Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A few words about women (and men)

In recognition of International Women's Day, I want to take some time to address an issue that I've long struggled with. The differences between men and women readers has been discussed to death and would gain little insight from anything I'd say. The same can be said of the male-female divide in publishing, writing and reviewing. But I'd like to try. And I'd like to try by myself, without linking to the thousands of excellent articles on these matters. Wish me luck.

IWD isn't about books. It doesn't focus on "soft" issues like "why are there more men writers when more women read?". It's more about raising awareness regarding violence and extreme forms of injustice but most of all it is about equality. Equality in the workplace, equality in education, etc. But each of these can find its small representation in our sheltered book world. Some of these "lighter" issues do rear their heads in Western society, in our so-called forward-thinking culture. Sexism, intended or not, shows up. Often.

Women and men are different. That's a fact. Women are drawn to different things in literature than men, and that's okay. It's not exclusive, though. A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with my family where the idea was raised that men and women - while inherently different in a lot of things - often have exceptions to their gender stereotypes. That means that men can like so-called "womanly" things, just like women can be more interested in traditionally "manly" things.

For some odd reason, we never seem to apply this to literature. In the literary discussion (or perhaps, in all discussions...), views seem to be one-sided. "Review publications are sexist because they mostly employ men!" "Publishing is sexist because it pays women less!" "Readers are sexist because they value male writers more!" etc, etc, etc. We make these outrageous yet often accurate claims and let the broo-hah fade without actually taking a cold, hard look at ourselves. We should stop doing that.

The book blogger survey revealed one particularly strong (and due to my shortcomings, somewhat incomplete) result: women make up the vast majority of book bloggers. Just like statistics have long shown us that women read more, it would appear that on a basic blogging level, women also write more about what they're reading. Why then, with women dominating the book blogging world, does the question of gender equality in book reviewing continue to crop up all the time (as pertaining to the male advantage)?

The thing is, there are genres I view as predominantly female. I don't mean that the books are mostly written by women (though they seem to be) but rather that these are books marketed exclusively for women. When I try to think of similar genres for men, I struggle. Yes, genres like science fiction tend to draw in more guys than gals (same for a certain pulp kind of "dude thrillers"), but they do not entirely ostracize women readers. With the exception of a few sub-genres here and there (like, again, "dude thrillers"), these genres have many women followers. The same cannot be said of a genre like romance.

Or what of the "Women's literature" genre? This perhaps disturbs me most of all, as it wears a cloak of feminism and freedom while in reality falling into a gross publishing trap. I've never quite figured out what it means. Is it literature written by women? About women? For women? Why is this acceptable? Why are we setting these books aside, filing them in a genre that clearly locks men out? Oh, it's obviously a marketing ploy but why is this okay? This is a sexist marketing ploy, both against men and women. It reminds me of the story from a few months back when various women authors complained at the "womanization" their more traditionally "manly" books received. Covers, plot summaries and marketing twisted their stories to be more "feminine", in some cases completely altering the original content. Tough stories got soft, floaty pastel covers. Summaries told of non-existent love instead of war. The books were marketed as "Women's fiction", not just "fiction". Why? To sell more books. And that alienation of men, that shunting of women to a side genre... there is the sexism.

But it's certainly not better on the other side of the aisle. That the label "women's fiction" has almost become synonymous with "trashy" or "sub-par" means that a lot of times quality stuff written by women gets less credit than it deserves. There's weight in the notion that something written by a man will get more attention and prestige than something similar written by a woman. But that's in part because of that "women's fiction" thing again. A woman writes about family life - women writing for women! A man writes about family life - timeless!

It's not really that awards and honors are sexist at their core. Really. It's not pure dismissal, it's just that there's an imbalance*. There are small cracks in our perception of literature by women. We seem to forgive and forget these injustices all too quickly without ever actually meeting them head-on. It's not a matter of publishing more books by women, nor a matter of having more women reviewers. It's a matter of accepting the fact that while men and women are different, their interests aren't mutually exclusive. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they go further than we think.
* For this eloquent idea from months back (slightly rephrased), I tip my hat to Teresa of Shelf Love (and succumb to this one link)

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