Thursday, April 06, 2006

Pen envy?

Ian Hocking, at his very thoughtful This Writing Life blog, mentions that Haruki Murakami has won the Franz Kafka prize (but not just because he put the word 'Kafka' in the title of his last novel, honest). I'd vaguely heard about this a few weeks ago, but hadn't realised the significance; the two previous winners were Elfriede Jelinek and Harold Pinter, both of whom went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

So will HM get the nod? I think it's unlikely. He's become a bit trendy of late, with the likes of Thom Yorke singing his praises. In Japan, his appeal is defiantly middlebrow, a bit like Nick Hornby. But what do I know?

One other thing that may count against him is that admiration for Murakami seems to be a bit of a bloke thing. Not in an Andy McNab sense of course; more like Salinger or Camus, neurotic boy outsiders, yearning from the sidelines (although, as I've said before, there's also an element of fantasy fulfilment in the kooky, pretty girls who always seem to be on hand to offer sympathy handjobs).

This is significant, according to research carried out by Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary College, London. They asked 500 men about "the fiction that had changed their lives" and discovered that L'Etranger, The Catcher In The Rye and Slaughterhouse Five topped the list. Hardly a discovery of seismic proportions, but the conclusions drawn by Jardine and Watkins are interesting, and I use the word advisedly.

Contrasting the male list with a comparative study of female reading (which threw up the equally groundbreaking analysis that women prefer the Brontës and Jane Austen), Professor Jardine described it as "angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading." She went on to claim that "men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life's journey, as consolers or guides, as women do... they read novels a bit like they read photography manuals."

Not having read a photography manual in my life, I can't really comment. Not that I'd be able to get a word in edgeways, it seems. ""What I find extraordinary is the hold the male cultural establishment has over book prizes like the Booker for instance, and in deciding what is the best," continues Jardine. "This is completely at odds with their lack of interest in fiction. On the other hand, the Orange prize for fiction is still regarded as ephemeral. On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction. This should have some impact on the book trade. There was a moment when car manufacturers realised that it was women who bought the family car, and the whole industry changed. We need fiction publishers - many of whom are women - to go through the same kind of recognition."

Apart from wondering whether the piles of candy-pink chicklit that threaten to engulf me whenever I enter a bookshop are some kind of hallucination, might I hazard the suggestion that Professor Jardine is twisting her findings to suit her own prejudices? From an early age, boys are pressured to believe that reading is 'for girls'. They are as much victims of social conditioning as their female counterparts; as one of Jardine's respondents puts it, "Depending on whether you read Alcott's Little Women or Kafka's Metamorphosis at 15, your reading paths are bound to diverge later on." The fact (if it is a fact) that men don't start reading fiction until middle age is surely an opportunity for the publishing industry to get men reading, rather than to rebrand itself as a women-only club. And doesn't the existence of gender-defined prizes, or other ghetto awards, just offer the Booker judges the excuse to overlook women? We can leave her off the shortlist, they reason; she'll have her chance with the Orange. Sorry, did I mention that the women-only Orange prize is a co-sponsor of Professor Jardine's report? Funny, that.

Yes, sexism still exists, despite decades of feminism, and yes women are paid less than men and the streets aren't safe and there are never enough women's loos at gig venues. Agreed. But what are men supposed to do? Absent themselves from the whole debate? Commit to 150 pages of Middlemarch every day until they're enlightened? Burn the Salinger and Hemingway paperbacks they've clung to since they were teenagers? Stop reading? (Although, according to the good professor, we've done that already.) Stop writing?

Because, despite all the iniquities that women face in modern life, to argue that their preferences are not well served by the fiction publishing industry is - if I might be permitted to appropriate some shamefully gender-specific language - bollocks.


The Great Swifty said...

I agree, I think Haruki Murakami is not just a middlebrow writer, he's pretty overrated too. Guy's rather mediocre, in my opinion. Here's a piece about him and Elephant Vanishes I've just posted.

GreatSheElephant said...

As with any kind of generalisation about gender, race etc this completely misses out on the rich diversity of human life. I happen to like Murakami a lot and the only people I know who have finished Cryptonomicon are women (me included). On the other hand I don't know any women who read chick lit.

Of course I might be a bloke in a pinny. But it seems unlikely.

Tim Footman said...

I don't know anyone who reads chick lit. But someone must do. (I can't imagine it's the kind of thing people buy solely to look intelligent, without reading it.)