put together tell us that the darkening sense of declining performance levels by guys is not anecdotal, not limited to youngsters, and not working itself out. It’s getting worse.
“As in so many areas of our lives, there’s a danger that publishing can polarize into competing houses with pre-existing views about what is or is not acceptable to come out of that house. That can be fatal to public discourse.”Richard V. Reeves, 'Of Boys and Men'
Questions about book publishing’s potential to help, of course, often have touched on the prominence of talented and experienced women in world publishing’s workforce, if not in as many executive positions as should be the case. The estimates from survey work tend to describe a workforce that approaches 75- to 80-percent female in the United States, and between 65- and 70-percent female in the United Kingdom. One concern, then, is whether enough men are in the publishing workforce to help address the crises of boys and men, as the business has so proudly and reliably addressed issues facing girls and women.
Reeves reflects during our interview on his experience of shopping around Of Boys and Men and notes how lucky he was. The Brookings Institution Press, now with publisher Yelma Quinn supporting him, “absolutely has had my back throughout the process,” he says. “But I’ll be honest, it was it was a difficult time,” he says, “I went out to the market thinking, ‘Well, this is an interesting subject. I did pretty well with my last book. I’m a Brookings scholar, you know. We’ll probably have a bidding war.’
“Yeah,” he says with a wry smile, “and then I fell flat on my face. No one wanted it.
“I think that as in so many areas of our lives, there’s a danger that publishing can polarize into competing houses with pre-existing views about what is or is not acceptable to come out of that house. That can be fatal to public discourse. It was a very disheartening experience that turned out right. I couldn’t have asked for a better publisher, or a better PR team. or anything. And I think the book speaks for itself in terms of the response to it. But this has been a good sign of the fact that it is difficult” when a book’s topic touches on areas that the publishing industry itself may find unresolved in its collective culture.
“It’s a difficult world,” Richard Reeves says. “And this is a difficult plane to land.”
More from Publishing Perspectives on nonfiction is here, more on political topics in publishing is here, more on public discourse and freedom of expression is here, more on women in publishing is here, and more on issues in men’s and boys’ reading is here.