April 13, 2013
My daughter is two. Already sounding out letters, she’s learning the concept of reading, taking pleasure in memorizing shapes and sounds, proudly scrawling the first few letters of her name. On the night before “take-a-book-to-school” day a few weeks ago at her daycare, she had difficulty choosing from her favorites. Three feet tall, chubby-faced, she towered over the picture books she’d spread on the living room floor like a colorful hopscotch grid, her dirty blonde hair frizzing around her head in wild curls, her glasses cockeyed. “This one,” she kept saying. “No, this one!”
When do we begin to decide what books we love? At what point do we start choosing to read books about one subject, but not another?
There can be no argument anymore about the lesser affection in this country for books by and about subjects usually associated with women. The third VIDA: Women in Literary Arts count has been out for a while, and the 2012 numbers aren’t significantly different, overall, from the numbers for 2010 and 2011. Women are still seriously underrepresented in America’s most prestigious publications. Book reviewers are still mostly men, reading books by men, too. Last month, Meg Wolitzer criticized major booksellers and publishers for the part they play in undermining female authors. On Tuesday, Deborah Copaken Kogan detailed her “So-called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters” in a powerful essay in The Nation. As Kogan puts it,
It’s a proven fact, backed by simple math even my first grader can understand: the number of reviews of books by men is greater than the number of reviews of books by women; the number of male reviewers is greater than the number of female reviewers. Men, in other words, are still the arbiters of taste, the cultural gatekeepers, and the recipients of what little attention still gets paid to books.
Over and over, women writers’ stories reinforce what the VIDA count tells us about the state of American arts and letters. Things haven’t changed as much as we’d hoped they would.
And yet, things are changing, subtly, slowly. As VIDA notes, a small number of high-profile publications, such as Tin House, are, in fact, changing their practices. The same day that Kogan’s essay was posted on The Nation’s website, the New York Times announced that Pamela Paul would be replacing Sam Tanenhaus as the editor of The New York Times Book Review. Surely, with a woman in charge there, things will change. Or will they?
Every book my daughter laid out on the living room floor that night a few weeks ago was a book I had chosen carefully for her, because I believe that the stories I read to her at this age will help to construct her understanding of the world, her taste, her foundation for a whole life of reading. But I wonder what books the other kids brought to school. I wonder what they read at home, how much they do read. I bet the girls’ parents read them stories about boys, just like I do for my daughter. How could I raise a child without reading her Jack and the Beanstalk? Who doesn’t love the magical surprise of the beans, the alliterative villainy of fee, fi, fo, fum, and cheering for Jack when he chops down the stalk and fells the evil giant at the end? But how many parents think to read their sons books with female protagonists? Not traditional tales like Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel in which the title character is passive and/or disobedient, only to be miraculously rescued by a male hero at the end. But books like poet Matthea Harvey’s Cecil, the Pet Glacier in which a “normal little girl” inherits a not-so-normal pet on a trip with her oddball parents to Norway, a story in which the protagonist’s gender is beside the point. Or Mary Pope Osborne’s Kate and the Beanstalk, a beautifully illustrated retelling of the traditional tale in which the standard lazy male protagonist is replaced with a much more heroic female character, who seems an improvement upon the original.
If we really want to fix the problem of books by women being ghettoized and not taken as seriously as books by men, it’s not enough to read our daughters books about strong female characters. We need to begin reading our sons those books too, and encourage them to keep reading them as they get older. Because if we don’t, no matter what their teachers tell them, no matter how many books by and about women they encounter in school, they will have already learned the lesson, early on, that only Jack is interesting.