Sisterhood Blog

The Cultural Implications of Our Book Choices

By Sarah Seltzer

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Hurricane Irene forced President Obama and his family to cut their vacation on Martha’s Vineyard short, sending them back to Washington a few days earlier than they had planned.

But even a forecast of bad weather hadn’t stopped criticism of President Obama’s vacation reading list. When it began circulating on blogs, I was incensed. How dare they slam him for reading serious, acclaimed, nuanced and politically-tinged fiction on his vacation? How nitpicky and snotty, I thought. Let the man read what he wants.

Furthermore, as a lover and student of literature, I believe we can access truth just as easily via fiction as through non-fiction, and in fact that those barriers are overemphasized in our culture.

There’s a slightly gendered angle, too, to this criticism, the idea that fiction readers, the majority of whom are thought to be women, are less serious than guys who hole up with the latest biography, which may contain its share of conjecture.

Then the criticism came from the other side, and I sat up. Obama’s reading list, it turns out, is disproportionately male-authored, and has been found to be historically so thanks to some number-crunching by the Daily Beast.

At Salon, writer Robin Black argued that this is a problem because it reflects a pattern we see statistically and in our own lives:

It is a well-known fact among those of us to whom this matters that while women read books written by men, men do not tend to reciprocate.

The reasons for this imbalance are the subject of much speculation and little conclusion, but, simple as this may sound, it looks an awful lot to me like we think they are more interesting than they think we may turn out to be. And I very much doubt that’s a message Mr. Obama means to endorse - especially as a father of daughters …

While I agree with Jezebel’s Margaret Hartmann that ultimately this choice of our President’s won’t make a huge difference to the reading public, and that everyone should be able to read what he/she wants on vacation, I do hope the criticism itself raises awareness among readers.

Because the bias of readers with privilege toward writers who share their privilege is statistically and, I think, anecdotally true. Beyond Black’s “we like their books, but they suspect ours” hypothesis, I also maintain that the issues of snobbery toward fiction in general and male readers ignoring female authors are quite related. You see, most people I know who adore and devour fiction regularly from the highbrow to the “beach read” tend to read books by authors of both genders in all categories.

But ask your friends who don’t read fiction regularly (and statistically, they’re more likely to be male), those who don’t ever indulge in a popular novel once in a while, or those who read fiction as an occasional break from nonfiction and journalistic writing, just which novels they do read, and chances are it will tends towards male-authored “serious fiction.”

My strong sense is that if you have a passion for fiction, you’ll seek it out no matter which gender the author. If fiction makes you feel emasculated or unserious, you’ll likely pick up the books that you think will help assuage that insecurity. And then we go back to the issue of whose books are most likely to be deemed “hefty.”

From my perspective, the “seriousness bias” and the gender bias go hand in hand. We need to let go of both.

Still, there is hope: some of the most critically acclaimed “serious” fiction and nonfiction books of late are both popular and female-authored (like “Room: A Novel,” by Emma Donoghue, “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” by Jennifer Egan and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot) as well as writers’ and bloggers’ serious and sophisticated engagement with more popular books like “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett and George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels means that slowly, slowly the lines are blurring.

We all need to follow Robin Black’s advice and pick unexpected books to read to help the lines blur further.


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