the birds and the books

(No, it’s not about that. Much.)

A blogaletic with Jenna St. Hilaire and Masha.

Let me tell you about a story you may have read, or seen. It’s called The Bourne Identity and it’s written by Robert Ludlum, and if you don’t know about it you won’t find spoilers here. And if you’ve seen the movie, you don’t have any spoilers for the book.

My sister and once I had a discussion about the book’s erstwhile main supporting character, Marie St. Jacques. Marie is the protagonists squeeze and sidekick, a keen economist who helps her amnesiac spy-hero figure out who he is and what the heck is happening (OK, a spoiler: Bad Guys are shooting With Guns, and things Blow Up).

At the time, my sister read Marie as a positive female character—strong-willed, independent, intelligent, and capable. Jason Bourne would be a gibbering wreck without her. However, I saw Marie as a fairly negative female character, a cardboard cut-out, objectified and eroticized, meant merely to be sexually humiliated and vulnerable—a worthwhile object for Jason Bourne to rescue. Which then helps him in his struggle, because everything has to build to the Final Confrontation in these books.

Why did we read the story so differently? We’re different people for one thing. If you can lock two literary critics in a room without them finding some point of disagreement within ten minutes, then run screaming to the Ghost Busters—it’s a doppelganger. But is it possible that we read the book differently because my sister is (obviously) a woman and I (just as obviously, I hope) am a man?

If so, that makes our readings still more confusing. If we use conventional wisdom as our benchmark (what you’d expect the Man On The Street to say if it wasn’t you), my sister—a very intelligent person herself, mind—should be insulted at the objectification of women in yet another spy thriller. I, as the male reader of guys noir, should be pretty chirped up by a reasonably artistically portrayed and realistic dame for once.

And yes—the example’s reductive. Neither of us are Ludlum geeks, neither of us are arguing The Bourne Identity is great literature, and we each cede the other’s point.

Which makes things even more problematic. Because his week’s blogalectic is about how men and women read and review books differently.

As a repressed conspiracy theorist, I’m happy enough to agree that women novelists are maligned both by the establishment and by male critics—without having any hard evidence in hand. I guess I have enough confidence in the consistency of human nature to believe that the evidence would overwhelm me if I asked for it.

I’m also endlessly fascinated by the ways in which gender, conditioned and genetic, influences how we act and think. Jenna St. Hilaire has this to say about how gender might affect the way we read books:

[G]irls are generally comfortable reading about boys, but the reverse is much less true. Men do outgrow the exclusivity somewhat, at least if they’re taught to, but central female experiences like menstruation and barrenness and childbirth are still held at arms’ length. It’s hard to blame men for that when I, as a woman, turn peevish at such conversations unless they are very, very artistic. But those experiences do deserve representation. […]

[M]en and women pull toward opposite ends of the scale of logical importance versus emotional importance (speaking of gender as a whole, not individuals). In other words, men care more about the big overarching matters of the world, whereas women care to know how such things matter to themselves and to those they love. Which means, I think, that intellectual men are likely to gravitate directly toward high-level literature (in reading, writing and reviewing), and intellectual women are likely to read, love, review and write up and down the levels of art. Those women will write more than their share of the best of every level (with the possible exception of the topmost), because more women write nowadays than men. But that range does affect the playing field.

Masha has this to say about what Jenna St. Hilaire has to say about how gender might affect the way we read books:

The world is so clean, so sanitized – our bodies and their less-than-attractive elements are kept out of sight and out of mind. We are so distant from our own bodies that it’s no wonder we don’t know anymore how to discuss our own bodies without discomfort. Men and women both struggle with discussing bodily experiences, there is a tendency to become either too clinical or too "silly" – hiding embarrassment behind jokes or technicalities. […]

There is sometimes belief that men are really writing about big issues, when they’re dealing in the intimate, and women are being too personal even when addressing larger issues, but this is more an issue of projection. Because we assume women write about personal details, we can’t see the bigger picture, and because we assume men are dealing with wider issues, we miss the intimacy and emotion. In good writing, as in any other art, the intimate and the universal come together, just as the masculine and feminine elements of the writer come together. A woman who writes primarily "as a woman" fails in that she puts her gender ahead of her humanity. While it’s true she writes out of her experiences as a woman, they are experiences in the world, with men and women, and unless she can enter into the mind of the men in her experience, she can never create fully.

Pardon the lengthy quotations, but I think it’s a great discussion. And I’ve even had to leave out a main point just for consideration of time and space (read: the universe might implode soon. But don’t panic or anything).

Here’s what I think: we write within a body. That’s inevitable, that’s obvious. Our kinaesthetic experience of the world, of writing and of reading, is thus determined in part by the gender of that body. Though I don’t have the citation to hand, neurological studies of infants developing the womb have shown that these bodily gender distinctions, including some behaviours we typically consider masculine (aggression, say) or feminine (contracting physical space) seem to be physically engendered even before birth. For good or for ill, we have to come to terms one way or another with the body we occupy. This is irrespective of culture, and might suggest why we have an apparently human need for initiation rites.

And our bodies make us uncomfortable. C. S. Lewis once suggested that one could build the whole of Christian theology simply starting from the observations that 1) people make coarse jokes and 2) find the dead uncanny. Whether we wish to follow him on his flights of logic or not, his central point seems to hold true: we are not comfortable in this organic body we inhabit. We use it both as an object of veneration (the Greek statues of the gods, say) or revulsion (some of the abstract forms of modern dance). And as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon demonstrates, we are in a sort of fascinated awe at how our own bodies can pass so fluidly and instantaneously from state to the other, from the beautiful to the deformed, at once so durable and so frail.

It appears to be at least partly this, together with the constantly shifting mutability of the world around us, that draws us to writing as an act of concretising metamorphosis, isolating the frozen transitional stage. This is what many theorists have named the grotesque, the unsettling interval, in which we are neither god nor beast, and perhaps somehow both.

Of course men and women experience this differently. The experiences are, as Masha and Jenna both pointed out, equal but distinct. There are many physical and psychological experiences unique to childbearing which I will never experience. There are many physical and psychological experiences of aging which, I suspect, are unique to the male (inheriting the physical strength and stature of the father, the fear attendant when youthful strength diminishes, and so on).

What makes literature great, irrespective of gender, is what George MacDonald called ‘sympathy’—the ability to identify with another creature, and share in their experience of hope and of suffering.

I will never directly experience childbirth. Yet I can experience it with sympathy not only when I’ve been privileged to witness it, but when I read the inimical Diane Purkiss write about in her monumental Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (Penguin, 2000). My wife, for instance, may not understand directly the psychological effects aging has on a man in particular—but she can deeply understand and empathise with Kumalo and Jarvis in Cry, the Beloved Country (1948).

This leads me to several conclusions:

  1. it seems probable that men and women will write differently, as they are drawing from different experiences of the world but
  2. that really doesn’t tell us about the quality of what they’re writing, does it, because writing requires a mastery of craft involving language and fine motor skills and psychological awareness, and
  3. if we do not read with ‘sympathy’, it is doubtful whether we’ll understand anything unless it happens to blunder into our particular cow patch, and so
  4. sympathy and the evaluation of craft shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

In the end, it’s quite possible we can really do our best to understand ourselves as a sort of metonymy for everyone else. And it’s one of the grand paradoxes or laws of human expression that in order to fully understand ourselves we must have ‘sympathy’ with others.  ‘In Nature, you must go very low to find things that go so high.’

Why did my sister and I read The Bourne Identity differently? Well, did we?

(The writer of this article is sitting on a land mine, and is aware of it. The view is rather nice.)

2 thoughts on “the birds and the books

  1. Great post! I think people read things differently because they are different people (not necessarily different in gender). Readers bring baggage into the story with them, after all.

    Re: Girls being more comfortable reading about boys and the opposite not always being true: I think this starts in younger readers – say preteen/teen. Because a lot of stuff out there for this age group with girl main characters are romance or “chick lit”. Meaning it was written specifically for the female population, and many boys just aren’t interested.

    My son, who is 10, hasn’t gotten to those books yet. Books he reads are all adventure, fantasy, etc. I recommended The City of Ember to him and said, “The main character is a girl. Would you want to read it?” He was perplexed. “If it’s a good book, why would it matter?” he asked.

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