I have a confession to make. It will prove unpopular. I may be shunned by friends, family and colleagues. Especially English teaching colleagues.
I nearly outed myself a while back but could tell from the initial responses that it wouldn’t end well. On that occasion I had to pretend I was joking. There were suspicious looks from then on when the topic came up again.
The man below shared my secret. Unlike me he was more forthright in airing his peccadilloes, allowing himself to be exposed to ostracism. But he lived in a different age, I suppose. When different, now unacceptable, opinions were the norm. Nonetheless he, and other brave voices, have encouraged me to reveal my true self, to hide my duplicitous nature no longer.
The man is the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. And Vladimir Nabokov was willing to confess in public that he was exclusively ‘homosexual’ in his literary tastes.
I can contain my silence no longer. I must take the inevitable flak.
Yes, I too am a ‘homosexual’ reader.
Let me give you an example. Last night (I was bored; there was nothing on telly; I’m a sad individual) I tweeted a list of my Top Ten Russian Writers:
I’d decided not to count Nabokov himself as his great works were written in English. Receiving a response querying the absence of a certain Akhmatova from the list, I decided to look him up, as I’d never heard of him. I was somewhat embarrassed to discover that he was actually a she – Anna Akhmatova – described on her Wikipedia page as ‘one of the most acclaimed writers in the Russian canon’. See, my list was entirely male (as well as being entirely concerned with novelists and short story writers).
By now, I imagine many of you have decided to unfollow/mute/block/report me to the police. Let me first offer some mitigation for my crime.
I’m not really an exclusively ‘homosexual’ reader. Off the top of my head, I love/like/admire the work of the following poets:
- Sylvia Plath
- Stevie Smith
- Emily Dickinson
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- Dorothy Parker
- Denise Levertov
- Ruth Fainlight
- Jeni Couzyn
Indeed, I greatly enjoyed reading one of my A level lit texts The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets. Some of my best marks at uni came during a module I’d chosen to study on feminist poetry.
Some of my best friends… er, I mean… some of my favourite journalists/writers of non-fiction are female.
Caitlin Moran. Barbara Demick. Grace Dent. Lynn Barber. Marina Hyde. Victoria Coren-Mitchell There’ll be lots more I’ve forgotten.
So it seems that fiction is the problem. The root of where my confession truly lies…
But then I do, of course, love the work of some female novelists:
- Margaret Atwood
- The Brontës
- Sylvia Plath (again – she should be impressed with me)
- George Elliott
- Jane Austen
- Mary Shelly
- Maggie Gee
- Zoe Heller
- Jane Smiley
- Toni Morrison
- Jeanette Winterson
- Arundhati Roy
Yet a good amount of head-scratching, pen-tapping and shelf-studying was involved in the compilation of that list. It says a lot that it takes me, an obsessive reader of fiction, quite a while to come up with a dozen or so female authors from across the ages. (And some of those are based on just one book).
At this stage some of you will probably be outraged. Or feel sorry for me and my pathetically blinkered worldview. Before you report me to my headteacher, however, please let me make something very clear: I am NOT claiming that male writers are better than female writers. All I am saying, head above the fractious parapet of gender and literary criticism, is that I personally prefer reading novels written by men. That is it. There are probably many reasons for this and I don’t think any of them are in any way related to sexism or misogyny. I think it’s more linked to the way I relate to the authorial and narrative voice and the themes (such as, but not exclusively confined to, the masculine condition) contained therein.
And the big question I’m going to ask you all is… does this really matter? Should our primary, or even tertiary concern, when selecting books for our pupils to read – be it library books, Accelerated Reader suggestions, texts or extracts for study in class – ever be the gender of the person who wrote the book?
Chris Curtis has written more elegantly than I could on the irrelevance of representing society when choosing texts from the canon. I agree entirely that our main goal as teachers should be getting boys and girls reading lots of high quality texts, regardless of the gender of the author.
There is obviously an opposing argument to my contention. An argument that highlights the under-representation of female authors on awards lists and points to the patriarchal idiocy of the past that prevented the voices of excellent women writers being published. Perhaps I, in my reading habits, am part of this problem? Maybe I’ve been socialised, or have an innate yearning, to opt for the blokey book cover, in the same way my children – boys of three and five – grab the blue ball and shun the pink? Am I guilty of perpetuating this male domination of literature through the curriculum choices I make and the subconscious messages I give to my pupils when discussing the merit of literary texts.
I think not. If anything I tend to go down the other route, trying to guiltily force Austen on young lads who’d probably be much happier with a spot of Updike or Carver.
I’m sure you’ll let me know how wrong I am. You might even want to try to rehabilitate me. I’ll respond in time. Just let me finish my next chapter of the latest Andy McNabb.
Thanks for reading (if you made it this far),