SDS Womyn's Caucus Blog

Men and the Written Word

Posted on: November 15, 2009

by Robin, Philly

men reading

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a long time and have had a hard time drawing decisive conclusions about. At this point I’ve been noticing it consistently for about 2 and a half years, though, and I think it’s time to throw my thoughts out there to hear what other people think. (And when I say people, I mean, women, trans and gender variant people, and MAYBE some dudes if you’re gonna do something other than get defensive.)

What is up with men and books? So many activist men I know have read about a billion books. All about leftist history and anarchism/communism and racism and sexism, apparently. I’m not trying to say women don’t read books, but to be honest, most of my female friends read much fewer books than the males I know, and they are more likely to read fiction.

Personally, I read maybe 3 books a year. It’s not that I don’t like to read – I read a lot. But I read short things – zines and magazines and blog entries. Sometimes newspapers and online news sites. But I just don’t read a lot of books! I never feel like I have enough time to commit to reading a whole book. I start them and never finish them; I get busy with other things. The books I am able to most successfully complete are anthologies, collections of essays, zine compilations. If the book is broken up into small parts I can read in half an hour or less, I am about 100% more likely to finish it than a full length book. Logically, of course, I recognize that I could just read part of a chapter and put the book down, but I don’t do this. I think I get a mental block because the very idea of committing to reading a whole book is just too intimidating. (I should add that up until about age 13 I read full length books all the time, no problem.)

I wonder sometimes if this is just a product of being of the “MTV generation” – I’m so used to watching 10 second advertisements and music videos that cut back and forth that I have permanently damaged my attention span. It’s possible. But, if this is the only issue, then why do my male peers seem less affected? I think there is something more going on.

I have developed three hypothesis so far:

1. Most books are still written by men. The publishing industry is notoriously sexist. The majority of books being published are going to appeal to men. (And in the instance of historical books especially, most history is written from a  straight white male perspective  about and appealing to straight white men.)

2. Men are (in general) more encouraged to pursue academic interests. This would explain why men not only read more, but tend to favor non-fiction, and, in the case of my radical friends, tend to read a lot of movement histories, history in general, political ideological texts, and other academic stuff.

3. Men have more free time to devote to reading because they do not have to spend time addressing their gender oppression. This is the hardest one for me to justify, because I know many men are still oppressed in other ways (class, race, sexuality, etc.) But I’m still putting it out there.

I think #3 can play out in infinite ways. In my own life, I know that I really do spend a good deal of time processing and analyzing the gendered interactions I have and trying to understand why I feel so fucking crazy when I interact with men. I also waste a lot of time anxiously worrying that I have upset men or not pleased them appropriately. [I say this, obviously, as a radical feminist who knows that shit is fucked up, but it takes TIME to uproot internalized patriarchy. I’m working on it.] When I was talking to my friend Sam about this once, she suggested that men are more likely to blow off responsibilities in order to just relax and read a book, whereas women have been socialized to feel that we must be responsible for not only ourselves but others and feel guilty blowing off responsibilities to spend time for ourselves.

I think what is hard for me about this issue is – it’s not men’s fault, and they’re not doing anything actively wrong. Of course I don’t think reading books is a bad thing. I think it’s a really really great thing. But, it gets on my fucking nerves!! First of all, I am so over going to political events where men are know-it-alls about leftist ideologies and movement histories and always get to be the “teachers”.  They casually name drop Chomsky and Freire and seem surprised when not everyone has read their entire works. I call myself an anarchist and before that I called myself a socialist, but I’ve never read any texts about either ideology. I’ve never read any Marx, or Chomsky, or any… whoever. And I don’t care!! I don’t need to read a book to know I’m an anarchist. I came to my political beliefs through my lived experiences and put a name to them when I met other people with similar beliefs who called themselves anarchists. Honestly, the labels are meaningless to me, all I care about are the beliefs people hold, which don’t need a name to exist and be valid.

dan the dude intellectualism

image from my zine “Do’s and Don’ts for the Dudely Organizer” *

The other thing that pisses me off is when some awesome new feminist book is published or recommended, and my male friends read it before I can. This has happened to me SO MANY TIMES!! I own books that I have lent to male friends and that they returned to me over a year ago and that I STILL have not read myself. It just isn’t fair! These books are actually relevant to my life and might help me better understand my experiences, but they’re being read (and reviewed and recommended via facebook and Goodreads) by men!

Of COURSE I want men to read books about feminism. I think it’s critical. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling frustrated when another dude posts a review of some bell hooks book that’s been on my to-do list for 16 months.

So, I just ranted a whole lot…but do I have any solutions?

The only thing I’ve come up with so far is a trade system. Like, men take some of their extra time they would spend reading, and offer to do some kind of work (cooking a meal, cleaning a bathroom, volunteering somewhere) that a woman would normally do, and instead she gets a couple extra hours to spend reading.

I also think women can work to encourage each other to read more, through reading groups and just generally talking about books more with one another. (Though it is important not to do this to the point of alienating people who don’t read much.)

womens book club

Also, to go along with “men and books”, I have also noticed my male friends have a lot more time for WRITING as well as reading. Practically every leftist man I know has a personal blog.** I know several men who have had their writing published in leftist magazines, books, and on websites, but hardly any women. The one time I wrote something to be published on a website, a male SDSer was the one who set me up with the connection. I assume men write/publish more for the same reason they seem to read more.

So, what do you all think? Do you notice this pattern in your friends too? What do you think about challenging men to trade off some of their reading time to give it to women?

* When I wrote this cartoon, I literally just made up the babble by stringing together a bunch of words and names I’d heard activist dudes use. Since publishing the zine, several people have asked me if Chomsky really wrote something analyzing Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Not that I know of, but I’m not likely to know since I’ve never read PoO or anything by Chomsky.

** I just thought I’d throw in that the idea for the womyn’s caucus blog was born one night when my friend and former SDSer Tyneisha and I were drinking wine and lamenting the ratio of radical female friends with blogs to male friends with blogs – and I am so happy we set this up, I know I wouldn’t blog without it!

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21 Responses to "Men and the Written Word"

i think accessibility to and the fact that men are better materially resourced to be able to acquire books, zines, articles, or whatever is the latest hot intellectual commodity also play factors.

Or maybe women should stop giving a shit about cleaning toilets and making fancy meals and do something important like read. Or course this requires us to live in a society that doesn’t bombard women with ads telling you to cook and clean. Or it requires you to take charge and make a society that doesn’t indoctrinate women to be virtual slaves to cleanliness and housewifery.

I have definitely noticed the fiction/non-fiction divide. What is with dudes not reading fiction? I feel like it has a lot of cultural importance that gets overlooked.

Also, I’m sick of people making me feel shitty about not reading some of the classic feminist texts…just because I’m a women’s studies major doesn’t mean that I have read every book on the subject.

I think I read more than you do Robin (a couple books a month at least) and I TRY to read an equal amount of fiction/non-fiction but sometimes after hearing about friends being sexually assaulted or being around a dude that is talking about all these books I should be reading all I want to do is curl up with a good novel that lets me escape.

I’m not sure what the solution is either. I’ll have to think about it more.

-Christa

As a dude who hasn’t read any radical theory or otherwise leftist non-fiction, I dig this a lot. Until reading musicological texts in school, I’ve only been personally interested in reading fiction. Actually, my music history prof. is going on sabbatical next semester to work on a book that she’s writing, which I’m pumped about, not only because she’s a great writer and researcher, but because musicology is yet another academic field that is dominated by male writers.

I guess I had never thought too hard about the whole patriarchy-in-publishing situation, but it does remain pretty split even with the advent of democratizing self-publishing tools like copy machines and the internet (which still need to make progress in terms of being truly accessible).

Maybe a direct timeswap solution isn’t even necessary. If men did more domestic work, I feel like this would open up more free time for ladies to read and write and do other rad stuff by default. Yeah?

A wonderful post, especially the bits on the relationship between gender and the publishing industry. It does, however, suffer from poor research. The fact is that data collected by various organizations in the past 5 years indicates that women read nearly twice as many books as men in all genres save history, including non-historical academic texts. Furthermore, women make up the vast majority of book club members and literary bloggers. This would indicate that the real concern is not that men have more time or impulse to read, but that publishers are ignoring the interest of their most substantial consumer base. It scares me that publishers might be more concerned with maintaining gender inequality than they are with making money. Perhaps we would be better off if they were simply motivated by greed. A sobering thought to say the least.

It would also be nice to see the notion that men are encouraged to pursue intellectual interests fleshed out a little more. It may be true that men are, because of the nature of their gender identity, more likely to engage in intellectual discourse. However, the notion that men are supported academically is not supported by the evidence, unless you are implying that men are simply not taking advantage of their position. The reality of the situation is that the lion’s share of academic support is largely focused, perhaps unintentionally, on women and while the professoriate is still largely male, the likelihood that a successful student, at all levels of education, will be female rather than male is higher than the reverse, usually by a factor of 10% to 20%, with the exception of university level sciences and mathematics. Again, this makes it all the more shocking that publishers operate in the way that they do, as women are the most likely readers and perhaps the most qualified writers.

I don’t think the poster was speaking of an average across the whole population, so much as an observation within a certain subculture.

Edward,
You are correct the poster does intend to discuss why activist men seem to have read so many books. She does, however, attribute this feature of a certain subculture to generalizations about men. Are activist men more likely to be encouraged academically than their non-activist counterparts? Do activist men have more time to spend reading and writing than non-activist men? Does the fact that women read more books than men mean that women have more time to read and write? I am glad you took the time to read my comments, Edward, but perhaps you should take some time to read the post. The author makes an observation and offers a series of hypotheses that any responsible reader must consider. I have done just that, offered an illumination of their shortcomings, and await an answer to the initial question that is refined by debate.

Hey Robin, interesting post! I think that the amount of non-fiction men read is to support their status as the one who knows the most—just like the teacher dynamic you mentioned. Guys are typically the ones who want to tell me something/correct me/clarify something I said with some sort of literary reference. This does not apply just to activists, but definitely in academic circles as well. I think there is a pressure that men feel (and this is not an excuse, just part of the dominant patriarchal way society is oriented) to know about history, and be able to tell people about it (as in, “let me tell you why you are wrong”). It is definitely customary for men to know more about history than women…which sucks! And as a woman who reads a lot, including history, I am deeply gratified when I can turn this around on its head and tell men about something.

Nevertheless, I think it is important for everyone to read, and be able to support their ideology with references, and to have a historical context for what they believe in. I also think it is equally important to read fiction! I often feel I learn more from fiction; and the only times I have ever heard someone completely dismiss fiction as not important, is from men.

First and foremost, that cartoon is priceless. I have felt that way many times because many of my friends/ the people I do activism with are in majors where most of what they do is read books about political theory/ideology/history. But you can’t generalize, and I think there’s some responsibility in being educated (doesn’t have to be through formal higher education) and well-informed about the issues you advocate and organize around. Reading books definitely helps, but as you mention, it’s not the only thing you can do to stay informed- reading the news, zines, blogs, having conversations with people, going to lectures, etc.

I definitely agree with you about the majority of books still being written by men and for a male audience. And the fact that women still do a majority of the housework and childcare, and quite plausibly spend more time analyzing themselves and their interactions through a gendered lens could be seen as reasons why they may have less time to read. I’m all for an egalitarian workload amongst the genders, but I don’t know if the “trade off” idea is the most ideal solution, especially if you are not living with a male (although it’s never a bad idea to emphasize workload equality in a cohabiting/relationship situation).

At times (and far too often), our society, our academic institutions, the media, and a lot of stupid people are going to reinforce gender normative behavior in women and tell us we shouldn’t spend our time pouring over a book or in any academic/literary pursuits and if we do, the pursuit should lack any real substance or merit. What can we do as women to challenge this? Reading groups would be a good start, as would having conversations with people about books you’ve read and enjoyed, without making the conversation entirely inaccessible to people who haven’t read the book and aren’t familiar with whatever it discusses (less elitism and assumption that everyone’s on the same page with things being discussed is always a good idea).

Without overgeneralizing, there is a certain privilege associated with having the free time to devote hours to reading and writing, and having the resources for these activities (buying books, a computer to write and communicate your writing to others on, having a safe place/somewhere to be able to do these activities, getting an education that introduces you to new ideas/books/authors/other writing, etc). And also, some responsibility lies with publishing companies who disproportionately publish male authors, book stores that disproportionately stock books/magazines/other writings by male authors (but don’t worry, we can always go to the women’s interest section), and also with our academic institutions that predominately feature the works of male authors in courses.

Well this has gotten to be a long response, but thanks for writing this post Robin, it’s an important issue that should be thought about and discussed.

First off, so many snaps for this post!

If I had a nickel for every time I sat back as men talked over and around me about names, dates, places, and obscure political factions I’ve never even heard of, well, I’d have a fucking lot of nickels. I, too, have noticed that these conversations are overwhelmingly had by straight white men who read a lot of books and enjoy talking to each other about how they read a lot of books. I think competition is a huge part of these conversations. I’ve witnessed so many conversations in which men try to one up each other with their knowledge of movement history or their understanding of some particularly dense piece of theory. I want to see radical men relate to each other in ways that are a) less exclusive and b) less aggressive! Even though I have very little interest in participating in these conversations (I agree with what you said Robin about having arrived at your politics through experience rather than theory), it still really bothers me that on the rare occasion when I do know something about what these dudes are talking about, I rarely feel confident enough to say anything. Fuck you, gender socialization.

In relation to what you said about men reading feminist books… I have some complicated feelings about that as well. On the one hand, I think it’s awesome when I meet men who have at least spent some time thinking and learning about patriarchy and gender oppression. And I know from experience that man can be great allies. At the same time, it worries me when I see men who seem to behave as if the fact that they’ve read bell hooks makes them somehow immune to patriarchy. Or as if the fact that they’ve read every piece of writing from the Black Power movement means that they’ve somehow overcome white privilege. I don’t think reading a book or taking a class is a substitute for the difficult and never-ending process of working out your shit. (and by shit i mean privilege. ha.) I think this work needs to be done in communities with other people as well as internally. Reading a book is only a first step in this process.

Anyway. This was a great post! Thanks, Robin!

I thought I posted this earlier but it must have not gone through.

Overall you have some interesting thoughts, but I was annoyed by your dismissal of the importance of reading major non-fiction texts.

You said, “I call myself an anarchist and before that I called myself a socialist, but I’ve never read any texts about either ideology. I’ve never read any Marx, or Chomsky, or any… whoever. And I don’t care!! I don’t need to read a book to know I’m an anarchist. I came to my political beliefs through my lived experiences and put a name to them when I met other people with similar beliefs who called themselves anarchists.”

This is fine if you want to just be a follower of a movement, but if you want to be a genuine leader, and plan future actions, campaigns and so forth, you really do need to read some of those ‘old dead white men’. Because they grappled with some of the same issues we are dealing with, and we can avoid become a farce by learning from them and avoiding the mistakes. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and that’s why we read Chomsky and Marx, Wolstonecraft and Betty Friendman.

In some ways I’m quite the believe in a conservative ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ kind of ideology. However I don’t support an individualistic dog eat dog Horatio Alger style of pulling your self up, but a collective struggle. Workers who organize into unions are pulling themselves up out of a wretched existence, and it’s not the bourgeoisie who are helping them, but themselves. Likewise the struggle for female liberation will be led by women themselves.

If you want more history books about women, write them. If you want to read more history books, stop baking hipster cupcakes and read. Men can help, men should write history books that look at women’s issues, and should encourage women to read non-fiction, but ultimately the onus is on women.

One trend I noticed, particularly in SDS, had less to do with the amount of reading we did, and a lot more to do with the willingness of male-identified people in the group to speak up. I noticed, in myself and other female-identified folks, a resistance to asserting any notion that might be controversial, or require backing up with facts and stats. We deferred a lot.

The people in the group who were apt to make sweeping claims, and be loud about what they saw as historically accurate, were male-identified, and I have since heard that some of them admit to being full of shit. Yes, they have read more radical historical texts than many of us had, but they also had the confidence to spout out something they had read without having an arsenal of facts to back it up. Quite often, in fact, it was made apparent that they hadn’t read the books, at least in their entirety, but had read reviews of them, or articles on them, and were pulling from that. I guess I’m getting at a different, but related, issue. If you’re given the social expectation of knowing everything [or most things], you are much more likely to speak up as an expert.

hey Robin, thanks for the writing.

So I definitely notice in myself the non-fiction/fiction divide. part of that might be that I just don’t enjoy a lot of fiction I read(like the style is boring and shit) whereas there are a few authors who I hunt down their books and read everything they’ve written. I work in a bookstore and when people ask me for fiction recommendations I usually either point them to Marquez, or say “sorry, I don’t really read fiction, mostly cause its all lies.” heh, the latter part being my favorite bookstore joke, but probably telling as well. One thing I started doing was reading a big ole history book with tons of citations and that, while I also read personal narratives of movement people. Biographies and stuff approach the history from a very different angle that conveys a different sort of knowledge that is a lot more personal and emotional. Its a great addition to all the citations, but it also has that fictional quality of a good narrative that sucks you in.

One thing that came to mind, is that we should find ways to address the control of men over publishing and academia. Students can have a big hand in this by defending women’s studies, african-american studies, queer studies, and labor studies departments on their campuses(cpsds.org), or by fighting to establish them. The more these fields become accepted as legit fields in academia, the more those professors will be able to publish. I think this is a broader way of creating space for writing from marginalized people, but it only sorta creates space for reading of this stuff form oppressed people.

As radicals, we can also pressure radical publishers like AK Press, and PM press to equalize the voices they publish. Both of these companies are actively asking for suggestions to publish, I just started asking PM Press to reprint Septima Clark’s first autobiography(its so out of print that its $100 online!!!).

I wanted to add to your analysis that this also applies in different ways to working class people, and people of color. Academia that is opened to women, is open to middle class white women. The ruling elite maintain white supremacy, capitalism, heteronormativity and patriarchy by controlling culture. TV and books are one of the main ways they do that. So yea, I just think its important to put out that this transcends gender in lots of ways.

I struggle a lot with trying to avoid acting like some authority on the things I read. I’m not confident enough about my writing to actually blog about anything other than actions that happen, I have a bunch of things I started writing about different things that I think are horrible. But I definitely(and I know you know this robin) talk for hours about the history books I’m reading. Part of that is just being excited about cool things and wanting to share them with other people who might also like them, and another part is that talking about shit is part of how I process things I’m learning(I’d be interested in knowing if thats gendered). Ya know, like, I don’t write research papers or comprehension essays anymore, so I say them to people. But I think the other side of that is being socialized as a dude to expect women to listen to me, to perform (academically in this instance) for women. This is coupled with an expectation of women to be a passive audience. So, because I think these histories are so important, I’m thinking of ways to convey what I know in a less condescending and less obnoxious way.

A workshop I recently created sorta does this, its about people of color led resistance, but rather than being a lecture based on books I’ve read, it just creates space for people to all share the stories they know, so people learn from the collective knowledge. It comes out of that Frierre/Horton shit(which I also haven’t read, yet :P), and its been really cool so far.

thats all. I appreciate this post, its challenging

my friend recently started using the word “scripto-centrism” – that is, worship of the written word. i think it has it’s roots in more than just patriarchy – especially classism (&desire to perform middle/upper class-ness) – particularly thinking of examples of this in sds, a majority class privileged organization with institutionalized middle class culture – and christian hegemony (the truth comes from The Book).

so there’s all that, and then i want to say, working class people and women (and queer and trans folks and people of color) need to be & become intellectuals. we need folks to know their marxism (so much of our movement theory is built from marx), know their theory, and be testing it in on the ground work. i think someone mentioned above that we read theorists so we don’t have to recreate the wheel. to some extent, we’re in a moment that no one has ever seen before, and we’re going to have to figure out what fits our situation. but i firmly believe that the strategies that we build will be based on what people before us have tried and written about, and others have critiqued and re-written and built upon.

something that i have seen in subcultural/anarchist and some student activist communities is a tendency to build study groups around books that aren’t really that relevant to our situation and tasks here in the US, or as student organizers, or whatever it may be (often glorifying European or Latin American movements or traditions AND don’t get me wrong i think a lot of inspiration can be drawn from Latin American movts). but there is a left in US (and an even bigger left in other parts of the world) that is creating new theory. and testing out theory. for example a housing justice group that i work with in the bay area describes itself as rooted in third world marxism, command cities theory, theory of development and underdevelopment, analysis of neoliberalism and imperialism (lenin), and race/national oppression analysis. this is an organization led by queer and trans people of color.

(a really accessible book that talks about a lot of those theories that i highly highly recommend is Towards Land, Work, and Power put out by Power’s Amandala Project – might also find it under the author name Jaron Browne)

one final note is, i have a hard time making it through big books. i think articles are an awesome way to be reading &deepening understanding/analysis without losing steam half way through!

much love to y’all! xoxo.

Of COURSE I want men to read books about feminism. I think it’s critical. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling frustrated when another dude posts a review of some bell hooks book that’s been on my to-do list for 16 months.

There are 2 possible solutions to your problem:

1. Read.
2. Accept that you don’t like to read, and get over it.

The fact that men talk over women and think they know best about everything is one thing, but don’t bitch about the fact that they read more than you do. If you want to read, then read! If you’re too busy to make time to do something you seem to want to do, then you should adjust your schedule. There’s truly no reason for someone to be literally too busy to do something as simple as reading. If you can take 30 minutes to read an article, you can take 30 minutes to read a couple chapters of a book. I don’t get why you’re so upset.

I’m so sorry that you don’t like to read. That doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to be bitter about how other people have read more than you and devalue books in general. It does a disservice to women everywhere when you say that men as a whole are the ones who read all the books and talk more during meetings. It insults me, as a woman who is a big theory nerd and very outspoken, when competition and well-read-ness are painted as things for men.

“I’m not trying to say women don’t read books, but to be honest, most of my female friends read much fewer books than the males I know, and they are more likely to read fiction.”

That’s because they are culturally oppressed and pushed away from non-fiction and theory (and towards frivolous “chick lit” and other stuff) from an early age. The solution to this problem isn’t getting men to read less, it’s getting women to break through their conditioning and read MORE. (When they can, that is. I’d say that having time to read has to do a lot more with class status than gender status, which is a whole different issue.) It’s not a zero sum game, which is also incidentally why your trade system idea is really unproductive.

There’s a difference between name dropping and being knowledgeable, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t want the most knowledgeable people to be active in whatever movement. (Mere name dropping doesn’t contribute to a discussion, however, and people should cut that shit out.) And the thing is–you can be poor, or a woman, or a POC, and it doesn’t affect your ability to understand and analyze texts, and discuss all the resultant knowledge with your colleagues! Talent, intelligence, and understanding occurs across all of these classes. What’s more, marginalized people are actually more likely to really “get” what’s being written about in the case of a lot of political theory, because they have lived experience on top of it.

“Of COURSE I want men to read books about feminism. I think it’s critical. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling frustrated when another dude posts a review of some bell hooks book that’s been on my to-do list for 16 months.”

Then read it! Don’t be so anti-intellectual. More knowledge for EVERYONE is good. It’s not that there’s something inherently masculine about reading books and talking about them loudly (and thus the whole deal is to be avoided), it’s that men have been barring women from taking part in this awesome and useful process. That’s what needs to stop.

“Women, you say, are not and cannot be philosophers. If you take the word philosophy in its primitive meaning, love of wisdom, I think you can, you must cultivate philosophy.”

— Sand, George (1835). Lettres à Marcie. Paris: Perrotin, 227.

(george sand was a french lady diametrically opposed to the ‘women’s rights’ bullshit that still masquerades as feminism.)

[…] I’m trying not to do that any more. (For more on the phenomenon, check out Robin’s post about it on the SdS Womyn’s Caucus Blog.) Also, two young feminist bloggers arguing about […]

[…] problem is, by reducing it to a formulaic theory (we’ve talked about the link between theory and patriarchy on here before), he is putting his ideology before the desires of actual […]

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