Thursday, September 9, 2010

Gender Bias in Reading and Reviewing: Conscious or Not?

If you want to know a bit more about the brou-ha-ha going on over at the NY Times, stirred up by their book critics' seeming frenzy over author Jonathan Franzen (two reviews of his book in the same week!) and their rather obvious preference for white male authors, here's a good link from The New Republic. Everyone seems to have an opinion on this and I'm no different, so I thought I'd wade in here for a bit.

But first here's another link on this very subject from The Reading Ape blog. There are, obviously, other comments and posts swirling around out there, but I've narrowed it down to these two for now.

(I have nothing to say specifically about Franzen's writing since I don't read him. But I also don't read Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner.)

I like that The Reading Ape was clever enough and manly enough to state his own uneasiness about the topic, his own seeming preference for male authors. I like that he's promised to do better, playing catch-up on some of the really fine female writers he's overlooked throughout the years.

But at the same time, I ask myself: why shouldn't a person read exactly what he or she wants to read - what writers he or she likes, for whatever reason? Why should the P.I. police have anything to say about our reading choices?

Who has a right to tell me I should read more male or female writers? Explain to me what I'm missing if I read mostly male writers? Mostly female? Does a writer's gender have anything to do with anything? And even if it does, even if sex is the guiding light that creates a literary masterpiece (which I completely doubt), who can prove it? Who is to prove it? Not anyone of the critics I've ever read. History has always been skewered towards the male point of view. For me, that's a given.

An admission: I'm feeling mighty smug because it turns out, I read male and female authors almost on a 50/50 basis, well maybe 40/60 either way, but I promise you I have never bought a book or borrowed a book based consciously on the sex of the author. My general criteria is this: is the book any good? Does it fit my own personal criteria of 'good' writing? Beyond that: Is the story something I'd probably like? Are the characters people I might want to know something about? Does the book have a beginning, a middle and an end? (I admit I'm prone to books with a beginning, a middle and an end, though not always.) It's all subjective of course, all based on who I am, the person I am right now, my own life experience and expectations, my own appreciation of certain types of writing and story-telling. What do I, as a female, bring to a book? (Emerson was entirely correct when he observed: No two people read the same book.) Do I bring a particularly female bent? Of course, I must. I am not, after all, a gender neutral being.

Okay then, might I not lean towards certain types of writing - female, rather than male? Or might it work the other way around? Does a female write a certain type of prose as opposed to a male? And am I conscious of this when I make my reading selections? Was Rex Stout correct when he had Nero Wolfe claim that no woman was capable of writing a great novel? Well, except for Jane Austen, of course. Was she the exception that proved the rule? Wolfe always grumbled about this and I always laughed, his obvious misogyny never put me off. (I wondered if this was Rex Stout's misogyny as well, but this never put me off either.)

Is there an inherently female way of writing? An inherently male way? Aren't ideas gender neutral? Is talent? Genius? Creative ability of any kind? And should I, as a female, lean towards one sex or the other because of my own sexual identity? Should a male lean towards male authors for the same reason? Or can it be just the opposite? Because women still seem to be playing catch-up in the arts, should the Times bend over backwards to review even more books by women at the expense of male authors? (Well, at the very least, you'd think they'd try for 50/50.) Is any of this a conscious thing at all?

I'll bet it isn't.

But now that the Times has been made glaringly aware of its supposed faults, shouldn't it try harder to balance their critiques and reviews? Yeah, I'm sure they will, probably without admitting they found a fault to begin with. Are two glowing reviews of the same book within the same week, a bit much? Well, yeah. But sometimes enthusiasms carry us away. I'm going to assume that's what happened at the Times.

Notice I haven't said anything about the supposed bias of the Times and other papers and journals towards literary writing as opposed to commercial and/or genre writing. That's another topic for another day. Though I can't help but add that, of course, the bias is towards work seen as more literary, everyone, consciously or not, wants to dress to impress.

Here are my own prejudices writ large, when it comes to the gender of the writer of any book I happen to be reading:

Firstly, I tend to read authors I've read before (so this is a kind of re-generating thing), though I also make a point to search out authors I'm not familiar with through blogs, reviews and recommendations from friends. I think in this way I create a nice balance. I admit I am an all over the place reader in that I tend to prefer a variety of topics and styles, including non-fiction.

I believe that women can and mostly do write as well as men and that men, can and mostly do write as well as women. But over my many, many years of reading, I have to say I've found differences - some subtle, some not-so-much. Yet I can honestly say that I have never, to my knowledge, consciously chosen a book based on the gender of the author.

Okay, having said that, I will admit to certain prejudices that may or may not sub-consciously steer me towards an author, male or female.

1) I tend to think women write a better 'cozy' mystery. Probably because I naturally think that women know a bit more about being cozy and comfortable then men do. I did say this was my own prejudice.

2) I tend to think that men write funnier books. Or at least, my sense of humor matches a certain type of male writer - how's that? Although Sparkle Hayter's books make me laugh out loud to the point of falling off the sofa, as do Janet Evanovich's early Stephanie Plum books and Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody books. Hmmm, maybe it's time for me to reevaluate this particular prejudice.

3) When it comes to the specific 'locked room' school of mystery, men rule.

4) When it comes to non-fiction, I also seem to lean towards male writers. Though obviously, it's all about the subject matter first, in non-fiction. Maybe it's just that men write more about the subjects that interest me. - simple as that.

But I am happy to say that when it comes to (almost) every other sort of book, I am an equal opportunity reader. Although, sad to say: I am still lacking in my reading of African American,
Middle Eastern, Asian and Latin authors. Probably because I am an Anglophile from way back and I have a few inflexible expectations of the books I do read. Hey, I never said I was perfect.

(An aside: My feeling is that men writing from a female point of view tend to do a slightly better job than women writing from a male point of view. Why that should be I still haven't figured out, though I have my suspicions.)

What about you? What do you think of all this? Have you noticed any kind of reading preference in yourself, one gender over the other? Is this all a mountain made out of a molehill? Or is it a mountain that should have been climbed and conquered a long time ago? Is it even a mountain worth conquering?

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