Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What I'm reading in 2012, part II

There is a never-ending conversation in sci-fi circles about gender. A few months ago, it was flaring up again. Charlie Stross had asked his blog readers to name the best novels of the last decade; then in his next post, he asked for the best novels by women.

The number of people who said, "I haven't read anything by women lately," or, "It just happens that all the writers I like are men," was astounding.

The "just so happens" argument is pure bullshit. None of us "just happen" to like any art form. Our tastes are influenced by what we are familiar with, by what we are told is valuable, and by what we have learned enough about to appreciate. It's like that canard that, "I like all music except rap and country." Which means, "I want you to know I have an open mind, but not so open as to enjoy music associated with the lower classes." Also, "Randomly, I have the exact same taste as every other pseudo-intellectual white boy. What a weird coincidence!"

About ten years ago I stumbled across a list of ten books by African-Americans that everyone should have read (published, of course, for Black History Month). I took a look at my bookshelves and realized almost every book on them was by a white person. I had read maybe one book on the list, so I sat down and read the rest. (And in the process, discovered Samuel Delany, now one of favorite writers.)

About three years ago I read an article about how little translated fiction Americans read compared to the rest of the world. So I found Three Percent's short list of translated fiction for the year, and I tried to read it all. One book, I couldn't make it through. But it was through their lists that I discovered 2666 and Brandao.

Now before you throw your laptop across the room because I'm being insufferable,* I'd like to point out that a glance at what I read shows it's still mostly white people, mostly Americans with some Brits thrown in. It isn't representative of the demographics of America, and certainly not the world. I could be trying a lot harder. My point is, that if you go out of your way to start learning about something and to take it on its own terms, three-quarters of the time you'll develop some appreciation for it. (Because, contrary to what I said earlier, there is some "just so happens" at work. It's just much less than we like to believe.) I could make a concerted effort to start reading Westerns, for example - my experience pretty much begins and ends with Lonesome Dove - and I'd probably expand my horizons considerably.

Now, I'm not going to tell anyone else they can't just read what they're comfortable with. If all you like are cooking-themed mysteries, do what makes you happy. I just don't want to hear your long, involved explanation of how it's "natural" for you to like them best and go on with some long, highbrow-sounding defense of your taste. Admit you're remaining in your comfort zone, and, more importantly, that you actually have no idea whether or not you'd like the stuff you haven't touched. How could you possibly know?

So, how does this relate to what I'm reading next year? True, I read a lot of novels by women. But a lot of these are romance novels or other brain candy. (Yes, I know the romance can offer serious social critique or other digestive fiber. But does the average mass-market romance do this? No.) With the exception of Jennifer Crusie, my favorite novelists are all male. As a feminist who reads lots of women, I'm still undervaluing literature by women.

My hypothesis to be tested is that there are women out there writing things I would be crazy about. And it is falsifiable. (Eg.: The lover of spy thrillers would have a harder time finding great books by women that the lover of moving multigenerational sagas.) Because, in the end, merely reading books by women doesn't put me too far ahead of the "boys only" readers if I consider all those books second-rate.

*I mean, is showing off, ooh, ooh, I'm so multicultural, any more virtuous than being anti-country and -rap? The Stuff White People Like post virtually writes itself.

No comments: