15 January 2004

Are You a Sexist Reader?

Jessa at Bookslut says:
The folks at Readerville are discussing the "news" that New York Times Book Review is sexist. The discussion has gotten pretty heated, and they've gone so far as to do a breakdown of how many men v. how many women are published by various publishers. The results are pretty surprising.

It's difficult for me to formulate a response as my own reading habits are pretty damn sexist, too. In fact, just a woman's name on the spine means I'm more likely to pass it up. My own inherent sexism, I suppose. (Although nothing in the world makes me pass up a book faster than a woman protagonist written by a man.)
The discussion continues, with screenloads of commentary, here.

I'm wary of entering the discussion at all, because much of me thinks it's ... well, balderdash would be a good word for it.

And yet...

When I was in high school, I sent a letter (remember those?) to a friend who was finishing her doctorate, naming my favorite writers. She asked, "Where are the women?" I was stunned. It had never occurred to me before. I mostly read men.

I felt guilty. I hated my parochialism, my paternalism, my patriarchal values, and all those other p-words I'd only recently learned.

Ever since then, I've been aware of my reading, and have deliberately tried to read more women authors. There are female writers I adore -- Woolf, Carole Maso, Grace Paley, and the majority of women writing SF -- and there are other female writers I respect and read a lot of, though have reservations about much of their work (Joyce Carol Oates).

But. I still mostly read things by men. Most of the writers I keep in my mind as touchstones -- from Shakespeare and Chekhov to Delany -- are men.

There are plenty of ways to read such a situation. We could identify social and cultural factors, we could deconstruct our habits, we could indict marketing directors and editors and art directors and bookstore owners and everyone who has ever been in contact with a man. We could get all reactionary and blame women, or we could write for the National Review and claim it's all because of biology, that women are inherently inferior to men.

But. None of it will truly answer the question or solve the problem. A combination of reasons and explanations might get close. But...

Inevitably, what we read boils down to making choices and distinctions. I could further flagellate myself by noting that the majority of the writers I read are not only men, but white men. Mostly heterosexual men, which should make the least amount of sense, since I'm bisexual (ugh, hate that label). I could create quotas and reading lists for myself (at times, I have), but then I'd be reading because I felt like it was Good For Me, and I'd resent it.

The question for me is less about the gender, race, sexual orientation, political affinity, or any other aspect of a writer than it is about me as a reader, because there are ways to read without being a sexist while at the same time reading mostly works of one biological type of writer over another type.

Is that an excuse? It sounds like an excuse.

Let me say then, more simply, that while my choice of reading may be, ostensibly, sexist and racist and heterosexist, I usually don't fall into the trap of saying things such as "[N]othing in the world makes me pass up a book faster than a woman protagonist written by a man", a sentence I find horrifying. Of course, we're all welcome to our own predilictions, quirks, quibbles, and tendencies ... but to make such a statement immediately causes a reader to move toward the conclusion that the writer thinks it is impossible for a man to write from a woman's perspective, and, for that matter, none should try. (I have no idea if Jessa Crispin thinks this or not, and I may be overly sensitive, but it's how I interpreted what she wrote.)

Not being exactly a woman, I can't say whether there is such a thing as a convincing female protagonist written by a man. There are plenty that have convinced me, but, as we know from my reading habits, I'm a sexist, racist pig.

However, I do know that women have written men quite effectively. The aforementioned Joyce Carol Oates is a perfect example -- read her Wonderland for a vivid example.

I don't support the sort of censorship of imagination which says, "You must write about only what you know and what you are." Russell Banks spoke to this ghettoizing of the imagination as it pertains to ethnicity and nationality in an article for Harper's in which he called for a new kind of "creole literature:
We're fast becoming a Balkanized cluster of small colonies of the separately saved. Already we can see white writers in America getting whiter, as it were, especially among the youngest generation of novelists and story writers, who appear increasingly to live in the literary equivalent of a racially segregated, gated community. Consider, for instance, the works of the most gifted and ambitious of the newest generation of novelists: Michael Cunningham, Rick Moody, and David Foster Wallace. And black writers appear to be getting blacker; even the best of them have shown an increasing tendency to preach to the choir (Toni Morrison's last two novels, Jazz and Paradise, for instance, have higher walls around them than did the more inclusive Beloved and Song of Solomon). Maybe it's payback time. But whatever the reason, most non-white writers--African, Asian-, Latino-, and Native- alike--seem reluctant to tell stories about the rest of us; while most white writers have simply become frightened, as if it were politically incorrect, to tell stories about anyone but themselves.
So where does all this rambling on my part leave us? I don't know about you, but I'm feeling unresolved. Still thinking. Perhaps that's how it should be.

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