Sunday, May 15, 2016

In Defense of All-Male Book Clubs

Last week the Men’s Style section of The New York Times featured a piece titled, “Men Have Book Clubs, Too,” about the apparently growing phenomenon of men getting together to share literary interests and opinions. The notion that men might actually share any thoughts with each other besides their opinions of the previous night’s boxing match, much less literary interests and opinions, sadly was not cause for celebration; instead it sparked internet skepticism, ridicule, and social justice outrage.
Gatherings of women are typically viewed as empowering. Gatherings of men are typically viewed as potentially dangerous – and when they are massed in a soccer stadium or prison yard, that may be a reasonable concern. But paradoxically, when men don’t conform to the worst perceived norms of masculine behavior – say, by chatting about books around a dinner table rather than roaring at a big-screen TV in a man cave – they are ridiculed for it.
Men whose reading material extends beyond Playboy pictorials and motorcycle manuals are sometimes considered rather effeminate. It’s difficult to picture, say, masculinity icons Steve McQueen and Ernest Hemingway – who actually wrote novels – sharing thoughtful opinions about, say, The Goldfinch or even the stark and brutal works of Cormac McCarthy. “Fiction is designed to examine empathy,” said a member of the Houston Men’s Book Club. “Men aren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings or emotions in public.” And the assumption exists, says John Creagar, another men’s book club regular, that “if guys read, we don’t think that deeply about it.”
Pew Research in recent years has shown that women are more than twice as likely to take part in reading clubs as men are, and thus participation in such groups is perceived as a female activity. Creagar suspects there are many more male readers who are eager to join a book club, “but they don’t get asked, or they worry that, if they do join, they’ll be seen as intruding on a female activity or stigmatized as being the only guy.”
Men’s book clubs are solving that dilemma. “I was always a little jealous of my wife’s book clubs,” says Andrew McCullough, founder of the Man Book Club, one of the clubs profiled in the NY Times. “Now our wives are jealous of us.”
The article went on to profile two other book clubs, The New York City Gay Guys Book Club (with a whopping 1200 members, anywhere from 10 to 60 of which show up at individual meetings) and the International Ultra Manly Book Club (IUMBC), a Kansas City group which sees itself as a resource for men seeking a literary community. IUMBC’s monthly meetings offer men “a space to explore literary depictions of what it means to be a man,” as the Times article puts it. “We do not read so-called chick lit,” said Man Book Club’s McCullough.
The IUMBC website states, “We started this group to find great books suitable for our masculinity, and we wanted to prove that book clubs aren’t only for middle aged women.” Its vision statement declares, with a hint of defensiveness but also a lighthearted self-awareness, “[t]hat one day we men of the world could be more educated, have deeper conversations, and connect with our fellow men. That one day we could step out of the shadow of our mothers’ book clubs and proclaim that yes, we too, are intellectuals.”
Speaking of lighthearted self-awareness, the members of these clubs are aware that they are treading beyond gender stereotypes, and don’t take themselves over-seriously. The name of the Man Book Club, for example, is a clever play on England’s most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize. The IUMBC rates the books its members read on a five-hand-grenade system for “manliness,” and its web pages are adorned with figures like a bicep-flexing Dwayne Johnson and book-toting Chuck Norris.
The Times article should have been greeted with a celebratory appreciation for such stereotype-smashing clubs, but because male-bashing is a national pastime, the eye-rolling reaction to was widespread in the news and social media. The book club men were accused of being narrow-minded for focusing on books by and about men. One writer even said such book clubs perpetuate “the patriarchy’s continued dominance.” “That Men’s Book Clubs Article Mostly Just Made Me Sad,” was the title of a New York Magazine online response. The Man Book Club even felt compelled to defend itself in a follow-up “apologia.”
Surprisingly, Slate – not normally known for leaping to the defense of men – rose up in defense of men’s book clubs, declaring that “Feminists Shouldn’t Roll Our Eyes at Men-Only Books Clubs. We Should Applaud Them.” Of course, Slate sees such men as taking “a small but important stand against repressive gender roles” in the hopeful sense that men one day might throw off masculinity altogether and become indistinguishable from women. In fact, these men are not bonding together not so much to question the core of masculinity but to explore dimensions of it that are often culturally repressed.
At least Slate’s headline got it right. If our culture celebrated and men to be as multi-dimensional as we actually are instead of trading in stereotypes and perpetuating them (while sneering at them), men would feel encouraged to cultivate the best aspects of their masculine nature. And that's something that benefits men and women alike.
From Acculturated, 5/13/16