Do men read books by women? Do men read books about women? The answer, as Slate's Ester Bloom says, is "sure." To point to just the most obvious example: you don't sell as many books as J.K. Rowling does without appealing to men, women, and children of all ages.
A more interesting question, then, might be, why do men read books by and/or about women? The question comes up, perhaps, because we often think of identity and art as intertwined. Women, in theory, read Twilight to see themselves in Bella; men read Ian Fleming to see themselves in James Bond.
There's no doubt truth to that—but it rather elides the fact that lots of women have read Ian Fleming over the years, and a fair number of guys (like me) have read Twilight. So what do people get from books that aren't marketed to them, or aren't about them?
Part of the answer is simple enough—men and women aren't, or don't have to be, all that different. Lots of women enjoy shooting the bad guys with James Bond; I can identify quite easily with Bella's feelings of isolation, depression, and romantic angst. Men aren't from Mars and women aren't from Venus; we're both from Earth, and as such it's not all that hard to talk to each other.
But if similarity can be engaging, so can difference. For me, and I'd guess for a lot of men, part of the appeal of reading women writers is precisely the chance to know, or to be, someone else. Just as women are often fascinated by men, men—of whatever sexual orientation—are often quite interested in women. I know women read and enjoy Pride and Prejudice, too. But as far as I'm concerned, Jane Austen wrote is so guys like me can fall in love not just with Elizabeth's eyes or even with her wit, but with her whole self there on the page. Same with Dorothea in Middlemarch, or Dana in Kindred. If you're interested in how women think and feel—and what guy isn't interested in that?—then the best place to go is to books by women.
Books by female writers aren't just the best place to go to learn about women, though. They're also often the best place to go to learn about men. Take the passage below from Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Diagetically it's spoken by Estraven, an alien hermaphrodite, but it's also pretty clearly Le Guin's own half-loving, half-bemused tribute to masculinity and men.
There is a frailty about him. He is all unprotected, exposed, vulnerable, even to his sexual organ, which he must carry always outside himself; but he is strong, unbelievably strong. I am not sure he can keep hauling any longer than I can, but he can haul harder and faster than I—twice as hard.... To match his frailty and strength, he has a spirit easy to despair and quick to defiance: a fierce, impatient courage. This slow, hard crawling work we have been doing these days wears him out in body and will, so that if he were one of my race I should think him a coward, but he is anything but that; he has a ready bravery I have never seen the like of.
Not all portraits of men by women are so forgiving. Joanna Russ in The Female Man, for example, gleefully imagines clawed women castrating men ("I don't give a damn whether it was necessary or not....I liked it") Susan Brownmiller, in Against Our Will, less hyperbolically settles for an ode to the joys of kicking men in the balls.
But why should aggression against men put off a male audience? As that insightful female writer Susie Bright says, "Most men are disgusted with other men." Male competitiveness with other males, not to mention male contempt for other males, powers a huge amount of narratives by and for men, from Hamlet to Superman's clashes with Lex Luthor to The Great Gatsby. Men love misandry in their art—and who better to provide it to them than female writers?
For men, then, books by women provide a pleasurable familiarity, a window onto other perspectives, and a chance to see both their strengths and their weaknesses through others eyes. None of which sounds all that different from what any book provides to anyone.
And yet, acknowledging that female writers have something particular to offer to male readers seems like it's worth doing for several reasons. In the first place, as Bloom writes, the belief that men won't read women tends to close down opportunities for those female writers, and to marginalize their work. Moreover, that same belief can also close down opportunities for male readers. Women are allowed, and even encouraged, to identify with James Bond, but men who identify with Bella or with Susan Brownmiller open themselves up to ridicule. To assert that women authors have something to offer men, then, is not just to say that a man can read Jane Austen and still be a man. It's to say that to read Jane Austen is one way that a man can be a man.
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