Friday, May 20, 2005

Meta-Course Discussion

I've been enjoying a meta-discussion about our course with a class-fellow. There are few greater blessings for an Instructor than a collegial back-&-forth about the nature and direction of a current course with one of its members.
Blog comment sections are ideal for all sorts of converse: I'm posting the thread here in case anyone else wishes to join the enagagement.

K.] I'm just writing about the David Sexton article. I'm still very confused about this whole gap between male and female reading patterns. I've been reading rabidly from a very young age, and I really have never noticed such a huge gap in the things my girl friends and guy friends read .... I've made ! many friends who are also readers, and I still don't see a huge difference in what they read. None of my female friends read "female books" about what Sexton calls "love and family". I understand the difference between chick lit and lad lit, but I don't think it can be easily applied to everyone.
Villette is neither chick lit or lad lit. It's written by a woman, but as you said in class, it's universal. It's about "love and family", but also about "sex and violence". Unless we're talking about what women and men are "supposed" to be interested in? If the book marketing world wishes to apply the terms chick lit and lad lit, aren't they also applying prescriptives as to what they think each gender should read and be interested in? Also, just because there are such things as chick lit and lad lit does not mean that the differences in what each gender likes to be entertained by is purely biological. I think these differences (as they do exist, but not, it seems, in my social circle!) could definitely arise out of expectations on each gender. aybe I'm totally missing something, but it's been very hard to relate the differences to my own experience.

S.] Well, as you know, our business is academic research: by nature descriptive, not prescriptive, so there is no "should" built into what we are doing. As for publishing Houses, it is possible that they have prescriptive intentions. That is an empirical question: in other words, before an academic could remark on it, a formal research project would be required. (A journalist, by contrast, will write or say whatever opinion happens to be wafting across his or her mind at any given time.)

However, insofar as I understand capitalism, it does not seem to have a moral component: that is, free-market capitalists want to maximise profits and will try to match product and market without reference to what "should" happen. As you know, the amorality of free-market capitalism is one charge familiarly laid against it by its opponents.

Here are some of the research constants that I have for our term-long experiment. One, that there are in fact two acknowledged genres called chick-lit and lad-lit. Two, that the fiction in the two genres have exclusive qualities - in other words, research will show that chick-lit, for instance, has some set of qualities that lad-lit doesn't (or, more likely, will have significant;y different proportions of shared qualities) and vice-versa. Three, that the readerships will differ by proportion by sex, but not be exclusive. In other words, romance literature is read primarily by women, but some men read it and some women won't like it. In fact, I would hypothesize that although the majority of readers of chick-lit are women, the majority of the population of women readers don't read chick lit. And four, that the sex of the author is indifferent to the genre: to speak broadly, Ann Radcliffe writes lad-lit and Nick Hornby writes chick-lit. These are important constants in response to your discussion -- & number three is that kind of fundamental but subtle distinction that can tend to mislead.

Regarding Villette in particular, assume that the conclusion of our research is correct - that Bronte's novel matches criteria of chick-lit: plot and performative "action-&-adventure" are de-emphasised; it contains a preponderance of dialogue and reflective character decription and analysis; it follows the Darwinian sexual selection model in a form that a female protagonist choses between rival competing males (who also, on my additional theory, form the Cad-Curate-Colin Firth trichotomy); etc. That allowed, because of its masterful quality, it will have appeal broader than the usual genre readership.

Now we need to note in this regard that we are talking about two different clas! ses of readership. The members of the class of readers who enjoy literary masterpieces will -- it is argued -- contain proportionally few members of the class who like popular romance fiction. The latter class will find Villette tough sledding. One theory of my own is that what popular fiction (like, mutatis mutandis, popular music) does is take any one main element of a literary masterpiece and make that the unvaried entirety of the pop work. Thus, Disco music was one single beat & rhythm from funk, isolated and repeated - ad nauseum!

Ergo, chick-lit has isolated some few major elements from works such as Villette and is selling them to a mass market. And by "mass market" one means "a large number of a particular class or quality of reader." This, then, is why I am saying that our course has a print culture component.

Lastly, am I correct in configuring your comments as what I described in lecture as an essentialist approach to the two genres? That is to say, you are opposed to the contention that chick-lit and lad-lit have qualities that are essentially for men and essentially for women by nature of their biological differences? That is probably what attracted Arts & Letters Daily to the Sexton article. If that is in fact the background to your addressment, then might you wish to do your term paper on that approach? As for the lectures, as I mentioned are taking alternatively a genetic and a functionalist approach to understanding the two genres. That is, we are exploring a historical arc for chick-lit & lad lit and we are looking at the ways in which the two genres are configured as market entities in the print culture.

K.] I am opposed to the essentialist view, yes. I don't know what you would call my view, but you could say what it isn't....and that's definitely that I don't think there are essential female qualities or essential male qualities. I think there are biological givens (guys have testosterone, girls have estrogen and oxytocin, etc....guys don't have babies, girls do, etc.), so that it isn't totally "tabula rasa", but I think these givens take a back seat to cultural experience. I think that a person's experiences and environments are imprinted on their body, psyche, personality, etc..
And I understand that there is no "should" in our research. I'm just saying that there are "shoulds" in many places in society, including the publishing companies, etc..
I totally understand the differences in chick lit and lad lit, in terms of the different styles of writing and the different occurences that take place in each form, although it's harder for me to see Villette as purely chick lit because it existed prior to the marketing terms. It seems like the terms themselves have given way to a certain prescriptive type of writing style. I think that the writing caters to those who would like to keep the genders distinct, with their own assigned roles, their own proper and acceptable conduct, etc.. I know it's not so blatant like the book you brought last class, but it's much more subtle (though possibly not all the time!). So, while I'm totally fascinated with the study of chick lit and lad lit, I'm also a bit disturbed that the distinction is there in the first place. I'm not saying that it "shoudn't" exist, only that it tells us a lot about what's going on in the world.
If writing that is aggressive and violent and sexual is only meant for males, then what do females experience when they feel these things or are attracted to them, but are told that they are not appropriate for their gender? And vice versa -- if writing that is based on family and cultivating love and friendships is meant for females, then what do males experience when they are told that these things are not appropriate for them to be concerned with? I have many guy friends who are more maternal than some of my girl friends, but they sometimes hide these maternal qualities when they are around other guys. And the same is true of some of my girl friends, who act more "girly" when they are around other females. It's like there's a certain code to be followed, and if you don't follow it in some circles, you are looked down upon.
Isn't there also a Darwin-like selection model in lad lit, though, other words, instead of cad-curate-collin firth....there's bitch-angel(i.e.pure sexless mother figure)-sex kitten (sorry, i lost the alliteration!) :) ?? I'm not as much certain about these figures in lad lit, but I know for certain they exist in movies and tv shows. There's many movies where the guy has to pick a girlfriend, and he has to decide if he wants a nice good girl he can bring home to the parents, the crazy half-psycho witch girl, or the seductress. Or the main guy figure has these sorts of female figures around him, and they each seem to pose their own specific benefits/problems, pros/cons, etc..
And what about the travel writing of the 19th century, much of it aimed at a female readership?....and this writing was chiefly about exciting happenings during the author's travels, etc.. Where would that fit in?
I really like your theory about popular artefacts (lit, music, etc.) focusing on one element of a lit masterpiece. However, I think Shakespeare was considered popular and even vulgar in his time, but he became the "head of the canon" so to speak. Regardless, I think one could apply your theory to many many cases.
And one of my main problems with the Sexton article was that he said the fact that women are attracted to a certain thing and men are attracted to another thing is PROOF that there are biological sex differences governing their responses to the world around them (and if this is true, then I'm TOTALLY a biological oddity!!! ha ha!). I would agree with you that this kind of "fact" only appears in certain niches (eg. that romances are read by primarily women, but that a good deal of women do not actually like romances, etc..)....and therefore does not apply to all men and women.

S.] I like very much what you say about a genre acting as a de facto enforcer of prescription. Its a print culture fact. It's why I hear most songs on modern rock stations having the same vocal affectation: new bands and their labels want mass purchase so they try to find what has the widest appeal and then copy it. Same for mass-market genre fiction.

For this course, I see my duty as providing a framework for understanding that is broad enough to be inclusive but tight enough to provide clear focus and research productivity. I should present an honest range of available material and then encourage and support any practical and valid academic interpretation.Does that sound like your underst! anding of the proper professorial function?Your observation that Villette is pre-chick-lit is an intelligent one. For myself, I'm still undecided: I am still going through the process of examination into the question of how far back the genre goes. I also need to research specifically whether Mundy's kept data on the sex of their lenders by title in ninteenth century Britain.

The Darwinian sexual selection model for lad lit is the competing male: Darwin says they will be displaying heightened traits based on what the female's preference is. My working hypothesis is that for lad lit, women are not explicitly central -- or, better, they are the sublimated goal of the quest! In other words, the purpose of a quest or adventure, on the Darwinian model, is to demonstrate performative success so that the hero will be able to get a woman to select him.

I like further your idea that men might have an analogue to Cad-Curate-Colin Firth. The "madonna-whore" trope that we commonly hear about is not relevant here -- we can talk about that elsewhere if you have any interest. For me, that question is interesting, but in a different type of course -- i.e. here we're concentrating on the Darwin experiment.

That's because there are many possible intellectual levels at which these matters can be questioned - a "gender studies" level, for instance, or a theological, or a Marxist level. But I believe that it is a mistake -- unrigorous and academically unproductive -- to simply throw in any and all approaches in any one course. A good academic study has a humble aim. Here, we are not looking at the matter of sexual politics as a whole, for example, rather we are isolating two important and interesting literary genres and applying a helpful cohesive idea in order to, by the end, understand the genres better -- and of course improve our literary analytical skills and appreciation!

K. ] ... in some cases there are more similarities than differences between a chick lit book and a lad lit book .... I would argue with the Darwin model, according to the notion that men compete and display the trait that women want, because women do that, too. Doesn't everyone do that to some extent? They perceive something that they think others find desirable, and so they "heighten" that aspect of themselves...and if they don't have it, they try to get it. Breast implants for example, etc. etc. etc. etc..
I guess everything I've said thus far is to get closer to the Darwin model, closer in the sense of understanding it and then applying it. Darwin's model has seeped into our ideals for sure, and those show up in chick lit and lad lit. But other literature appears to have transcended Darwin's narrow constrictions. I think Bronte transcends it, but she goes back and forth. She at times tries to follow the role of passive (and therefore also Godly) female, but at other times she shoots daggers into the distinction itself. I think she realizes the limitations of the different roles for males and females, but at the same time feels that it is difficult to act outside of these roles.

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