Thursday, March 12, 2009

the perilous towers of unread books

These are some of the ARCs that are patiently waiting for someone to rescue them from the back room of the bookstore and give them a chance to be read. Some of them turn out to be unsuspected treasures. My most recent favourites are The Ramen King And I by Andy Raskin (which comes out in May) and The Error World by Simon Garfield (which is out now).

A customer asked me a question yesterday that I found both odd and troubling, in that I had to think more about what it meant to me and my attitudes towards literature than the question itself. She (and, yes, it was a woman, which may be important) asked me where the section for "women's literature" was. At first, I thought she meant books about women, women's health maybe, or feminism in general, but she meant books--fiction, to be specific--by women authors.

I've never seen a bookstore where the books of men and the books of women are separated out and tidied away in their own sections, and I can't quite see a point in doing so. But this woman (who seemed intelligent, polite, and independent) acted like the question was perfectly normal and reasonable. Did she only want to browse books by women? Did she want to read about women? Did she, perhaps, feel that she'd been reading too many books by men and wanted to see the range and possibility in shelves that only included the work of women? I don't know, and the part that made me pause once I registered it is, I didn't actually care. My first thought was, well, that would be a stupid way to organize books.

I never make a point to read books by women authors. I don't avoid them either. But out of the three books that I've read this month so far, all of them are by men. I like to choose my reading based on what looks shiny, appealing, or delightful, but every now and then I feel guilty and wonder whether choices in reading, when multiplied many times over, add up to some sort of statement, even if it's one of inattention or indifference.

(I've just counted the books in my reading now pile and there are seven by men and two by women.)

I'm finding this interesting. The Booktrust in the UK has Patrick Ness doing a sort of online residency where he blogs about the process of writing and publishing a book (his most recent is The Knife of Never Letting Go). He's funny and direct and says interesting things, particularly about how stories eat up ideas. I'm also predisposed to like any organization that describes the location of their building like this:
We live in a lovely Victorian building between Wandsworth and Clapham Junction, wedged between a Huguenot cemetery and a traffic island.

Also, the lovely and absurdly talented Toni Lum is dancing in NY this weekend with Danceworks Chicago as part of the Ballet Builders 2009 program. Toni is a joy to watch, always, and if anyone happens to be in NY, you should go see her.


Andy Raskin said...

Hi glad you enjoyed my book.

Anonymous said...

First off, I love the picture of the pile of books. Second, love the fact that you work at a bookstore. Heaven on earth!!! However, I never really thought about having a "women's literature" section. It's always just literature and that's it. It is never broken down further. I suppose most of the books I have been reading are by male authors as well. Huh, maybe I'll pay more attention to it...or just go on as I was.

Megan Kurashige said...

Andy, I laughed out loud at your book (slightly embarrassing at a sober cafe) and am planning to buy copies for all my Murakami devouring friends.

Kris, that's pretty much the way I feel. I usually get annoyed when people start bringing up the social and political backgrounds of authors, but I'm curious about how my reading habits fit into all that, so I'm trying to pay attention a bit.

Karla said...

It's a tough call, the men vs. women author thing. Except for Neil Gaiman and E.L. Doctorow, I mostly tend to steer toward women and gay men. It galls me when it's implied I'm stupid because I'm not a big fan of Classics with a capital C, which are often written by white guys. By the same token, I can't stand it when someone calls me a misogynist because I happen to enjoy a book or books written by a white guy, especially when the book happens to feature an S&M scene or something along those lines.

It would be kind of cool to explore why we like the books we like/don't like as long as it doesn't degenerate into one-upmanship. Maybe they give the men shinier, more attractive covers. Qui sais?

Andy Raskin said...

Hi Megan... just curious, did you say that you work at a bookstore? I'm putting together a sheet of comments from booksellers, and if you do, I'd like to include the review you posted. You can email me directly if you like --

Marchbanks said...


As a guy who spent sixteen years in the book trade before the indie store he worked at closed out from under him . . . yes, I can kinda see the rationale for a "women/wimmin/womyn's lit" section such as your customer is looking for. And it can be made to work—Austin, where I live, has had a women's bookstore in continuous operation since 1975.

Nonetheless, niche bookstores aside (and I class BookWoman in the same space as mystery or f/sf specialist bookstores), gathering authors into one section simply on the basis of gender identity doesn't seem to me to serve much purpose, save to encourage lazy shopping, where the customer rushes in, grabs The One Exact Thing she was looking for, and rushes out again. Lazy shopping has its place in the world (the big-box superstores would be favorite), but I don't think that place is in the book trade.