(Note: Assuredly this post is about books. Just bear with me. It’s also quite blog-topical given the fascinating discussion on gender and reading that’s been going on at both The Hobgoblin of Little Minds and Of Books and Bicycles.)
This is Boris Johnson and the likelihood is that, if you’re not a Brit, you’ve never heard of him. Which is a shame because quite frankly dear Boris is the most entertaining politician on the planet today: in a world where basically harmless right-wingers are in short supply, Boris is still flying the flag for Conservative blundering. Boris, having gone to all the Old Schools – Eton and then Classics at Balliol College, Oxford - is “old school” in every sense: he believes that Europe is a Bad Thing to which we have sold our Economic Soul, that the Labour Party “should be ejected into outer space” and that family life, education and law and order have all “gone to the dogs” in the last nine years (i.e. the situation is bad, bad and bad). Quite often he does stupid but entertaining things, like locking himself out of his own house, in shorts and a silly hat (see photo), and having to ask the press (who were hounding him about an extra-marital affair) to help him find some keys. He once got his own name wrong on television, and another time answered his mobile phone in the middle of an appearance on Question Time (a political debate programme). He does, however, have an entertainingly upper-class way with language, is eminently quotable and knows that his appeal is in his foolishness; he even has his own cult political website called BorisWatch where you can buy t-shirts exhorting the public to vote for him for Prime Minister. All the same Boris is pretty obtuse and not the sharpest of political tools; one could say he was lacking in tact or, alternatively, that he was detached reality. He lost his job editing the right-wing Spectator after supporting an article that admonished the people of Liverpool for their “mawkish victimhood” over the murder of British hostage Ken Bigley in Iraq and then went on to blame them for the Hillborough football disaster (in which some fans attempted to invade the pitch and, consequently, dozens people were crushed to death).
I’m almost entirely sure though that Boris doesn’t mean to offend and that, quite the opposite, he has (so he supposes) people’s best interests at heart. No doubt he sees himself in the Carlylean mode: a leader of lesser man, a chivalrous traditionalist, even a feudal landlord.
Anyway, all this stands as a prelude to discussing an article he published in the Telegraph (the UK’s Conservative Party-allied broadsheet) about a trend, a very worrying trend, that is vexing gentle Boris. And what is this trend? Women, would you believe it, are reading more than men. Six months ago the National Literacy Trust found that girls are a) more likely to read everyday and b) more likely to “enjoy it very much”. 20% of boys and men reckoned that they would be happy if they never had to read again. And shock! Horror! It’s not just that these battalions of female readers are devouring chick-lit and steamy romances. They’re invading some decidedly male territories:
“It's not just slush, my friends; it's not just stuff with embossed pink covers. Women are now out-reading men in virtually every category. The other day, I saw a girl cantering through Money, by Martin Amis - the most bloke-ish novel of the Eighties. Women read more classics than men.”
At this point, I’m apt to role my eyes at him: this is vintage Boris. See how he cosies up to his Telegraph readership (who are, by the way, overwhelmingly white middle-aged males) by addressing them as “my friends” while simultaneously excluding women from that category? And see how he plants that chick-lit reference and then refers to the girl “cantering” through Martin Amis (surely the homey pony reference isn’t accidental?) by a diminutive term that questions her maturity? My first thoughts are: I have a copy of Money somewhere on my TBR pile; I actually thought Amis’s violent and chauvinistic London Fields was a thoroughly disgusting but undeniably excellent novel; if Boris saw me sitting on a train would he think I was a “girl” and not a “woman”? But it’s Boris’s explanation for why women read that startled and riled me. After all, this is our prospective minister for Higher Education:
“And as for the girl on the Tube, with her nose buried in her novel… The reason women devour so much fiction is that it is the only place where they can find a certain idea of masculinity. It is a spirit that has been regulated out of the workplace and banished from the classroom.
Women turn to fiction, I would guess, because it is the last reservation for men who are neither violent thugs nor politically correct weeds, where a girl can still get her bodice ripped without the bodice ripper being locked up”
This “girl”, I assume, is the same one reading Money, a novel about a self-obsessed entrepreneur’s adventures in money, drugs, sex and alcohol? I wonder whether this portrait (apparently representative of an exiled spirit of man-ness) is making her hot under the collar; I wonder if she is fulfilled by it; I wonder if her “bodice” is ripped? It seems to me that dear Boris’s logic has got lost somewhere in the intervening paragraphs (in which he has whined about how disadvantaged boys now are in a “feminised” education system devoid of good manly competition and corporal punishment). He seems to have forgotten his earlier statement that women don’t only read what’s between pink covers. Either that or he seems to think that all novels, classic, contemporary or otherwise, have a) bodice ripping element and/or b) reassert a “proper” gender hierarchy in which all men are paragons of prowess and all women are begging to be put in their rightful place.
Is it not more possible, instead, that women read for many of the same reasons that men do? Perhaps the sexes read differently (as Dorothy and Hobgoblin have been discussing); personally I'm not at all certain, although I’m sure we all have our individual reading quirks and strategies. But is it really plausible that, by virtue of our biological difference, we read for different reasons? In Boris’s world I suppose that women read thrillers for the pleasure of spending time with some Real Men while men read them for the rip-roaring excitement of the plot? But, as it is, Boris doesn’t deign to explain why men should want to read, although he does suggest that if there were a competition element to it they would read more. (Maybe fathers should threaten to give their sons a good thrashing if they don’t read an hour before bedtime? Or teachers should organise them together into groups in which they have to read or suffer the cruel taunting and derision of their peers?) I assume he doesn’t imagine that men read in order to enter a world where women lift their skirts and lie back and think of England? Probably they read for edification; maybe they want to learn something. Or perhaps they want to expand their understanding of human nature. Or they enjoy plot or character, or prose or poetics. Almost certainly they derive pleasure from being transported out of themselves and into alternate perceptions of reality. Certainly these are the reasons I, and many women like me, love to read.
Boris thinks the dearth of male readers is the fault of the system which, he says, favours women’s literacy above men’s. But this is nonsense and it seems more likely to me that men and boys read less now not because of their “innate manliness” but because of ridiculous gender logic like his. According to Boris reading is, whatever the content of the book being read, a passive, internal and emotional activity. It works best when the reader is alone or in quiet and it is usually sedentary. It doesn’t involve any of the traits Boris considers intrinsic and vital to the male condition – competition, fear and, somewhat bizarrely, rote-learning. It does involve the thoughtful workings of empathy and sympathy: things Boris also considers alien to the Y chromosome. Surely then what he is saying is that reading is a girly activity, what with its combination of high emotionalism and its physical gentleness. In fact, it’s not the kind of thing we should be encouraging boys to engage in at all: boys should *do* things, while girls can read about them.
Underlying Boris’s analysis are two prejudiced myths about the gender balance in the early 21st century: the old “Woe! Feminism has castrated men and left them bereft of their true masculine identities and purposes” argument, combined with the increasingly popular refrain of: “feminism has led a generation of women to abandon their natural states (as wives and mothers) as well as cruelly fooling them into thinking they could cheat their passive Instincts. Now they’re sorry there aren’t any “real men” about to love them.” (Sadly, I hear this most frequently from women themselves…) Both are ridiculous, circular and speak to the same fear of disorder as arguments against, say, same-sex marriage. They also speak to some men’s fear (I emphasis “some” and I believe only a minority): that they’re being squeezed out of the upper reaches of business, politics, the professions and the public services, that they’re falling behind and that they’re loosing their monopoly on power. And, accordingly, it is women’s fault. Women are being unfairly favoured by the education system, by the legal system, by the democratic system. Men are the victims and something must be done before the fairer sex seizes complete control. Men gave then an inch but women are now taking a mile. Boris even goes so far as to suggest that the trend of women’s reading dominance goes right to the top: the publishing industry is now dominated by “loving, anxious mums”. I dare him to produce a statistic that shows women hold the majority of top-end publishing jobs in the UK; I bet he can’t.
But what’s fundamentally wrong with this picture is that it suggests that women have started rising to the top, that they’re starting to read more and achieve more in English exams at every level, through concessions, push-ups and policies rather than through their hard work, their desire for independence and their own “natural” inclinations. And, it proposes, that their interest in empowering, meaningful activities like reading is not a sign of their wonderful freedom but is in fact an expression of their dissatisfaction with the very balance of gender relations that allows them to read so freely. It even, Boris thinks, represents a desire to return to the positions of their great-great grandmothers. This is a terrible kind of delusion because it silences women; it turns their achievements into indulgences offered by men and simplifies and mutates the meaning of their activities.
Perhaps though what disturbs me most is not that Boris Johnson thinks these things. After all I disagree with him on almost every other subject and consider him to be nothing more or less than a product of his education, his upbringing and his political affiliations. I can afford to “hrumph” and make fun of him. But when a blogger I have grown to respect, like Michael Allen from Grumpy Old Bookman, writes (without explanation or critique) that Johnson’s conclusion “seems about right to me”, I start to worry. Are women readers still so easy to dismiss? Even when his own blog-roll is dominated by intelligent and insightful women readers?
Eve’s Alexandria is named with women’s reading specifically in mind (we are, after all, five women). But the blog is our contribution to the re-building of the idea of that great ancient library, once so wilfully destroyed; it is also part of reimagining it as open to all people, men or women, without prejudice. Our bodices are our own, thank you very much.
SRC Update: I finished A Suitable Boy yesterday morning at 2.21am and mean to write about it very soon, but it may be that I’m quieter this week. I have 8000 words of thesis due on Friday and only managed 2500 of them today.