Monday, September 27, 2010

Reading and Gender

It's interesting to me how much we end up discussing our gender when it comes to reading, books, and the coverage books get. One of the most recent discussions was the mass amount of coverage Jonathan Franzen received which inspired some of our well known and beloved female authors of popular fiction to cry foul. And do you know what ensued? All kinds of talk, a lot of which didn't seem terribly productive to me. I personally felt annoyed by the dust-up...not by the many wonderful and thoughtful posts female authors wrote but because I sort of agreed. I had no idea who this Franzen guy was, why we were talking about him, and why I was being told He. Mattered. Which I guess goes to show I fall on the side of popular fiction. I fully support the idea of reviewing lesser known fiction, what turns me off is when reviewers and media try to manufacture a sense of excitement about books that is not springing genuinely from within the culture. It was especially a turn-off because there WAS a book at the time, Mockingjay, that was generating true excitement among readers but I'm guessing it couldn't possibly be taken seriously because it was A) YA, B) By a woman, and C) Speculative Fiction.

Jennifer Weiner wrote a follow-up post addressing more the issue of popular fiction getting reviewed and it made me cry. I feel as if I really understand what she's saying, and I get it. And she wrote it so eloquently, this is the part that moved me to tears:

The message: McMillan's book doesn’t really matter. Her readers aren’t worth talking to.

And when the paper of record tells its readers, through silence and omission, that some stories, some writers, some readers matter more than others and some stories, some writers, some readers, don’t matter at all, then yes, I’ve got a problem with that.

Maybe it’s because I used to be a newspaper reporter, and continue to cling to the belief that newspapers matter. Maybe it’s because I’ve got daughters, and if either of them is lucky or cursed enough to be a writer, I’d like to think that their books won't have to clear the hurdles of built-in assumptions about the value of women's work.

Or maybe it’s the way gay couples felt when the Times started including their photographs and wedding announcement in the Sunday Styles section. Yes, their unions were legitimate and binding even without the paper’s coverage, and yes, their friends and loved ones always knew the truth about their commitment, but it’s nice to be seen as part of the official record, to have no less an entity than the New York Times say, “You know what? You’re part of the story. You belong here, too.”
Read the whole thing.

Soooo..I haven't been able to stop thinking about that piece since I read it. And then this week I started reading posts about boys and how teen boys aren't reading. There are no books for the teen boys to read is the general cry, nothing of interest! I actually think this comes down to a few separate issues, but I can't help but look at these two stories and ideas and shake my head in wonder. Anyway, I read this post by Maureen Johnson linked to by more people than I can remember and I realized, "oh my gosh, she's right!" I thought back to high school and required reading and the only two works by females that I can remember that we ALL had to read were "My Antonia" and "Raisin in the Sun" Everything else, even in French class, was by men. (well except for maybe a few poems) I was actually shocked by the revelation, first that I never noticed and secondly that women can be so ignored. So if this is still going strong today, than we have a lot of work to do.

I have to admit some frustration with the idea about all YA lit being for girls. I actually heard a dad say something to his son about this in the independent bookstore a few months ago, about how all the covers looked girly. But I admit I fail to understand why a girl as a main character is a reason a boy can't read a book. I ran into this with The Fiddler's Gun discussions--this is a book written by a man, most of the characters in the book are men, and the main character that is yes, a girl, doesn't care about "acting like a girl" and yet several people felt they couldn't recommend this book to boys, because the main character is a girl. Seriously? I just don't think anyone worried about recommending Harry Potter to young girls because Harry is a he.

Anyway, when looking through discussions on this topic, I noticed that apparently boys get teased for liking to read. Would any men who read this care to weigh in? Was reading social death for you in high school?

What makes me sad about this particular conversation is that it inevitably falls into an attack of what IS available. Too much paranormal romance, etc. Can we have this conversation without attacking this one little area where female writers have achieved success and where, THANK GOD, girls are reading! And for the love of God, don't tell me boys don't like Twilight, I know that to be a lie.

I am curious as to why boys aren't reading, though. I don't fully buy the idea that it's for lack of interesting books, and this article suggests there is no literacy gap in homeschooled families. (I like a lot of this article, I'm only unsure the problem is video games) Does our society send a strong message about reading and boys, something that gets delivered from peer to peer?

Finally, I have seen many say the solution is gender neutral covers. Actually this is an idea I can support. I think book covers should focus more on thematic elements of the books. The reason for this is that despite our best intentions, we form opinions about books based on the cover. Let's remove this chance to be prejudiced whether it's against gender or race (covers without faces is an oft suggested solution for white washing as well), let's skip the superficial characteristics of the book, and let a book sell itself as a story for everyone based on the universal truths it's sure to to convey. Look at The Hunger Games covers or Twilight. These covers focus on the thematic elements of the books and invite readership from all. I'm not saying that we'd have to do this if we lived in an ideal world. We don't. I do believe, however, that books are especially powerful in helping us to overcome or confront our prejudices. Story communicates in its own unique way. Let's give books every chance to be for everyone by adorning them with covers that speak to their universal appeal and truth.


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