Men and Women as readers and writers…

August 19, 2014

Not an elegant title for a post, but it sums up what I’m currently thinking about…

A friend prompted me to read A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf‘s feminist lecture from 1929, in which she reflects on why there are so few women writers and poets; it’s basically because they lack the mental, physical and financial freedom or space. It’s impossible to disagree with her analysis, and it’s also one which can be equally well applied to all sorts of other groups which are un(der)-represented in the world of literature. It’s a lively, and at times humorous piece which is at once of its time and still totally relevant.

So Woolf got me thinking again about an issue that I have often considered: the differences between men and women as writers and as readers. And, obviously, these thoughts are from a man. Woolf says that male and female minds are different, their perceptions differ, the ways they frame sentences and structure a flow of ideas in a text or a story are not the same. At one level, obvious, at another, worthy of much thought. If I were forced (totally artificial example, I know) to choose between the novels of Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad (both of which I really like), why, exactly, would I opt for Austen?

I’ve spent some time looking at my bookshelves as I’ve been thinking: in novels, men outnumber women writers, but not massively; in books on history, culture, religion, politics, males completely dominate. That’s not from my conscious choice, but perhaps reflects the continuing power relationship between men and women in the world: men dominate the public sphere, still. Is it accurate to say (or is it sexist) that women are more tuned to the internal world of the feelings and emotions, men to the external? Even in fiction, do men wield or exert power in ways that women do not, or are not interested in? I’m taken back to some of the texts I studied as I worked on my MPhil thesis more than thirty years ago…

Choices in reading provide more food for thought. I have known women who made a deliberate choice not to read books written by men. This has always seemed to me to be rather limiting, but then you might say ‘well you would say that, wouldn’t you?’ I have also known women who just seemed never or very rarely to choose to read books by men, and wondered why, since I have always felt there are lots of really good books by men that it was a shame they didn’t read… and yet had little success in persuading them.

Equally, I’ve often got to the end of a book which I’ve really enjoyed, and felt ‘that’s a boy’s book’, realising that I probably wouldn’t persuade a female friend to read it, or, if I did, her response would probably be very different from mine. And no, I’m not talking about obvious examples such as hard SF with cardboard characterisation or books with a certain sexual content; I have subtler women friends who can make rather subtler distinctions…

I don’t think I’ve got anywhere clear yet, other than being reminded of some very real differences that do exist, that x years of feminism haven’t ironed out even if they could be ironed out, or it were desirable; I would be very interested in others’ thoughts on this issue.

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