By Ester Bloom
It has become a truism that “men don’t read women.” The assertion is taken as self-evident by feminist publications like Salon (“while women read books written by men, men do not tend to reciprocate”) and shown anecdotally by blogs. It is also perpetuated by male bastions like Esquire, which recently released a list “of the greatest works of literature ever published” featuring one (1) book by a woman out of a total of 75. (Dudes like stuff that is “plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another,” helpfully explains Esquire’s editor-in-chief, who introduced Fiction for Men e-books to widespread scorn last year.)
To be sure, the inequalities of the literary world are as plain as the nose on Jonathan Franzen’s face, and many writers and readers alike remain outraged about this unbalanced state of affairs. The Women In Literary Arts numbers for 2012 (compiled annually by VIDA) have barely budged from 2010 and 2011—men still dominate the major outlets as tastemakers, reviewers, and authors whose works are deemed worthy of review. The Nation recently published a cri de coeur by novelist Deborah Copaken Kagan lamenting “centuries of literary sexism, exclusion, cultural bias, invisibility. There’s a reason J. K. Rowling’s publishers demanded that she use initials instead of “Joanne”: It’s the same reason Mary Anne Evans used the pen name George Eliot.” And a recent Salon interview with Meg Wolitzer addressing these frustrations is titled “Men won’t read books about women.”
The truth is more complicated. Of course men read books about women and have for centuries—what are Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina if not classic books about women? Those canonical examples are merely a couple of the ones explicitly named for their central character. Nobody picking up those lauded works of fiction could claim to have been misled by the title to think they were reading about Hitler’s Germany, or fishing, or fishing in Hitler’s Germany, or whatever else men are solely supposed to want to read about.
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