Last night I attended a lecture by Suzanne Keen on the “Exaltations and Disappointments of Literary Empathy.” She is the dean of the English college at Washington and Lee University, has her Ph.D. from Harvard and is just a top-notch knowledgable lady. She was visiting American University for the afternoon and she might as well have been transported from Hogwarts.
The most enlightening fact she shared was off-hand and completely off-the-cuff, as if it were as commonplace as a passing thought. But it hasn’t been fleeting for me. She shared that:
75-80% of consumers of fiction writing are women.
“That’s not just a small sliver of the market,” she said. “That is the market.”
This creates a challenge because while women are socialized to read and empathize with every kind of character (especially male leads), men aren’t socialized to read women as heroes because they aren’t even reading novels at all. Yet, they remain the majority of the authors who write that fiction.
Think about that.
I wondered: how do men actually see women in real life if they don’t have the narrative empathy to understand them as their own independent heroes?
Wonder Woman is taking strides in the right direction for film, placating to the superhero hearts of every boy still inside of every man. And female director Patty Jenkins helps us avoid the male gaze and give the character depth and complexity. But it still seems cheap. It seems like a gimmick. Because Wonder Woman was still invented by a man.
I want to know what a modern day heroine looks like. Most women, I believe, would point to their mother or grandmother or sister or friend. And if they aren’t already pointing to themselves, they should be doing that too. It’s not unusual for women to believe themselves the hero in their own story. It’s heartbreaking when men refuse to see it. Worse, if they are incapable.
This is why we need more male readers and more women writers. Fiction, sure, but also in general publications. Take a look at the VIDA count from 2016. Here’s a simple breakdown of male and female percentages of by-lined writers from published pieces that year.
- The Atlantic:
- 64.3% men
- 35.7% women
- 60.8% men
- 38.8% women
- London Review
- 78% men
- 21.9% women
- New Yorker
- 60.5% men
- 39.4% women
- New York Review of Books
- 75.3% men
- 24.7% women
The London Review and the New York Review of Books are particularly horrendous because the majority of their work is to write book reviews. Men reviewing books and writing criticism about them. To do so with such a heavy hand is to skew social perspectives in favor of, or enforce bias against, another. We need other voices to be heard in order to give the reader a better shot at a level understanding, so they can ultimately create their own informed opinion.
Narrative empathy is one way achieve this, especially in fiction. It is the “sharing of feeling and perspective-taking induced by reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition,” said Keen.
It is odd, isn’t it? The majority of men don’t read fiction and yet they are the select few who get to judge it. Write about it. Have a “thought piece” on it. Award awards for it. But the real consequences aren’t in the literary world. They are in real life. They are in the relationships men have with women.
They are in the way men don’t see and don’t hear, but smell, touch, and taste.