men reviewing men

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.