Thursday, February 2, 2012

Is My Laptop Gay?

Is there such a thing as a male book? I have probably turned millions of pages in my salacious life as a reader, but I've never found a set of testicles dangling between them. Nor have I found a vulva, so it isn't that there are female books either. Books aren't sexed or gendered.

It could be argued, and has been ad nauseam, that texts are gendered. I happened tonight on the work of two British writers arguing the case. Molly Flatt at Bookdiva ("Where women's books take centre stage") and Richard T. Kelly at Bookhugger ("Words without end") both circled cautiously around the question without really getting anywhere.

Flatt recalled her youthful first encounter with Virginia Woolf's fiction, which among other things convinced her that Mrs. Dalloway was " the most female book I’ve ever read." (Her italics.) Then she backed away cautiously:
Obviously, we are on dangerous ground. Peddling gender clich├ęs is a reductive exercise at the best of times, and even more so when dealing with an art form that has been historically beset by sexism. But I do believe that we have instincts about ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ that are not all indoctrinated nonsense. And when writing for Bookdiva, which amiably and ambiguously purports to “give women’s books centre stage” and stimulate discussion around literature “with women in mind”, I feel I have to ask: when is a book a female book?
I won't go along with that stuff about "instincts about ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ that are not all indoctrinated nonsense," not without 1) specific cases and 2) proof that they are instincts. No doubt Flatt was just speaking figuratively, in which case she was just peddling gender cliches.

There is evidence that could be interpreted as indicating a human "instinct" to divide the world up into boy stuff and girl stuff. In Delusions of Gender (Norton 2010), Cordelia Fine summed up some of the research:
At just ten months old, babies have developed the ability to make mental notes regarding what goes along with being male and female: they will look longer, in surprise, at a picture of a man with an object that was previously only paired with women, and vice versa. This means that children are well-placed, early on, to start learning the gender ropes. As they approach their second birthday, children are already starting to pick up the rudiments of gender stereotyping. There's some tentative evidence that they know for whom fire hats, dolls, makeup, and so on are intended before their second birthday. And at around this time, children start to use gender labels themselves and are able to say to which sex they themselves belong [211].
But the cues -- "what goes along with being male and female" -- aren't built in, only (at most) the tendency to map the world according to sex. (I wonder if infants also decide to make mental notes regarding other human differences that have social consequences.) Fine also wrote:
Indeed, so powerful are these metaphorical gender cues that five-year-old children will confidently declare that a spiky brown tea set and an angry-looking baby doll dressed in rough black clothing are for boys, while a smiling yellow truck adorned with hearts and a yellow hammer strewn with ribbons are for girls [224].
In a sexist society, it makes a great deal of difference whether you're male or female, so it's not unreasonable that kids would notice the divide early and try to figure out how it works; at about the same age, children are also figuring out language, and while the capacity for language is probably inborn, the specific language we learn is determined by geographical and cultural accident, not by instinct. (But could it be that it makes a difference whether you're male or female because children decide it does?)  And speaking of language, gender intersects with language, more so with some than with others. It's not even necessary to understand Japanese, for example, to notice the difference between men's and women's spoken Japanese.

Which brings me back to books. It wouldn't be surprising if women and men wrote differently, though as in so many cases a lot of a reader's perception of a book depends on what he or she thinks about the author. There have been enough cases where a book written under a male pseudonym by a female author was hailed as quintessentially masculine, only to be reclassified as obviously feminine when the author's real sex was revealed, that anyone interested in this question ought to think twice before assuming that writing styles are gendered. If Woolf's novels had been written by Virgil Woolf, I suspect their style would have been evaluated differently. A strongly gendered reader will encounter strongly gendered books.

There was an experiment done in the late 1960s by Philip Goldberg, which involved making female college students read the same short articles ascribed to two different authors: one male, the other female. The readers rated the male author's work higher than the female, even though the text was the same. There were some complications, though: the difference in ratings was greater for articles on law, city planning and linguistics, while dietetics, art history and education showed no significant difference. And it has proved difficult to replicate Goldberg's work.

Flatt's piece also reminded me of Yo' Mama's DisFUNKtional! (Beacon Press, 1997) by the African-American scholar Robin D. G. Kelley. The library copy I read had no dust jacket, and no author photo, and as I read I realized I wasn't sure whether the author was male or female. The name "Robin" is ambiguous, and in my experience it was unusual for a male author to write with such unabashed warmth about his mother, his sisters, his women friends and their strengths; nor did Kelley say anything that specified her or his sex. The style wasn't particularly academic, either: Kelley wrote with an idiomatic authority and clarity. I remember deciding to wait until I'd finished the book to investigate, partly because I wanted to see if any clues would be dropped. None were, and when I was done I looked for some reviews and found that Kelley was male. (This reader on Amazon, however, assumed that Kelley was female.) But there's another question: are there black books, white books, mulatto books? Certainly in the past there have been authorities who were sure that an author's color would be expressed in his or her prose.

Flatt concludes:
Of course, none of this really matters. I read as many ‘masculine’ books as I do ‘feminine’, and I do not imply any sort of moral judgement between the two types. But just as I gender animals (cats female, dogs male), places (Goodge Street male, Russell Square female) and objects (my phone female; my laptop male) I can’t help but see some books as women.
If it doesn't really matter, why write about it? I think the question matters to a good many people. (Virginia Woolf herself thought there were male sentences and female sentences.) As Flatt admits, gendering things can have harmful consequences. At best, the examples she gives can be interpreted to see gendering as something she's neurotically driven to do, not something that inheres in objects outside her. Even if the tendency arises early in childhood, it's something that should be outgrown as you learn that most things don't have gender, and that human beings vary widely in their interests and styles. Many men love cats, many women love dogs.

The "chaps" at Bookhugger invited Richard T. Kelly to respond to Molly Flatt, though he took the theme as "the influence of one's gender upon one's writing and reading choices/preferences." (I happened upon all this because I'd just finished reading Kelly's new novel The Possessions of Doctor Forrest [Faber, 2011], which I found on the new arrivals shelves at the university library. A contemporary Gothic avowedly influenced by Stoker, Shelley, and Wilde, it's well written but overall a letdown.)

Kelly has a bit more of substance to say about issue of gender and fiction. He admits that the
contents of my bookshelves are ... male-dominated. My wife has pointed this out to me, I know it to be true. But I don’t believe this was ever a policy decision. And those female novelists whom I love are among my favourite novelists per se – just flicking across those alphabetised shelves I speak of Angela Carter, George Eliot, Nadine Gordimer, Sarah Hall, Patricia Highsmith, Julia Leigh, Hilary Mantel, Valerie Martin, Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, Mary Shelley, Emma Tennant…

Basically I like writers whom I feel to be formidable. I like a novel to take a broad canvas and fill it. I want moral disputation and politics, even as a mere presence in proceedings. I don’t much care for books about painful middle-class manners or ‘the domestic sphere’ – I live that stuff most days of the week, and some writing by women feels to me overly focused on same. But there’s no gender bar to the sort of novel I was just extolling, or else – to speak only of the obvious – we wouldn’t have Middlemarch. Or Hilary Mantel’s magisterial Wolf Hall, for that matter.
I think I need to take a look at Wolf Hall. I imagine that most of the books I own are by males, and when I did a count of my reading log last year I found to my dismay that only about 25-30 percent of the books I've read since 1977 were by women. (Though I suspect that puts me ahead of most male readers, and even most female ones.) I'm not conscious of downgrading a potential read by the sex of its author, though I also know that such subjective impressions mean nothing; I'd like to think that the imbalance comes more from the people who acquire books for the libraries, or who assign book reviews. But then I'm confronted with the imbalance of male vs. female authorship on my bookshelves. (I'd better do a count there, too, to be sure.) As readers of this blog know, I'm much more likely to slam a writer for masculinism than for femininity. And it occurs to me as I look at Kelly's list of favorite female writers that those I've read (most of them) don't write like Virginia Woolf, in conventionally "feminine" styles. Most, like George Eliot, could probably hide behind male pseudonyms if they wanted.

Ultimately Kelly agrees with me, though:
That Molly considers her laptop female put me in mind of remarks by Norman Mailer’s son John Buffalo in the book of dialogues between he and his father, The Big Empty (2006). Therein Mailer fils characterised his work computer as female and proposed that ‘she’ felt displeasure whenever he plugged an Ethernet jack into ‘her’ for the purpose of internet access – ‘Hey, I just want yours, what is this?’ That is a quite ludicrous thing to think, never mind to write, and Mailer sceptics may feel that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Still, I like to take this touchingly daft imagining as further evidence that a great deal of gender difference is merely in the mind.
That's okay.  The troubles arise when people take what is in their minds and try to impose it on other people.