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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Gendered Reading, Again. And the Brontes are not 'Wallpaper'

This article from the Globe and Mail, is disturbing for how many generalisations it makes concerning the reading habits of men and women. It references the poll taken earlier this year of the most influential novels in which the Brontes stood out on the list of the women who were polled, while the men hardly listed any book written by a woman. Of course, there's this brief disclaimer:

Publishers and educators say they don't like to generalize about the tastes of half the population, but they will speculate as to why women prefer fiction, and are ready to debate both the social and the literary implications.

Then follows a lot of such speculation and generalisation, such as:

Reading fiction involves empathizing with the characters, and thus draws on women's traditional emotional strengths. Men, on the other hand, turn to non-fiction to learn about the world around them.

[...]

Literature has veered away from story to be about psychology; male writers are as responsible for that as women . . . but I do think men are interested in things, why things work, why things happen, and men look for more comedy in fiction. We [men] are bored by the earnestness of contemporary fiction.

[...]

Smith finds Canadian fiction particularly earnest and says the typical Canadian novel is one that appeals to women with a story of family, memory and loss. He's concerned that the success of these “women's novels” is limiting the kind of fiction that gets published here.

“Guys look for ideas,” says Smith. “Very intelligent men I talk to, none of them read fiction. It's girl stuff: hundreds and hundreds of pages of feelings. To think that no one perceives fiction as being about ideas is depressing.”

The debate is still alive, but this article goes all over the map, dissecting Canadian book-buying trends which do not prove much. Canadians are very poor book buyers. This past year I worked for a publisher and also heard from many people in the industry. It is a total mess at the moment: no one is buying books. And possibly this is not because we are not reading. When our only book chain refers to books as 'wallpaper' in the industry- material to spead along the walls of the store- is it any wonder that after picking up enough trash hailed as 'a masterpiece!' we Canadians begin to turn away?

To illustrate, we have a bookstore which takes up a corner of the mall. Half of the floor space is taken up with a Starbucks, and what could be an... Ikea store? There are all kinds of useless and unidentifiable household items, stationary, stuffed animals and glassware- nothing, in short, to do with books. Another large section is given to a fake fireplace (full-sized) and chairs for reading what no one is willing to buy. And, did I mention, the full sized children's play castle? In this BOOKstore, you cannot find many of the works of Dickens no matter how you try. Gaskell? Very funny. And the Brontes? Two copies each of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, with a token volume of the juvenilia. And perhaps more shocking and illustrative- I could not find any works by Jane Austen either, but I did find the sexed-up spin-offs.

I last left the store determined never to return when they did away entirely with the 'classics' section. This chain- Chapters Indigo- has 70% of the market, and literally dictates what gets published. In some cases publishers refer to the company before approving a manuscript. Women reading more fiction than men could be explained in so many other ways. Perhaps women are more likely to congregate at the Starbucks? But, believe me, it has nothing to do with how men and women think and read.

9 comments:

mandyjoy said...

Ah! I know all about those 'bookstores'! I recentley went to a giant two story mega-bookstore, complete with coffeshop, escalator, I think even icecream...the only Bronte books they had were Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and walls and walls of shlop. Whenever I purchase anything remotely resembling literature, the cashier will eye it and ask me, "a little summer reading for school?.."
No, just for my jollies mam.

Brontëana said...

Well, at least ours hires cash-strapped English majors. Lends an air of respectability to the establishment ;)

That reminds me of an incident involving a friend of mine. She went to work one day with the game booklet from SIMs or something of the sort, and Jane Eyre. Someone inquired about what she was doing with them and she replied: "One is for pleasure and one is for study."
"Oh? What class are you studying Jane Eyre in?"
"That one's for pleasure."

But seriously, I had to spell 'Jane Eyre' for the English major clerk. She was going to type in 'Jane Air'. *facepalm*
The co-worker backed away slowly ;)

mysticgypsy said...

Um..we can't forget the fact that males wrote many of the famous novels of English Literature as well. What are we to make of Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy and Tolstoy?

Were they not men?

If they can write such novels, why can't other men read them? Has the difference in time-period changed how men feel? Surely there must be more than a few traits that make us uniquely human regardless of time!

Brontëana said...

to mysticgypsy:

Following their line of thinking, I would suppose that they would begin to argue that men WRITE not READ novels- writing being the more manly and active process, reading being the feminine passive reception.

Humph!

mysticgypsy said...

"writing being the more manly and active process, reading being the feminine passive reception."

If writing is perceived as manly, then it should follow that writers such as the Brontes, Eliot, and Gaskell were "manly" too, since they wrote, thinking actively instead of merely reading. If the issue is that what they wrote concerned with feelings, then it seems like it is these men who make these claims who are the narrow-minded chauvinists.

Brontëana said...

They would be, if they were not the victims of my snark alone. I don't think they realise it but when you start making claims about women being concerned only about feelings, and men about action you drift in the direction of women are passive, while men are active.

marshalsea said...

The Brontes belong to the gothic novel (not to mention the Classics) canon.
I know a lot of male and female readers that gravitate towards this particular 'genre'.

The Brontes as well as the likes of Radcliffe, Walpole, 'Monk' Lewis etc all encompass so many themes, issues and styles within their respective novels, that it's extremely foolish to single out their work for a particular gender.

Could it be that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are both nowadays thought of as romance novels first and foremost?

If so why should male readers shy away from romance? But I think that’s another matter altogether, what I really find puzzling are the inaccurate and false impressions that these articles give out about the Classics.

I've always wondered why these type of articles don't ever mention that Jane Eyre contains bullying, isolation, incarceration, dead schoolchildren, myths (Gytrash et al.) a madwoman, a burning building and a disfigured lover amongst other things?

Or that Wuthering Heights has one of the main narrators of the novel - albeit in a dream; no matter how lucid, harm a child ghost and actually make it bleed; "I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes".

How vivid and shocking an image is that? How many ghosts bleed, let alone a child ghost?

If they want a certain section of the male population to read these novels that they otherwise wouldn't give a second glance to – then perhaps they need to get rid of these sketchy and false summaries and plan out a better and far more faithful synopsis.

Being a male reader of these Classics, it’s extremely infuriating that gender seems to play a role in choosing what to read; you’ll only be depriving yourself of so many treasures if that were to be the case.

mysticgypsy said...

"Could it be that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are both nowadays thought of as romance novels first and foremost?"
This is a possilbe reason, although according to what I've read in terms of literary criticism, there seems to have been such a revival of the Brontes' works in the 1930s and 1940s. Feminism seemed to have dominated the stage in the 1960s and well into the 1970s, and although it has died down in the 1990s, it still continues to exert its pull in the 21st century.

Does this follow that feminist studies should attract more female critics than male? Should literary criticism not apply equally to critics of both genders?

Or is this simply a matter of more women majoring and pursuing fields in Literature as opposed to men?


then perhaps they need to get rid of these sketchy and false summaries and plan out a better and far more faithful synopsis.

This is a good suggestion!

Ren said...

...Is this why most writers of literary analysis are male?


It's nice to see each half of the population put down on paper so neatly.

Why write fiction if we're so easily explained?