Saturday, August 11, 2012

That bwessed event

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a while, but more pressing personal and work events have intervened. So here it goes; it's a bit long, but believe me, there are lots of other interesting details I'm leaving out in the interest of coherence.

Marriage has been even more of a political issue lately than usual; marriage equality has become the focus of the gay rights movement. In particular, it has been argued by conservatives that marriage between one man and one woman who love each other and produce children is an age-old tradition essential to a stable society. While I’ve always suspected this to be a specious argument, I realized I didn’t really know anything about the history of marriage, so I decided to read Stephanie Coontz’s 2005 book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Reading it reinforced an aspect of history that a fantastic college professor of mine was the first to make me realize: history is not an upward or downward line of progress. It goes in cycles, and what is valued by society depends on that society and how it's organized. The same goes for marriage.

Coontz details how marriage, for much of history, had a lot more to do with economics than legal standing, religion, or morality. People married in medieval Europe to bring together families and resources. "Women's work" like growing food, tending animals, cooking, and making clothes, were valued as economic contributions as long as the barter system was around; when cash became more prevalent, the idea of the separate domestic sphere came about. The idea of each household being its own economic unit, instead of being connected to larger families and communities, is inseparable from capitalism.

Coontz traces marriage through many different societies and iterations, and the last paragraph of her book sums up:

Over the past century, marriage has steadily become more fair, more fulfilling, and more effective at fostering the well-being of both adults and children than ever before in history. It has also become more optional and more fragile. The historical record suggests that these two seemingly contradictory changes are inextricably intertwined.” (p. 301)
To me, this suggests that you can’t have it both ways; you can't insist both that the nuclear, child-producing family is the only acceptable arrangement, and that marriage should be based only on love. Coontz paraphrases a psychiatrist whose voice was a dissenting one in the 1950s, who said that "people were loading too many ‘psychological and symbolic functions’ on the nuclear family, an institution too fragile to bear such weight.” (p. 234) It's my opinion that people should be allowed to come up with whatever households or arrangements work for them. I think you should be able to designate whomever you want to visit you in the hospital, or inherit your property. Right now in the U.S., you literally get a tax credit for being heterosexually married or having a child. Our government exclusively rewards the nuclear family structure, even when a large part of its population is living outside it - and this reward doesn't seem to be motivating anyone to buy in.

Meanwhile, "manufactured nostalgia" (Coontz's phrase) is nothing new - she cites the Roman emperor Augustus, who, to boost the birth rate, ushered in a raft of pro-family government policies, nostalgic for the days when women were more obedient, industrious, and weren't allowed to drink wine. All this contributes to my mixed feelings about marriage equality as a goal for the gay rights movement. As things stand right now, legal marriage is the only door to many rights that I think same-sex couples should have, so I think it is a worthy goal. In the long run, however, I think it shortchanges everyone with more complex situations.

The government and the church weren't always so up in marriage's business. Coontz points out, as did Dan Savage in his book The Commitment, that in twelfth-century Europe, even the Catholic Church operated by a doctrine that "if a couple said, using the present tense, ‘I take thee as my husband’ and ‘I take thee as my wife,' they were married." (p. 107) No witnesses were required, no clergy, no legal documentation. Their personal commitment was what mattered to them and the world. That's the kind of marriage I could believe in.

All quotes from Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Viking, 2005.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Everybody's reading it

I just read over my last post, and realized this one will be somewhat related. But not as long!

Okay, so I have a friend - let's call him Ben. Ben forwarded me a web page the other day with a writer's snarky comments about adults reading YA books, specifically The Hunger Games and Twilight. This despite the fact that he knew I had just read The Hunger Games trilogy, and despite the fact that he read and liked the Harry Potter books. When we talked about it later, two clarifications of sorts emerged. One: he felt that the first Harry Potter book was written without cynical forethought about franchising or movie deals, and that Twilight and The Hunger Games were. The second, which I could much more get on board with, is that part of what he was reacting to was a societal attitude that everyone, of all ages, should read YA books, and specifically these three series.

I could understand that. There are certain books I haven't read and movies I haven't seen that are generally assumed everyone has - the Stieg Larsson books come to mind, as do Dirty Dancing and Avatar. Some of these, I'll admit, are a contrarian point of pride with me. (Cf. Pretty Woman.) I do find it annoying when people make inside references without prefacing them with "Have you read..." or "Have you seen..." I don't think it should be assumed that everyone likes - or should like - the same things.

What I do bristle at is anyone being judged for what they read. The fact that Ben and I share a profession made me all the more chagrined at our exchanges (though I know he would never inappropriately judge a patron). It's my personal and professional opinion that the best reading diet - like the best information diet - is a varied one. Varied subjects, forms, styles, author backgrounds - no one broadens their horizons much in an echo chamber. But that's just my opinion. If someone's reading tastes are confined solely to superhero graphic novels, Regency romances, flarf poetry, new historicist tomes, or the Great Books series, I don't think they should be judged. Everyone has different tastes - and everyone reads for different reasons. Readers should be celebrating their commonality, not tearing each other down.

*gets down from soapbox*

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Every book its reader

The conventional wisdom about an exercise program goes: if you miss a day or two, don't dwell on it - just start again. Substitute "blog" for "exercise program" and "six months" for "a day or two," and here I am. I cleaned up the blog roll a little, and now I'm just going to jump back in. And let me tell you: this entry is about a lot of really big ideas that greater minds than mine have considered. So, caveat: I know that I'm just a person who likes to read, and read some articles and books, and has opinions. I'm not claiming to be an expert of any kind. Oh, and one more caveat: this is gonna be long.

Okay, caveats gone. Here's the sequence of events that led to what I wanted to write about:

1. I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and loved it.
2. I read about the comments made by writers Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult about the New York Times Book Review's bias toward white male readers. Some firsthand stuff, some secondhand. My initial reaction, to be honest, was defensive annoyance. (Keep reading; stay with me.)
3. Over a year passed, during which I heard a couple of friends say they hadn't enjoyed Freedom, one of the main reasons cited being the way Jonathan Franzen wrote the female characters in it, particularly Patty.
4. I read this article in the Phoenix about NPR's own lopsided ratio of male-to-female author coverage.
5. I decided that before I made any more judgments about this whole thing, I should read one of Jennifer Weiner's books, so I checked out Good in Bed from the library.
6. After I finished it and I was thinking about this entry, I caught up with an episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, an NPR podcast you should be listening to, where they were talking about some of these very issues. Namely, they discussed fiction and the ways it can be enjoyable and difficult, and what constitutes "literary" fiction.

I've been thinking a lot about all this, and let's just get a few, perhaps contradictory statements out of the way first: I enjoyed parts of Good in Bed, but ultimately did not like it very much. I consider myself a feminist. While I love Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" and believe in its pragmatic message of "just try harder," I also don't think that's the only piece of the moving-toward-equality puzzle. And (this may be the most revealing of all, but not a surprise to those who know me), yes: I was an English major.

Because I was an English major, and taught by faculty who focused heavily on language, I came out of college thinking that in literature, the style of a novel or story or poem should support the substance. Words should do the double duty of conveying literal meaning, but also characterizing a person, or creating a mood, or pulling a thematic thread throughout the work. I think the best books do that. But even writing that phrase "best books" feels reductive. Maybe great books is a better phrase. Even by saying "great books," I realize I'm making a personal judgment sound like an abstract one. It's still personal. The books I personally love best do this: Mrs. Dalloway. The Poisonwood Bible. A Visit from the Goon Squad. Possession. And yes, The Corrections. (All, with one glaring exception, by female authors.)

I think it was Glen Weldon on the episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour that described Isaac Asimov's prose as "workmanlike." That's how I felt about Good in Bed. When describing a character, Weiner sometimes (not always) gave a list of physical characteristics or clothing that (I felt) were meant to help me visualize the person rather than help to characterize the person. Early in the book, the main character literally looks in the mirror and describes herself. That's all fine; it's just not what I enjoy reading.

I also feel that great books should be, in some way, challenging. Take A Visit from the Goon Squad. Did the chapter told in PowerPoint slides put me off? Yeah. But the rest of the book was so creative and good, and gave me so much to think about, that I accepted it. I guess I can let slide a lot of other things if I feel like either a) the prose is beautiful enough to carry me through, b) I feel like I can trust the author when things get a little screwy, or c) both. Sometimes there are things I might not get; sometimes there are insights a reader might have that the author never thought about. No two people will ever really read the same book.

Also, one of the reasons I read is to learn about, or live for a little while with, ideas or people I didn't know anything about before - to have new experiences. I don't always want to read about people like me, though I have, and that's fine too. I guess I could contrast that with the fact that I don't necessarily want to read a kind of fantasy fulfillment plot, which is how I felt about Good in Bed. I was totally on board with a book about a woman I didn't have too much in common with, until unlikely coincidences and great fortune steered the book into romantic-comedy territory. I am not knocking romantic comedy - I guess I just prefer it in film.

Coming back to the gender question, I didn't feel one way or the other about how either Franzen or Weiner wrote their female characters. I didn't particularly recognize myself or any of the women I know in either Cannie Shapiro or Patty Berglund, but that wasn't central to my enjoyment of either book. (I will say, though, that I wish the daughter Jessica in Freedom had either gotten more attention or been left out entirely.) I don't think that either was a "truer" representation of women. I also know several intelligent people who would probably disagree with me there.

I have no doubt that there is male bias at both NPR and the New York Times Book Review, because there's male bias in every part of our society. Both men and women are guilty of it, and women should demand equal coverage in these outlets. Equal coverage, but honest reviewing. And this is where it gets tricky. Because what gets a good review? Are reviewers privileging male voices by reviewing male authors' books well? Maybe there is some of that going on, but I think the problem is that there's an idea of abstract goodness or badness.

I read book reviews in a professional capacity - I have to decide what to buy for the library. That's why I appreciate review publications like Library Journal, that identify books as "for fans of X author" or "readers of Y type of fiction" rather than ranking them in some kind of literary hierarchy. They're subscribing to two of S.R. Ranganathan's five laws of library science: Every book its reader; Every reader his [or her] book. There are readers who like Good in Bed; I don't happen to be one of them. There are readers who like Freedom; I happen to be one of them. I don't think anyone should be forced to read something they don't enjoy just because some outside person or publication says it's the best book ever.

I'll leave it there. I could go on even longer (!) about several ideas in this post, and I probably will in the future. If you're still reading, thanks for indulging my desire to write about things I think about. That's what I really love. A Room Full of Books: back with a vengeance!