Dumb quote of the day--you are what you read edition redux

>> Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Now the fact that the president of the United States apparently doesn't read women writers is not the greatest crisis facing the arts, much less the nation -- but it's upsetting nevertheless. As I suspect Obama would agree, matters of prejudice are never entirely minor, even when their manifestations may seem relatively benign.
-Robin Black, "President Obama: Why don't you read more women?",
Salon, August 24th, 2011

Oh, for fuck's sake. Again.

Okay, so now here's the President's vacation reading list being assailed from (I presume) the left, this time for not being "inclusive" enough. Because, apparently, readers are expected to look at bookstore shelves and instead of picking up an armful of things that have had good reviews, acclaimed authors, belong to favored genres and/or simply have neat cover art; the reader is instead expected to look for a representative percentage of [category] authors so he can make sure he has the requisite numbers of women (and perhaps a representative mix of ethnicity, religious preference, political persuasion, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.; I am disappointed that the President Of The United States has not read even a single book by a one-legged, bisexual, Greek Orthodox, anarchist, Han author residing in Taiwan).

The sad truth is that Black's complaint is essentially the same as the Tevi Troy whine that drove me nuts yesterday, except that it comes from a perspective I generally sympathize with and it sounds like she has vastly better taste in authors. However, fundamentally, Ms. Black and Mr. Troy appear to be annoyed that the President is evidently reading what he'd like to read instead of reading what they'd like him to read, which is bullshit.

This is not a post about sexism in publishing, which shouldn't be tolerated. Or sexism in marketing (ditto). Or sexism in retailing (bad). Or sexism in reviews (books should generally be reviewed on their merits1). This isn't about whether editors are discriminating against women (or anyone else) or whether women aren't treated as equals at conventions and conferences or whether their books are hidden away in the dark recesses of bookstores while books by men are put in the windows. This isn't about whether a woman has to change her name in order to avoid the slush pile or whether that's at least the conventional wisdom, nor is it about whether that conventional wisdom is depressingly accurate or represents toxically inaccurate notions that create their own sad reality. This isn't about whether comment threads responding to women authors or discussions of sexism end up full of horrible misogynistic trolls who deserve a boot in the head.

This is about someone going to a bookstore and picking up an armful of what she wants to read. (Or he, in the President's case.) This is about suggesting that someone is a bigot because one's recreational reading wasn't "representative" enough (of what?).

It doesn't strike me as particularly reasonable or natural for someone to go into a bookstore looking for categories of authors instead of genres or specific things one meant to get around to.

If I walk out of a bookstore with a Margaret Atwood novel, it isn't because I like to get my fix of women authors. It's because I like Margaret Atwood's work2. And if another visit to the bookstore results in an armful of sausages, that isn't deliberate, either. I'm trying to think of what I picked up on my last two visits to Borders, when I loaded up during their bankruptcy fire sale, and it's mostly men: the photo I posted to Facebook after the first visit shows Charlie Stross (because I've read a few short stories I liked and mean to read more, and the discount offered an opportunity); Margaret Atwood because I've been on a kick since reading The Year Of The Flood; T.C. Boyle, William Gibson, Michael Chabon and Erik Larson because I like them; the one David Foster Wallace novel I haven't read (not counting The Pale King, which I'm reading); Ann and Jeff Vandermeer's The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet Of Curiosities because it sounded neat; Charles Portis' True Grit because I've meant to read it since I saw the Coens' version. Complaining that I picked up only one female author (and one female co-editor) simultaneously gives me not enough and too much credit: I simply wasn't thinking about the authors (and editors) as gendered people, I was simply randomly surfing shelves for authors and titles whose work I already liked or was curious regarding, with a vague-and-undefined arbitrary sense that there was a cutoff point where I had too much (1) in my arms and/or (2) to justify putting on the credit card (with a hopeless and frankly irresponsible promise to myself to pay off the balance I was charging ASAP).

Does this make me a sexist pig? And I think all these people might be white, or whitish; Atwood, Gibson and DFW are, for sure, I've seen photographs of them in various places. So I might be a racist, too, I guess. I hope this doesn't sound bitter or defensive, since my reaction is more bemused and bewildered. The follow-up visit to Borders the following weekend procured Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard and the fourth Ed Gorey Amphigorey anthology I didn't yet have, along with some other books--anyway, more books by white men, in any case. Wry observation that my horizons are narrow, though it's seriously hard to type that without a raised eyebrow since I was (at the times) pleased with myself that my armloads included fairy tales, science fiction, "serious lit", westerns, noir thrillers, cartoons and historical nonfiction. I had no idea (eyebrow still raised in amusement) I was supposed to be checking authors' photos and bios for boobies and dingles so I could balance the ratio accordingly and correctly.

These comments about the President's reading list from the left and right do share a refreshing (albeit disappointing and predictable) common ground: they tell us hardly anything about the President and turn out to be Rorschach tests for the respective authors, who reveal their obsessions and preoccupations accordingly. You know, I had to actually go on to Amazon to see whether any of the books the President chose were actually well-reviewed and to get more relevant information about plots and genres and styles and literary things like that? I'm not familiar with any of the authors he selected except Huxley (and everybody seems to think Brave New World was purchased for one of his daughters' required school reading; probably, though, come to think of it, I haven't read BNW since junior high school, myself, and perhaps I owe it a revisiting--perhaps the President is thinking similarly), but it sounds like the President has good taste in lit and/or someone is making solid suggestions to him. It might be that instead of trying to analyze what his book shopping says about his politics or whether it ought to include more a more inspirational symbolic representation of something-or-other, that we might instead wish the President happy reading, be happy that he seems to enjoy books for their own sake, and see if that reading list includes any choice cuts we ought to pick up ourselves the next time we fire up our Kindles, hit the library, etc. (Personally: The Warmth Of Other Suns sounds interesting but a bit heavy for the mood I've been in lately; The Bayou Trilogy also sounds interesting, though I don't read a lot of crime fiction other than Leonard--because Elmore Leonard is just an amazing writer; I've read reviews of Room and I'm afraid it sounds like a book I'll be avoiding like a plague, sorry, because--and this may be an unfair reaction--but it sounds like one of these manipulative, depressing, overly-self-serious novels that will leave me grey and tired and no thank you; the rest of Obama's reading list doesn't much strike my fancies at all, I'm afraid, but it all comes highly-regarded).

But I have a tall stack of things to read, myself; I just hope there won't be a litmus test. Happy page-turning, Mr. O.

1The qualifier being added because I can imagine a hypothetical in which a writer's personal life or views are so awful--he's an active neo-Nazi, for instance--that it becomes impossible to separate the artist from the art and the fact the writer's produced a compelling novel with masterful use of the language and irresistible characters can't push one past the belief that the author and everything he's done should be shot into the fiery heart of the sun and erased from the collective consciousness. Something along these lines keeps me from the works of con artist and cult founder L. Ron Hubbard, though in his case there's also the fact that the one or two bits I have read were pretty awful. So maybe that example doesn't quite work after all (since there are textual reasons to avoid Hubbard's work), but I hope you get the idea.

2Except when I hate it because she's a better writer than I am and I have to re-read a really awesome phrase three times and then put the book down and sulk a bit. I don't know if you ever do that or not like I do. Jealousy is a terrible thing and I'm certainly not proud of it.


John the Scientist Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 12:25:00 PM EDT  

This is not a trick question, how about Ezra Pound?

I'm not one with the social conservatives to dismiss every claim of sexism out there as over-reaction and PC BS. On the other hand, the extremists in every movement tend to skew the movement that way over time, and this is a shining example of the left eating its own young that conservatives rightly decry as nascent censorship. These people, had they lived in the USSR, would have happily been part of the thought police, and actually congratulated themselves for their good work, becuase of course hte ends justify the means.

There is a continuum here. What I want to know more than anything is how we encourage the status quo to change without devolving into this sort of harping? It's this kind of BS that scares a lot of centrists away from the Left.

Tom Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 12:32:00 PM EDT  

Quick, put a comma between Leonard and Elmore.

But, a President who actually reads for enjoyment? Sign that man up. I'll vote for him. Oh, wait, I already did!

neurondoc Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 1:21:00 PM EDT  

WTF? How can one judge a reading list on inclusivity based on author gender? And why would one want to?

To paraphrase a more famous quote: I don't know anything about books, but I know what I like. <--- That's sort of my motto in picking out books. I pick what interests me on the basis of a lot of factors (author's other works, recommendations from friends, cover blurbs, genre, comments on Amazon). I can safely say that I don't pick my books based on author gender and find the concept to be bizarre.

Also, does the fact that most of my favorite authors are women mean that I'm prejudiced against male authors?

Nathan Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 1:25:00 PM EDT  

This is sort of like asking the President what his favorite color is and then launching a public debate over his answer. Gimme a fucking break.

And John, you honestly couldn't pay me to read Ezra Pound. 1. I can't separate what a vile human piece of shit he was from his writing, and 2. I'm just not that intellectually curios. Sue me...I'm not running for anything.

Nathan Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 1:26:00 PM EDT  

My computer was short of "u"s when I wrote that comment. The refill has been installed.

Eric Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 1:32:00 PM EDT  

Tom, thanks for the catch. I always do that--it's that whole first name is a last name and vice-versa thing and my brain crosses the wires.

The fix is made in the post and I hope readers will forgive me if it's not marked by strike-throughs or anything.

John, Ezra Pound is seriously a nailbiter for me for exactly that reason, and a great illustrative case for that whole art/artist issue. The man wrote some damn good poetry but he was a fucking shithead as a human being. I don't own any Pound and I'd feel sleazy picking up one of his collections.

As for the other question you raise: I don't know. I'd like to think it's something that will shake itself out in time as more enlightened generations replace less-enlightened ones: future editors and publishers (and marketers and critics, who also play roles further along the process) will hopefully be less bigoted, and I expect that readers will buy what's available, well-reviewed and well-promoted regardless of who wrote it. The harping, meanwhile, is a reflection of society's growing pains: there's been a helluva lot of positive change, but not nearly enough, and there's an easy human inclination to feel like we should already be where we should have been to start with no matter how much progress has already been made.

I suppose with regard to reading, too, one thing that can be done is to encourage people to read anything because it's a pleasure and a privilege to be able to do so. To tolerate kids reading crap while encouraging them to pick up good stuff, too. To make it clear that, notwithstanding the bad lesson to the contrary that is sometimes conveyed in school, reading is not an obligation or chore (that said, exposure to the canon is a good thing, and sometimes making a kid try a new thing reading-wise is no different from forcing him to try Brussels sprouts or to go outside; nonetheless). I think if one is willing to read a lot, there's some inevitability to picking up a variety of things, even if only by accident.

Eric Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 1:37:00 PM EDT  

Nathan, don't fret over the typo: my brain is full of intellectual curios. Makes me a lethal competitor at Trivial Pursuit and rotten at remembering whether I've already fed the cat or have a clean shirt for tomorrow.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 3:51:00 PM EDT  

Mrs. Dr. Phil has been reading The Warmth of Other Suns and reading some of it aloud to me. Fascinating because it reinforces unconscious things I observed growing up about racism in the North -- and disturbing about both the way people can treat "the other" and how much longer some of this was going on than I was aware of -- call it my sheltered and privileged life on display.

Dr. Phil

Random Michelle K Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 4:48:00 PM EDT  

So apparently none of these people actually read for fun, or even understand the concept of it.

Which leads me to wonder how much they read at all. Who wants to curl up with a book whose only strong point is "it's good for you." Isn't that like insisting you can never ever ever eat dessert? Not ever? Who does that?

And FWIW, my aunt really strongly recommended that I read "Room." She said it was an incredible book, not just in the story line, but in the way the main character was written and expressed himself.

I mean, isn't it a variation on Aristotle's "The Cave"? Except we get the explanation as to how the hell those people got locked up in the cave in the first place.

Not that I'm going to read "Room" any time soon. I freely admit I read for entertainment and escape, and that's not a place to which I want to escape.

Warner Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 5:56:00 PM EDT  

Think that is Plato, but your point is taken.

Trip reading tends to be serious, Reporting Vietnam, Reporting WWII, Debate on the Constitution.

I can't carry enough fiction, so I don't. Of course I'm now looking at a nook.

Random Michelle K Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 7:11:00 PM EDT  

You're right. That's what I get for typing without proper research.

Which really seems unfair, now I think about it.

Eric Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 7:37:00 PM EDT  

It is unfair, Michelle: if you were at The National Review Online, you could type whatever you wanted with absolutely no research beforehand, get things terribly wrong and they would pay you for it.

You sure went into the wrong line of rational discourse with a group of intellectual peers, lady.

Random Michelle K Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 9:55:00 PM EDT  

Warner,I have a Nook and a Kindle. I never use the Nook--everything goes on the Kindle.

Random Michelle K Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 9:56:00 PM EDT  

And Eric, don't make me cry in my ice cream.

Warner Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 8:11:00 AM EDT  

I have neither, but have friends who are fevered Nook fans.

I have not decided between the two, but am tending toward the nook. An SD slot is important and the current Kindle does not seem to include that.

Random Michelle K Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 3:50:00 PM EDT  

The important thing about the Nook--and what I strongly dislike about it--is the touchscreen navigation. I found it to be slow, unwieldy, and a horrific battery hog. My Kindle battery can last up to a month. The Nook would go a week before needing charged.

The Kindle has a keyboard. Which some people thing is a waste, but I love, since I bought several Crossword Puzzle volumes for the Kindle.

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