President Obama, Read Whatever You Want

Salon.com recently published an op/ed written by a short-story author named Robin Black, titled “President Obama: Why don’t you read more women?” The piece, as you may surmise from its title, complains that President Obama’s vacation reading list is offensively light on female authors. Then, it devolves into one of those now all-too-familiar articles about what dolts we men readers are for not carefully monitoring our male/female author ratio. This piece in particular really got my blood boilin’, and so let’s take a look at some of Black’s arguments.

Right off the bat in this piece, Ms. Black sets a combative tone.

While there’s no way to know whether Hillary Clinton would have hung tougher than President Obama with those recalcitrant Republicans, here’s a safe bet — her summer reading list would have included a few more women authors than his.

So, the assumption here is that, because she’s a woman, Hillary Clinton would read more women authors. But isn’t that the same wrong-headed gender-biased logic Ms. Black is attempting to take Obama to task for? What we get here is your standard-issue double-standard. It’s okay if it’s a woman reading mostly (or just a “few more”? what’s the proper balance?) women writers, but it’s not okay when it’s a man reading mostly men writers. This is especially troubling given that, later, Black writes:

As I suspect Obama would agree, matters of prejudice are never entirely minor, even when their manifestations may seem relatively benign.

That’s true. But Ms. Black started her piece with the same matter of gender prejudice, i.e. that a woman would read more women. That’s not minor there either, right? Still, as I’ll contend later, none of this really matters all that much.

So let’s get down to the heart of the matter. Here’s what seems to be Ms. Black’s central thesis for why men don’t read women writers as much as they apparently should.

It is a well-known fact among those of us to whom this matters that while women read books written by men, men do not tend to reciprocate. The reasons for this imbalance are the subject of much speculation and little conclusion, but, simple as this may sound, it looks an awful lot to me like we think they are more interesting than they think we may turn out to be.

First of all, that first sentence is FAR from a fact. Case in point: me. I reciprocate. I read lots of women novelists, and actually, so do 99.9 percent of the male readers I know. But, secondly, Black’s point seems to be that men don’t read women because we find women boring. (Indeed, the subtitle of the article she links to as “proof” is: “Women are underrepresented in literary publishing because men aren’t interested in what they have to say.”) That subtitle specifically and Ms. Black’s central thesis in general are what almost shot me through the roof. This paragraph was the moment in the article when it began to feel less like a sophisticated discussion of reading preferences and more like an attack on male readers as knuckle-dragging neanderthals who have to be coaxed into listening to their women.

Look, here’s the rub: We read for fun, not to be fair. Regardless of the gender of the author, we read for enjoyment, not to make other people happy. Those are true whether you’re the leader of the free world or the purveyor of a lightly trafficked literary book blog. If some (but not all) male readers wind up reading more men writers than women, it’s probably for the same reason that some (but not all) women readers read more women writers than men. Maybe we can convince Malcolm Gladwell to write an article explaining that reason in more detail. But for now, I know this for sure: The reason is definitely not that a reader stands in a bookstore, prepares for a book purchase, but then makes one last check of the gender of the author to make sure it’s the “right” one.

Lastly, I couldn’t agree more with this:

Women authors write kick-ass books.

Of course they do. No one in their right mind would argue that point. Indeed, my favorite novel of the year is written by a woman (Ida Hattemer-Higgins’ The History of History). But I think it’s silly to suggest we all must be equal opportunity readers. So let’s all be cool, and read and let read.

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