My husband — I call him ogre, lovingly — doesn’t read books written by women. He made an exception for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Harry Potter, and the first Twilight book.
Unlike him, I could not afford to limit my reading to one gender only. When studying literature, the overwhelming majority of books you have to read is written by male writers. In my case, it was German and Scandinavian literature, but it’s probably the same for any other, be it French, English or any other Western canon. Classes focusing on women writers were not only marked as literature, but as gender studies as well.
Now, I’m grateful that there is the awareness of a lack in female representation in literary canon, and that there’s also the awareness that it’s a problem of looking onto sources, not primarily one of availability. But the fact that a class about women writers has to be marked in such a way, making it the “other” and a choice for students to avoid — it makes me bitter and weary.
My ogre chose to read mainly male writers, and without evidence to the contrary decided that he doesn’t like female writers and that they’re somehow not good enough for him. (He’s grown since then, thank God, but it took relentless educating on my part). He even read Pride and Prejudice only through the added filter of zombies. So when we sat on the couch last night, trying to get all movies together in which Tom Hardy had a part, I knew what I was getting into when I said, “He played Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.”
Unsurprisingly, he had no idea what half of this sentence meant. “Wut?”
“Heathcliff. From Wuthering Heights. The book. From Emily Brontë.”
Oh. My. God. I was prepared that he wouldn’t know the book. But that he didn’t even know the Brontë sisters?
“Schmonzenz,” he said. Rubbish.
“It’s a classic!”
“I never heard of it so it can’t be a classic.”
And this was when I didn’t know anymore what to say. I’m not good at articulating when I’m upset, and this threatened to evolve into another one of the “You should read and write more (meaning exclusively) in German” arguments. Because having an idea about any canon other than your own automatically means you don’t like and respect your own language and literature enough. (But that’s another can of ugly, slimy worms.)
Mutely, I left ogre to scroll down Tom Hardy’s Wikipedia page. He didn’t say it, but he made a low “oh” when he reached Wuthering Heights in Hardy’s filmography.
I get it, to a certain extent. You have to bring a certain interest to the table to learn about classics of another canon. Despite the impression you sometimes get, there is no universal canon. On those lists sometimes floating around, with books where you have to bold the ones you read, I always have less than average. They’re very American/English centric, and despite what my ogre thinks, my formative reading years were spent with Goethe and Schiller.
You also have to have an interest in reading beyond your comfort zone — assuming that a preference for male writers constitutes a comfort zone and not just a default setting for society.
Ogre does have some of that interest, but he also has a very heavy bag of prejudices. Superstitions. A certain supremacy complex — not white supremacy, nor male supremacy, just a very sound confidence in being the best. What makes him bearable (and lovable, in my case) is his readiness to question his own assumptions and to learn realities that are different from his. He can listen, if he so chooses.
I’m constantly frustrated with his refusal to take women writers seriously (and me with them, since he refuses to read anything I’ve written based on the assumption that he will hate it; so I don’t let him read my writing, based on the same assumption). However, it also leads me to question my own stances.
I prefer women writers.
Maybe part of it has to do with my preferred genres. There are genres where male voices have it harder: Romance and Erotica. As these genres are mainly read by female readers, that’s not that surprising. Emanuelle de Maupassant did an extensive survey among erotica writers, and you can read male erotica writers talk about the male pen here.
Overwhelmingly though, it’s the other way around: in publishing (and also in creative writing, as Bonnie Nadzam demonstrates rather heartbreakingly in her essay “Experts in the Field“), odds are tilted against women.
Besides, I do not refuse to read male writers. There are many that I utterly adore.
I have other do-not-cross-lines that are far more rigid than my preference for women writers. Disparaging fan fiction, for example, is something that will keep me from reading someone’s books. The treatment of fans is a thing that has turned me away from authors I used to adore. And then there’s my comfort zone, or rather, a discomfort zone. A book falling inside the parameters of this zone produces a higher resistance in me to read it: Written with a first person narrator, featuring Fae people or zombies — chances are I won’t read this story.
Are these prejudices or preferences? And does it really matter?
A preference for third person narrators is just that: a preference. A narrative choice. Not wanting to read a story because it’s written by a person of the wrong gender? That’s a prejudice, and a total refusal to listen to stories told from a different voice.
There’s a difference though, between refusing to listen to the all-pervading, default male voice, the voice that shapes society and gets to decide the norms, and refusing to listen to the voices of minorities, of the silenced, and the overlooked. One refuses to accept the status quo. One perpetuates the silencing.