I had a friend, an avid reader, who said something several years ago that stuck with me. It may not sound very enlightened, particularly if you’re predisposed to enjoying 20th century women’s fiction. I don’t like to name names…well, it was Brian Forte, but let’s call him “Frank,” to protect his reputation. (He doesn’t read this blog, so we’re fine).
“I just don’t really like chick books,” Frank declared one day when we were all over a friend’s house watching The Office or something. “You know, Jane Austen, that kind of stuff? I just don’t really like it!” I didn’t know how to answer him, so I honestly think I didn’t respond at all (so if he was trying to rile a response from me, it didn’t work).
Later that night I thought how I should have quipped something like, “oh no, I understand, it’s how I feel about having to read all those dude books about war – really gets on my nerves too, probably the same thing.” I always think of something to say hours, maybe days later, long after there’s any point in coming up with anything.
(Hoping that I wasn’t the only person who does this, I mentioned this habit to my boyfriend, who quipped without blinking that he’s still coming up with comebacks to things said to him in middle school. So, if you do this too, you are not alone!)
But thinking about it now, many years afterwards, I don’t know that coming up with a sharp comeback for Frank would have been particularly helpful or fair. After all, while it’s near impossible for women to avoid men’s perspectives (thousands of pages of books written by men, so many TV shows and movies written by men, which are usually also directed by men, heck, even the ads in between have usually been written and directed by men), it’s actually pretty easy for men to avoid reading women’s literature if they want to, and often men seem to be raised to think that they should want to.
Obviously, these are broad generalizations. There are plenty of men that read women’s writing on a regular basis. But an article I found online recently (posted by Labryinth Books in Princeton, which is a bookstore you should visit if you’re ever traveling through the town of Princeton) suggested that the trend of men reading other men is not a relic of the 20th century but one that is still very much a part of the here and now: https://www.bustle.com/p/a-breakdown-of-by-the-book-columns-shows-that-male-authors-are-four-times-more-likely-to-recommend-books-by-men-than-by-women-10244493.
And really, it’s not just men, is it? We’re pretty conditioned to stick with our own demographic when picking books, movies, magazines, all kinds of things. Writing this blogpost has brought back a memory that has stuck with me over the years, despite happening almost 18 years ago and sounding perhaps insignificant.
My first job, all throughout college, was working as a bank teller in a bank located in a grocery store, right between the pharmacy counter and the magazine rack. On my lunch break, I had bought a magazine I wasn’t familiar with that had some actress on the cover I admired – maybe Susan Sarandon?
After getting back to the office with my lunch and my magazine, I realized belatedly that the magazine I had bought was intended for women over 50 years old. I was embarrassed for having bought it – why? It seems silly now – no one cares what magazine the bank teller on her break is reading. I guess because it “wasn’t for me.” I hurriedly said something to our security guard, Tito, who was also having his lunch in the office.
“I mistakenly bought this magazine for old ladies without realizing it, oops!” I said, rolling my eyes, trying to make him laugh so that he wouldn’t think me weird for having bought it. But instead of laughing, he paused for a minute and said thoughtfully, “well, you’ll be older eventually, don’t you want to know what to expect?”
Well, I hadn’t expected that. “I mean, I guess so,” I think I answered, or some other 18-year-old approximation of that response. But I remember the next thing he said as though it were yesterday.
“Besides,” he continued after a beat, looking at my steadily, “I think it’s a good idea to read things that aren’t meant for you.”
My parents could have saved a tremendous amount on my college tuition by just having me talk to Tito about magazines at the bank instead, because that conversation has stuck with me in so many of my choices, even down to who to follow on Twitter, 17 years later.
But even with his words floating back in my head, it’s so so easy to fall back in the habit of reading books by authors of my age/gender/race, not to mention watching movies about characters about women like me, TV shows about women like me, etc. etc. etc. The world likes to push us into boxes, and it seems like we have to be constantly consciously pushing ourselves out of those boxes again.
So I’m kinder now to men like Frank when they mostly don’t read women’s books or haven’t found women writers they connect with yet. As Lauren Groff mentions in the article I linked above, something more is afoot than simple misogyny, which is easy to blame but isn’t really the story (most of the time). It’s always more complicated than that!
One of the questions this always brings up for me, particularly when you’re talking about a century when women began to publish more but most people in decision-making positions were still men, is this: did and do women write differently in an effort to entice men to accept and publish what they write? Would women novelists write differently for a gender-non-specific audience of publishers?
Are these even worthwhile hypothetical questions to ponder, or should I just start reading Octavia Butler’s Kindred?