Men, Women and Books

“Men and women. Women and men. It’ll never work” – so said Erica Jong. Were she writing in these more enlightened times, she would no doubt have added that same-sex combinations would never work either, but that’s a discussion for another day.

It seems that every other week there is a discussion about sexism in literature. Female writers getting better and more instant feedback when using a male pseudonym. Male writers getting more coverage and interviews. Applicants to publishing houses listing their influences as male rather than female. The assertion that while women read men and women, men read only men. All in all, grim news for females, especially in a female-dominated profession!

There is the occasional suggestion that all is not peaches and cream the other way either. Male romance novelists using their initials rather than their names. Angry writers claiming that the entire establishment is so rigged by feminists and the constant exhortations to seek out women writers that disadvantaged male writers are marginalised and shut out.

I think it would be safe to say that my readership leans strongly towards female. I love how female readers engage with the characters and get into the story. But although I dislike sexism as much as anyone, I don’t want to shut out the male reader either. I am interested in what he thinks. I am receptive to what he has to say.

When I wrote my book, I was engaging with the world, with humanity, not just women, though my protagonist is female. The novel deals directly with the lowest point of feminist history, which still causes much controversy today.  (It also deals with a pretty sexist society.) If it has succeeded in what it does, it deals with what it means to be a man, as much as what it means to be a woman. And that is something that sometimes women writers miss. That “being a man” is not just a state, it is performative. In Daniel Seery’s A Model Partner, Tom Stacey’s psychiatrist asks him, “But as a man, Tom? Where do you fit in as a man?”

And it struck me – women don’t get asked that. As a woman, I don’t have to DO anything to be one. Of course it could be argued that this is a by-product of the very patriarchal culture feminists reject, that such a culture hurts men as it does women. Femininity is innate, or softly inculcated. Masculinity is not innate, but earned.

But what happens when a man refuses to “earn” brownie points the way society wants him to? What if what we call masculinity is rejected? What happens then?

It was a question worth asking a hundred years ago. I think it’s worth asking now, too.

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2 Comments

  1. Yes, agree — it’s a worry to see how society’s gender divide affects both sides — although many children seem to bridge it with grace so there’s hope.
    Although there are bigger issues to steam about (and I do), I still find it strange to hear that “boys don’t read”. I was saying to a (male) teacher a couple of years ago, ‘This term my son hasn’t really been reading the books from school-‘
    ‘Ah, boys and reading, yes.’
    ‘— be-cau-se he’s in the middle of [book title] at home.’
    The assumption was there before the conversation started.
    We also hear that women don’t get published — so apparently girls read, boys are all but illiterate, but on reaching adulthood the boys are all published while the women either languish on chaise longues, or stomp off with their cakes to “Women Writers” groups?
    I suppose if it’s backed up by statistics, it must be true…

    1. I get the feeling there’s a large number of men shut out of the literary world, a huge group of women within, and a tiny-small group of men who hog a disproportionate amount of the attention.

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