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Why Men Don’t Read and Review Books by Women.

March 18, 2013

The VIDA statistics on the gender balance continue to reveal just how skewed major magazines and journals continue to be in their coverage of books.  Some  have started to include more books by women and women book reviewers, but I am ready to cancel my subscription to The New York Review of Books with less than 10% of the books it reviewed by women and The Nation with about 20%.  Perhaps some of the imbalance reflects the fact that as long as we live in a gendered world woman and men will frequetly choose to write and read differently.  Perhaps the way in some publishers are resorting to marketing “women’s books” as a predictable genre contributes to making women authors taboo.  But many books by women are anything but genre books.  Like the best books by men, they have artistic merit and convey deep human characteristics, often through the particular lens of the gender of their authors.  Today women can be as knowledgeable as men in nonfictional presentations .  Why aren’t these books being reviewed?  Why aren’t women, who might be more sensitive to such books, among reviewers?

At a basic level, some men aren’t very interested in woman generally and therefore are not interested in reading books about them, which men assume, falsely, included anything written by a woman.  Men may care for a particular wife or mother, or they not may not, but they have little interest in women generally or what women do when with each other.  Thankfully, not all men are like this, but many seem to remain so, and they receive cultural sanction for their bias with the exclusion of books by women in major journals.

For several centuries Western and (probably other) Civilizations have taught us all that the male experience is the norm–the white male experience to be specific.  What it means to be human is all too often is defined as doing the things men typically do.  The word and the concept of “virtue” even derive from the Latin word for male.  Traditionally, bravery is a fine virtue, but nurturance and the care for others are not.   The same “false universalization” appears in literature and the traditionally literary cannon.   Quest plots, literal and symbolic, are highly regarded, and domestic ones are considered trite.  A book about the complex bonds of a mother and daughter seems irrelevant, but not one about father and son or even mother and son.   Devaluation of women and their prescribed roles leads to a devaluation of women andtheir writing.

Even worse than the way men ignore women’s writing is the way that women have been taught to follow their example.  Most of us have been taught in public schools, college, and grad school that the great writers are men and that the way they write is best, with some variations over time.  We were taught about a few women who were the perennial “exceptions,” who were never viewed as challenging the male tradition.  Women have learned to identify with male characters, and noting the absence or trivialization or women, to devalue ourselves as women.  We are encouraged to believe that we only succeed by being like and better than the men.  But men are not taught to identify with female experiences or to imagine what it would be like to experience life as women do.

We desperately need to revise how and what we teach as literature in our schools, so that both genders can imaginatively explore what it would be like to be the other.  Those of us long past graduation need books critics who can guide us all to appreciate the writings of women as well as men.  As VIDA makes clear, major literary journals are failing at that task.  The men who write and publish book reviews have a blind spot about the value of the unique perspective women are adding to the literary world.  Hiring some female reviewers and covering more books written by women would contribute to changing a vital, but still sexist aspect of our society.  If they don’t, maybe we need to create more and better book reviewing sources on-and-offline that focus on reviewing books by women.  Till something changes, perhaps we can only continue to rely on each other’s book blogs to find the best in women’s writing.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Jennifer Rolfe permalink
    March 18, 2013 6:41 pm

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I totally agree with everything you have written. Thank you for expressing it in such a succinct way. I really hate the term “chic lit” which I feel is the dismissive term for books by and for women and really are outside mainstream literature. I am also tired of being accused of essentialism whenever I try to discuss the gender divide as well!

  2. March 18, 2013 7:29 pm

    I absolutely agree with you. I am SO SO SO sick and tired of defending the right of women to have a female voice in literature and the right to criticise its lack in the dominant (white Anglo Saxon male) discourse. I have to fight this battle each and every time I teach creative writing and present writing by women … the ‘men’s writing’ passes by without a hitch of course. Men find anything written about the lives and experiences of women as ‘boring.’ A case in point is a short story I use by Olga Masters called The Home Girls. The characters are all female, and it is a glimpse into the terrible life of orphan girls in1960’s Australia. You know what many men have said about it? ‘Nothing happens’ and ‘boring’. In fact, the subplot is stunning, hints at sexual abuse and for women is often very hard hitting. Men on the other hand, find it boring because for once the plot does nothing to titillate them or place the women in the story in the position of the one desired. In another words, a story by a woman that fails to give a man a hard on, fails to ‘objectify’ the female is boring! This story has no sex, no mutilation of female bodies, no rape, no murder, not even any romance however soppy and ‘chic lit’ like! Men so need to get a handle on this sexist attitude, and many male academics are just as blindly ignorant as all of their Neanderthal forebears.

    • March 19, 2013 11:59 pm

      Oh good for you loresvera … love Olga Masters and have read, yolks ago, The home girls. (I think that was the title story of a collection wasn’t it?).

      • March 21, 2013 3:23 am

        Yes whipserggums, the Home Girls is the name of the collection as well as the title of the first short story in it.

    • March 22, 2013 5:11 pm

      Thanks for sharing your observations. And for your work on the front lines of trying to expand people’s assumptions about gender.

  3. March 18, 2013 7:30 pm

    Oh, and the idea of a ‘chic flick’ also shits me no end.

  4. March 18, 2013 9:58 pm

    If you do cancel your subscriptions, you should definitely tell them why. I don’t subscribe to any of them, so I can’t do that!

    I have been considering subscribing to Granta though and the fact that they have a relatively equal gender balance in contrast to the others adds to my interest.

    • March 22, 2013 5:06 pm

      Of course. I am trying to send them a copy of this post anyway.

  5. March 20, 2013 12:06 am

    Great post Marilyn … can’t add anything to it except to say that it’s great seeing some male reviewers taking an active part in the AWW Challenge. They are a minority of course but they are thoughtful men showing a real enjoyment in the works they read.

    You are so right about how we were just expected to identify with male experience and the thought that we might like to identify with female experience was and is seen as pretty trivial. It’s gobsmacking really but the causes are so complex – so economic to start with – that it’s clearly really hard to unpick. We just have to keep plugging away as best we can in every little and big way we can.

    • March 22, 2013 5:08 pm

      I am also heartened to see books written by men that reveal real understanding of what it means to be a woman–like Abundance that I just reviewed. It may be a coincidence, but the ones I’ve noted are not white men.

  6. Book squirrel permalink
    April 10, 2013 3:39 pm

    I stumbled on your blog today and really enjoying it. Very incisive blog post and highlights an issue that has never really gone away despite being in the 21st century. It still disappoints me that so many men have so little interest in writings by half the population and dismiss them as minor and too domestic. Time and again I see male writers and reviewers referring to the same writers over and over again as the ones that have inspired them – Roth, Updike, Hemingway, Ford etc. Don’t get me wrong I like some of the books of thoese writers but there are rarely even any mention of male writers that aren’t white, no Walcott, Mistry even. The only female writer that seem to inspire any reaction is Ayn Rand who was very male-identified and I think that’s why she is popular with male readers.

  7. April 15, 2013 6:59 pm

    Great post. All the reviews I read are off blogs and goodreads. I’d rather read these reviews because I believe they give a better indication of whether or not I’ll like the book. I do think schools have a major role to play in this and they need to step up. I find it a great sadness that people dismiss YA and children’s books, thinking them lowly and not as important as adult books, because there is some great literature in this age group and it is an area where women writers really shine. (Another reason it is considered less important is because it is dominated by women writers.)
    I am hoping the future will be different, but for now we have to do what women have always had to do: keep fighting.

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