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Boys Girls And Books A Look At Male And Female In Objective Literary Criticism

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.


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