A midyear addendum to my reading goals

I’ve developed a routine of setting goals in roughly three categories: quality of life, writing, and reading. At the same time, I returned to meticulously tracking the non-academic reading I do, including raw numbers of books and pages, genres, languages, and author demographics. In general terms, I do pretty well in terms of cultural diversity in my reading, but the practice of recording demographics have revealed exactly how AWFUL I am at reading books by women.

This is not on purpose; to be cliche: some of my favorite authors are women! I am sure that my tendency to track down foreign literature that is translated into English doesn’t help these numbers, but it is a fact that most of what I read is by men. So I’ve made it a particular goal to read more books by women.

Turns out, setting goals and rigorously tracking your progress works! Since first setting to fix this situation, I’ve increased from 2 (6%) to 4 (7.5%) to 8 (13.5%) to 9 (26.5%) so far this year. I am tracking to hit my target for this year and then some, seeing as I am just one book off, but the current pace also has me reflecting on how pathetically low I set this goal even if it represents an improvement over last year. With this in mind, here are my revised goals:

First, I want to start measuring these reading targets in terms of percentage of overall books read, you know, in case my pace slows for whatever reason. For this year, the new minimum bar is 25%, but I would like to raise the percentage to 30-33% or more.

This will mean increasing my already-raised pace, but I think it is doable because, second, every book I start in August will written by a woman. (I may extend this through September, too, if, as I expect, my reading time gets slashed because of coming of the academic school year.)

There are a number of reasons for me to do this, including that it helps cover a clear weakness in my reading habits, but it isn’t an onerous task by any stretch. I am very much looking forward to this to-be-read pile, which includes:

  1. Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher
  2. Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb
  3. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin
  4. Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan
  5. Always Coming Home – Ursula K. le Guin
  6. Birds of America – Lorrie Moore
  7. The Vegetarian – Han Kang

But first I have to finish Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise.

Women of the Silk – Gail Tsukiyama

I read The Samurai’s Garden early in 2016 in my push to start reading a more diverse array of books and liked it well enough that I decided to pick up a copy of Tsukiyama’s acclaimed debut novel, Women of the Silk.

Women of the Silk is a slow story that unfolds over nineteen years (1919-1938) in southern China. Pei is the second daughter of a peasant son-less farmer who dedicated his life to mulberry bushes and fish ponds. A series of lean years force the family to make difficult decisions, one of which is to ostensibly sell Pei, about age eleven, into servitude at the Yung Kee silk factory where her wages will help support the family. The novel unfolds slowly, following Pei and her new family (the eponymous women of the silk), be they her surrogate mother Auntie Yee or her friends like Mei Li and Lin. It is a story about friendship and everyday life, with characters grappling with love, labor, and their liminal position between the truly rural existence that Pei was born in and the urban environments of Hong Kong. There are limited climaxes as tension builds over some conflict, but the story ultimately builds to the end of this existence when there appears the specter of war with Japan.

Unlike most stories that deal with child labor, Women of the Silk portrays the situation in terms of sadness, not horror. The work is difficult, but, while there is one incident of labor unrest, it is not brutal and the women are taken care of. Moreover, Tsukiyama focuses on how Pei and the other women formed a surrogate community within a culture extremely dependent on family, doubly so when the women perform a commitment ceremony to symbolically wed the work. Work is difficult, but the pay offers freedom that did not exist for women like Pei’s biological sister whose life is entirely at the whim of her father or husband. Thus, silk work is likewise attractive even to Lin, whose background is diametrically opposite Pei and equally as restricting.

Tsukiyama’s prose is lyrical in a way that suits Women of the Silk‘s narrative as it builds the relationships in the silk factory. That said, I found myself frustrated because the book seemed to be giving vignettes of particular importance that I did not think were all completely earned. It goes without saying any book will have to focus on these episodes and none of them were necessarily inappropriate for the characters, but in several the story drops in without either developing the characters directly involved in the episode or focusing on Pei’s reaction to the events. The result is a dissonant sensation where the prose gives a sense of depth, but the story only sometimes allows for this to be realized. It was for this reason that while I didn’t dislike Women of the Silk, I much preferred The Samurai’s Garden. In other words, Women of the Silk is a first novel with a lot of promise, but left me wanting more.

Next up, I finished Andrey Platonov’s curious and increasingly esoteric novel The Foundation Pit and am now reading nobel laureate Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine.

What’s in a name?

I have a bit of a confession to make. For years I thought that Robin Lane Fox was a woman. I was loosely aware of men being named Robin and probably should have put two and two together from Batman, if nothing else, but I only knew one person named Robin, the mother of a childhood friend. Since it never did (and still doesn’t) strike me as of any consequence whether work is being done by a man or a woman, it never even occurred to me to look up the gender. More recently, I had a similar experience with Robin Hägg. Things get even more muddled when the first name exists only as an initial, which leaves only a genderless letter. The problem, of course, is when I have to use a pronoun and therefore need to know the gender.

This topic came up yesterday when I was working with a book by an author whose name is “Alison.” The book is from the sixties and does not contain any biographical hints that give away gender. A quick google search has been less than forthcoming as to who this scholar actually is, so I am going with my gut and using “she.” But when I was only using the last name (and hadn’t looked at the first) I assumed that the author was male and used “he” throughout the section.

I am using scholarship by more men than women in my dissertation simply because there are more men than women in the corpus of research I am drawing on. I have taken to using only initials for the names of scholars for my dissertation, mostly for aesthetic reasons, but I am reminded how much I use the names to cue in on gender, sometimes inaccurately. What bothers me about this is that I assumed the author was male until I looked up the first name–and that I suspect this would happen more often if I didn’t usually see the name before reading a piece. The worst that I could do here is embarrass myself, but the problems with sexism in academia are real, which is why I’m calling myself out for a genuine and fairly innocuous, easily correctable mistake.

Geeks: A few thoughts

Several days ago on CNN’s GeekOut blog, Joe Peacock wrote a post titled Booth babes need not apply. The gist of his argument is that the Geekdom has been infiltrated by attractive women who appear at various conventions scantily clad “just to satisfy their hollow egos.” He continues, saying that there are “true” female geeks, some of whom are even attractive (after all, “being beautiful is not a crime” and he does exhort you to “flaunt it if you got it”), and praising their effect on the Geekdom because, as a result, books, movies, and tv shows are smarter and of better quality. The women Peacock has a problem with are the “beauty-obsessed, frustrated wannabe models who can’t get work.” They are poachers, he says, who “seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street” and “have no interest or history in gaming.” As though he had not been blunt enough, he continues:

“They’re poachers. They’re a pox on our culture. As a guy, I find it repugnant that, due to my interests in comic books, sci-fi, fantasy and role playing games, video games and toys, I am supposed to feel honored that a pretty girl is in my presence. It’s insulting.”

He points to a problem that:

“There’s an entire contingent of guys in geekdom who absolutely love you, because inside, they’re 13 year old boys who like to objectify women and see them as nothing more than butts and a pair of boobs to be leered at,”

so “fake” women are able to make a living off the hard-earned dollar and immaturity of geeks, BUT:

“Those of us who actually like substance? We’ll be over here celebrating great comics, great games, great art, great movies and great television, because we’re actually attracted to a completely different body part: the brain.”

Those particular quotes jumped out at me, but enough on Peacock. There have been several quite cogent responses to what Peacock wrote, including from John Scalzi who declare in no uncertain terms that there is not a single spokesman for the Geekdom and anyone who who wants to be a geek is allowed to be a geek in whatever way he or she wants, Forbes, which argues that getting up in arms about fake geeks is just a stupid business plan (duh…the first rule of customer service–ahead of “the customer is always right” is that anyone who wants to spend money on your business should be allowed to), Liz Argall, who adds some notes about being a woman who is a geek, but does have some issues with the sleaziness of the Geekdom, and Genevieve Dempre.

My first reaction (as it often is to random extended rants online) is: who cares? My second is: CNN has a blog with the descriptor “It takes one to know one. When it comes to topics of interest to nerds, geeks, and superfans, we know how true that is. Geek Out! features stories from a nerd’s perspective that you can still share with your “normal” friends and family.”? Perhaps it is because I am a man, but more likely because I find it relatively easy to dismiss the rants of a single individual online, I am almost more offended by the blog description than by the post. I play board games, roleplaying games, video games, and follow sports closely. Most of my “normal” friends and family have done the same at some point or another and if they haven’t, they can be on the outside looking in for the moment without getting offended or weirded out; if they can’t, then I am fairly certain that I would not be friends with them. A blog like this reinforces the stereotype of “geeks, nerds, and superfans” as being a uniform other when the reality is that everyone has the things about which they are passionate and my geekness is different from other people’s geekness. At various points in my life I have been self-defined as and called a geek, a nerd, and a dork. Sometimes it is malicious, sometimes it is a compliment. Once upon a time the labels bothered me, but I moved on. I am who I am, I study what interests me, I read what I want, and just don’t have time to worry about the labels that come along with those actions. I would much rather be myself and let other people try to describe me through labels than choose labels and try to become what I have chosen. This is the long way of saying that labels are, by and large, a waste of time. The blog itself might contain many interesting stories, but that a major news outlet is carrying a blog so designed bothers me.

Though Peacock goes about it in a rather ham-handed manner, he does bring up some valid points about geeks and women in that the tendency to create social outcasts out of people who fail to conform or lack the social skills to make friends is a persistent issue, and certainly high school (the flawed model of social interaction that it is) does often result in a division between the popular kids and the geeks. But perhaps it is the Geekdom itself, what with generations of stereotypical social outcasts and misanthropes, combined with popular culture, that perpetuates the more insidious myth that because you are a geek you therefore lack social graces and of course the popular girl won’t ever talk to you. Because of this myth, the geek never develops social graces and, in turn, develops his own misanthropy, thereby perpetuating the cycle. The lack of social interaction, most likely, develops from a discomfort from both directions, but in order to change this one side or the other has to make a leap of faith that the other side is more than their stereotype. Sure, people can be mean and cruel, so it is possible that the cheerleader will turn up her nose at the geek, but it is also possible that the geek will make her undergo initiation to prove her intelligence/cred/whatever. Both sides of these imaginary communities need to be just a bit nicer to each other.

I should also point out that I generally feel honored when a pretty girl is in my presence, but I think that has more to do with the fact that I am a man. I don’t feel dishonored when another man or a woman I don’t find particularly attractive physically is in my presence and, in many instances, I am and/or would be more honored by a man in my presence than a woman. I may even gawk. I also can’t deny that there is a chance I would act differently in the presence of a pretty woman–there is a reason that coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and most sales jobs actively seek attractive women to work for them, though there always has to be a balance between competence and looks. Sex sells. This does not mean that you should treat the “ugly people” (barista, bartender, author) badly by any stretch of the imagination, but in a capitalist system, you do whatever you can to make sales.1 And for “booth babes”? Even if they are only there for the modeling gig, I would guess that it has more to do with the money than for the leering eyes. To think otherwise would be akin to thinking that the dancers at a strip club really get up on stage in front of strange men for the attention. Some women probably do enjoy taking their clothes off in front of men and performing, but in such a purely objectified way (as Peacock seems to argue) is improbable. More likely, most dancers do so because they have few other options and need to eat. Besides, even according to Peacock’s article, geeks aren’t exactly the prime demographic for such attention seeking, money-grubbing women (as they are described in the article) to seek.2

The rest of the misogyny I will leave for other people to address, as they have summed it up better than I can.

What I want to conclude with are some of Peacock’s assumptions about men. Women have done wonderful work for science fiction, fantasy, comic books, movies, etc, but I still think that the best authors in the field are men. This is not a sexist comment, but rather an observation (with Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear sitting on the table in front of me). I suppose that these male authors could be writing good books because there are more women than there used to be who will read them, but I can only think of the phrase post hoc ergo propter hoc here. I suspect that they write good books because they are good authors, not because of any particular demographic shift in their readership. It may actually be that the growing acceptability of being a geek (I suspect due to the internet and, perhaps ironically, due to a growing emphasis on entitlement and individuality that, I think, is having some particularly nasty side effects) has caused better writing and more women being involved the Geekdom. Peacock’s “boys will be boys, except for those of us who are just above the fray” argument bothers me because it assumes that most men are incapable of being polite, incapable of enjoying a good book, or a good movie. Men retard culture and women are required to improve it. Only, not all women, because some of theme are leeches.

Yes, there are serious social issues with misogyny, manners, and stereotypes, but going on a fundamentally flawed rant that actually buys into many of these stereotypes just perpetuates the problem. I nearly subtitled this post “Who cares?,” as was my initial reaction. There are real issues address when it comes to the Geekdom, so, perhaps most of all, the focus on how “real” of a geek someone is, or how real a hipster, or a feminist, or most anyone else is vis a vis their cultural tag is pointless. To quote Admiral Percy Fitzwallace from the West Wing, “I got some real honest-to-god battles to fight. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.”

1 When I managed a Quizno’s, my boss once saw a young woman come in for an interview and immediately told me to hire her. I did so, but only after going through the application and deciding she was qualified for the position and would be a good fit–not because she was attractive.
2 More than the posers, though, Peacock suggests that his real problem is with the corporations who have learned that geeks have money and are now exploiting their basest immature fantasies. While this is probably true, I still don’t understand how this is any different from any sort of advertising or business model…ever. A monied economy basically boils down to the idea that there is a set amount of money out there, so people go to work in order to gain some of this money, most directly my creating a business that will provide some good or service that the person or people with money need or want in order to persuade them to give that money to the business owner. The employees are willing to trade their time in order to share in that income, and then some other business finds a way to separate those people from their money. The fact that corporations or pretty women have found a way to seperate another group of people from their money shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.

Pity, really

It has taken me a lot of years, but I think that I have finally found someone who I truly feel sorry for in the ancient world. Usually people aren’t well enough known or have too much personal capacity to simply pity them. Sure, individual things that happen to them I feel bad, but not the entirety of their life.

This person is a nameless anonyma with her birth, death and child situation entirely unknown. I speak of the daughter of Parmenion, the great Macedonian general.

Following the most common chronology for her life, she married Attalus, the uncle of Cleopatra (Philip II’s last wife) in 337/6 when he would have been around 45 years of age. Attalus was then sent to Asia Minor with Parmenion to lead the advance force for Philip’s planned invasion. We do not know whether Attalus brought his wife with him, but within the year Philip had been assassinated; the new king, Alexander ordered the execution of Attalus, which was accomplished with the aid of Parmenion. Sometime in the next two years, though likely within a year, our young heroine was married again, this time to Coenus, one of Parmenion’s adherents. Between 336 and 334 Coenus actively campaigned with Alexander in Europe, and then in 334 crossed into Asia. Later in 334 Coenus returned home with a detachment known as the newlyweds– supposedly in order to see his wife, though he apparently spent a portion of this leave in the Peloponnese recruiting.

Coenus never returned to his wife. In fact, in 330 Coenus was the most vocal opponent of his brother in law Philotas in a treason trial that ended with the conviction of Philotas and Parmenion. Coenus died in India in 326.

Parmenion’s daughter is entirely unknown beyond the sketch above. No children are known and every man that she was married to or related to died. Life for women at the time was not easy, even for aristocratic women, but this one went through two husbands effectively within three years–possibly having spent as little as three months with them as they would have been on campaign the rest of the time.

Macedonia was far from civilized.

I should add a historiographic note that further complicates and perhaps ameliorates some of the horrors visited upon her (though adding others).

The most basic point is that Parmenion may have had two daughters, with one marrying each man. I cannot entirely discount this possibility, but generally point to Occam’s Razor in this. By the time Coenus married, Attalus was dead, and remarriage seems rather common, so there doesn’t need to be a second daughter. In the lack of any actual evidence I am quite comfortable to have one daughter.

The second issue is the chronology. There is a school of scholarship that suggests that the Attalus marriage took place as much as a decade before Philip’s murder, in which case she would have known Attalus much better–for good and for ill. My only quibble with the earlier date for the wedding is that there are no known children. If the kings of Macedonia are to be any judge, men wasted little time in impregnating their brides. and if Attalus was (as the sources claim) a threat to Alexander’s throne with a kid of 5-10 years old, I think that it would be mentioned. Every other scandalous child murder was.

I realize there are any number of reasons that she may have not had a child, so this is in no way conclusive. It is just to my mind the primary consideration unaccounted for in claiming that Attalus married so early.