Dec 2 2008
A continuation of our Romance Apologia posts*. . .
Part One, in which the author argues for the rights of women to read whatever the hell we want
One of the things that gets my back up is patent dismissals of whole genres of writing: literary fiction is pretentious and boring; Romance is trash; comic books are for kids, etc. It especially frustrates me when these comments get made by readers who are often on the receiving end of those judgments.
I was raised and trained to love books, pure and simple, to relish reading for both its entertainment value and its educational potential. I have spent many a season trying to coax college students who don’t share my passion into trying just one more book to see if it will light the fire that continues to fuel my own reading habit. And just knowing that in this time of Google-researched party conversations and sound byte politics that people are still reading actual books (as shaved down in page numbers as they may be) is a comfort to a literary dinosaur like me, a person who truly believes that life is richer and more enjoyable when experienced in the company of books.
That said, I believe that people read for many different reasons, and that depending on our stage in life, we are attracted to different kinds of reading. So while I find myself silently screaming when I see entire libraries of books dismissed wholesale as inferior reading, I am equally frustrated at the insistence that if we don’t read certain kinds of books, we’ll be inferior human beings. Because it seems to me that is just another way of insisting that there are inferior types of reading.
And am I imagining things, or is this insistence that we should be reading certain types of books more often applied to children and to women, as if we are incomplete, somehow, if we haven’t read some magical assortment of books that will make us stronger, faster, smarter than we are now, although perhaps not too strong, fast, and smart.
The irony as I see it is that women educated in the United States, at least (my only personal frame of reference) have read a gigantic pile of Great Books over our years of schooling, and we’ve read at least as many of these Books as our male peers. So why is it that, after 20+ years of guided reading, of summer reading lists and high school essays on Dickens and college Shakespeare classes, we’re still being told that if we don’t read certain types of books we’re missing out. That if we limit our reading type past a certain age, to, say, primarily books written by other women, we’ll be limited women, limited human beings. That an admittedly limited adult reading selection equals limited beingness.
As Jane said in her column last week, women are faced with “the penis and its thought process” in virtually every aspect of our personal and professional lives. And while the penis and its thought process can be a wonderful thing, it can also be a little overwhelming, a little – dare I say it – limiting in its perspective, too. So I understand women wanting to break away from the penis perspective, to seek concentration in one kind of reading because we already get the male perspective (yes, I realize I’m simplifying, that there are other layers here, like race, that we can talk about, but I don’t really think the critiques are being made as a way to raise women’s race consciousness).
My understanding is that women already read almost twice as much as men across every interest area and genre. And yet we’re still barraged with questions about why we read Romance or SF/F or YA or whatever, and we’re still suspect, somehow, if we eschew certain types of fiction for other types (namely choosing female-penned books over male-written ones). And yet we’ve likely read just as many classics as our male peers in school, and as adults we read on average twice as many books as men do. So with those kinds of comparisons, why shouldn’t we be able to read whatever we want without being told we’re “missing out”? Just because we may choose to limit what we read (and I never remember getting hassled when all I read was literary and classic fiction) does not mean we will be limited in ourselves. In fact, some of this limited reading may itself be a POV corrective, a balancing of views.
Beyond that, how many of those who think we should be reading differently are as well-read, as diversely-read, as women who are working through several books as week, even if they mostly or entirely come from one genre? Why aren’t the men who only read Dave Barry or the latest athlete’s autobiography being labeled as limited in their reading choices? At what point can we acknowledge that reading Romance – or any genre fiction – is real reading? That women who choose to read only one type of book aren’t lacking something they have no interest in experiencing within the context of pleasure?
I could not imagine my life without the experience of reading, and my own tastes are quite broad (I still favor a lot of lit fic and straight history, for example), but not everyone shares my reading interests. So what. Do I think, sometimes, that some of my Romance reading friends are missing out because they won’t try some non-Romance books I found riveting? Sure. But I feel the same way about my non-Romance reading friends who won’t touch any of the Romance novels I’ve tried to get them to check out. But missing out on a great book is in the eye of the reader, and missing out on any book doesn’t mean one is missing something as a person.
Ultimately, my feeling is that until men have been as immersed in the vagina and its thought process as women have in the penis and its thought process, we cannot accuse women of being too limited in their reading choices for only liking one type of book, especially if it’s written by other women. Once men have logged as many hours with female-authored books as women have with male-authored ones, we can talk seriously about limited reading choices and their effect on our character. Until then, I think our critics should be asking us for book recommendations rather than telling us what we should be reading.
Part Two, in which the author suggests that society still sees what women read as a moral issue
Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deepshaded arbors, the riotous old fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.
Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house. I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.
I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.
The narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s late Victorian novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, is married to a physician who has prescribed the infamous “rest cure” for his wife – a remedy for supposed “nervous disorders” in women that prescribed complete confinement to bed for up to months at a time. Weir Mitchell, who pioneered the “cure,” believed – as many men of his time did – that women could easily become mentally overtaxed and therefore hysterical from too much intellectual stimulation (or any work that took them beyond the domestic sphere of home and family). While it seems insane now, the rest cure fit within a cultural paradigm that viewed women as vulnerable vessels for dangerous ideas. Victorian women were often deemed better suited to reading than writing, and best suited to reading those things that would guide them toward moral restraint and feminine submission.
The moral dimensions of reading are as old as, well, reading (or in the olden days, listening), not only because we learn things from reading, but because some of our most important documents aim to shape our character in some way (politically, spiritually, etc.). One of the great ironies, of course, is that Weir Mitchell, and all those like him, could not suppress the growing tide of women fiction writers, who, through the 19th century, were very well-read by women of the middle and upper classes, and who were exploring the limits and boundaries for women, both inside and outside their novels. In fact, the Anglo-American tradition of women gathering over some domestic task like quilting to share a new novel of sentiment or sensation started in the 18th century and is still going strong, even if our places of reading and conversation have expanded and diversified considerably. And the opportunities for subverting any messages of submissive cooperation were present from the beginning, too, albeit less overtly embraced than they are now.
The notion of Anglo-American women as consumers can be tied explicitly to the development of the middle class, but the idea of women as vessels into which moral teaching can and must be inculcated is at least as old as recorded history (the Bible, anyone?). Together, woman as commercial consumer and woman as malleable vessel become woman as passive reader, an image that is as inaccurate as it is stubborn in our social subconscious. I suspect that most, if not all, patriarchal societies are driven by some version of this image – of woman as receiver – and it winds through some of the most insistent concerns about what women are reading. And Romance readers are well-versed in these sentiments, whether they come in the form of warnings about the effect of fantasy on the feminine mind, disapproval of what is viewed as morally repugnant sex, or suggestions that reading one kind of fiction is too limiting. We may not consciously associate these concerns with the old moral worries about what women are reading, but that doesn’t mean they are without cultural power to induce guilt in women readers, or a sense that we have to downplay or apologize for what we read, hide it, even.
Reading has always had a moral dimension, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some of our highest ideals are captured in prose, in fiction, even, and we certainly learn a great deal about what it means to be human, to belong to a society, to function among other societies, and the like, from reading. But women have always borne a greater burden in the appraisal of moral correctness, being seen as simultaneously too weak of mind to resist “bad” ideas and not malleable enough of spirit to conform to “good” rules. And for all that we have challenged and successfully transformed numerous aspects of patriarchal thinking, as long as we feel the need to excuse, apologize for, hide, or otherwise explain ourselves and our reading choices, we’re going to be limiting ourselves, not by what we read (or not), but by our unwillingness to unabashedly claim our right to read whatever the hell we want.
*From Jane, for the record, I have nothing against Mike Cane who sort of, kind of, inspired my first post because the Romance Apologia post is meant to be in jest. He’s a good guy. The comments of others inspired Janet’s post which is to explain the purpose of the Romance Apologia post. Love ya, Mike, if you are reading this.