Friday, 7 April 2006

Reading and Difference (and Pants)

Maybe you've seen it already, the report in the Guardian about the latest instalment in a current English research project into fiction-reading patterns and gender. (Thanks, Anna, for the email.) Susoz has a very good post up about the article, and various other bloggers including Echidne have commented as well.

The project, directed by the magnificent Lisa Jardine, asks readers to nominate fiction that changed their lives. Two years ago, the Women's Watershed Fiction study asked four hundred women to identify the significant books in their lives:

When we talked to one another, and to the many wonderful women we interviewed or canvassed by questionnaire, the common ground in the responses concentrated itself around memory, a certain kind of nostalgia, a moment of personal crisis, or simply something that had been meaningful and thought provoking at a critical juncture.

The respondents' final selections can be seen here. (A separate national radio poll followed, not to be confused with this qualitative study.)

This week's Guardian article is about the results of the corresponding second stage research, this time done on men. Reading between the lines, the Men's Milestone Fiction project might not have been envisaged from the beginning, but instead taken up because the results of the women's research were so interesting, and not only because they raise the issue of comparison with findings about the other gender.

I think this is fascinating, innovative, and deeply worthwhile research, and I'm looking forward to reading a full report about the findings of the Men's Milestone stage. The emphasis on memory and personal engagement makes it a meaningfully literary study, rather than a kind of trends & marketing report which happens to be about book products. The large samples give it some weight and authority, as opposed to dismissible anecdotal stuff pointing to similar conclusions, (like this Mythbusters-style report by Ian McEwan about trying to give away free books to passersby, and mostly only succeeding with women.) By establishing which books endure with readers of different genders, they add temporal and psychological depth and shading to the understanding of the gender factor in literary book publishing which the Orange Prize organisation has been assembling over the course of this decade.

"We were completely taken aback by the results," said Prof Jardine, who admitted that they revealed a pattern verging on a gender cliche, with women citing emotional, more domestic works, and men novels about social dislocation and solitary struggle.

She was also surprised she said, "by the firmness with which many men said that fiction didn't speak to them". The historian David Starkey said, for instance: "I fear fiction, of any sort, has never worked on me like that ... Is that perhaps interesting in itself?"

In addition, some men cited works of non-fiction as their "watershed" books, even though they were explicitly asked about fiction.

For example, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party, picked out Robert Graves's first world war memoir Goodbye to All That as his watershed book: "Brilliantly written, wonderfully clear and his description of life in WWI is harrowing but fascinating," he told the researchers. Most of the men cited books they had read as teenagers, and many of them stopped reading fiction while young adults, only returning to it in late middle age.

Prof Jardine said that the research suggested that the literary world was run by the wrong people. "What I find extraordinary is the hold the male cultural establishment has over book prizes like the Booker, for instance, and in deciding what is the best. This is completely at odds with their lack of interest in fiction. On the other hand, the Orange prize for fiction [which honours women authors] is still regarded as ephemeral."

The risk taken with studies of this kind, of course, is that they are liable to be co-opted into supporting Men/Mars Women/Venus kinds of hypotheses, as indeed some parts of the Guardian article tend to demonstrate. Any interpretation which unproblematically classifies The Outsider (but not Jane Eyre) as about "social dislocation and solitary struggle", for instance, is obviously in trouble.

A study like this (and I hope there'll be many more like it) doesn't need to have its data dressed up in vast, nebulous oversimplifications about the "kinds" of books each gender values. It tells us enough via the plain facts, such as the almost even distribution of male and female writers on the women's list, contrasted with the solitary female writer on the men's list. 35% of the women's list are pre-20th century works, compared with 10% of the men's list. There are similarly wide discrepancies in other categories too. Perhaps the slenderness of the overlap between men's and women's choices is the most remarkable fact. I would not have believed, myself, that the crossover could be so small.

Thinking about this study makes me want to write more about books that are significant to me - that have acted as watersheds or milestones or props or touchstones in my life. I've been thinking about attempting this for quite a long time, and have hesitated partly out of a wish not to appear before you all Earnest and devastatingly nerdlike, but I accept that the last moment for doing something to avert that probably passed many months ago. So to hell with it, I may as well enjoy myself.

A less puerile reason for dithering is that while the general idea of a significant book seems attractive and plausible, it’s not at all clear what form that significance would (could, should) take. (Susoz discussed this in the post I linked to before.) I have no memory of ever having had a lightbulb-clicking moment over something I read, but I am aware of lots of instances of an overwhelming feeling of change - of consciously recognising that the book was then and there modifying the structure of my mind. What a pretentious thing to write! But the book I’m going to acknowledge now had exactly this effect on me. The odd thing is I still don’t know what it was that it I learned or what it changed me into. All I can do is try to describe the scene.

Twelve years ago I was cutting three separate trails. I was studying, working, and living. The study was interesting and I was pretty good at it, the job was boring but tolerable, and the life was sweet. The three trails didn’t cross. How could they? I worked at selling jeans in a jeans shop: it was a job that brought me into intimate daily contact with people’s body image issues, and not often in a way that reduced the aggregate of their troubles, but the environment depersonalised things and I didn’t feel involved. (It had a few other compensations.) The things I remember reading at Uni around that time were absorbing in the way that a game of chess or a complicated logic puzzle are absorbing. Reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Is There a Text in This Class? was like learning about the cultures of whatever race of beings lives on the Moon: fascinating, but remote from me and my life. No, my life took place independently of those activities, and revolved around my friends, my partner, things that were going on, and the sunny 1930s flat, a stone’s throw from the seashore, where I was learning to be responsible for my own happiness. The usual stuff.

That year one of my subjects included a collection of essays, by Umberto Eco, called Faith in Fakes. “Lumbar Thought” is the name of one of them: it’s about what the sensation of wearing jeans, which grip your lower body in a fashion unlike pants or a flowing robe (but very like a girdle or a corset), thus making you sit up straight and think about how you stretch and bend, does to your experience of yourself. Eco writes:

Not only did the garment impose a demeanor on me; by focusing my attention on my demeanor, it obliged me to live towards the exterior world. It reduced, in other words, the exercise of my interior-ness. For people in my profession it is normal to walk along with your mind on other things…In our line this is called “the interior life.” Well, with my new jeans my life was entirely exterior: I thought about the relationship between me and my pants, and the relationship between my pants and me and the society we lived in. I had achieved heteroconsciousness, that is to say, an epidermic self-awareness.

Do you remember the jeans of 1994? It was the year flares and low waists in women’s jeans began to trickle down to the mass market level. Before the low waists came in, some women wore either high-waisted, tapered leg jeans; most wore the same jeans as the men did. After all, jeans were, and still are, supposed to be a universal garment. The waistlines on these new cuts were much higher than just about any jeans you could buy right now, but the prototypes struck us then as terribly low, and very daring and sexy. The first pairs we unpacked in the shop were eagerly examined and much discussed and experimented with. We soon discovered how different they were from the straight-hipped, square, low rise men’s 501s we’d all been wearing: the women’s cuts were designed to grip at a hip and thigh which were both rounded and firm. You could not have fat on your belly or a flat backside or the jeans would not “work” as intended. This brought about a new variety of distress among many of the jeans shop customers. I was very thin then and it still got to me. The wide hem was intended to go right down over the shoe, so you had to wear high heels to keep the line of the leg long and unbroken. Before this we’d all worn sneakers to work. Unless you’ve had a job where you stood up all day you won’t appreciate what that change meant, how it affected my body so that when I went home at night and sat on the couch, and the next day when I went to classes, I could not forget about my back and my legs and my feet.

Eco continues:

if armor obliges its wearer to live the exterior life, then the age-old female spell is due also to the fact that society has imposed armors on women, forcing them to neglect the exercise of thought. Woman has been enslaved by fashion not only because, in obliging her to be pretty and stimulating, it made her a sex object; she has been enslaved chiefly because the clothing counseled for her forced her psychologically to live for the exterior….apparent symbol of liberation and equality with men, the blue jeans that fashion today imposes on women are a trap of Domination; for they don’t free the body, but subject it to another label and imprison it in other armors that don’t seem to be armors because they are apparently not “feminine.”

Written by an Italian intellectual in 1976, this essay just explained to me, with deadly accuracy, how things worked in the apparently very different place I was in, and it showed me what I was helping to perpetuate. It was a discovery all the larger for having been so utterly unanticipated. I saw that my three trails were not only connected, they were so tightly interlaced that it was impossible, or else false, to pick out where one ended and another began.

The irony is that I still had absolutely no idea where these trails were supposed to be taking me. I’d like to be able to tell you I Saw the Light and instantly stormed out of the jeans shop and ran off to join the resistance, but the truth is I worked there for another eight years.

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Jonathan said...

I've personally always thought that the heels with jeans thing was an abominatino. Particularly pointed heels.

Kent said...

What about sandals with jeans for the guys? Horrible, IMNSHO.

I thought it was interesting how the Guardian article homes in on Orwell. All of his writing was certainly a big influence on me when I was 16/17, and 1984 is one of the few books some of my non-reading male friends have ever read - in one case, the only! :-o

I'm interested in whether men are less likely to reread fiction than women are. Anyone? My dad has never read anything twice, while I might reread, say, one out of five novels - and as I don't finish many books that I start, that means I only reread my very few favourites.

Lucy Tartan said...

Jeez, Kent! 4.29 a.m. How do you do it?

Re-reading is another thing somebody with a research grant should look into.

Susoz said...

Yes, re-reading [I am emphatically not a re-reader - of fiction] is an interesting subject ... I feel a new blog entry coming on.
And interesting that your influential piece was not fiction. That's been largely the case for me too.
And what a fascinating convergence of subjects in your life.

Kent said...

Well, I manage fine, but my morning classes - not so well.

Clancy said...

I read somewhere that Gene Wolfe writes not for readers, but for re-readers. I should read and re-read something by Wolfe one of these days.

kate said...

I love re-reading. Sometimes I get the guilts, thinking of all the good books I haven't read yet, but I re-read Pride and Prejudice anyway. Everytime you read something you bring something new to it, and take something new away.

Like re-watching Fawlty Towers: There are jokes you don't get when you're young and there are jokes you don't hear the first time because you were still laughing at the last gag.

It's because of this that an analysis of what sort of books people read is so problematic. One person's Pride & Prejudice is a nostalgic romance, another's a proto-feminist history. Or both...

cristy said...

I also feel guilty when I re-read books - particularly because the books that I re-read the most often are fairly trashy. However, there is something deeply comforting about it.

What I hate about listing my favourite books or most influential books is that I feel bad about the books that I haven't gotten around to reading yet. I always feel as though I might like them even more and that it wouldn't be fair not to include them just because I have been too lazy to read them yet. It sort of feels like I need to be a lot older and more dedicated in my reading before I can list my favourite books with any degree of certainty, but maybe that just means that I am scared of commitment.

Kent said...

Patrick O'Brian gets better the more times you read him. At the other end of the scale, I once tried to re-read For the Term of His Natural Life (which I loved), and failed. It's really boring when you know what's going to happen!

Anonymous said...

Fuck milestone book-reading moments, I want to know if I'm the only bloke in the world who has Milestone Magic 693 Playlist Moments!! Dya know what I mean? You're in the maw of an agonising affair or painful bust-up... Roy Orbison could destroy you. Even John Denver (the butch barbie doll) could bring you to tears. You turn on the 693 news (for the boating and traffic reports, natch!!) and you get three-in-a-row from Andrew McLaren and Ann Gilding.

My first "killing me softly with Magic 693 songs" hit (as in "execution style murder") hit-list had:

* I've Got You (Under My Skin)
* Once I had a secret love
* The Theme from Love Story

Bang-bang, they shot me down!
Bang-bang, I hit the ground!

Blubber... (That's the salty discharge kind, not the spare tyre kind [for once], k?)

Anyone else? (I don't want to hear about iPlod shuffle play coincidences!) :)


Lucy Tartan said...

Interesting....Magic 693 Magic Moments for me would have to be, in no particular order:

* Roger Miller, King of the Road
* Glen Campbell, Such Are The Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife
* Wayne Newton, Danke Schoen
* Gilbert O'Sullivan, Claire

I'll leave it to you to work out the connecting theme.

Meanwhile Chris you might enjoy the Magic 693 DJ sighting & associated comments thread unfolded in this post....