Sunday, February 13, 2011

Who reads what? A gender question?

I just heard Elaine Showalter, author of a new anthology of American women writers, discussing (and her listeners in the famous Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC had their opinions, too) what male and female readers actually read.  I know I am not alone in reading at least as many males as females, though I just can't quite get involved in Moby Dick, but I have just as much trouble with Joyce Carol Oates (and I'd say that difficulty with Ayn Rand is due to other considerations), and as a child I liked Howard Pyle, then Jack London very much indeed; I just forgot, for the duration, that I was a girl.  It was the author's job to help me do so.  I even like Hemingway's heroes, and I dearly love all of Steinbeck.  If I find that a male author doesn't quite 'get' a female character, I just make allowance.  What is more, I'm very, very fussy about fiction, which, when I love it, is mostly a matter of style, but, so long as it's readable, I enjoy history and economics and sciences, no matter how inadequate my educational background (neuroscience, astrophysics, et al.).  I don't care whether my archaeology is written by males or females (I belong to a very open discipline, in which women directed excavations a century and more ago).
But at Showalter's talk, people were saying that males won't read females, and, even more emphatically, little boys in America won't read books about girls.  As I recall, I can't remember any boy that I knew reading, say, Anne of Green Gables,  the way I read Hamlin Garland.  Don't boys read Willa Cather?
Showalter says that the virtual segregation is more American than European.  Is it true that it's because we had no Jane Austen or George Eliot (for example)?  Is Edith Wharton too late to count?  What, I ask, is the possible importance of a young national culture being, simply, so young, with so much of the population having not very literary roots?  Or are Harvard brats very much like Oxbridge brats?
I just read Nicole Krauss's Great House.  Don't I just get a better insight into being a much younger woman and a Jewish woman, because she writes so supremely well that I chose her new novel?  If a male reader has enough literary sense to read it, won't he also learn a lot about women?  Even if, like me, he's an elderly non-observant Protestant?
Of course, women in love are different from men in love, usually, but isn't that difference worth reading about?   I'm not talking about 'bodice busters' (soft porn).