Thanks to Hanna, I have a couple of book-and-gender-related links to share with you this afternoon, despite the fact I haven’t spent much time on the internet in the last few days.
George @ Bookninja shares a recent variation on the narrative-that-won’t-die, the libelous fiction (pun intended) that men don’t read. While admittedly I am not male-bodied, male-identified or even very butch or masculinely inclined, I know guys. And the guys I know read. At least, the guys I know read or don’t read in equal proportion to the women I know who read or don’t read. Their maleness has nothing to do with their interest (or lack thereof) in the printed word.
As an historian, I find it fascinating that our current cultural narrative around books and reading (possibly even writing?) is that it is a feminine pursuit: back in the late 18th century, polemicists fretted about girls being exposed to works of literature, particularly fiction, as fiction was seen as inherently libidinous in nature and might lead them to masturbation (Thomas Laqueur, Solitary Sex). In the 19th century, people worried about the power of a gothic romance to encourage girls’ imprudent liaisons (recall Catherine in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey?) and later on feared that too much reading led to neglect of household chores (Lydia Maria Child). By the late 19th and early 20th century, mental exertion (particularly reading and writing) caused concern among advice-givers to both women and men: Charlotte Perkins Gilman was, famously, denied writing and reading as part of her treatment for postpartum depression; male academics and clergymen fretted that their chosen professions doomed them to a life of effeminacy and poor health (Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization).
So, somehow, by the twentieth century, “manliness” and the life of the mind had evolved — at least in the humanities (as opposed to the sciences) — into something that was both the province of women as well as a threat to the health of “civilized” human beings, regardless of gender.
And now, today, we have folks wringing their hands over a culture of masculinity that discourages being smart, articulate, literary (except, perhaps, if you can use language to bully others in the manner of public intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins — thus proving your uber-manliness by the way in which you wield language as a weapon with which to take down your opponents*). Whole books are written about encouraging literacy and reading among boys, and websites devoted to the subject exist on the internet.
My point is that this story we tell ourselves, about how boys (and the men who these boys become) are not readers, or only readers of very specific genres — technical manuals, graphic novels, thrillers for example — is just that: a story. It’s fiction. Or at the very least, it’s a sociological truth that we’ve mostly created through our formulation of what’s “manly” in our culture, and reinforcing that every chance we get.**
So where does this association of genders (masculine and feminine) with certain types of literary behavior fit in with this second story Hanna found me from Sharon Bakar @ bibliobibuli on a new “women concept” bookstore that just opened in Malaysia? As Bakar observes
I don’t like the cliched assumptions that women should like certain things whether in terms of decor (usually frilly, flowery pink things) or in the choice of books. The concept of women’s bookshops is nothing new, but around the globe most have been independents which promoted feminist and/or lesbian thought.
I’m with Bakar on this one. Women’s bookstores historically (and here we’re talking 1970s-present) have been associated with the underground feminist/separatist culture that grew up around the surge in feminist activism and lesbian visibility in the mid-twentieth century across the globe (and particularly in the West). These cultural institutions obviously have a long and complicated history, given that they often promoted the work of activists and artists who had no outlet in the mainstream (in my mind a positive) while also, at times, fostering a separatist, essentialist feminism that perpetuates bigotry in various forms (in my mind an obvious negative). While safe(r) spaces for the marginalized folks are, I would argue, absolutely essential, it’s also important to keep alive the conversation about how (in creating those spaces) whom we are excluding and why. And for what purpose.
A “women’s concept store” that — according to the news item Bakar links to — highlights “chick lit” (itself a problematic category!) and wedding stationary is a far cry from that sort of separate space. Space that by its very existence challenged (and occasionally continues to challenge) our assumptions about sex, sexuality, and gender. Instead, this space seems more like the homosocial spaces of yore, which reinforce oppositional gender stereotypes. In this instance, possibly reinforcing the stereotype that bookshops are for women, while dudes go off and do, well, more manly things.
*I make no claim that women do not, also, use words to bully: I think it happens all the time. However, I do think men are encouraged in our culture to equate being “smart” with taking down the competition in a way that women, possibly, are not.
**Again, this is a story about guys and reading, but we could just as easily write a story about women and the gendered way they are marketed certain types of literature and not others: I’m a fan of graphic novels, for example, despite the fact that graphic novels and comic books are often seen as the province of boys, and in need of a make-over in order to appeal to girls.