Boys, Girls and Books: A look at male and female in objective literary criticism

In response to Masha, The Effect of Objective Criticism on Taste, and to Mr. Pond, On the Importance of Being a Snob.

As with all good dialectics, the goal of ours is the search for agreement in truth, so I've enjoyed seeing the ways the three of us agree this week. Never fear, however—there's plenty to debate yet. I'm going to mix things up a bit, too.

From Masha:
"Taste is like any other appetite. It varies from person to person and time to time. Some tastes, formed in a habit of laziness, need to be purged or pruned, or redirected entirely. Other tastes - a taste for the good, ought to be continually nourished.... A person may say "I know Hemingway is superior to Dan Brown, I just like Brown better." without ever going on to ask why he prefers bad writing to good, weak ideas to strong ones, and banality to beauty."
I like this, and agree with it in part. But it needs one caveat: good taste does not necessarily mean preference for the highest fashions. Learning to love well-cooked steak and good red wine has never stopped me from liking cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Loving Beethoven and Brahms has had no effect on my pleasure in listening to people like Taylor Swift. And learning to love Dostoevsky hasn't prevented me from loving Little Women as much as ever.

Maybe it's not this way for everyone, but it is for me. And Mr. Pond seems to concur when he says the following:
"Consider, for instance, the rough and nasal vocals of folk singing—completely unsuited to the open and resonant style of the opera house. Yet within each stream of art, we can point to various practitioners and say, this person or that person is objectively superior in their expression of the art and the mastery of the craft."
Which is how we can objectively say—and Mr. Pond and Masha have confirmed agreement with this—C.S. Lewis, even in Narnia, writes better prose than J.K. Rowling, who writes better prose than Stephenie Meyer. I like all three of these authors, and to some extent even prefer Harry Potter to Narnia, if only because I think Rowling treated her themes with a little more depth and complexity. She wrote for older readers, of course, so that's apples and oranges again, and doesn't negate the point.

So far, we're in agreement. And I continue to agree with Mr. Pond as he says that "if anybody can say whatever they want about art and it’s all equally valid...what's the good of anything?" Objective criticism is possible in that as we master our art, we earn the right to speak about it through our understanding of the art's rules, traditions and goals. But I think that no matter how well we understand our art, we come to it with a mind shaped by our time, education, preferences, and everything else that makes us who we are. Including whether we're male or female.

The three of us want to talk about that last point, but before I do: many of my closest online friends and fellow armchair literary critics are men, and I respect them wholeheartedly. Also, I firmly believe that male and female are different in material ways, including predispositions toward certain mental, physical and emotional strengths, and that we ought to celebrate such differences rather than force an artificial equality.

I am no expert on gender inequality in art criticism, though. For one of the more thoughtful articles I've come across, however, try Meghan O'Rourke's Slate piece from last autumn: "Can a Woman Be a 'Great American Novelist?'" And here are my own suspicions:

First: whatever is considered manly by society, most boys will want to become. Likewise, whatever is considered womanly (and therefore 'sissy' on the playground), most boys will avoid. Girls, however, do not necessarily choose pink over blue and ballet over soccer as a means of self-defining gender identity. On the same principle, girls are generally comfortable reading about boys, but the reverse is much less true. Men do outgrow the exclusivity somewhat, at least if they're taught to, but central female experiences like menstruation and barrenness and childbirth are still held at arms' length. It's hard to blame men for that when I, as a woman, turn peevish at such conversations unless they are very, very artistic. But those experiences do deserve representation.

Second, men tend to be more black-and-white than women. Therefore, a man who finds glaring flaws or weaknesses in a book is probably more likely to dismiss it outright than a woman will. A woman, I think, more frequently picks out what she liked about the book and considers that admirable.

Third, men and women pull toward opposite ends of the scale of logical importance versus emotional importance (speaking of gender as a whole, not individuals). In other words, men care more about the big overarching matters of the world, whereas women care to know how such things matter to themselves and to those they love. Which means, I think, that intellectual men are likely to gravitate directly toward high-level literature (in reading, writing and reviewing), and intellectual women are likely to read, love, review and write up and down the levels of art. Those women will write more than their share of the best of every level (with the possible exception of the topmost), because more women write nowadays than men. But that range does affect the playing field.

All this together adds up to a thousand possibilities for gender slant in artistic criticism, and I'm honestly not sure how much can be changed without resorting to an awkward, forced statistical equality. I'd settle for things as they are before the latter. But I do think it's worth being aware of the way men and women affect each other in our common quest for successful art.


  1. wow. I have so much to say to this that I really don't know where to begin..I have to re-write Everything, since I wrote less of a response and more of a stand-alone type post, and now I feel such a Need to respond! You'll have to forgive me if my actual post is less-that-well-edited! :)

    Umm..I'll just respond here to your caveat to my "taste" issue. It indicates a bit of a misunderstanding - don't think of it as developing a "taste for steak and wine" over "burgers and shhakes" but rather a taste that can Distinguish between a fast-food burger and a good, home-made, or well-made burger made from better products and served reasonably soon after being made. Which doesn't mean you can't Enjoy the fast-food burger, or the mediocre book, but taste enables you to be aware of the nutritional (and other) deficiencies of the lesser product. Do you see the difference? Does it make sense to you? "high fashion" can end up as bad as low, if it's done badly..a bad steak is as bad as a bad burger, and a gourmet burger can be "classier" than an average steak..it's all about what goes into it and how it's prepared..a bad chef can kill the best meat, but even an amazing chef can't make "processed meat product" taste like good beef.

    Blessings! I hope you're having our weather, it's ideal for the first day of June!

  2. Hey, Jenna!

    It's great to read people who are thinking about these things. There's a lot to draw out here, and I'm afraid that if I tried to respond to everything I want to respond to this comment would be 90000 words long and I wouldn't get anything done today. So I'm just going to stick to one representative sentence. You write:

    "Also, I firmly believe that male and female are different in material ways, including predispositions toward certain mental, physical and emotional strengths, and that we ought to celebrate such differences rather than force an artificial equality."

    I had a bunch of stuff on mixing controversial and non-controversial claims together (“men and women have different bodies” vs. “men and women have different minds”) but the character limit eated it.

    Then there's what looks like a false dichotomy at the end. “We ought to celebrate such differences rather than force an artificial equality.” I hear this kind of thing a lot in discussions of gender, and I'm still not entirely sure what it means either to celebrate differences or to force an artificial equality. I've got some suspicions of my own, however.

    The way this is worded, it seems as if I'm supposed to take equal as the opposite or the enemy of different, and that simply isn't what those words mean, which we tend to take for granted when dealing with forms of equality other than gender. (No one thinks the Civil Rights Movement was about turning black people white, for example). I know a lot of writers who are concerned about gender parity in reviewing, and what seems to be a real, if largely unacknowledged, bias in whose books get reviewed where and what kinds of claims reviewers are willing to make about the nature of their achievements-- and that conscientious critics should try to work against that bias instead of making excuses. That's not like saying that we all need to write like Cormac McCarthy and there can be no more romances forever, or that the New York Review of Books needs to start picking women writers at random from the Lulu.com catalog just to turbo-boost the gender parity (Sorry, I'm trying to think of examples of what a “forced equality” might look like). I think everyone would hate that about equally.

    Those of us who are concerned about a gender bias in literary publishing are mostly trying to draw attention to it in hopes of causing readers and reviewers to think critically about their own biases and to work to overcome them wherever possible. But (unless they forgot to invite me to the Secret Literary Elite Cabal again) there isn't really anyone out here proposing “awkward, forced statistical equality” except as a strawman.

    I hope I haven't misrepresented your argument; my point is that I'm not sure what it is. The sentence above is ambiguous enough that it could easily be read as presenting “equal” and “different” as mutually exclusive in a way that doesn't reflect how those words are used. Does that make sense?

    Now I've gone and written too much anyway! and Masha, I think there might be something a little off about your potted meat analogy, but it'll have to wait. Thanks for pulling me into this potentially endless discussion, I GUESS.

    It's a perfect June 1 where I am, too-- kind of shocking! Jenna, I hope your weather is just as good!

  3. Masha, thanks. That does make sense, and is basically what I'm saying. It sounds like we've been talking past each other a little, and it's good to know we agree!

    jam for the ladies, thanks for jumping in! What with trying to stay around a thousand words and not having put a lot of study into the subject, I know this piece has too a desperate number of over-generalizations and ambiguities. :)

    'Equal' and 'different' are not meant to be mutually exclusive. I am, however, on the side of the argument claiming that as a general rule, men and women do have some different mental and emotional strengths and weaknesses. I am perfectly comfortable with this concept. Not with abuse of it, but with the concept itself.

    So when it comes to writing, reading, and reviewing, I'm all in favor of mutual respect and healthy discussion of the fact that the statistics are much nearer 65-35 than they are 50-50. And of working toward a resolution. But I wouldn't favor setting up quotas, for instance.

    Again, a very simplistic and short response here--unfortunately all I have time for at the moment. But I hope it helps explain where I'm coming from. Thanks again for your conversation!

  4. Hey, Jenna, thanks for replying. This was buried in that massive comment, but one of the things I'm curious about is what you mean by "men and women have different strengths and weaknesses." Do you just mean that men are statistically more likely to do X well while women are statistically more likely to do Y? Or is it that certain behaviors and traits are somehow more appropriate to men than to women and vice versa?

    That is, if we assume that men are more likely to be ruthless critics than women, is a female critic who is as ruthless or more ruthless than her male colleagues therefore "unfeminine" or "masculine" in some sense, or just an interesting statistical outlier? And if it's the former, is that a virtue or a vice or just a weird fact?

    . . . and now I'm noticing that you have a post called "Why Bother Writing Novels" that I have to go and read.

    Masha, I'm still not sure how to parse the potted meat analogy. When you talk about the best chef in the world trying to turn the potted meat food product into a delicious meal, is the food product supposed to represent subject matter, or quality of writing? If it's the latter, then is the chef supposed to be the critic, making something awesome out of something gross, or is he the writer (in which case it doesn't seem to make sense that he's the Best in the World)? Am I making this more complicated than it needs to be?

  5. Hey, jam,

    No problem! And the former--men and women statistically differ, as a gender group, across disciplines and behavioral patterns.

    Your hypothetical assumption is difficult to work with because I may be wrong in my own observation that men tend to be be more black and white even in reviewing. I know exceptions to the rule as it is. So a woman who wrote 'ruthless' reviews wouldn't necessarily come off as masculine to me, just as a strong personality.

  6. Jam-for-the-ladies:
    ..so why did I invite you into the discussion? :) Kidding, honestly. I like a lot of what you said, but I think you're making the meat thing more complicated than it needs to be, it was to clarify the Other meat analogy, and no, no-one is the critic. The point is more to indicate that good taste doesn't lead to genre snobbery so much as preference for quality. I could have left out the chef working with bad meat, but I liked it, and decided to keep it ANYWAY.

    I think your responses to the comments are doing a great job in helping me to see more of the thoughts behind the generalizations in the post. Thanks for that! It is hard, isn't it, to get everything down and reasonable readable without leaving out All the things you want to say..my orginal response to this post was hugely over-long, and full of Too Much Rilke. I had to edit, and then gave up editing and just ran on for a while.. :)

    Guess who has chickens!


  7. Masha, the saddest thing is that I knew the meat thing wasn't supposed to be that complicated, but I couldn't help myself. I kept going back and forth between "it's just an offhand metaphor. . . but WHO IS THE CHEF HERE?" I think we're actually in agreement re: the whole good/bad food/lit thing.

    Anyway, CHICKENS!!

  8. I KNEW you Knew..and the chef does get sticky, because really, if the chef is the writer, why on earth is he working with the worst story ever - at least if he's The Best, but I liked him anyway..and kept him in because I liked to think of his frustration.

    I'm glad agreement happened.

    Enjoy a weekend of introversion! If I'd had a week of wonderful visitors, I'd be doing exactly the same..and really, I'll probably be doing exactly the same anyway. :)


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