A friend‘s FaceBook entry pointed me to an amazing article in Bitch Magazine: “Hard Times” by Sarah Seltzer. Seltzer defines and describes the pattern and statistics of the reviews of books by women, describing both the gender disproportionality, and an editorial pattern of assigning writers who are likely to dismiss feminist works.
Good going, NYT — on their new “http://midtermmadness.blogs.nytimes.com/”, which offers an array of commentators, professors, and pundits to comment on the 2006 elections … they’ve given us six (6) men, all apparently white, and dare I guess their class backgrounds? Way to seek a diversity of opinion.
Research done on women’s and men’s favorite novels turned up that women have a diverse reading list; men are more focused on a smaller number of titles; and — surprise, surprise — women’s favorite books include both male & female authors, but men’s favorite books are pretty much all men. (Harper Lee is the exception.)
Yet another instance of boys-read-boys makes the news. This time, Dave Itzkoff’s new “It’s All Geek To Me” column in the NYT. My partner thought I’d be excited — and I was — to see science fiction getting a column in the NYT. Alas, though, it’s only a boy-reads-boys column.
The first column (March 5, “It’s All Geek to Me,” NYT) reviewed a boy and compared the prestige of science fiction boy writers to non-science fiction boy writers (lesser) and compared the reviewed boy to two other boys in one sentence. (“[I]t is entirely possible that Marusek never set out to be the John Updike of the Asimov set.”)
Boys Cited, 7:
- Walter Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz
- Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man
- David Marusek, Counting Heads & “We Were Out of Our Minds With Joy”
- Khaled Hossein, The Kite Runner (self-described as “an epic tale of fathers and sons” — this actually looks potentially interesting even tho the father-son thing is incredibly overexposed)
- A Million Little Pieces (male literary fraud James Frey)
- Isaac Asimov
- John Updike
Women Cited, 1:
- Oprah, I presume, although she doesn’t actually get mentioned by name: “Whether you read books because you have a genuine, lifelong passion for literature or because a feisty woman in Chicago tells you to …” (I’ve never quite understood why some people pooh-pooh Oprah’s book club. A, she promotes reading, so some people read who might otherwise not; B, she does some selection that folks might otherwise not have time to do. If you don’t like her selection of books, don’t read them. But from what I understand, the “book club” is a hell of a lot more informative & engaging to the audience than Jon Stewart’s or similar talk show promotional tour interviews with authors.)
Penguin Remixed. a cool project. But it misses half the world.
Penguin Remixed is a competition of music remixes of various “classic” quotes & texts. Out of 29 clips they have one from a female-authored book (Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley; with a male narrator) and one by a male author with both a female and a male narrator (Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll); one by a male author with a female narrator (Frances Barber narrating Nick Hornby’s How To Be Good). These include some obvious classic works and a good chunk of “alternative” canon like “Status Anxiety” by Alain de Botton; “Spot’s Playtime Storybook” by Eric Hill; “The Go Between” by L. P. Hartley; “Solo” by Pen Hadow; blah blah blah. Maybe there are some women’s voices or perspectives in the uncredited “various” offerings: Four male-authored works include “various” narrators; one “variously” authored work also includes “various” narrators.
If you’re looking to mix works involving a woman’s voice or perspective you won’t do very well in this context. I guess boys mix boys, too.
Ethnic diversity? Well, try Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, read by Renu Setna.
So call me one of those annoying people who count things up and then bitch and infer meaning from quotas and statistics:
Boy Reviewer Michael Chabon, in his March 25, 2004, The New York Review of Books: Dust & Daemons review of Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, manages to cite, out of 19 references, only one female author (and only by her male character’s name (Harry Potter, of course)).
- Philip Pullman, the author in question.
- J. K. Rowling described as “Harry Potter”.
- John Clute, a Canadian SF critic.
- “Serious literature” gets these boys: Cooper (James Fenimore, I presume); Nathaniel Hawthorne; William Faulkner; Raymond Chandler; Steven Milhauser; Jonathan Franzen. I need hardly point out that 19th, early 20th century, and late 20th century literature have a goodly number of canonical authors who are not all of the XY persuasion.
- He says that any list of great British works of epic fantasy must begin with Paradise Lost and move on to Tolkien and the C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The Boy Reviewer then talks about how so much of modern fantasy is derivative of Tolkien, to make the point that Pullman is not. No argument there, but in the context of that point, how could you leave out Le Guin, who is a Serious Writer, of epic fantasy, and not in the Tolkien school at all? Excluded because she’s not British? Or because female authors don’t roll trippingly off the typing fingers of The Boy Reviewer? Come to think of it, if one wanted to throw up some names of non-Tolkien-esque fantasy writers, J. K. Rowling would be appropriate here.
- Incidental references to three male writers: Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth; Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove; Frank Herbert’s Dune novels.
- A quick mention of L. Frank Baum’s “Dorothy Gale style of female fantasy heroines” to describe the female protagonist of The Golden Compass (in fairness, described the same way as J.K. Rowling, by the name of the character.)
- Significant references to Virgil and Nabokov’s Ada.
- A footnote to Michael Moorcock, which the author says is because of Moorcock’s influence on Pullman. I’ll give The Boy Reviewer half a pass here.
Chabon gets a pass on Pullman, the subject of the review; Milton (because so much of the books relate to Milton); Virgil (again because of the subject matter); C. S. Lewis (since the books were written at least in part as a kind of response to The Chronicles of Narnia); and Nabokov since Pullman had a minor reference to Nabokov’s Ada in the books. That leaves a ratio of, umm, 14 to 1 male authors to female. In fantasy literature! Which is even more astonishing when you consider the observation / generalization of the gender breakdown in authorship between fantasy and science fiction.
Am I suggesting that The Boy Reviewer I just counted up is sexist? No, I have no idea about his political and cultural views. I am suggesting that the review below, statistically speaking, looks like a good example of the phenomenon of boys reading boys, a phenomenon which is probably best explained by unconscious socio-cultural conditioning. I pick on this particular Boy Reviewer & his review not out of malice, but because while reading his review for otherwise innocent purposes, I was struck, almost against my will, by the paucity, indeed the dearth, of women cited in the text. The writers who are significant to The Boy Reviewer’s analysis are all male, but even more revealing is the uniform XY-ness of virtually all the writers cited as mere sidenotes to his analysis.
I don’t want to rewrite The Boy Reviewer’s article for him. It’s a perfectly fine article. The examples he gives make his points & do so just fine. But they also make a point he was perhaps not quite conscious of making: that this Boy Reviewer is generally conversant and conversational with male writers, but female writers don’t come quite so trippingly to his tongue.
pet peeve: men reading men.
More precisely, based on highly scientific studies of (a) watching what people on public transit read; and (b) reading & listening to interviews with people about their reading habits, I conclude that men (in a general, statistical sense) love to read other male authors and rarely read women authors. Women, in my experience, read both. Sure, it may just be my observational prejudice, but i actually think its men’s gender-bias in selecting reading material, i.e., sexism.
salon: What have you been reading recently?
JS: Well, a little [Michel] Houellebecq. Did you ever read that guy? I can’t spell his name. That French guy. He’s one of these fucking great maniacs. And, you know, the usual. David Foster Wallace. Bruce Wagner’s new book is great. There’s a lot of amazing writing out there right now.
salon: Which Wallace book?
JS: I love “Oblivion,” and one of my favorites is “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.” And “Infinite Jest” is one of those books you’re always three-quarters through till you keel over at 80, you know. It’s just genius, man. It’s like maybe if you wave it over your head some of it will rub off.
salon: I keep hearing people saying, “Oh, no, it’s not a time for novels anymore; this is a time for serious books and nonfiction.”
JS: Yeah, it’s like people announcing the death of irony. You know, there are people who make their livings by making declarations. But from where I’m sitting, just as a guy who reads, it seems like there’s a lot of great stuff out there. Sam Lipsyte has a great new book coming out. There’s a guy who couldn’t even get his book published in America, you know. Now Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing it, a book called “Homeland.”
— Salon.com Books Interview w/ Jerry Stahl
“All my heroes were dope fiends” [salon.com 12/6/2004]
Four for four.
Needless to say, such sexism could have a variety of interesting effects, some of which will amplify others:
- male readers limit their exposure to female perspectives.
- this becomes a self-reinforcing tendency if there are gender-affects in the writing beyond the subject matter — such as style, perspective, gender of narrative voice. if male writers are read 3 times more often, then the male affects become the standard, the norm, against which all writing is measured. it becomes difficult to evaluate quality when the work is different in ways that the reader has become accustomed to. so men go looking for “good writers”, and they naturally pick and like writers who hew more closely to writers they’ve previously recognized as “good writers.”
- male reviewers who pick and choose among writers may choose to review male writers, thus either creating gender disparity among those writers reviewed, or gender segregation between writer/reviewer pairs.
- glass ceiling effects. To the extent that women are glass-ceilinged out of prestige reviewing slots, prestige editorial slots, prestige publishing decision-making slots, then men’s bias towards men’s writing will result in gender bias in publishing and reviewing along a prestige axis.
- awards which flow from publicity [don't all awards ultimately flow from publicity?] will be skewed towards men. awards which have men on their awards committee would be statistically likely to demonstrate bias.
at this point i’ve almost worked myself up into a rant about a sexist self-important literary community talking to itself and a bunch of boys all talking about each other (“Oh, he’s a genius.” “No, he’s a genius among geniuses.”) … i almost feel inspired to do it … but i won’t, not right now, because i’m at work and have work-stuff to do, and the rant needs more thought than i have time to give it.
but i do think i’m going to make a new category of boys-reading-boys and pay especial attention to everything that proves my point. i will also attempt to ignore everything that disproves my point, of course.
… my real point is that i wish more self-defined non-sexist men would self-define as anti-sexist. in other words, while i’m being a bit flip here, i do think this particular form of sexism is a real, observable phenomenon. And i wish guys who would like it not to be real would (a) check themselves to see if they do it, and (b) engage in a little positive affirmative action with other guys, in the name of men fighting sexism
subsidiary points that are not really points but preventive self-defense:
- yes, i know a lot of good, anti-sexist men who are already conscious of their own biases and fight them, and do indeed make sure that they are as open to reading female as male writers. but i also know a lot of men who think of themselves as non-sexist — or even as feminist — but ignore their own biases in action.
- no, this is not to say anything bad about the writing of Wallace or Wagner or any of the other boyz who are so loudly proclaimed to be geniuses. they may well be geniuses. or not. but if male writers get read 75% of the time and female writers get read 25% of the time then genius male writers are more likely to turn up. [and of course they become the standard ... so recognition of genius outside of what male writers are doing is trickier]