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Misogyny at the Book Club

August 5, 2013

So, I co-organize a book club. We’re a Meetup group, open to anyone. It was not our group originally; we inherited it from a friend when she moved out of town, and she had likewise inherited it from another person when that person moved away. But we work hard to keep it friendly, to keep people engaged and make sure everyone’s voice is heard in book selections, and keep the books we discuss to actually be discussion-worthy. Sometimes we fail on that point, but usually, even if not everyone likes the book, we can have a decent discussion. The way we choose books is as follows: People who attend the meeting make suggestions. Our criteria for books are that they be approximately 350 pages or less (though we’re not always hard and fast on that one), and that they either be out in paperback or at least less than $15 in hardcover on Amazon. This keeps them short enough for busy people to read in a month’s time and affordable enough that if you can’t get a copy at the library, buying a copy won’t break the bank. My co-organizer narrows the field to 5 books and puts them up in a poll on the Meetup site. We notify the entire Meetup. About 5% of the members vote. (We have over 300 members, of which I’d say 90% have never even been to one meeting, which is typical of Meetup groups, I find. We have maybe 10 real regulars, and by regulars I don’t even mean people who come every month; we have maybe 4 or 5 of those.) The book with the most votes as of the next meeting wins. If there’s a tie, we do one of 3 things: we have two groups the next time, each group reading one of the books, or the people at the previous meeting get to choose which one they’d prefer, or the co-organizers pick the one they’d prefer. It is a pretty fair way of deciding, I think, and we read an interesting selection of books. For reference, here’s the list of books we’ve read in the past year:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: a nonfiction book about science and racism and medical ethics
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: A Man Booker Prize winner from a few years ago, a short novel about a middle-aged British man reflecting on his childhood and unraveling current and past mysteries (and discovering himself as he currently exists)
  • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami: a typical Murakami book, weird and disturbing and filled with magical realism, about sex and time travel and murder and beheading cats and alternate dimensions
  • The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling: the Harry Potter author’s first novel for adults, all about how the death of a city councilman affects all of the deep dark hidden secrets of a tiny British village
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: a rather famous nonfiction book about how famously intelligent/inventive individuals get where they are and the factors that influence excellence in life and business
  • The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux: a trio of novellas on the theme of foreigners’ interactions with natives in India, for the good and the bad (but mostly the bad)
  • Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan: a novel from the famous author about a low-level British spy who falls in love with her mark and the complicated ethical line she walks and the fallout in their relationship when he finds out the truth
  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed: a nonfiction memoir about a young woman who decides to hike the entire Pacific Coast Trail (the wilder, longer, harder version of the more well-known Appalachian Trail) by herself, with practically no wilderness training/experience, in order to rediscover herself and heal from the wounds caused by her mother’s untimely death and her divorce from the man she loved
  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: the first in a famous novel series that has been adapted for TV by HBO, establishing the characters and the world and the political intrigues in a medieval fantasy kind of setting
  • The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom: a modern-day fable from a famous author about the value of time and not attaching too much importance to counting it
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs: a young adult novel that is part spooky, part fantastical about a teenager who discovers he is “peculiar” in the same way as his grandfather and that there are other peculiar people out there with their own talents – and the fate of the world may rest on all of their shoulders
  • Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer: a book about space exploration and dying and alopecia and autism and young love and poverty and the suburbs and robots and generally just Being Different (and the book that inspired the incident that inspired this post)

I think that’s a pretty diverse group. I didn’t love them all, but I read a number of books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, and discovered a couple that I liked a lot as a result. Which is why I was really pissed off this morning when I read a comment from a member on the site this morning that said, “Sigh. Another month, another chick book.” Um…WTF?! Here are the thoughts that went through my mind immediately:

  1. This book is NOT a chick book!
  2. Why does he think it’s a chick book? Has he read it? Or is he just assuming based on the cover or a description he read or the fact that it’s written by a woman and has a female protagonist?
  3. What the hell IS a chick book? Are there books that this guy presumes can only be enjoyed by women?
  4. Why is that a prevailing thought? Why do we have the somewhat derogatory term “chick lit” but there’s no male equivalent? Why can guys scoff at “chick lit” but ladies are expected to respect or even enjoy “dude lit” (for lack of a better term BECAUSE THERE IS NO EQUIVALENT TERM)?
  5. This guy has been a member of the Meetup group for a year and NEVER EVEN ATTENDED A MEETING of this group. Why does he think he gets to comment on our book selections?
  6. ARGH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

someecards.com - I'm sorry you find my feminism Possibly more infuriating or baffling was the female member who replied to his post with a “And how!” comment. I am so puzzled. She only recently joined and hasn’t come to a meeting yet, so I guess I can give that a pass…

I’m still pissy about it. I wrote a reply asking him if he’d read the book and for his reasons why he called it a “chick book”, and I suggested he come to a meeting to suggest books and also be sure to vote on the poll every month if he wants to influence the selections. I also listed the last 3 months of books to demonstrate that even if he thinks this is a “chick book” for some reason, we certainly don’t choose one like it every time.

I really shouldn’t be wasting this much energy on this, I guess, but since he posted his comment publicly, I don’t want it to influence potential members who are perusing the site or to discourage current members who just didn’t get a chance to read this book this month from ever reading it (particularly because it’s a book I really, really like). But I am really more pissed off at the societal construct I noted in #4 of my list above where something about/by/for women is somehow less than or easily dismissed. Why is a book written by a woman, written about a woman, enjoyed by women somehow not good enough for reading and discussion? Why is it any less important or less complex or less interesting than a book written by a man, about a man and/or enjoyed by men? I know the answer is that it’s NOT less important or less good, but why do so many people think that? Why do EVEN WOMEN act dismissive in that way?

What do you think? Am I overreacting? Do you have ALL THE THOUGHTS on this issue like I do? If so, please share!

12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2013 2:09 pm

    I can see why you’re annoyed. I do think of certain books as “chick lit”–the Bridget Jones books are an example– but I like this genre (if it truly is a genre). I think that some people categorize any book that is written by a woman, or that is told from a female point of view as chick lit, and that’s just wrong. People who think that way are depriving themselves of the experience of reading some really great books. Maybe this guy needs to join the Tom Clancy book club.

    • August 5, 2013 2:17 pm

      I like chick lit as well. Not for book club per se, but in general I have enjoyed a number of chick-littish books. But why isn’t there terminology for a male equivalent? The Tom Clancy novels may fit the bill, but they get to just be “thrillers” or something instead of guy lit (or, as I’ve heard others call it, “dick lit”). And WHY is it acceptable to be dismissive of one but not the other? Those are my issues more than the fact that he would incorrectly label a book as chick lit when it’s not. He just dredged up all of my feelings about the subject with his comment.

  2. August 5, 2013 5:03 pm

    This is a perfect example of what I think is keeping “feminism” from moving forward. Feminists have done great and powerful and important work in paving paths that allow it to be ok in society for a woman to do whatever a man can do. But, we’re at a bit of a standstill I think and still a long way from where we need to be.

    In my opinion, the problem is that it will never go forward unless and until the day comes when it is also accepted in society for a man to do whatever a woman can do. Why is it now ok for women to wear pants in public, but a man in a skirt is “being girly” as if “girly” is a derogatory term? (Or, just as bad, he’s “gay”… but that’s not exactly on point here, so I won’t get started on that topic.) Baby girls can get dressed in blue without a second thought, but to put a boy in a pink shirt is just beyond reproach – people might think he’s a girl! Would it be so bad? What the hell is wrong with being a girl, thankyouverymuch?!

    This is just a tiny sample of a plethora of examples of how it’s ok for a woman to strive to be manly (because manliness is strength and to be commended), but it’s not ok for a man to be like a woman in any way (because womanliness is weakness and is to be avoided… it’s even frowned upon at times for a woman to express womanliness). I could go on all day on this topic – I completely understand your feelings on this!!

    • August 5, 2013 5:06 pm

      THIS THIS THIS THIS ALL OF THIS. God, I love you Christine – we are totally on the same page. That’s EXACTLY what I mean.

    • August 7, 2013 11:02 am

      I was about to comment and then I realized that you so perfectly summed up my thoughts that there was nothing left to do but tell you how awesome you both are. I love book clubs but dread the thought of having to slog through…what IS the implied opposite of chick books? High brow? Intellectual? Incredibly insulting. I think the selection of books above is diverse and commendable, btw.

      • August 10, 2013 9:02 am

        Thanks for stopping by, Meridith! I poked around your blog (having had that on my mental to-do list since Becky’s post earlier this week) and you have been added to my Feedly now :)

  3. August 8, 2013 11:25 am

    Sexism is still rampant, and patriarchy is disguised by individual examples of women who have excelled against all odds. Perhaps we can replace “chick” with something that rhymes but starts with ‘d’ for the male equivalent? I think there are plenty of books written by men about life from a male perspective that demonstrate that men still prize their maleness (and genitalia) as supreme over femaleness or anything like it. Novelist Jennifer Weiner has written about this extensively, especially about literary critics using the same sexist framework as your ignorant commenter: see, for example, http://www.salon.com/2013/08/07/jennifer_weiner_was_right_whats_the_difference_between_chick_lit_and_literary_fiction/.

    • August 10, 2013 10:01 am

      I’d absolutely agree that some books are intended to be more commercial – brain candy, I call them – while some are more serious or written at a higher reading level or take more effort to read thoroughly. Some can be taken at face value while others have to be analyzed to get the full experience (or even to understand the book at all, in some cases). I have no issue with that, and I enjoy a mix of the two in my own personal reading life. I probably most enjoy books that walk the line in-between – books with strong characters, good complexity, situations that really say something about our world, with interesting and/or beautiful language, but that aren’t particularly difficult to parse. I think Weiner falls slightly to the commercial side of that line, while the book that prompted this discussion falls slightly to the literary side of the line, and I have read and enjoyed both. Neither is better than the other; they’re just different. And to dismiss a book based on…what? The author’s name? The fact that the protagonist is a woman? The cover? and dismissing it specifically as a “chick book” gets so very under my skin, especially when I’m 99% sure the dismisser did not read the book and would likely not have anything derogatory to say about, say, the Game of Thrones selection (which is more of the guy lit commercial fiction).

      We talked about this guy’s comment at our book club meeting, which was comprised of 3 men and 5 women. Everyone agreed this book is not “chick lit” by the universally understood definition, and that even if it had been, this guy’s comment was annoying and out of line. But even with that agreement, we still had one woman saying, “Well, we are a majority of women; maybe we do vote for too many books that appeal to women,” which is another part of the problem to me. Why are even women ashamed of the fact that they are women, as though that’s less valuable than being a man or having the input of men? Above, Christine got right to the heart of the thing that is making me nuts about all of this and about our world in general, which is that our language and our cultural values still say women are weaker, dumber, lesser and men are stronger, smarter, more. And since I had a baby girl, all of this fires me up about 1000 times more than it did before. I fussed at my husband last fall, shortly after M. was born, about yelling at the football players on our TV screen, calling them pussies or girls as an insult. It was one thing when it was just me; I know that he doesn’t really mean it that way, isn’t thinking of it that way and definitely does not believe that women are weaker or worse in any way; it’s just the common language of our world. But M. doesn’t know any of that yet. She will hear it, of course, because she’ll have to go out into the world and see movies and hear other people talk. But I don’t think her father should contribute to that subconscious narrative. And once I explained to him what I heard when he said such things, I don’t think I’ve heard him say it again. If only the rest of the world could hear and understand that message.

  4. comrade permalink
    August 11, 2013 2:33 am

    Forgive me: I admittedly did not read every comment. However, I felt compelled to state that perhaps the reason this guy’s comments are offensive is precisely because he has obviously not followed your reading group, the group’s intentions, and has no understanding nor commitment to it. He simply made a stupid comment to get a rise with no intention or courage to actually substantiate them in person. By giving him as much attention that you have, so much so that I happened to come across this blog via goodreads and your comments on the book “Wild” – a book I did not like at all – I find myself commenting about his unproductive comments and have contributed to his shenanigans. I would not worry about such clownish comments, as they do nothing to contribute to yours and the group’s goals. Keep up the good work with your community. They surelt appreciate it!

    • com permalink
      August 11, 2013 2:45 am

      Make that “Devil in the White City” instead of “Wild”. (I really liked the former…) And also, the last sentence should read, “They surely appreciate it!”

      • com permalink
        August 11, 2013 2:54 am

        I can’t believe what I wrote earlier disappeared. Oh well. It was totally supportive of your cause, with genuine attempts to state that you need not worry about some clownish comments made by someone who obviously has no understanding nor respect for your organization. Keep up the good work and do not worry about such unproductive, foolish comments made by this guy. Your group is surely generating much more positive returns than some silly, thoughtless comment. Keep up your good work. Surely your book club community appreciates it!

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