The OF Blog: "Not for me"

Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Not for me"

It seems my post just below about the EW 100 list of "greatest novels of the past 25 years" struck a raw nerve. I won't deny that many of my comments came across as being rather abrasive. Nor will I fail to note that with intentional irony that such comments display self-ignorance in regards to the vast numbers of books I hadn't heard of or barely knew even the title. But one reaction, virulent as it was, I think brings up a fault line:

Could you be any more patronizing and dismissive towards women author who write primarily about and for women if you tried? Not chick lit (Bridget Jones) but Joy Luck Club? Bel Canto? The Year of Magical Thinking? Birds of America? And how have you managed to avoid even hearing about Persopolis and FUn Home?

I suggest you go back to your ever so charming list and look at the ways you said "no" to books by women and by men, because you come across here as a someone who thinks himself far better that that tatty little books for women -- in other words, a sexist stuck-up snob.
While I can understand (if not agree with) how a cursory glance at those curt comments in isolation might lead to such accusations, this responder brings up something that I think is well worth considering before any odd and sundry epithets are tossed about cavalierly. If as a relatively young (early-to-mid 30s) male, I come across something that apparently was "not for me," either by its subject matter being intended for a different audience and I note it (say in a more polite fashion than how my comments were construed as being), would it be "sexist" to shrug and read something else? If something is "not for me" in its aims and/or marketing and I follow that by not paying attention to it, does it automatically make me "sexist?"

Perhaps, perhaps not, if that is all that is known. Keeping in mind all along that the comments from the late night were meant more to play off of vague awarenesses of intended audiences (and sometimes-silly titles), if I were to read a work "not for me" and failed to understand such a work and I stated that it "wasn't for me," would there also be a backlash? If I were posting that list now, I probably would have stated openly at the beginning (well, even more openly, I suppose) that I was going to mock titles of books I knew little to nothing about, just because I was bored and wanted to do so. But I also would have made it quite clear that apparently such a list was mostly "not for me" because the apparent common values, recognitions, and so forth were never presented as being for me. Staid bourgeois novels are great for some; I tend to feel excluded from the narratives they tell. Most of the books on that list seem to fall into that broad category of being "bourgeois," from what little I've heard.

It seemed strange to some in the comments to that post that I hadn't heard of X, Y, or Z, despite apparently being well-read in other areas. It really isn't surprising to me, though. I don't read many magazines these days, outside of National Geographic and occasionally a few haute couture periodicals such as The Atlantic or Harper's. I don't watch much TV, and thus I only hear about certain "book club" selections weeks or months afterwards. In an odd way, when I'm not actively searching for something, whole subgenres slide past me. I'm not part of their intended market audience.

Furthermore, based on the sampling (around 1/5 of that list) that I've read, most of those books do seem to be, as that one irate replier stated, "primarily about and for women." In particular, about bourgeois women, if I had to guess based on the few that I've read. There is nothing "wrong" about it and in fact (which may or may not come as a surprise to the commenter) I have read and enjoyed some of those books. However, it was a struggle for me at times, akin to reading a foreign language. There were codes embedded in those narratives that I "got," and those that I did not. So it goes. But if, and this is a big if here, such narratives unintentionally or intentionally exclude 48% of the general populace and that percent is left feeling, for whatever reason, that the book is "not for me," then how difficult is it going to be for that reader (male, in my particular case, but say female in the cases of those who try to read certain "men's literature" books and fail to grasp its appeal) to try a second time?

I am not defending my reading habits (if I were, my reading preferences might surprise those expecting an easy pattern to decipher), only noting the difficulties on occasion. But it is interesting to observe the defensiveness in that quoted comment. If it's "not for me," then is it "pathetic to me?" Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the ire of that one person, but her presumption there is intriguing to me. Could it be that this is more of an issue of "otherness" and how "alien" writings/thoughts/symbols are threatening? Of how what seems to be "natural" to me is but "blindness" to another? Possibly. I have a relatively privileged background; I'm more aware of it having worked most of my life in so-called "feminine jobs" (teaching, social services). But being aware does not automatically translate into grasping fully what others are experiencing; there are still "blind spots." So perhaps even if I had restated the curt comments into saying "not for me," it would have been viewed not just as an acknowledgment that I would have a much more difficult time in processing and enjoying such books, but that it would be taken as being "dismissive," as the poster labels it.

It is something worth considering at some length, I believe. I do try to read more than just my "comfort zones," but damn is it ever difficult on occasion to step into places where the intended writing message(s) is/are "not for me." Sometimes, certain value assumptions I'm presumed to have, despite whatever may or may not be the conscious/subconscious case. Regardless, that list was not compiled for me - it is for a different target audience. It certainly does not represent me or many others.


Mike said...

If I'm not mistaken, and call me on it if I am, but historically speaking (we're talking 19th Century here) wasn't the novel typically seen as being written for women and, in particular, bourgeois women. Further, if I'm remembering correctly from Frank L. Mott's Golden Multitudes, the early genesis of the American book club was directed at women as well (no surprise given a certain Oprah's current dominance in directing reading interests there). All of which makes PW's choice of book apparently directed at "bourgeois women" interesting from both a historic and sociological perspective. You know the old cliche: "The more things change..."

themadmanx said...

Oops...forgot to give props for working in a Vonnegut reference.

Larry said...

To a degree, yes, from what I recall - I have heard of some commentators from the 19th century talking of such, although I never really put all that much credence into that. Maybe I should reconsider, in light of things? I dunno, though, as I'd like to think there is much out there for men as well as for women.

As for the Vonnegut reference, it just came to me - what can I say? :P

Jen said...

Do people really think "Uh-oh, this is a woman author, I will NOT read her book?" Come on. If I do the math, I mostly read books by men. Does that make me sexist? Not a woman anymore? Wtf?

I don't need anyone writing "for me", I can choose my books based on other criteria than gender, thank you very much.

Really, this is overreacting and you should not give it that much importance.

Cheryl said...

Larry: If it is any consolation, one of the angriest I got when running Emerald City was when I stated that I didn't review military SF because I didn't much like it. Apparently this was an evil bias on my part.

Jen: I'm afraid it is true. There is plenty of evidence that men tend to only read books by men. Only this morning I saw someone blogging about a man who won't read books with cats in them, apparently because if a book has cats in it then it must be for women.

There are reasons why this happens. I've been meaning to write something about it for a few days but work keeps getting in the way.

Larry said...

Cheryl, I'm at peace with the notion that we all have our biases, or as I prefer to view it in regards to reading, our "sweet spots." I won't deny that my original post was a bit acerbic (and self-ironic), but it was quite an invective to use against me.

Jen, the US can be quite an interesting place in regards to how people divide themselves into groups (while I'm sure it's the case in Romania and elsewhere, I'm mostly familiar with the American scene). As Cheryl says, there are those who refuse to read books written by the other gender for gender reasons alone. However, as I believe Cheryl agrees with me, sometimes we just have our own preferences based on who we are and how we've lived and such things will hold true individually without there being any intent of viewing it as an universal gender-related viewpoint.

All I know is that someone virulently reacted to something that I wrote without me intending any such interpretation and I felt like I needed to address it in order to learn from it. That being said, looks like my next review will deal with feminist takes on an ancient legend. Shall be quite a bit of irony in that, no?

Jen said...

Ok, then I consider myself lucky for only meeting people without this kind of bias :)

Oh yes, I admit there are certain things I am biased against - for example, "Star Wars" type novels (space ships, battles and aliens) - but that's a bias against the type of books, not the gender of the author.

P.S. How can you not read books with cats? Cats can make any book batter. Fact.

RobB said...

Larry, suspiciously, the commenter who ispired this post hasn't returned. I've notice in the past few weeks on the blogosphere, an amped up bitterness about sexism and writing. Something in the air, maybe?

Jen - if one is allergic to cats (like myself), cats can only make things worse. Fact. ;)

Larry said...

Interesting, Rob - I have heard about something like this, but didn't expect my blog to draw the sort of attention that Pat's has lately. Oh well, live and learn.

And Jen, I don't blame you. Most tie-in novels don't appeal to me anymore, not since my teen years of reading a few Star Trek novels.

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