I read Latest Readings by Clive James yesterday, which is a pleasant little journal about his reading experiences. I plan to discuss it in more detail soon but need to get something off my chest about it now so that when I return I can focus on all the lovely things about.
In a very slim volume, there were at least two instances that brought me up short. At the very least, they reveal a limited imagination; at worst, they confirm all my preconceptions of Australian male chauvinism.
When reading W.G. Sebald, James goes onto a tangent about war-story magazines popular during his childhood and the sensational tales of pilots that featured so prominently in them. Such stories fueled his own boyhood daydreams and he imagines they did the same for young German boys in the years immediately following the war:
The magazines were pulp, but the story they were telling was true, and young German boys – probably not the girls, but for anyone except the Russians the air war was a man’s world – did their first reading about the war the same way I did.
This casual dismissal of girls would be enough to set my teeth on edge at any time but it came following an even more perturbing declaration. While discussing Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series – and attempting to make the very valid point that “O’Brian doesn’t really know what to do with an interesting female character” – James (dangerously) ponders why so many other fans the series are female:
I try to remember that most of the fans of O’Brian that I have met are women, but I suspect that they want a holiday from feminism, just as his male fans want a holiday from inertia. (I should leave room at this point for the possibility that some of the female Aubrey experts in my vicinity see no contradiction between feminism and their allegiance to the age of sail, and quite fancy the picture of themselves dressed as commodores with epaulettes.)
I actually cursed James in public when I read that passage. That is how upset I was by it. James, a man who has spent a lifetime reading, who is (according to the book’s publisher) “one of the great literary minds of our time” can come up with no more logical reason for a woman to like a complex, adventurous, engaging series than that she wants a break from feminism. Fuck that, frankly. Almost 170 years after Jane Eyre’s impassioned reminder that “women feel just as men feel”, apparently this is something men still haven’t learned. The idea that we, like he and his fellow male readers, may also long for “a holiday from inertia”, doesn’t even seem to occur to him. The ensuing caveat only makes things worse. Male readers can imagine themselves as commodores; female readers must content themselves to imagine wearing a commodore’s uniform. It conjures up some Old Boy’s erotic fantasy of a busty cross-dresser.
Women – and I really should not need to clarify this – are people too. We are not some separate, mysterious species. We are readers with imaginations and my imagination at least is broader and more active than James can apparently imagine. Some of us are interested in aerial battles and Boy’s Own stories and, yes, some of us read naval novels for escapism – not from feminism but from the monotony of our daily lives. We can imagine ourselves as the characters we read about, be they male or female, animal or alien. Reading lets all of us expand our horizons; that is its truly miraculous power. And I am incredibly saddened that James does not seem to see that.