Genderised Book Reviewing

6 December, 2016

When I mentioned my favourite writers some years ago, I was taken to task because I didn’t include any female authors. I confess I hadn’t even considered gender when assessing whose works I liked to read, but you could say that the criticism “raised my consciousness” about the issue.

Recently I did a survey of the last 100 books I read and found that only 19 were authored or edited by a woman. I was a bit surprised at this low number.  My guess is that this may be partly because I tend to read multiple books by favourite male authors such as Anthony Burgess and Paul Theroux, while female authors (for some as yet unanalysed reason) are generally represented on my reading list by single examples, and the results are thus somewhat skewed.

However, it seems that I shouldn’t have been surprised, as a survey by Goodreads found that, of books published in 2014, male authors accounted for no fewer than 90% of men’s 50 most-read titles.  Before everybody jumps up and down about men being sexist, be aware that female authors accounted for 92% of the 50 titles most read by women!  (I have included Robert Galbraith as a female writer, as it’s in fact J. K. Rowling writing under a pseudonym).

Historically, men have been published much more than women and so, unsurprisingly, we find that in “100 best books of all time” lists, women feature far less than men – the Guardian’s list, published in 2002, for example, has only 14. The 2010 Time magazine list  (which includes only books published after 1923) has 22.   Esquire Magazine’s “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read” includes just one book written by a women (Flannery O’Connor – maybe the name fooled them…).

So it was with the aforementioned heightened awareness that I approached last weekend’s Irish Times annual review of favourite books, chosen by selected luminaries.   As might be expected from such a feminist organ, the “paper of record” was scrupulously gender-balanced, with 17 male and 17 female reviewers asked to contribute.  I analysed the gender of the authors of the books mentioned, excluding a few that were compendia of works by both genders, to test the extent to which males favoured male authors and female favoured female authors.

Overall, there were 142 recommendations, with some books being represented more than once within this number. There was a respectable gender balance, with a 60/40 split in favour of male authors.  No need for quotas then (or was this outcome itself the result of a quota being imposed?!)  In fact, I suspect that this outcome probably reflects the gender balance of the authors of all books published in the English language these days, with males outnumbering females, rather than any bias or quality issues.

But when recommendations were further analysed by gender of the reviewer, the position is a bit different. In the case of male reviewers, 73% of the books recommended were written by men.  The women were a bit more balanced, but still favoured books written by women, by 58% to 42%.

So the Irish Times interviewees were still favouring their own gender when it comes to book selections. I’m not surprised that the extent of this bias (if that is the appropriate word) is far less marked than that shown by the Goodreads survey mentioned above – after all, those who write for (and read) The Irish Times are an educated and sophisticated lot, and are less likely to favour crime novels (written largely by men for men), science fiction (ditto), or chick-lit (written largely by women for women).  Biography, history and literary fiction are much more gender-blind.

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I recently finished reading Jonathan Meades’ memoir of his early life An Encyclopaedia of Myself.  Some may find his style and vocabulary challenging, but he is always fascinating and often hilarious.  I felt I should share his views on religion, of which the following passage is a useful example.
The majority of Anglican clergy, certainly of Salisbury Cathedral’s clergy, were not susceptible to dilute modernism. The Close was a bastion of unchallenged dogma, ritual, philistinism, unquestioning belief. The manipulator of millions of minds Joseph Goebbels wrote: ‘It is almost immaterial what we believe in so long as we believe in something.’  Time and again, those with this promiscuous capacity for credulousness are shown to be those with the equal capacity to promote and sanction atrocities. We repeatedly witness the migration of believers — ‘spiritual persons’ — from one cult to the next; a religion is merely a heavily armed cult. Believing in something all too evidently means believing in anything. Why should Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims — especially Muslims — be treated with anything other than the contemptuous toleration that is visited on flat-earthers and ufologists? Believe in the existence of fairies at the bottom of garden and you are deemed fit for the bin, for the Old Manor. Believe in parthenogenesis and ascension and you are deemed fit to govern the country, run the BBC, command UK Landforces etc.  The notion that these people might be mentally ill is quite overlooked: quis custodiet and all that.

My recent reading has been the diaries of James Lees-Milne, which are interesting on a number of levels despite (or maybe because of) his snobbery and social-climbing.  He was a friend of the Earl of Rosse of Birr Castle in County Offaly and, during a visit thereto in 1948, he wrote the following about Ireland in his diary:

“I wish I could define properly what it is I do not like about the climate, the people and the scenery.  My dislike is almost intuitive, certainly temperamental and racial.  I fear the native hostility under the mask of deceit.”

Lees-Milne, who had converted to Catholicism, continued:

“At Mass the church here is so crowded that one cannot worship.  Irish Catholicism is like a vice, crushing the congregation like nuts.  The Irish God is not loving.  He is a tyrant.  The people are tight within his grasp.  Unlike Latins they are subdued by the Church, not elevated by it.  They derive from it no inspiration, recreation or romance.  Here it is grey and puritanical.”

He was writing 66 years ago, but some of the noxious influences he detected are still at play in this country.  The current case of the young non-national girl who had been raped and was denied an abortion despite being suicidal is shocking, and it exposes the extent to which our law is still influenced by tyrannical and absolutist Roman Catholic dogma.

As an aside, on a visit to Ireland 3 years earlier, Lees-Milne had met a “Lord X” – thought to have been Lord Killanin – whose views gave rise to this diary entry:

He says the priests are so bigoted and politically minded that he fears there will be a strong reaction against Catholicism in Ireland within the next generation.  Most of the priests are peasants’ sons, with no true vocation.  They become priests because it gives them social status.  He blames Maynooth College.  A generation ago the neophytes went to Rome.  Now they are totally nationalistic and provincial in outlook.  The Cardinal [probably Joseph MacRory] is positively chauvinistic.  Lord X blames the Vatican for not taking the Irish hierarchy in hand.  The people are kept in great ignorance, as in Spain.

The problems within the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the problems caused by it, are not a recent development. An English Catholic aesthete witnessed them all too clearly in the 1940s.

 

From Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).

The “brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” brings to mind Mark Twain’s observation:

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

This attitude explains why atheists are so sanguine at the prospect of the absence of an afterlife. Not surprisingly, Richard Dawkins picks up this theme in “The God Delusion”:

“Being dead will be no different from being unborn – I shall be just as I was in the time of William the Conqueror or the dinosaurs or the trilobites. There is nothing to fear in that.”

Reading Nabokov requires time and attention, but it’s usually time well spent.  It is a thing of wonder that he was capable of writing such remarkable prose in a language that was not his native one.  The opening paragraph of Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s memoir of his early life,  continues:

I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first-time at home-made movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby-carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

Although the memoir has perhaps too much detail on the various (and generally aristocratic) members of Nabokov’s family tree, and also a surfeit of reminiscences of particular butterfly-netting experiences, it contains much else that is a real pleasure to read.

From the Little Things That Annoy Me department.

Is it just me, or are book reviewers increasingly using their allotted space as an opportunity to show off their own erudition, style and sense of humour, and failing in their basic duty of telling us whether the reviewed work is actually worth spending our precious time reading?

Maybe it was always thus, and I notice it more now that I am in “intimations of mortality” territory, and have become acutely conscious that I don’t want to waste any remaining hours or days on badly written books.   Maybe the reviewer is a friend of the writer and so is wary of giving a stinker the bad review it deserves.  Maybe certain critics are victims of cultural relativism and instinctively avoid any suggestion that a given work is superior to another.  Whatever the reason, it’s just not good enough, you hear?!

Another bad habit of book reviewers is to go into excessive detail about what the book actually contains, and to argue at tedious length for/against the author’s view of the world.  As I get older, what matters more is how well the book is written, not what it’s about.   I would read anything by certain writers: Christopher Hitchens, David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Paul Theroux, Martin Amis (well, almost anything), Robert Hughes, Clive James, Simon Gray, Francis Wheen, Alan Bennett, Gore Vidal.

The non-fiction work of the last-mentioned (Vidal) proves the following point, to me at least: the content may be daft, but a good stylist can be forgiven everything.

So come on, reviewers, stop showing off and stop telling us everything the book is about. Just make sure your review tells us what we most need to know: is the book well written, is it a pleasure to read?

One of my favourite books ever is John Lanchester’s first novel “The Debt to Pleasure”, published some 15 years ago.  John Banville reviewed it in the Guardian (here).  I have it on my list to re-read it, as I am curious as to whether it will stand up well to the passage of time.  I have also read and enjoyed a number of Nabokov books since, and Banville says that Lanchester’s style is “uncomfortably close to late Nabokov, at once brilliant and unfocused, and glutted on its own richness, but of course, this is part of the joke”.  So perhaps I will be disappointed.

Anyway, Lanchester has recently published a book about the financial crisis, called Whoops!, which I haven’t read but which got pretty good reviews (particularly from non-financial reviewers).  Lanchester writes that “I’ve been following the economic crisis for two years now.  I began working on the subject as part of the background to a novel, and soon realized that I had stumbled across the most interesting story I’ve ever found.”

I followed a Twitter link the other day to an article by Lanchester in the London Review of Books, where Lanchester is a contributing editor.  The article, covering the Greek financial mess, the Euro, German attitudes and more, is worth reading.  Here’s a short extract:

From the worm’s-eye perspective which most of us inhabit, the general feeling about this new turn in the economic crisis is one of bewilderment. I’ve encountered this in Iceland and in Ireland and in the UK: a sense of alienation and incomprehension and done-unto-ness. People feel they have very little economic or political agency, very little control over their own lives; during the boom times, nobody told them this was an unsustainable bubble until it was already too late. The Greek people are furious to be told by their deputy prime minister that ‘we ate the money together’; they just don’t agree with that analysis. In the world of money, people are privately outraged by the general unwillingness of electorates to accept the blame for the state they are in. But the general public, it turns out, had very little understanding of the economic mechanisms which were, without their knowing it, ruling their lives. They didn’t vote for the system, and no one explained the system to them, and in any case the rule is that while things are on the way up, no one votes for Cassandra, so no one in public life plays the Cassandra role.

The last sentence is so sadly true.  We needed more Cassandras in Ireland from 2002 to 2005 (after that it was too late anyway).  Voters everywhere, but particularly in Ireland, are not interested in deferred gratification.  As they say, democ­racy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment ……… except for all the oth­ers.

 

 I was reading Simon Blackburn’s review of How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One and the closing paragraph struck me as noteworthy. Blackburn talks about

…… one of Fish’s favorites, the final sentence of Middlemarch, contrasting Dorothea’s quiet future with the idealistic visions of doing good with which she started life: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

I have never been an avid reader of “The Classics”, so I have (so far, anyway) no opinion on George Eliot.  But that sentence from Middlemarch has a weight and a rhythm, and a message that resonates. 

In fact, in times of economic depression and hardship such as we are going to experience in Ireland (I use the future tense because the economic correction has unfortunately only just begun), Dorothea’s behaviour could be a guide for how to conduct ourselves so as to retain our dignity and our sense of self-worth and fulfilment. We may be broke, with the Celtic Tiger lying in ruins, but we can still be nice to each other, and seek no reward for doing so.

Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.  ~Alexander Pope, Epilogue to the Satires, 1738