Sherwood Smith January 9th, 2009
Some savvy writers were discussing the New Yorker article about teen reading.
The usual denigrating points were made about young adult literature not being literature to those who don’t actually read it, but that’s SOP.
More of interest to me was this quote:
MISHAN: Teen-age boys don’t read, apparently. As Caitlin Flanagan writes in [Atlantic Monthly], an adolescent girl “is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.”
Not long ago I was reading some seventeenth century letters and essays that dealt with this very subject. Alarm! Girls of that tender age, just before marriage, are devouring novels! Oh noes, it’s the end of the world! Girls are also writing reams of letters to their friends about same novels. Charlotte Lennox wrote her Female Quixote to make a statement about this very danger, but it ends up too preachy for most modern readers to enjoy. Jane Austen did a far better job in the first half of Northanger Abbey when she depicts two young women talking passionately about reading–and then comes that brilliant discussion of novels, why they are unjustly (and hypocritically) condemned, whereas fictional but pompous speeches put in the mouths of historical figures are considered respectable and worthy.
My exploration into the history of female writers has led me to two conclusions: that with the rise of literacy young women especially were reading, dreaming, scribbling long letters as they found like-minded companions, writing their own poetry and novels (and fan fiction), in an effort not just to satisfy those emotional and spiritual cravings, but to better their lives. Everyone wanted a better life, for whatever definition of better fit. The reading and writing of letters et al was a way of trying out the ideas, inventing scenarios, in a pleasurable way. Certainly more pleasurable than sitting with one’s hands folded and back straight, listening to long hectoring sermons about Female Duty.
It seems to me that despite all predictions of the death of literacy that young women now, with perhaps more liberties than ever before, are still reading. Are they reading for the same reasons their foremothers did?
The article goes on about teen boys’ reading. Some maintain they don’t read, with few exceptions–with one person saying, …Those men end up joining the bourgeoisie in two ways: law school and untouched home libraries full of leather-bound Shakespeare. which I think says more about the speaker than about teen boys who read angsty and angry poetry, or listen to same in musical form.
I think the article is dead wrong to assume that boys don’t read. Speaking as a junior high and high school teacher for 20 years, I found that, as in my youth, when my male peers devoured comics (which were dismissed as trash) a lot of boys’ reading passes under authoritarian radar. Many boys read non-fiction, complicated game manuals, all kinds of material lying outside the purview of those Summer Reading Lists chockfull of earnest books deemed Good For You.
There’s another possibility, and that’s that many boys aren’t seen reading—they don’t make it a social act as do so many girls. Do boys read for different reasons than girls?
I read the Atlantic Monthly article quoted above, but except for a couple of points, found it disappointing. The writer gave a vivid example of reading to learn the “how tos” of life, but I really think that point is a given for all young folk. Her “I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me” was certainly daunting.
My feeling is that, just as tastes vary not only from person to person but in a single person over time, so does the experience of reading. Is it possible that girls are more likely to make reading a social act rather than a solitary one? A social and creative act? Because what first drew me to reading about the history of the novel, specifically the early novels of the 1600s and the rise of the salons, was how women swiftly organized themselves as soon as they found one another and a shared venue for expression.
Here are some quick impressions from my own non-academic and entirely sporadic reading.
The Renaissance brought about a revival in learning, with an especial focus on classical literature. The Renaissance contributed not just new ideas, but a new paradigm–the idea that the world could be different. From monarch to middle class, the use of classical vocabulary gave you style points–meanwhile, the content of the classics led to extrapolations in various forms of writing about what the ideal world could be . . . which in turn led to ideas about what the ideal man could be. Of course this “man” was assumed to be literate, and Castiglione exhorted in his book of social climbing, The Courtier, “He must be of noble birth.”
But though the language of classical literature was male, guess who else was reading? With the spread of wealth came leisure time, and as women had been denied much involvement in seignorial concerns, they turned to books. Women read, talked, penned reams of letters.
In the 1600s Madame Scud?ry’s novels were not just romances, but long conversations and careful details about courtly behavior. A lot of those conversations were published separately in the latter part of the century as manners manuals. They were meant to depict an ideal of civilized life–but eager young women read them in hopes of emulating those up the ranks, to better their lives.
Meanwhile, Louis XIII’s court was so uncouth that a remarkable woman named Madame Rambouillet opened her house in 1618, and for three decades the haut French courtiers and literati came to her place, instead of the king’s court, to speak about refined love, and other polite subjects. She designed the ruelles, or alcoves, which were to become a standard of most salons; at first made so that the temperature of the room could be controlled, these intimate little partial rooms appealed so strongly that other hostesses raced to make their own.
The definition of public and private was changing. To be private, and intimate, among chosen people, was also to be exclusive. Madame du Deffand, a famous salonniere of the mid-18th Century, took eighteen months to design and furnish her place, to a very specific design. No detail was deemed too trivial; the buttercup yellow silk wallpaper in her entertainment rooms was copied by most wannabe salonnieres throughout Europe.
What did all this mean? The romance is tied up in the betterment of life–the happy ending if all live up to a standard. Unfortunately, the focus here was the betterment of an exclusive society, rather than the betterment of all. Or rather, the two things conflicted, which caused rifts among women publishing in the years before the Revolution. Not surprisingly aristos wanted to hold onto power and privilege, and women born lower down on the totem pole felt that civilization ought to benefit all.
During the patriarchal nineteenth century, there was one calling where women could hold their own with men: reading—and writing.
It’s interesting to me, watching the remarkable organization of fanzine fandom (specifically fan fiction) over the past thirty years, done mostly by women. What’s going on underneath fanfic? A whole lot of stuff. Women writers exploring sexual questions is usually the first thing brought up (or mudball slung); but there is so much more going on—including the notion of transformative story. Are our attitudes toward story, ownership, creativity, and the meaning of ‘author’ changing?