Am I a sexist reviewer?

Since deciding in March to make this blog a full-time book review/list site, I’ve read twenty-eight books. Of those, thirteen have been by men and fifteen by women, a pretty close split. I’ve written and posted thirteen full-length reviews since then (not counting Superlative posts or plugs for articles over at Quadrapheme or Shiny New Books). Of those reviews, only three have been of books by male authors.

The stats are interesting because they suggest that my actual reading habits are pretty evenly balanced. When I was devising my Classics Club list, I even deliberately made the gender split half-and-half, with twenty-five titles by male authors and twenty-five by female authors. The numbers seem to be saying that I pick up books by men and books by women at a roughly equal rate. This pleases me: I’m bucking the depressing trend of reading mostly male authors, while also avoiding the overcompensation of not reading anything by men at all.

The problem is that I don’t seem to be reviewing those books.

It’s not clear to me why this is. I’ve read several terrific books by men in the last month—Grits by Niall Griffiths and The Nightingales Are Drunk, by the Persian medieval poet Hafez, spring to mind—but for some reason that hasn’t translated into writing about them. Going back to look at my books-read list since March, it’s clear that some of the lacunae are explicable. David Reybrouck’s epic history of the Congo was too huge for me to be comfortable reviewing when I read it, since I’d only started blogging reviews that month; Mark Doty’s Deep Lane I reviewed in Quadrapheme, and Christopher Bollen’s Orient was reviewed there too, by my colleague Martin Cornwell, so I didn’t want to steal any thunder by reviewing it here. The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham, I really should have written about, but I found that it infuriated me too much to want to spend any more time in its company. On the Beach At Night Alone, by Walt Whitman, was a similarly exhausting reading experience, one I didn’t feel the need to return to for a review; two of the other male-authored books were also poetry collections, which I haven’t yet started to review here, mostly out of laziness. Of the remaining books by men, I will be reviewing one this month in Quadrapheme (Tightrope by Simon Mawer), have reviewed another here (The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson), and the third (the aforementioned Grits) seems to have just slipped through the cracks in what turned out to be a very deadline-heavy month.

Setting aside all those male-authored books which had reviewing conflicts, the three that jump out at me are the Whitman, the Maugham, and the Griffiths. All three were impressive in their own ways, but the Whitman and the Maugham in particular were sort of tiresome: Whitman for being so irrepressibly wide-eyed and earnest and lustful, like a poetic Labrador, and Maugham for writing a character whose supreme arrogance enwraps him so completely that there’s not much you can say about him, other than throwing your hands up in disgust and bewilderment. This is a bit of a problem for a reviewer. I want to be able to engage with a book on a much deeper, more fundamental level—what does its structure say about its author’s intent or politics or beliefs? What questions does this book require that we ask of ourselves and our lives and those of the people we know?—and being stymied in this way doesn’t help.

Compare to, say, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years—which captures an image of an era in a manner totally open-handed and empathetic; hers are all characters you can picture, personalities you can grab hold of—or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, with its insistence that we recognize transcendent beauty and mystery and terror. Compare to Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, which bares to a reader’s gaze the futile, pathetic, self-defeating cruelties of stifled women, and the incredible physical violence that underpins those cruelties, a topic which very few authors are willing to engage with. Compare to Simone Schwarz-Bart’s steely tale of persistence and resistance, The Bridge of Beyond. These are all books you can sink your teeth into. They’re books that I want to discuss.

This isn’t to say that men don’t write books like this; I wrote a long review of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, which raised a lot of major moral dilemmas and deserved to be thoroughly considered, and obviously he is not the only man to produce such work. It remains true, though, that many of the books I read that have the more interesting questions in them happen to be by women. Books like The Moon and Sixpence do raise questions (such as, “Is it moral to leave your wife and children with no explanation and never speak to them again in order to nurture your own artistic genius?”), but more and more these days, I find myself bored by these questions; I even find them, frankly, self-indulgent. (What are we meant to say to Maugham, “no”? I would quite like to say “no”. But instead we get two hundred pages.)

You may, of course, think that I ought not to worry about reviewing equal numbers of men and women writers at all. Male authors have comprised the canon for so very long, and even social media campaigns like the Year of Reading Women, or Kamila Shamsie’s proposed Year of Publishing Women, can only go a little way towards recovering a debt that has been accruing for literally millennia. But I want to read the best of what there is, I want to think hard about the best of what there is, and it seems to me that the best way to do that without succumbing to unconscious bias of one sort or another is to make a profound effort to be as balanced as possible. If 50% of the books I read are by men, but male-authored books constitute only 23% of what I review, that’s a balance I need to look at more closely.

It seems to be general practice to finish a post like this with a resolution. I won’t do that. Partly I think that resolutions provide a false finality to issues that should really be dealt with in ever-evolving ways. Partly I don’t know what conclusion I ought to be drawing from this. I don’t think I am sexist in my reading habits; the gender bias in my reviewing habits is not evidence or proof or the foundation for an argument of anything in particular, simply an observation. A field note, if you will. Something to keep an eye on.

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10 thoughts on “Am I a sexist reviewer?

  1. Annie says:

    I don’t think you’re being sexist. You’re not required to review every book you read. Besides, Whitman and Maugham are on syllabi across the English-reading world; they don’t need every blog post they can get. Female writers and writers of color *do*, however.

    I sense from your post (forgive me if I’m wrong here) that you’re reluctant to post negative reviews. I’ve felt the same, even about authors who are no longer around to take umbrage. As a reader, I want to see honest reviews–even if they are negative. I ignore reviews in which the reviewer doesn’t explain why they had a hard time with or disliked a particular book. But when a reviewer–like you did with Maugham–discuss why a book is problematic, it helps me adjust my expectations.

    • That’s a really good point. I actually love writing negative reviews, but I find it hard with some authors to voluntarily put myself back into contact with their work if it really bothered me. The problem with Maugham’s work is the same as the problem I have with Michael Gove: he’s very skillful, just wrong. That sometimes makes engaging seem totally pointless/futile, but I should push myself to do it more often, I think.

  2. Annie says:

    This is even more off topic from your original post, but my difficulty with writing negative reviews is that I have to finish the terrible book before I write about it. If a book is that bad, I’ll stop reading. There are so many other things I could be reading. The books I end up writing negative reviews for are the books that hooked me just enough to keep me hoping that it would get better.

    • Good point! I usually finish the books that I start, out of a sense of obligation–if something doesn’t grab me, I’ll put it down and come back later, but if I just don’t like it, I’ll usually battle through to the end. Maybe I should stop doing that?…

  3. Fascinating post. Although in general I shy away from ‘commercial women’s fiction’ otherwise I try to remain as gender neutral as I can in selecting the books I read – I choose for the book not its author. However, I am aware that I read more books by men than women – so far this year in a 2:1 ratio. I argue to myself that it’s not deliberate, but unconsciously it probably is just that, as I don’t care for more than an occasional read in a more domestic setting, which is something most men don’t write about, I let myself get lured by genre, plot, setting (please forgive the sweeping generalisations, but I use them to get my point across about the type of reader I am). I have good intentions though, and that must count.

    • Good intentions definitely count. I hear what you say about commercial “women’s fiction”, too (unnecessarily gendered branding, anyone?) I think what I’m willing to pick up is pretty broad–anything from Martin Amis to Ursula Le Guin to Chimamanda Adichie to Terry Pratchett. What I find weird is the disparity between the things I read and the things I seem to want to think about deeply (which is how I consider reviewing–the chance to think about something deeply). It may be as simple as the fact that my education, like most peoples’ educations (received literature, history and so on), came primarily from a male point of view and I want to hear about other things now. It may be a more general problem with male writers: that many of them fail to engage with major ideas in an interesting way, because there’s no imperative to deeply consider a system that benefits you. I’m not sure!

  4. I often read books, based on reviews I have read, and am frequently disappointed. The authors I end up reading more of, are mostly women. I find their attitudes, understanding and outlook more simpatico overall than that of male authors. And, why fight it? My reading time is too short.

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