Books and the Gender Issue

My review of Girl With A Pearl Earring has recently been linked to a book list. While I appreciate the link, I must admit it has stirred up in me some unintended ripples.  It’s the title of the list:  ‘101 Books Every Woman Should Read’.

Now I’m always wary about books that are labeled and geared towards one gender.  Like recently I came across a book entitled 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go… makes you wonder what exactly they’re luring you into. Imagine a book called 100 Places Every Man Should Go…

Anyway, back to the list of books every woman should read.  The range is eclectic with the titles neatly categorized.

Just let me list a sample from each of the categories:

The Classics: Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Howards End by E. M. Forster, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf…

Children’s Literature:  Pippi Longstockings by Astrid Lindgren, The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll…

Books into Movies:  The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen…

Books Featuring Familial Relationships:  The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Away by Jane Urquhart…

Books Celebrating the Strength of Women:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen…

Current Literature:  Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen…

Books about Finding Oneself:  Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers…

Stories of Real Women: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou,  Amelia: A Life of the Aviation Legend by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle…

Banned or Challenged Books:  Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Of Mice and Men by John Steinback, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Non-Fiction: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey, On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross,  A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

You get my point.  Sounds like any typical high school and college reading list, but why specify women?

Yes, they’re mostly written by women authors, and many with strong female protagonists.  They depict the journey of self-discovery, of overcoming odds, of seeking meaningful relationships and ideals in a hostile world.  In the non-fiction section there are influential books that have achieved significance in the area of writing, psychology, environmentalism, social justice.

But my query is:  If these books depict the inner journey of women, or portray the poignant reality of their struggles, if they have shed any light on the human race in terms of equality, justice, or existential meaning, are these not all the more reasons for men, or anyone, to read them?

Of course, for the sake of argument, one could point out that the statement “books every woman should read” doesn’t preclude that men should not.  But that’s just being contentious.

Books for women, books for men, why can’t books be just books?  Maybe it has to do with the writing of books, or, step back further, society’s view on male and female authors.

Posting on the Guardian blog, writer and editor Harriet Evans vehemently declares that:

“I’m fed up with seeing some of our best novelists written off as ‘chick lit’ — you don’t see the same belittling line taken with male writers…

It winds me up that books about young women are seen as frivolous and silly, while books about young men’s lives that cover the same topics, are reviewed and debated, seen as valid and interesting contributions to the current social and media scene.

And regarding the reading public, it has been noted that women read more than men, both in the U.S. and the U.K.  With that in mind, Evans goes on to state that:

The truth is, women happily read books (and watch films and TV) aimed primarily at men…. They read thrillers, travel books, biographies – and yet the majority of these books are marketed for men… But men rarely try women’s fiction, because they’ve been conditioned to think they can’t pick up a book with a pink cover.”

Indeed, worthy literature written by women authors are sometimes reduced to ‘romance’ or ‘chick lit’.  Jane Austen is a prime example.  Her incisive social satires, eloquent writing and sense of humor have often been swept aside while the romantic union of the protagonists at the end is given the main focus.  In this way, her work is conveniently labeled as ‘chick lit’, dreaded by male readers, until some brave souls dare to take up the challenge and are floored by her relevance and intelligence.

Virginia Woolf sharply observes in her Cambridge lecture series compiled in A Room Of One’s Own that historically, social norm has always been one that coops up women in the domestic while offering men the world.

Taking her view further, I can understand why the dichotomy, however arbitrary, in male and female writing, their difference in subject matters, subsequently, books for men and books for women.

I have a feeling that if the protagonist of The Catcher In The Rye is called Helen Caulfield, the book could well be dismissed as another trivial version of teen angst, schoolgirl blues, fussing over boys and growing up.  And likely we won’t see it on any reading list.

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Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

7 thoughts on “Books and the Gender Issue”

  1. Very interesting post!

    (I don’t see how JANE EYRE and THE BELL JAR represent the strength of women, though. JANE EYRE was a governess and fell in love with her employer, maybe it represents women who are tenacious in love? And Sylvia Plath of THE BELL JAR killed herself … )

    anthropologist,

    JE persevered in a cruel world and was rewarded for her love and strength. About SP, I have the same query as you. But since I haven’t read The Bell Jar, I can’t comment specifically about that book. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment!

    Arti

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  2. Yes, very interesting post! Just the title “101 Books Every Woman Should Read” is enough to make me very angry. Don’t even tell me what I, as a woman, should read! A list like that assumes there is something concrete and definable that all women need from their books, and I just don’t buy that argument.

    To be a little contradictory, though, I kind of like the idea of taking that exact same list and calling it “101 Books Every Man Should Read” just to even things up a bit. Women read about men so much, it’s time to turn the tables!

    Dorothy,

    Just to let you know, actually if you click on the book list link, it’s from the “Accredited Online Colleges” website. As an academic yourself, you probably have a better chance to voice out your opinion at the right place.

    You’re spot on in suggesting the list be called “101 Books Every Man Should Read”! Thanks for sharing your view!

    Arti

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  3. I’ve felt as though there were a great question-mark hanging over this post, and I haven’t been able to identify it until this morning, when I re-read it and thought, “Why should I read THESE books?”

    I don’t mean to denigrate any of the selections. They’re all fine books. But it seems to me the selection criteria are based in the worst sorts of assumptions about women and their lives. Where are the scientists? The ethicists? The contemporary essayists? Why are so few of the selections written by men? Have they nothing to say to us?

    After looking through the whole list, it appears a conscious attempt was made to select books because they were written by women – which I find offensive.

    As for the categories – of ten, six feel to me like a throwback to the 50s. Familial relations? Children’s lit? Finding oneself? The strength of women? Why not Arts & Literature, Science, Politics and History, Techology, etc. as categories?

    I’m fussy today, aren’t I? But this list brings back those days when I was told of course I would play with dolls and toy kitchens rather than blocks and trains, because I was a girl, and that’s what girls did.

    Lists like this should open new doors, rather than impose old constraints.

    Linda,

    You’re right in pointing out that this list lacks contemporary relevance and the categories are stereotypical and limiting. What you’ve suggested are definitely needed, science and tech, especially the IT area and communications, arts and music, contemporary thoughts, …

    What I’m dealing with here in this post are two issues, women readers and women writers. I’m afraid both groups have to struggle to cast away stereotypes and misrepresentations even in this 21st Century.

    Arti

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  4. I love this post. And oh dear I feel a long comment coming.

    It’s exactly the marketing I was talking about before, that EJ Levy addressed in her essay “Against Talent.” It’s the marketers who care about such stupid lists. And then stupid gullible shoppers who don’t know what to get mommy for Christmas will see the title and be thrilled to have shopping done. They don’t have to know mommy very well, do they, and the gift sounds so attentive. I’m feeling testy too, Linda. 🙂

    I advise English majors, as you know. I get all kinds of complaints about classes. One of our requirements is for a diversity lit class. They can fulfill it with any of a long list of classes: African American lit, post-colonial lit, women’s lit, women authors, etc. Now at least 6 out of 10 of our students are female. They JUMP on the women’s lit course. I’m guessing they love Austen and Atwood and others on the list. We never have enough seats in that class. But when I talk with the men about the div lit requirement, they rarely jump at the women’s lit course. That said, I remember one particular male student who had a double major. The other major? Women’s Studies.

    Isn’t it telling that there is not a major called Men’s Studies? No doubt there will be one day.

    The other thing I want to add is a wonderful list I found at a blog today, called 10 1/2 Inclinations by librarian Ben Okri. Hope you don’t mind if I just post it here. I love the comments here, and they reminded me of his list.

    * * *

    African poet and novelist Ben Okri came up with the best reading list which he titled 10 1/2 Inclinations.

    1. There is a secret trail of books meant to inspire and enlighten you. Find that trail.

    2. Read outside your own nation, color, class, gender.

    3. Read the books your parents hate.

    4. Read the books your parents love.

    5. Have one or two authors that are important, that speak to you; and make their works your secret passion.

    6. Read widely, for fun, stimulation, escape.

    7. Don’t read what everyone else is reading. Check them out later, cautiously.

    8. Read what you’re not supposed to read.

    9. Read for your own liberation and mental freedom.

    10. Books are like mirrors. Don’t just read the words. Go into the mirror. That is where the real secrets are. Inside. Behind. That’s where the gods dream, where our realities are born.

    10½. Read the world. It is the most mysterious book of all.

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    1. Ruth,

      Thanks for including the sound advice from Ben Okri. Good pointers for shaping a well-read, all round, culturally sensitive, and globally-minded reader. I think this sums up what we’ve been discussing, that any book list, especially one for educational purposes, needs to encompass both a historical literary perspective as well as a relevant and contemporary dimension.

      As far as the male students (as you suggest, many of them, not all) avoiding women’s lit, that could well be a result of the bad rap women writing is getting these days, as the quotes from the Guardian blog in my post indicate: it’s so convenient to regard books by women writers as ‘chick lit’, or dismiss them as less important works.

      Thanks for an informative and thought-provoking comment!

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  5. *sigh* Where is Carolyn Heilbrun when I need her?
    I’m thankful to Ruth for passing along Ben Okri’s 101/2 Inclinations, which I will copy out. I’m thankful to Linda for her justifiable rage. I’m thankful to you for pointing out the list in the first place.
    But you will never see a “Men Unbound” reading challenge (though it might be interesting in the issues it would have to bring forth: racism and homophobia for starters). Men have never been mutilated to preserve their purity; men have never been stoned to death to preserve their family honor; men have never had to shroud themselves to the point of invisibility simply to cross the street…
    Alas, I believe that it is “a truth universally ackowledged” in the publishing world that girls will read “boy” books, but boys will stay away from “girl” stories. If JK Rowling had titled her series “Hermione Granger and…” would it have been so wildly successful? (I am finding the boy/girl reading split rather scary at the moment)
    Yet another post–and commentary–to chew on.
    Thanks, Arti!

    .
    ds,

    Let me know when you’ve found Carolyn Heilbrun… Also, if you have time, click on the link to the book list… you might find more tidbits to chew on. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your view.

    Arti

    Like

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