Without women the novel would die

From The Guardian:

The narrator of Anna Burns’s Booker prize-winning novel, Milkman, likes to read on her way to work, even as she walks. Her preference is 19th-century novels. She likes to retreat to “the safety of the scroll and papyrus of earlier centuries”.

But in her claustrophobic community during Northern Ireland’s Troubles, it marks her out as a threat. Even her best friend sees her habit as “disturbing”, “deviant” and “not public-spirited”. The narrator is confused. “Are you saying it’s okay for him to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?”

A woman doesn’t need to have grown up amid sectarian violence to relate to the narrator’s difficulties. Even in peacetime Bristol, where I occasionally flaunt my literacy in public – usually while stationary, but not always – I often run into difficulty. A woman reading a novel in a coffee shop, or on a park bench, or on public transport always runs the risk of someone – almost always a man – sidling over and asking: “So. A reader, huh?” Or, maybe: “Have you read any… um, um… Patrick O’Brian?” Or more likely, something completely un-novel-related.

It’s as if they assume I’m bored, or sad, or killing time until a man absorbs my attention. Usually, I am reading for work – so hard to explain this to the interrupter without inviting further interruption! – and yet I can’t help noticing that this never happens when I am on a laptop, when I might after all be doing something socially useful, perhaps involving a spreadsheet or a credit card. But if I am reading: who knows?

. . . .

There is something about the female bookworm, face obscured by a novel, hidden within plain sight, possibly pondering the bigger questions of life, possibly fantasising, that can serve as an affront. The onus has long been on women to facilitate easy human relations, and lone reading is an occupation that is not compatible with the social self.

Damian Barr, author and founder of the Literary Salon in London, thinks that reading can still be a “rebellious and dangerous activity” for women. “There are men who still find it threatening and dangerous when a woman picks up a book,” he says. When he interviewed Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, for his salon, he was appalled at the abuse she had received for talking about novels. “People would say that reading fiction is not important, she should be running the country. Why is reading less valuable to a leader than, say, playing golf?”

This goes some way to explaining the depth of feeling expressed by the women surveyed in a new book by Helen Taylor, Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives (Oxford University Press). Taylor, emeritus professor of English at the University of Exeter, surveyed more than 400 female readers to see how they relate to fiction. The responses are striking in their violence and intensity, in the sin and guilt associated with reading, as well as the defiance. One mother described how she tells her family that she is going downstairs to sort the laundry just so she can steal 10 precious minutes with a novel. Another wrote that for her, reading novels was “fractionally less important than breathing, but only just”. Others fear being caught in the act.

The idea that fiction is a female domain is taken for granted by most people involved in books. According to Nielsen Book Research, women outbuy men in all categories of novel except fantasy, science fiction and horror. And when men do read fiction, they don’t tend to read fiction by women, while Taylor claims that women read and admire male novelists, rarely making value judgments.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG lives a long way from Britain and perhaps things have changed greatly since he last spent time there. He further admits that Great Britain is not the United States and vice versa.

However, PG doesn’t think he knows a woman who reads who doesn’t enjoy doing so and further doesn’t think he knows a man who is associated with a woman who reads who doesn’t think it’s quite a fine thing for her to be doing.

If PG were threatened by a woman picking up a book, he would have to cease having anything to do with any woman in his family as well as the women in the families of every male friend he can think of.

That said, he is not surprised that women read more novels than men do (although in the last several months, PG has read almost all fiction in his leisure time), but he doesn’t think one can draw earthshaking men vs women conclusions from that. PG must object about the generalization of women reading more novels when fantasy, science fiction and horror novels are summarily dismissed from the fiction world to support that generalization. PG will also note that his fantasy and scifi reading would be far less enjoyable if he didn’t read fiction by women.

He also wonders why JK Rowling has been able to collect gobs and gobs of male fantasy readers when she, to all appearances, is a woman.

In some circles, PG notes a lot of theses in search of proofs.

2 thoughts on “Without women the novel would die”

  1. According to Nielsen Book Research, women outbuy men in all categories of novel except fantasy, science fiction and horror.

    According to Nielsen Book Research, women outbuy men in all categories of novel except fantasy, science fiction and horror.

    I wonder if men outbuy women in all categories of novel except romance?

    Creative inclusion and exclusion can yield wonderful results.

  2. I’ve never had any problem with spending time reading and never been interrupted – but I certainly know a few people who have experienced a a bit of prejudice and a few – older women for the most part – who feel guilty themselves about reading what they enjoy in the way that men never seem to. The term ‘guilty pleasure’ when used about any book drives me nuts. However, it is true that our wonderful First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who is not only a great reader but an enthusiastic promoter of reading in schools, as well as Scottish writers and writing in general, does get quite a lot of flak about it. Generally from men. It mystifies and saddens me. As the writer here says – nobody complains about politicians who are keen on golf. She’s a widely read, articulate and intelligent woman. There’s a sizeable and vocal minority who seem to find that threatening.

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