Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Books for the Boys

Since Glenda seemed quite intrigued by the comment I made yesterday about male readers choosing not to read female authors I thought I'd post up the article I wrote on the subject. This piece appeared in (the now sadly defunct) men's magazine Chrome in January 2006. Don't know how many of you read it at the time. Greenbottle and Amir Hafizi will find their own words still reverberating!
One rainy afternoon in Bangsar some years go, I was browsing in the shelves of my favourite second-hand bookshop when an elderly, dhoti-clad gentleman burst in from the street, brandishing a copy of Middlemarch at Skoob’s proprietor, Thor Kah Hong. Thor had apparently recommended the novel as the kind of improving read this gentleman said he was after. But now his customer was absolutely irate and demanding the book be changed.

“Why does she call herself George? I don’t read books by women writers.” He spat out the last two words as if they left a rancid taste in the mouth.

The answer is quite simple, of course. Mary Anne Evans became George Eliot to protect herself from prejudice in a predominantly patriarchal society, just as many other women authors have changed their names over the years to make sure that their work was judged solely on its merit.

The most famous woman writer in 19th century France, Aurore Dupin, published under the pseudonym George Sand. The Bronte Sisters, Charlotte, Anne and Emily published under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Karen Blixen (of Out of Africa fame) chose to write under the male name Isak Dinesen. Lula Mae Smith wrote as Carson McCullers, and Janet Taylor Caldwell dropped her first name so as to be taken more seriously, writing also as Max Reiner.

Even in recent times, women writers have chosen to reduce their given names to initials so as to become sexually ambiguous; Booker winner A. S. Byatt and Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy among them. J.K. Rowling says she decided to write under her initials rather than her full name because she didn’t want the fact that she was a female to deter boys from reading her books.

But in these more enlightened times surely our Middlemarch wielding gentleman is an anachronistic exception, and writers like Rowling overly cautious? Sadly, it seems not.

Earlier this year, academics Annie Watkins and Lisa Jardine of Queen Mary College, London, carried out a piece of research to mark the tenth anniversary of the Orange Prize for fiction. They surveyed 100 academics, critics and writers – the people they felt were most likely to be well-read and have the most influential opinions about literature to find out their attitudes to the gender of authors.

They found that while women read writers of both sexes quite happily, most men did not. Four out of five men had most recently finished a book by a male, and most had trouble remembering the last novel by a female writer they had read.

Wanting to see if this held true in the Malaysian context, I carried out a small scale survey on my blog and found much the same results. Asked to say what they were currently reading, over 80% of the men said that they were engrossed in a book by a male author. However, unlike the sample interviewed in Britain, most said that they did read women writers and were able to recall the last book they’d read by one.

For most men, Watkins and Jardine concluded, great writing is male writing and they find it more difficult to like or admire a novel authored by a woman. This held true for one or two of my blog readers. “I don’t think women can write like Marquez, Nabokov or Gunther Grass,” wrote one blogger known as Greenbottle, “to me these guys write as though with penis instead of pen, full of masculine animal energy.” He felt that many women writers, on the other hand, tended to produce “saccharine, wimpy or effeminate writing”. Another blogger, Amir, felt that “prose written by a lot of female authors tends to be, how do you say it? Delicate? Detailed? Ditzy?”.

More worrying is that these prejudices also appear to extend to those who make recommendations about the best books to read and influence buying habits. Of 56 books suggested by male celebrities in the Observer’s summer reading list in 2003, only 6 were by women. A tally of Time magazine’s 100 All-time Novels chosen by critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo and published earlier this year listed only 10 novels by women writers. (Closer to home, see how many articles about women writers you can find in the archives of the Silverfish litmag!) You can’t help but wonder whether women writers are playing on an even playing field.

Now, I’m certainly not one to press for political correctness at the expense of literary merit, and I fully recognise that male readers of fiction are in any case an endangered species (author Ian McEwan went as far as to say that when women stop reading, the novel will be dead).

But if your reading diet has hitherto consisted almost entirely of male writers, perhaps it’s time, at last, to give women a chance?


YTSL said...

Very interesting piece and observations! And FWIW, think that this can be the same with movies. Similarly, the feeling I get is that it might not only be the gender of the author/director that matters for some but, also, that of the protagonist.

Alternatively put: It seems that most females have been socialized to be able to imagine themselves as/in the shoes of males but few males have been socialized to be able to imagine themselves as -- and in doing so, empathize with -- females.

On a cheerier note: I've been surprised (when reading up on Enid Blyton for my blog pieces on her) to find that, especially among Malaysians it seems, there are quite a few males as well as females who admit to having read and enjoyed her books... :)

Amir Muhammad said...

i am reading joan didion's "the year of magical thinking" and just realised it's the first book by a woman i've read in many a moon. this is my first didion but it won't be the last.

i used to read bret easton ellis back in the day but didn't feel like picking up didion's stuff even though he said repeatedly that she was a major influence.

in malay writing, fatimah busu is better than almost all the (male) national laureates.

Anonymous said...

Sharon, you've set me thinking.
Only one female author made my top 10 list - Margaret Forster, Have The Men Had Enough?
In reading books, I don't give much thought to whether a man or a woman wrote the book. I look for the issues, the quirkiness and unpredictability, freshness, intelligence, whether the book leaves haunting images in my mind, and whether I can identify with the characters.
Strange that I can identify more with a Murakami protaganist than many chick lit protaganists. But the latter leave me impatient with these whinny women - for God's sake, there's more to life than Prada or the insults of bitchy women. Murakami protaganists takes things more in their stride and appear the stronger for it.
Can I ask the provocative question: Today, do men fiction writers dare to go deeper and tackle more serious issues than women writers?
On a more positive note, if you should poll based on childrens' books, women writers may come out tops. Try it.

Anonymous said...

Actually you can't sort of lump all male readers/writers in one category, or all female writers/readers either.

Anonymous said...

You've set me thinking too, Sharon. Looking back over the past few years the majority of books that I've read have been by men. This has not been deliberate as I usually choose books by the story precis on the cover or by blog and newspaper reviews not by the sex of the author.

I guess i don't really enjoy books by women and I don't know why. I don't like macho 'thriller' novels so that's not the reason, I know I don't like many Australian female novelists because I feel their books too often tend to be 'navel gazers'. (Does that phrase mean anything to you? Books that are too narrowly focused.)

Women are strongly represented in fiction publishing in Australia (both as authors and publishers) and 75% of books bought in Australia are bought by women.

gnute said...

Animah, are you thinking only of chick lit when referring to female writers?

What of Zadie Smith, Janet Frame, Iris Murdoch, Ursula Leguin, Virginia Woolf, Nadine Gordimer (and countless others)?

KayKay said...

I for one, have rarely cared about an authors' gender when I pick up a book, especially since so many female authors have demonstrated awesome prowess in traditionally male-dominated genres. My only prejudice ( and I admit to it possibly being a gender biased one) is the tendency of some female writers to give short shrift to their male characters or paint them in broad (often uncomplimentary) strokes. Case in point, just finished Isabel Allende's Zorro. Great writing as always but in typical Allende fashion, quirkily eccentric female characters dominate a tale that should have focused on the titular hero.

bibliobibuli said...

it's an interesting question and one i know will keep knocking around in my head. (i think it's already good that we're talking about the issue)

the list of favourite books i sent off to the star had 9 favourite male authors - and the only woman on my list was annie proulx who writes like a bloke anyway! now what does that show? (was dithering about atwood but in the end she didn't make it through)

amir - yes i bought "the year of magical thinking" in a recent warehouse sale, but put it down after a few chapters because it made me feel so sad. i should try to read fatimah busu

ystl - you could well be right about movies ... interesting

kaykay is an incredibly open-minded reader - has to have been to survive our book-club choices!!!

gnute, anon - well pointed out!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if my comments will be read, but I think it is not a the gender of the writer that is in question but rather than how they write it. Most of the time, I do not look at the sex of the writer when I pick up a book, but the book that interests me tends to be written by men.
The last book that I read that was written by a woman is a chick-lit "The Devil Wears Prada". The last one that has some substance is "Fear of Flying". Other than that I can't remember any other book except for the one that I pick from library when I was a child "Are you there God? It's me, Margaret." which I found the secrets of females.

bibliobibuli said...

hi secrethistory - thanks for adding even more to the debate. i think we just need reminding to examine our choices from time to time and check ourselves for prejudice. taste is another thing entirely ... no-one can blame us for what we like

Amir Hafizi said...

Enid Blyton is okay. JK Rowling can kiss my ass.

Delicate? Detailed? Ditzy? Muahahahahaha.

I'll sue you, Sharon. Then we can see each other more often - in court.


bibliobibuli said...

sue away m'dear!!!