Be a Man, Read Some Trash

Writer: Allen B 

I had something odd happen to me the other day. I was sitting at the Elliot Bay Book Store (great place, if you don’t know it, go find it, get a coffee and a book and improve your sad, sad life) reading a novel I had recently bought. The book was called Danse Macabre by Laurell K. Hamilton and for those of you who have never read her work, it is a collection of hot sex, horror, hard-boiled detective, with a tip of the hat to the great Anne Rice and a flip of the finger to those sparkly angsty characters of another series which I will not here name. Some might call it trash but in my not at all humble opinion, it’s better than candy.

Sipping my coffee, I looked up to see a very good looking man reading a book by Slavoj Zizek, one of my favorite political theorists. I smiled, he smiled back, I thought about getting his number, and then he glanced at the book in my hands. He didn’t say anything, nor did I, but for a moment, I felt a sting of embarrassment. I know it doesn’t matter that from time to time I read novels that may go on for pages (or chapters) about how hung a sexy vampire is, but for some reason I didn’t want to be thought about as the kind of guy who reads… that sort of thing at that moment.

I wanted this to be a symptom of intellectual snobbery, I know what that is and to be honest, I’m fine with it, but it wasn’t. I was embarrassed in the same way I was when some boys from my middle school saw me looking at the Barbie’s at the toy store in the mall. For some reason, I felt insecure because on some level, palpable caught there in the stare of that tall, sexy man, I didn’t think it manly to read romance. I went as far as putting the book in my bag and pulling a copy of James Clavell’s Shogun off the shelf when I went to the café to see if I could find him.

Sadly, he was already gone but as I stood there with the manly book (which I already owned) in my hand I wanted to know what the hell was wrong with me. I’m not one, in general to give a shit what other think of me, I’m a god damned lit student, people already think I’m a confusing mess, so why should this moment be different? I know the answer, you probably do too. There are some times when gender norms extend, however ridiculously, even to books. Once again I was caught looking at Barbie dolls in the toy store. Even worse, this time I was playing with them. I was more than a little annoyed at myself and rather than take the long bus ride home hiding the book in my bag, I picked it out of my bag, found a table where I could look at the passing guys (yeah, I’m kind of a dog), and then sat reading it shamelessly for anyone to see, even getting a kick out of being in public when the main character talked about things having to stretch.

In the end nobody cared. I wanted to know though, are there things that others have never read because of the ideas attached to them? I’m not talking about political ideas, I’m not going to try to talk any hard core right wingers into embracing The Grapes of Wrath, at least not today, but is there anything you chose not to crack open because it wasn’t ladylike or because it wasn’t manly? Guys, have you ever wanted to read Little Woman or a Jane Austen novel? Ladies, were you ever just a little curious about why some guys love Tom Clancy or John  Le Carre?

In the end, perhaps it’s helpful to remember that reading a novel with some erotica or that centers on a marriage plot won’t cause a man’s nuts to pull up inside of him like 40 degree water, and that some gun play and loveless sex won’t make hair grow on a woman’s chest. But maybe the problem has nothing to do with what we think these books will do to us and everything to do with what we think our friends will do to us.

Would I make fun of one of my guy friends for reading Sense and Sensibility? You bet your sweet ass I would; I’d ask him if his lady parts hurt and tell him to hold on because one day his prince will come. (Don’t hate me for the move into heteronormativity, I was after all brought up in America.) If I saw Miss E. reading some Hemmingway I’d make fun of her too, “Breaking out of the kitchen through fist fighting and womanizing?” But should that keep The Sun Also Rises out of her hands or a dirty erotica novel out of mine? To be honest, reading things that are out of my normal field have helped me to learn a lot about myself and where I stand in terms of sexuality, choices. I sucked it up and read Danse Macabre at the café in the bookstore.

So let’s be honest, it won’t threaten my manhood to read this kind of thing in public, and I was being a fucking sixth grader for reacting that way. Try it this week; go get something you’ve always been curious about. Some of the best nights I’ve had in my life have dealt with pushing the limits of my curiosity, (I’m talking literature and so much more.) If it makes you tingle in places you don’t want to talk about, all I can say is congrats. If you feel like your manhood is in question or your womanhood is being put upon, keep reading—you need to be threatened.

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4 comments on “Be a Man, Read Some Trash

  1. Great post Allen:) Thanks for pointing out the link between gender and genre!

    P.S. to readers: Allen’s bio is under the “About Us” tab, and don’t worry, you’ll hear from him again.

  2. Carmen says:

    I think best sellers have more to do with intellectual snobbery than gender, though they are shamelessly promoted through strict gender norms through genres. I was embarrassed to read Lolita and Lady Chatterly’s Lover in public outside of academia. I would be embarrassed to read FIfth Avenue Blondes (which I got for 2.50 at Borders going out of business sale to read in bed when I need to sleep but am not tired) anywhere near the University, well anywhere in public actually. I think this goes back to how society judges class based on reading material. As someone who didn’t grow up in the class I’m trying to be in I am probably more sensitive to this than most. As someone getting an advanced degree in literature there are just some genres I can’t stomach, like the Harlequin romance novels my grandmother devours. I’ve read Tom Clancy and thought he was boring, but no worse than other best seller writers. I think trashy literature is akin to reality television. You don’t advertise that you watch it, but most people do at some point.

    On an unrelated note. I’m very frustrated that Jane Austen is often dismissed as “silly women’s books” when her novels have intellectual merit despite the marriage plot convention. The 20th century has certainly pin-holed her work into that genre with the trashy spin off novels (like Mr.Darcy’s Daughter and Pride and Prejudice and Vampies or Sea Monsters) and through television adaptations that lose Austen’s wit, perceptiveness, and proto-stream of consciousness narration. I think we all need to read literature that wasn’t written for our gender in order to blur the essential distinction between gender. In fact, most of our work as English majors consists of reading works written by men for men, unless you specialize in feminism or women writers. To prove this take a look at any PhD program’s comps list. The eighteenth-century especially; women’s work is “minor work” as distinguished from Johnson and Richardson’s major works. It wouldn’t kill a man (or shrink his “manhood”) to read Austen.

  3. Carmen, I really appreciate your comment, and also often feel that Austen is unfairly pigeon-holed into “silly women’s novels,” a classification both gendered and stratified by that gendering. There are also a lot of political implications to Austen’s writings about social subjects, and it bothers me that she gets a bad rep for “ignoring” political issues from her time period.

  4. K@ says:

    This rocks my socks off. Heck yes. I concur heartily, good sir!

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