Sunday, August 10, 2008

This book is from Mars, the other from Venus?

I'm grateful to Norman Geras for raising the intriguing question, in a post on Anne Tyler, whether her books are written for and marketed to a gendered audience.

Now, since I've never read a single book by Tyler (I'm loath to admit it) I am unable to contribute to this specific (and apparently protracted) debate about her work. However, I agree with Norm on the abstract issue that the notion that there are essentially "men's" and "women's books" is a fallacy (to say the least). In fact, I've always found categories like "das Frauenbuch" or "der Frauenfilm", which abound in German popuspeak, to be lazy clichés, typically used by people unwilling to reach beyond the limits of their clearly pegged out mental horizons. Don't know Book X? Great: just call it a "women's book" and you can happily continue to ignore it!

Sadly, these categories have also infiltrated the academic discussion of literature, where the label "women's book" has been instrumental in the conservative defence of a classic canon. Although the work of women authors has long been a fixture in most EngLit curricula, the use of the term "women's book" under which to subsume this canon of writing guarantees its continuing exclusion from the general debate.

Typically, the term is used in a distinctly derogatory sense, suggesting that women's interests are of necessity more limited, more mundane and therefore less worthy to be written about than those of men. By extension, any book dealing with concerns deemed typically feminine is aesthetically less relevant.

The fact that "women's books" are read in university classrooms at all, however, is meant to be seen as a token of the great open-mindedness and tolerance of the male academics who have made the integration of the work of female authors under the label of "the women's book" possible. What they have essentially done, of course, is to provide a clearly identified niche in which this work can be neatly tucked away without having to be taken seriously.

[UPDATE: On the trouble with tolerance see here.]

In his defence of Tyler, Norm draws on a statement by Cormac McCarthy (allegedly one of the more "masculine" authors around):

Cormac McCarthy has said that he isn't a fan of writers who don't deal with issues of life and death. But Tyler is, if I may adapt McCarthy's meaning, life and death: she shows the lives people lead, and - what is life and death to them - their efforts to get along with those they love and those they are stuck with, their days, their dreams, their fates. If these are women's books, the men who pass them by as being such close off a part of the world to which they all, willy-nilly, belong.
More often, however, McCarthy's "life and death" argument is used by male academics to belittle the work of women authors. One might think that this pattern is typical amongst the older generation of men. In my experience, however, younger male students are no different from their intellectual fathers (and grandfathers) in their proclivity to dismiss the work by female authors as substandard and irrelevant by definition.

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