Monday 31 January 2011

Thoughts coming out of Virago Reading Week...

I hope you don't mind a slightly musing-meandering post today, on a topic I've thought about quite a lot, but seems to fit with a week of thinking about Virago. I hope I've expressed myself properly, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

One of the things that annoys me a little (other than not being certain whether I should have used 'that' or 'which' in this sentence) is when, at book group, someone says "Hmm, do you think this is just a book for women?" or "--just a book for men?" and then turns to me, quizzically. I am of the opinion that the ideas of 'men's books' and 'women's books' are mostly marketing tools, and pretty insulting to any individual reader whose subjective reading experience shouldn't be boxed up like that. And, speaking personally, when I think of the categories 'men' and 'women', I don't particularly identify myself with either of them. I'm simply me. Of course I am a man, but I don't recognise myself in the portrait of men that is held up by those shoving war novels and football sticker books etc. in the corner marked 'male reading'.

That's one of the things that comes to light, reading Viragos and Persephones - which, of course, I love. Both describe themselves, to different degrees, as publishing books for women (although I do remember, in an early Persephone Quarterly, a little article about Persephone Men - we apparently made up, at that point, 10% of subscribers). The Women's Press is even more open about it! Naturally I'm not complaining about this. Virago, especially, have done an astonishing and necessary job of bringing neglected writers and neglected novelistic topics to the fore. Rachel wrote brilliantly and movingly about this last week. I hope she won't mind if I quote a couple of excerpts from it:

I have always been interested in women’s writing and history, but never to the extent I became interested in it at university. There I learned for the first time how women had been sidelined from literature and history; how they had been allowed to become an unspoken, unmentioned background figure, sewing in the parlour while the men were at war; scribbling away at trivial, unworthy of note novels about their limited domestic sphere; living unrecorded, undervalued, hidden lives, prevented from having a voice.


So thank goodness for Virago. Thank goodness that I can read something intelligent and witty and thought provoking by a woman, that isn’t a shallow, cliche ridden pastel coloured novel about sparkly rings and mini breaks. The women who invented Virago, and the authors that originated their list, believed that women deserved better than this, and I heartily agree. We are complex, conflicting, passionate, intelligent, political, ambitious individuals who cannot be distilled into one concrete definition or given one path to happiness.

My question is... where does this leave me? Please don't read anything cross into that; those of you who know my blog probably won't, I hope. I just always wonder, when I read about the incredible job that feminist presses have done, what sort of literary and social antecedents I can claim as my own. Of course, as a feminist myself I can get on board with the rediscoveries and re-evaluations being performed, and perhaps I can even put myself in a line of those who value the domestic and the topics which had long been erroneously considered inferior to tales of war and politics etc. (really, who could possibly want to read a novel about war over a novel about, say, a family preparing for a wedding? Each to their own, I suppose.) But, as a man, I seem to have only a legacy of the type of people who sidelined these novelists, and caused the problems which Virago and others helped in the direction of resolution. I have little empathy for monarchs and prime ministers (neither, however, exclusively male professions), and none for soldiers or leaders in war - I have sympathy, but not empathy. Where are the histories of quieter, homelier men? Where are narratives of male lives lived unassumingly and with great beauty? This, naturally, is not the fault of the publishing houses which unveiled the issue - nor is it their responsibility. But I do always muse, when wonderful posts like Rachel's appear, quite what it is that I see when I look over my shoulder.


  1. I think there are some 'male' books on domestic subjects. For instance the much-feted Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections' deals largely with family relationships, and is a favourite of a friend of mine who reads almost exclusively male authors. I think Franzen generally tries to make his families reflect the wider social context (and political context sometimes) which may make it less domestic?

    So I don't know if that's the best example, but I'm sure there are books out there that bridge the divide a bit. In any case, I enjoyed your post and I think you make a good point about gender not necessarily defining reading interests.

  2. Your post is quite thought-provoking and it is something that I and some of my male frinds have wondered about too. I personally don't agree with 'books for women or men' and don't believe in being defined by my gender.
    I can understand how, due to women in general being sidelined in literature, Virago filled a gap. Is this still necessary today? I can't really answer that as other factors come into play, such as marketing and celebrity books, etc.
    I think there must be several novels out there by men that examine the quieter, everyday life but no-one has felt the need to group them together. Would E. F. Benson qualify and Denis Mackail?
    Ideally, perhaps we shouldn't be grouping certain types of books together and should just enjoy books on their own merits... I'm afraid that there is no easy answer.

  3. Brilliant post Simon, and very pertinent and thought provoking for Virago reading week. I think sometimes we can get so caught up in the sexism leveled towards women that we can forget how men are stereotyped and marginalised just as equally, and those who don't fit the narrow margins of acceptable societal standards of masculinity can often feel ostracised. While obviously you can enjoy women's literature, it's also good to read about characters and situations you can identify with, and that's not easy to do when when you're stuck with a diet of war/spy/action based novels. I suppose someone like Denis Mackail or perhaps Henry James and Charles Dickens don't write stereotypical 'male' novels, but still, you don't have huge swathes of modern literature to choose from that reflects your reality, unlike women, who, due to feminist presses, do. I am going to think on this one. Gender is such a complex issue, and I know I am guilty of flying the feminist banner often without thinking of the male side of the coin, so thank you for bringing this up, and for your lovely comments about my post - of course I don't mind you quoting me!

  4. You know, with all the Virago posts that were going on last week, I was pondering the same thing. And I don't have an answer for you/me. But I am on your boat and if you have an epiphany, please let me know....

  5. Bravo! for this post. I think the world would be an infinitely better place if men could be encouraged to shift out of the straitjacket of cultural identity that means they have to love war and football and beer and.. well you get my drift. Of course they may love those things, but they don't have to love them in exclusion to all kinds of other things too.

    And how wonderful it would be to see men writing more widely. I tend to think that some of the great novels by men are domestic and romantic, only they're sort of disguised or distorted. E M Forster comes to mind, and John Galsworthy, and Balzac and Flaubert and John Updike and Scott Fitzgerald, even Nabokov's Lolita. H. E. Bates knew his greatest success when 'slumming it' with The Darling Buds of May. I think it really works when male writers turn their attention to the everyday with heartfelt candour. I suppose Nick Hornby occupies this sort of territory nowadays, but that clearly leaves much room for other male authors to do something similar but different!

  6. Simon, what a brilliant post. I completely agree and, as others have said, I have thought the same thing this week. I, too, consider myself a feminist, and I am usually quite content reading the books I read (rather needless to say), most of which are by women. Nevertheless, it's frustrating not to have a literary "role model," so to speak. It seems that most male writers fit into two categories. There are the war/politics novels you mentioned; and, if not those, then highly stylistic novels (e.g. Martin Amis and David Mitchell - and don't get me wrong, I like both of these writers quite well). But where's the rest? Of course, my categories may be a little simplistic, but you get the point, right? :)

    I do wish that there could be some sort of other legacy that we, as men, could have when it comes to writing.

    (I have until now been just a reader. Your post compelled me to write! I thank you for this.)

  7. I'm going to have to think on this longer to see if any more male authors come to mind, but what about Anthony Trollope? Does he fit here? I've only read one of his books, The Warden (and that very recently), so I don't consider this to be an "educated opinion," but I'm sure others in your readership have read more and may answer the question. He certainly was prolific!

    Very thought-provoking, Simon. I'm not sure I'd ever call myself a "feminist" (it always calls to mind "bra-burning," having grown up in the US during the feminist movement ;) ), but I'm definitely for equal opportunity for all people. It makes me wonder how "feminist" is actually defined today, or how you define it as relates to your reading? I'm guessing like anything else, it will be a definition with a fairly broad spectrum.

    I'll be interested to see what other male authors people come up with in answer to your query. Again, very thought-provoking!

  8. Fascinating post, Simon! I certainly hope that writings of a domestic nature by men have not been rejected by publishers in the past. Leading us to believe it is rare when in fact it's out there but not being given the attention it deserves.

    There is a book which I haven't read but would like to called The Bucolic Plague about two men who move to the countryside in order to escape the rat-race. Sounds very domestic, pitfalls and all.

  9. Another "uneducated guess" from the TBR shelf -- would Wendell Berry fit this description? This is another one on my TBR shelf (and another one of the reasons I'm reading "mostly" from home this year!).

  10. This is something I think about too, mostly because I'm not sure what it is men are 'supposed' to read. The books I loved as a teenager were by E F Benson, P G Wodehouse, and F Scott Fitzgerald, all woman friendly stuff. I did however reach a point where I realised I was reading nothing literary by women. Classy romance in the form of georgette heyer, and plenty of golden age detective fiction but there seemed to be a big gap. That gap's closed now which I think is fantastic, but when I look at what I've been reading recently (Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Scott) it seems clear that these men were writing not for men or women but for readers.

    Perhaps the problem is one of marketing - so much of what I see in my local waterstones is uninspiring - vampire gumph aimed at teenage girls, chick lit aimed at women who seemingly think about nothing but shoes and finding a husband who can aford a very big diamond and more shoes, or thrillers for men. Behind all of this tat there are a few book (in ever dwindling numbers) that I might actually enjoy.

    It seems again that the only place where you find any sort of cross over or equality is in crime fiction - good luck if that's not your thing in my home town. When I asked a couple of years ago if there was any Evelyn Waugh to be had (I wanted Brideshead revisited as a present) the shop assistant stared at me until finally saying no - that sort of thing isn't very fashionable.

    I'm no longer sure what my point was other than that surely there should just be books worth reading and we should be able to get hold of them, so I'm off for a cup of tea.

  11. Thank you so much for this thought provoking post, Simon. I think it's difficult for any man or woman that doesn't fit the given stereotypes for gender. Although Western society has changed a lot in the last couple of centuries, we still have gender stereotypes that are subtlety pressed upon us. We have house husbands now and men who work in traditional female professions, and we have female politicians and soldiers. Yet, I think all those women and men who act outside common stereotypes are still largely misunderstood. I hope that our society is working towards accepting each person as an individual with different gifts and capacities and allowing each one of them to shape his/her own future. At the same time, I think it is still difficult for people who don't fit our previously conceived gender stereotypes, and I don't think we will have an equal society for women until men are allowed to act outside those stereotypes as well.

    As regards fiction, the only book that I can think of off hand which celebrates a man embracing the domestic life is The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I think the star of that book was definitely the husband who understood his children's individual natures so well and adapted his parenting style to suit each one. Since I read some but not a lot of contemporary fiction, I hope there are more books out there that describe men acting in non-stereotypical roles. I would applaud anyone who wrote works of fiction that celebrate men or women as individuals with different gifts and capabilities, and I hope posts like your's convince fiction writers out there to take up the challenge, especially for men.

  12. I think traditionally men are thought of as more of writers and women as readers-- I'm not totally sure why this continues today but I feel that male writers get more press than female writers. Or are at least more "respected." This isn't really what you're talking about, just made me think of these things.

  13. My husband is also a quiet, bookish man like you, Simon, and he struggles with the effects of this male sexism you're describing, that he be more ambitious and make more money and play more sports, drive something bigger, that's how he was raised (by a pushy businessman). I think he began to find himself when he began reading while in the hospital for his first operation as a teenager (and couldn't be forced into playing sports anymore). He reads mostly male authors, the subversive ones (Bret Easton Ellis, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard), not the westerns his father reads. He's also begun exploring early 20th century mystery and science fiction writers and I'm thrilled we at least have a time period in common! He also likes Shirley Jackson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Anne Rice, Patricia Highsmith, Poppy Z. Brite, Kathy Acker... subversive women who challenge gender expectations.

    He still experiences a lot of stress that he's not living up to his dad's (and society's) expectations of him, but I became interested in him because he liked Jane Austen and said he was a feminist. Surely we need a term for men's rights to be whoever they want too! I constantly try to support my husband to break outside of the driven male mould, just as he supports me to be non-subservient.

    As for more quiet male authors, some of my favourites are Marcel Proust, E.M. Forster, Michael Ondaatje, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ian McEwan and of course, many poets (Yeats, Keats, Wordsworth, etc etc) There's Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Portrait of a Lady, all written by men and I was obsessed with them all for a while. I would sometimes wonder why I liked these authors, when I thought I should just be reading more feminist women, but somehow I wanted to be well rounded, to not shut them out. I'm glad you also read and think more broadly than most men.

    (There's also Leonard Woolf, who seems to have willingly taken a backseat to his wife's talent, while still writing and publishing and caring for her himself.)

  14. I'm thinking more about this and looking at my list of authors I've blogged about, there are the American transcendentalists like Thoreau, who surely was concerned with the natural domesticity of his small cabin life, there's Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, which is a quiet hearbreaker of a book (and not a romance but a friendship), there's also Bruno Schulz, a Polish writer who deals with surreal domesticity in The Street of Crocodiles. I'm sure there's more! This is great and I'm so glad you brought it up.

  15. I agree there are not many novels with men as the main character in a domestic setting that spring to mind. The three I would nominate are all early 20th century, and humorous, but minor classics. They are Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith, The History of Mr Polly, by H G Wells, and The Card, by Arnold Bennett. Worth reading if you have not already done so.

  16. I appreciate this post, Simon. I also think it's silly to distinguish between "books for men" and "books for women", but of course, I also understand the desire to see non-traditional male characters and writers! I would like to read more of these too; it seems they're sadly lacking and unfortunately, I don't think I have many suggestions :( Will let you know if I come up with any, though, and I will be thinking about this/looking out for some in the future, too.

  17. Yeah... I was about to say that I read lots of modern male authors, never about war/sport/spies... but Dan is right, they are pretty much all 'stylistic' - ie they're in some measure concept novels trying to break new ground. Which I love when it's done well and not just pretentious. But nothing modern that I would call very 'domestic', apart from Nick Hornby, Mark Hammond, and Alexander McCall Smith - he's rather a champion of what you are talking about, perhaps :)
    Interestingly, I generally prefer the former type of novel and don't seem to have swathes of modern female authors to choose from in that category. But still probably more than you do the other way around. Ho hum. Good, but sad, point.

  18. I too have an issue with using the term 'women's literature' although I sometimes do use it when I am feeling lazy. Somehow I just feel that it should just be literature whether it's written by men or women. However, the literary world, just like real life, isn't equal and in some ways I feel women are trying to reclaim back their literary heritage that may have been trampled by the male establishment, something many have issue with even today. It's not a simple thing but it's certainly something we all still need to think about. So I think your post is a wonderful illustration that it isn't a simple problem that can be divided into black or white, right or wrong. There are many shades.


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