He-she said / she-he said

So the Hobgoblin wrote yesterday about a talk we had on gender and reading, a topic I think is very interesting but complicated enough to drive you crazy if you spend a lot of time thinking about it. There are two problems with the topic – one is that it’s really, really hard if not impossible to say meaningful things about gender differences in reading since men and women are so complex and causality is hard to figure out. If there are differences, where do they come from? The other problem is that it’s hard to talk about gender differences without seeming to reinforce them. To talk about “women’s” ways of reading and “men’s” ways of reading is perhaps to make it sound like all women read one way and all men another. And the same is true when you talk about men’s and women’s writing.

I’d prefer not to believe in any differences at all, but if one’s social training and status in society affect one’s reading, which it seems like they must, then one’s gender does affect one’s reading somehow.

But the Hobgoblin was talking about something a little bit different – not how men and women might actually differ in their reading, but about how we might think they differ in their reading: the types of reading that might get labeled “feminine” and “masculine” based on our stereotypes of femininity and masculinity. Here’s where it gets fun, because the Hobgoblin and I tend to disagree on our reading, and it often seems like our differences come from our different takes on emotion – emotion in the book itself and in our response as readers. And he tends to talk in emotional terms and respond to emotion in books in ways that I don’t, and in ways that seem stereotypically “feminine.” I, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more analytical, which seems stereotypically “masculine.” So I guess we’re undermining the stereotypes just by existing, which I think is pretty cool. I hate discussing these stereotypes, even when my point is to undermine them, but it’s true that traditionally women have been associated with the heart and men with the brain, and I don’t think such associations disappear from our thinking all that quickly.

But to call me analytical and him emotional doesn’t capture the true picture at all. Because I’m not heartless and he’s not without analytical power. For him, I think his analysis of books begins with an emotion. And a feeling about a book is a great place to start – it can lead to insights that are deep and rich. Here, Mary Wollstonecraft helps me out: she says “we reason deeply, when we forcibly feel.” For me, emotion is a complicated thing that I tend to be analytical about. I have immediate gut reactions to things, but somehow I need to process those reactions and so I end up thinking about and talking about – getting analytical about – feeling.

We disagree a bit on Nabokov. The Hobgoblin says that “Lolita is quite an impassioned narrative, but there still seems to be some sort of distance that the author places between himself (since all of our examples at this point are men) and the story.” Yes, but … there’s distance between the narrator and the story, but that doesn’t exclude emotion. I find Nabokov’s passion about language exhilarating, and I respond to that with feeling. Actually, this has changed a bit over time – when I first read Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, I found him cold too. I read it again, however, and had a completely different response. This time I got caught up in the word play and the intelligence and exuberance of it, and loved it.

When the Hobgoblin and I discuss our differences in reading, I find myself in a funny position because, as the supposedly more analytical one, the stereotypically “male” one, I have this fear I might sound like I’m dismissive of his “female” emotionalism. I argue for my own interpretation of Nabokov and in doing so might imply that his is too simple or not thoughtful enough, not analytical enough. I think this fear stems from my awareness that people in our culture tend to privilege the intellectual response over the emotional one – and, to the extent we think they are associated, the “male” response over the “female” one. So I’m in the position of being a woman reading in a way our culture tends to value, one that is associated with masculinity, critiquing a man reading as a “woman,” in an emotional way our culture tends to belittle.

But I don’t think one approach is right and the other wrong, and I don’t think the Hobgoblin’s way of reading is simple and mine is complex. They are just different ways of connecting thought and feeling, mind and heart. I think it’s unfortunate that academics and intellectuals tend to mistrust emotion, and I also think there are many ways of being an emotional person – some of which involve a heavy use of the brain.

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