The beauty of difference


It’s my experience that coincidence is a normal part of everyday life. What may seem odd and surprising to many people is for me – mostly – simply confirmation that if you spin the wheel enough then you’ll come up with every variation, including the coincidental.

Coincidence leads me to write today though. Yesterday I was referred to read a piece from Salon about the alleged, and supposedly sexist, imbalance of book reviews of male versus female writers. This morning over my morning coffee I picked up the Weekend Extra from last Saturday’s Age I had yet to read and came across a piece critical on very similar lines: that the literary establishment favours male writers over female, that in effect it was sexist. I read, as I did yesterday, with scepticism. Do I believe there is a male conspiracy? Certainly not. Is there an unconscious inclination then to books written by men? Possibly, but I think it more complex than that – or possibly more simple. Most of all I left reading with a sense of disquiet, which is what prompts me to write today.

I imagine that if I were a woman writer struggling to make way in the literary world then I might be disturbed at first glance by some of the figures quoted. Since statistics can be made to say anything let’s stick to the basic and very general numbers quoted, essentially that while women write approximately half of all books and make up supposedly 80% of readers they are reviewed less than men (here the figures are fluffy, but let’s settle on 40%). On the face of it you might think that unfair, and perhaps it is – but perhaps there are good reasons for it. Regardless, wjhile I understand why said woman writer may be outraged by this I reject the notion that I should be likewise.

Let’s start with the numbers in a very unscientific, but anecdotal explanation of why there might be some skew in them. Let’s presume for a start that half of all books reviewed are non-fiction. Now that’s a guess, but not far from the mark I would think. Again, without reference to magical stats, I would suggest that non-fiction is a male bastion, both reading and writing. I’d suggest maybe 75% of non-fiction writers are male, and logically would be represented in the review pages in the same proportion.

So, what about fiction then? If males predominate in non-fiction then it follows that women do in the fiction states. We’ll assume that to be the case, though personal observation and experience makes me dubious. Now there is high-brow literary fiction all the way through to chick-lit and cheap action thrillers. There are a lot of different flavours, and reviews pages tend to favour the high-brow over the cheap.

One of the contentions I think by these I articles I read is that not enough women are considered to be literary masters, not because they are not, but because the review pages won’t consider them so. While books published by Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace and so on are considered literary events, and widely reviewed, there are few if any female equivalents. Now I’m open to the possibility that there are women authors every bit as good as the aforementioned who I have not been exposed to, as these writers suggest. It may be literary taste, but I don’t think so.

I’m an avid browser of bookstores. I pick up and put down dozens of books each week. I read the review pages as a matter of course. I’ll watch the occasional review program on the TV, and catch documentaries on all sorts of artistic figures – male and female – on a regular basis. I read woman authors such as Lionel Shriver or Janet Turner-Hospital, and so on. Still, my firm belief is that at the literary end of the quality spectrum that men once more predominate, for reasons I don’t care to speculate on here. Ergo, they get reviewed more. Combined with non-fiction reviews and there’s the alleged imbalance explained.

Now there will be many women who complain that they should be equally represented in the literary stakes, but the fact is that women writers are not ignored – every book by Toni Morrison is a big splash – but that there are just fewer of them. A more substantive argument would be that there is a whole genre of books that never get reviewed because they are considered too low-brow and common. Of course these are the books that sell best, that most people read – the literary fraternity is nothing if not snobbish. Why should they not be reviewed if they are what the man (or woman) in the street want to read? And probably the biggest single genre is chick lit, which (yes, without reference to stats) accounts for the great edge in female over male readership. If they were reviewed, as perhaps they should, then the imbalance would be in the other direction. Now if that happened the arguments would be different – not based on sex, but rather on quality.

That’s all as it may be, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out how credible my analysis is. There is one final, and ironic note though, that outside the literary superstars the big selling and unreviewed author of a popular chick lit book makes a lot more money than her male counterparts.

Putting aside the practical explanations of this I found myself troubled in a much deeper level by these articles. They were worthy and impassioned and contained some pretty strong comments from female authors and critics. Their perspective I understand, but I found my hackles raised by the inference that I too should be outraged by this ‘sexism’ (as they thought it). For a start I don’t like being told what to think or feel. Secondly, and more substantially, I hate it how there is an apparent norm we are meant to measure up to, and everything to either side of that is aberrant. I reject that completely.

Every mother wants her little boy to grow up and become an upstanding and fair-minded member of society. The fact of the matter is that with so many factors forming us we grow into individuals of every shape and size, and that’s as it should be. Some are upstanding, and some are not. Many wouldn’t even know what it means. We are a world of diverse opinion and perspective. We honour in our words the politically correct standards that have become the norm, but if we all grew up to conform to them then society would be a world of same thinking drones. It’s difference that makes us great and, for example, makes literature possible.

One of the articles quotes a comment made by V. S. Naipul about women writers. He is dismissive and cruel, and it’s pretty obvious that any woman, writer or not, would be upset by them. That’s his opinion though. Does it make him sexist? Well it does in the general sense, but then if that’s his perception then he’s entitled to it. He’s entitled to an opinion, and to publish it. He’s entitled to be a nasty piece of work. He’s entitled to be sexist, that’s his right. And we are entitled to have a go at him for that sin. Or equally to disregard it altogether.

As it happens I tend not to read books by women writers. Does that make me sexist? Generally I find the voice of female authors hard to accept. And often the themes and story-lines are foreign to me. Is that a surprise? Well, I’m a man with a male perspective, so it’s no surprise I find something foreign in reading a woman. Still, one of the joys of reading is the opportunity to experience different voices and perspectives. And so while I have a preference for male writers over female if I find a book written by a female writer then I’ll read it – and have enjoyed many.

I have similar problems with many Australian movies, which tend too often to be dull and worthy rather than interesting and provocative. I’m an Australian, I want Australia to make great films and to be proud of them. I’m anything but anti-Australian, but I won’t watch one just to be patriotic. I’m not a bigot – but perhaps if I lived somewhere else I might be called one.

As I wrote before, we are all formed by our experiences. If we come into this world a blank sheet then our experiences quickly make their mark upon it. We learn what we favour, and what we don’t. We know not to put our hand in a flame because of that first time it burnt us. We discover that brussel sprouts are awful and that too much beer makes us bloated. We prefer over time jazz to classical music, or classical to jazz; our favourite colour becomes blue or red or yellow, but we wouldn’t be seen dead in orange. That’s human life and experience. Does any of that make us a bigot?

It does when we come to prefer the human – and often times that is perfectly valid. Not always though. Preferring male literature to female doesn’t make me sexist, it just makes me another human being acting upon his experience – and exercising free will. I won’t be told what to think or feel, refuse to be coerced into feeling some political correct outrage (as we witness so often). And I reject utterly the mediocre assertion that all things are equal. They are not.

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