Thursday, April 06, 2006

Guardian on Men's vs. Women's Novel Choices + Black Abstraction Show at Studio Museum + Poem: Barbara Chase-Riboud

I'm always skeptical of arguments that attribute certain types of behavior or choices based on gender. Yet they keep coming. Today, Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian Online's art correspondent, writes that University of London scholars Lisa Jardine's and Annie Watkin's research shows that "the novel that means most to men is about indifference, alienation and lack of emotional responses. That which means most to women is about deeply held feelings, a struggle to overcome circumstances and passion." These men, in other words, value Beckett, Kafka and Salinger, while women like Atwood, Austen and Drabble.

CamusThe article lays it out:

Professor Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary College interviewed 500 men, many of whom had some professional connection with literature, about the novels that had changed their lives. The most frequently named book was Albert Camus's (at left, Today in Literature) The Outsider, followed by JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. The project, called Men's Milestone Fiction, commissioned by the Orange prize for fiction and the Guardian, followed on from similar research into women's favourite novels undertaken by the same team last year.

The results are strikingly different, with almost no overlap between men's and women's taste. On the whole, men preferred books by dead white men: only one book by a woman, Harper Lee, appears in the list of the top 20 novels with which men most identify.

Women, by contrast, most frequently cited works by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Margaret Atwood, George Eliot and Jane Austen. They also named a "much richer and more diverse" set of novels than men, according to Prof Jardine. There was a much broader mix between contemporary and classic works and between male and female authors.

The piece goes on to say that while the male research subjects didn't regard novels as a constant companion to their "life's journey," the women did, and that the gender clichés the (admittedly limited) research established shocked Jardine and Watkins, though in historicizing the findings, it led them (and certainly anyone familiar with the English novel's 18th century beginnings) back to the period when the genre was considered primarily to have appeal to women (Tristram Shandy and Tom Jones were novels of that era that brought men into the fold).

Jardine's and Watkins's chief suggestion is that the book publishing industry take the findings into account, as men between the ages of "20 and 50" don't read novels, and the industry is still male-dominated in some key ways and doesn't always take female readers' interests and affinities in aggregate seriously. (In the US publishing industry, from an economic perspective, one would be quite wrong in asserting this, though from in an intellectual perspective, I think it's worthy of discussion) Though the NEA's own 2004 study, "Reading at Risk," correlates somewhat this last point, in the United States at least, I wonder what a larger survey, or one taken in the US might show. It also makes me think about the importance of novels in my own life, but also how they function in relation to the dichotomies that this Queen Mary College study maps out.


Williams' 'Trane'Uptown is the place to be, as the "Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980" show has just opened at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Curated by scholar Kellie Jones, it's one of the biggest shows focusing specifically on Black abstract artists in the last few years, and includes works by 15 of the major ones of the late 20th century, including Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten, William T. Williams (whose "Trane" is pictured at left, Studio Museum in Harlem), Sam Overstreet, Melvin Edwards, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Howardena Pindell, and Martin Puryear, among others.

The grand opening was last night, and I couldn't make it, but I definitely intend to make my way up there to catch it as soon as I can. The New York Times's Holland Cotter writes a thoughtful review that notes how this vital body of artwork has gotten lost in the larger narrative of (African-)American art, which makes this show an crucial historical and representational intervention, though he also points to these artists' influences on subsequent generations of Black and non-Black artists--and they are all over (and referenced at various moments in) Seismosis. There have been a few fairly recent, strong shows of Black abstract artists, including at Franklin & Marshall College just a few years ago, and most survey books on African-American art (if not American art) do devote critical space to this aesthetic movement and its offshoots, but this one is a an important one for the capital of American art, New York, where many of these artists have lived and worked. Don't miss if it if you can.


My poem for today is a transcription of one of Chase-Riboud's (1939-) "Cleopatra" poems, which composer Mark Vores set to music. Chase-Riboud is probably best known as a sculptor and novelist (Sally Hemings, 1979; Echo of Lions, 1980, on which the movie Amistad was [illegally?] based; Venus Hottentot, 2003), but she is also a published poet. Her first book, From Memphis to Peking, was edited by Toni Morrison and appeared in 1974, and Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra, which appeared in 1987, received the Carl Sandburg Literary Award.


O friendly enemy, we have loved,
Loin and haunch, limb and flank, truth and lies,
Tressed like a pair of ancient Armenian vines
Grown together root and branch in stunted
Commingling without End or Beginning.
If we part, you will leave with half of me,
Or I with half of you, and nothing will kill
The pain of dismembering.
That ache like some rare jewel
Will hang round our necks to touch,
In tender tremulance, an old wound of amputation
That burns and groans in limbs no longer existent
But splintered and crushed
In some long-forgotten and useless War.

Copyright © Barbara Chase-Riboud, All rights reserved.


  1. I wonder if that study about men and women's reading is really as significant as it seems. The study itself points out that men are strongly moved by those particular books, and then they move on (while women continue a relationship with their "formative" novels). I bet there'd be much less discrepancy if someone were to ask men and women "which two or three books CURRENTLY rate highest and personally significant for you?"

    Kai in NYC

  2. hey john...when are you planning to go to the arts exhibit? casue i heard about it myself and was going to try and go this weekend...

    the study: I'm not surprised..I dont know of too many men in my age group who read...I've slacked off in my reading recently, but I'm getting back into it. But, a lot of my female friends in my age group ARE reading and ARE reading the very titles the study said they mentioned: Atwood, etc. so maybe the study is more accurrate than you think...

  3. this is an extremely informative post

  4. Kai, great point. The end of the article does touch upon this a bit when it notes that between 20-50 many (British) men aren't reading fiction at all, and I purposely linked to the NEA report, which confirms that this is the case (to a different degree) in the US. The response to your question for some American men might be a passionate attraction to certain books--I can think of several sgl men who've said that B-Boy Blues, for example, was a life-changing fictional text for them--while many might not be able to name one at all.

    Ryan, I'm not sure when I'm going to go see the exhibit. There's a rare performance of one of John Ashbery's plays this Saturday, and two friends of mine are in it, so I am probably going to try to catch that. I think my cohort is skewed somewhat, but I do have to say that outside my academic colleagues in the humanities and fellow writers (poets, playwrights, fiction writers of course, etc.), both groups of whom are ALWAYS reading (for obvious reasons), the male friends of mine who're my age who are neither academics nor writers don't read fiction that often, though they are amenable to reading. I actually suggested to my class that I was going to try a performance piece involving a survey of this sort, and I think I will.

    Clay, thanks for dropping in. I'm sorry I didn't get to see your play, but I wasn't back in time to do so. I'm sure it was great!

  5. Interesting piece. After working in publishing for 7 years, being a grad student (where reading became tortuous at points), learning a language and dabbing in freelance journalism and the essay, I can honestly say that the majority of the time I found myself in the minority as a male without exception.

    Even in Germany, language acquisition is thought of as being a pre-requisite to success in all fields; however, the "study" of language and literature is for women (unless you are a linguist, that is a science). This is true in my experience of having a ton of male friends in Deutschland that sit restlessly waiting for the American female undergraduate exchange students to arrive on campus, where a European romance can start and end with a promised and precisioned terminal red circle in their daily planners and no commitment. Sometimes they awake from their cigarette and beer hall trances just as cupid strikes them in the "Arsch" despite their original pigish intentions and they are enchanted by these mid-western Edith Wharton 21st century vestal virgins of American Isolationism and boarish foreign policy. It works somehow, these very martially emotioned German men that are very sure of what being a man is and is not, and young women that have an idea about Europe from either their European origined grandparents or PBS. The irony is that there are 4 things a German man must do in his lifetime (so the saying goes): Build a House, Have a Child, Plant a Tree and Write a Book.

    Go figure.

    The reason I bring this up, is that most of my friends that are not writers , archivists, photographers, musicians or visual artists think of language and reading as being "tasks" that women do. Even some of the male performance artist I know on Broadway are still very unsure about what I do. They do not read. The same trend runs in the family, where I can think of only one uncle that reads, and they are all John Grisham novels. Our discussions slowly lead down a yuppie like path of SUVs, Oscar nominations, crabcakes and golfing handicaps.

    So in short, this study and discussion is intriguing. There is part of me that wants to say this is gender biased, but my life experiences attest to these results.