Book Clubs, Man

This article in the New York Times is a truly moving and groundbreaking piece of investigative journalism detailing the plight of men who are members of book clubs. Apparently, men feel really ostracized from the contemporary literary world. I had no idea! Well worth a read if you have nothing better to do. But if you do, some choice quotes:

“Mr. McCullough’s group expresses its notion of manliness through the works it chooses to read. ‘We do not read so-called chick lit,’ he said ‘The main character cannot be a woman.'”

“The [book club’s] ‘About Us’ section says it was founded, in part, on the vision that ‘one day we could step out of the shadow of our mothers’ book clubs and proclaim that yes, we too, are intellectuals.’”

“For the International Ultra Manly Book Club, in Kansas City, the monthly meetings provide a space to explore literary depictions of what it means to be a man.”

“And yet the group has standards. ‘We are not allowed to suggest books that our mothers have suggested,’ Mr. Creagar said. ‘We had an accident one time. We read ‘Water for Elephants.’ It was a huge mistake.'”

These guys really have a point. Society has a hard time seeing men as intellectuals and arbiters of literary taste. Such a hard time, in fact, that more than half of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels from the last 15 years have been books by men about men. In the same time period, 60% of Man Booker Prize-winning novels have been books by men about men. Seventy-four percent of reviewers writing for the New York Review of Books are men. Only 74 percent! And only 91 on Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels were written by a man. A truly appalling lack of representation.

Meanwhile, society just won’t shut up about how smart and talented and cultured women’s writing is. During a recent Q&A, esteemed literary journalist Gay Talese noted that women writers aren’t comfortable with the tough subjects that make for good literary journalism, so it was really magnanimous of him to name more than one woman writer who has inspired him. Women are, in fact, taken so seriously in the literary world that they even have their very own genre—the aforementioned chick lit—which is always very helpfully marketed with pink covers and segregated into its own section at the bookstore. I don’t see men getting that kind of top-tier treatment! Women’s writing is so lauded there’s even a special way of talking about books written by women:

“Most of the adjectives used to applaud or lambaste fiction are gender-loaded along the serious/nonserious continuum; for example, consequential, rigorous, powerful, seminal, demanding versus silly, light, weak, obvious, simple. ‘Serious’ and its critical correlatives seem masculinist weapons wielded against women writing ‘nonserious’ fiction.”

—Mary Frances Rogers, “Novels, Novelists and Readers: Toward a Phenomenological Sociology of Literature”

Oh, and did you know that one of the first “book clubs” of record was started by female columnists after they were turned away from a New York Press Club event honoring Charles Dickens? Must have really sucked for those guys, who couldn’t even pay homage to a man who is considered one of the best novelists of all time without women trying to ruin the fun by being there!

To cut the snark for a minute, I do want to say I’m happy these guys have found a space where they can bond and talk about great literature. Men should have book clubs if they want—that’s great! But the macho branding and the persecution complex are just gross. For crying out loud, women’s book clubs were started as a reaction to a literary world that dismissed women writers and readers as unserious, and a society where they were physically barred from participating in intellectual life because of their gender. You know, actual persecution.