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The Sunday Read: Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine

8 May

Cover is white, with three overlapping rectangles - pink labelled X, blue labelled Y, and yellow unlabelled - and the subtitle "How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference"

Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference has been on my to-read list for awhile, and I’m thrilled I finally got around to it. Delusions of Gender might fairly be described as a response to a trend in both popular and academic science of ascribing sociological differences in women’s and men’s lives to a physical difference. We’re all probably familiar with recent books and studies that ascribe these differences to neurological differences in men and women; but in a brilliant if slightly puckish stroke, Fine compares the language of these books and studies to the language of popular and academic science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and finds them remarkably similar. The intent of the book, Fine suggests in her Author’s Note, is not to say anything new about gender: rather, it’s to question scientists who appear to be saying the same things about gender that they have been saying for the past 150 years. Basically, she says, we are constantly turning to biology to confirm our hope that men and women really are different; and the brain is so poorly understood that it has become the latest screen onto which we project these suspicions.

The book is divided into three parts: “‘Half-Changed World’, Half-Changed Minds”, “Neurosexism”, and “Recycling Gender”. The first third is a funny, scathing assessment of the role societal conditioning plays in the formation of gender, reviewing stereotype threat (where minority groups do badly because it’s expected that they will), gender priming (which brings gender to the foreground so women in fields women aren’t supposed to be good at are constantly aware of their gender and under stereotype threat), and other ways in which cultural and social expectations affect and predict performance. Some of this stuff is fairly familiar to anyone interested in sexism, gender, and sociology: get two mixed groups to take a test. Before they take the test, tell one group that men traditionally do better in these kinds of tests; tell another group that women traditionally do better. (This process ranges from the blunt to the extremely subtle). Or alternatively, get one group to identify their gender before the test; get another group to do so after the test. You will get the results that you asked for: men do better where they’re told that men do better, and vice versa. Women asked to identify their gender before a maths test do worse than otherwise similar women asked to identify their gender after taking the test. And so on. Fine lays it out extremely thoroughly, and it’s likely to be useful next time you find yourself in a fight with a gender essentialist, but this material wasn’t new to me, at least.

On the other hand, some of the material – mostly that which spends time breaking down popular science on men’s and women’s roles – is brand new and galvanising. For example, in “Gender Equality Begins (and Ends) at Home”, Fine examines work on the “second shift” – homework, housework, and childcare performed by working women and men. The second shift notoriously affects women much more than it does men: in (opposite-sex parented) families where both parents work, women do about twice the amount of unpaid work as men do. People generally understand this as being produced by unequal power generated by who brings the most about of money to the table. And it’s true that as a woman’s salary approaches her partner, the second shift becomes less unequally distributed. But when a woman’s salary exceeds her partner’s, she starts doing more of the second shift. In fact the more she earns, the more housework she does – even when her partner is unemployed. This is bad enough by itself, but Fine is in brilliant form when she skewers popular science that attempts to justify this. One book, for example, suggest that women derive a physical benefit (oxytocin production) from housework: so it’s actually more healthy for a woman to work all day, and then come home and do the dishes and the laundry. On the other hand, producing oxytocin is bad for men, and if they do too much housework they become dangerously testosterone-low. “One can only hope that Mrs. Gray finds it gratifyingly oxytocin-producing to have to remind her husband where the plates are kept,” remarks Fine.

The second part of the book, “Neurosexism,” I found the most dense. Reviewing a (large: one-third of the book’s thickness is footnotes) number of neurological studies which purport to demonstrate essential gender differences, Fine spends a lot of time breaking down the studies’ methodology as well as their conclusions, wondering on the one hand whether the notable Baron-Cohen/Connellan baby study (in which girl babies were found to be more interested in faces, and boy babies in mobiles) might have been affected by the scientists knowing the gender of the babies as they were testing, and on the other hand whether studies on the lateralisation of the brain (which purport to explain why men are worse at multi-tasking than women) really explain anything: “I find these intuitive leaps from brain structure to psychological function unconvincing … As an example of just how wrong our intuitions can be in these matters, despite the popular assumption that a more lateralized brain will be worse at multitasking, neurobiologist Lesley Rogers and her colleagues found precisely the opposite to be the case in chicks.” This section, though dense, is also occasionally screamingly funny, such as in the summary of this paper (the neurological responses of a “post-mortem” Atlantic Salmon).

The final section on the book is the one I most want everyone to read. Called “Recycled Gender,” it covers gendered and supposedly non-gendered childrearing, along with implicit associations and what we (say we) think versus what we do. Essentially, this chapter discusses how easy it is for children to begin to understand what it means to have gender and what their gender is and how it should be performed. I didn’t find it as funny as the earlier sections mostly because I found it depressing: we just keep passing everything on to our kids, basically, and more or less involuntarily.

Anyway. Delusions of Gender is a thorough, well-researched book that manages to be an easy read without being slick or suspicious. It’s funny and scathing, but also it’s honest – something that deserves some emphasis. It’s very easy for people who write about gender differences to describe themselves as fearless anti-PC warriors who are Just Telling the Truth About Men and Women: but as Fine points out, these ideas have always been popular and the eagerness with which they are grasped by parents, educators, employers, and scientists does not exactly point to a generalised disfavour. Fine has a fantastic post on this which is really worth reading, and keeping in mind as you read this book – which absolutely everyone must do.

Further reading:
Interview with Fine at Neuroanthropology
Review at Neuroskeptic
Interview with Fine at Salon

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The Sunday Read: In Memory of Diana Wynne Jones

27 Mar

I woke this morning to many people having Twittered in the night that Diana Wynne Jones had lost her battle with cancer. I really can’t tell you how sad I am without resorting to familiar phrases like I-didn’t-kn0w-her-but-her-work-touched-my-life and so-influential and it always seems a little gauche to mourn someone you never met … but DWJ was brilliant and I loved her work. Mostly for young adults, it is not as well-known as it ought to be. It ranges from the hilariously snide (The Tough Guide to Fantasyland) to the devastatingly beautiful (Fire and Hemlock) to the extraordinarily unusual epic (the Dalemark quartet) to the series she was increasingly best-known for, a clever but not difficult series that the Harry Potter generation glommed onto pretty quickly, Chrestomanci.

Her work is so diverse and so good that I’m not sure I can say anything careful and reasoned about it. All I have is a  big jumble of memories: The moment when Christopher realises what the strange, fishy packages were. The moment when he faces Tacroy and watches Tacroy lie for him. Strong, subtle, serious moments in a book that does not come across as subtle or serious. Maree and Nick doing the witchy dance on the bridge. Maree and the Thornlady, the hard thing inside her that tells her she isn’t worth it. I so strongly identify with Maree that I probably oughtn’t be able to talk about it in public. What Grundo was doing to Roddy. What Gwendolyn was doing to Cat. What Gammer made her sons do. The flower woman in the hut. Someone in this class is a witch. Sophie and the active voice, what Diane Duane calls the enactive rescension, when saying things makes them so. Howl and his sulks. The bossy princesses. Here Now. Olga’s jinx. Curses made out of orange peel and looking out for Felim. The moment when Elda is carrying Corkoran and realises he is afraid of her. If you took university and plunked it down in the middle of epic fantasy and sent off an impoverished prince and a wealthy but mysterious young woman and a manumitted dwarf and a mixed-race princess with a travelling jinx and another prince being chased by assassins AND A GRIFFIN and then you tried to teach them all how to do magic. Jamie, wandering. What happens when an extremely large man sits down at your kitchen table and refuses to move. What has your family got to do with who you are. What if you were meant to be somebody else. Nice is not good. Kit, falling into the lake. Wandering in a forest forgetting who you are. Mitt, waiting. Watching your father die and nobody seem to care. When you and your siblings don’t look like the people around you and what happens when your village gets a little too close to a warzone and your parents don’t come home. Watching the people you love getting older and older while you stay the same. What happens when the adults around you don’t care about you. Playing with matches. But you wouldn’t believe how lonely you get.

People much smarter than me will be making much more organised, thoughtful, and probably interesting posts. I’ll try to link to them as they come up, so maybe if you haven’t read her before those posts will be more of interest to you. Here’s a start:

John Scalzi on Dogsbody.
The Rejectionist, quoting DWJ herself.
Diane Duane on The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
Debbie Gascoyne on The Ogre Downstairs (and others).
Pandarus on her childhood experiences reading DWJ.

At the end of the day though, I’m just so sad about this. But the loss is much greater for those who know her: for I will be able to revisit her work in the days and years to come. I’m very grateful.

The Sunday Read: My Sister Sif, by Ruth Park (1917-2010)

19 Dec

I was very sad to hear that Ruth Park died this week. Recently as part of a job application (sort of) I had to write an essay on a book that influenced me. I picked Park’s My Sister Sif, a lovely book that’s not very well-known compared to her Playing Beattie Bow or Harp in the South. However it’s my favourite. I didn’t get the job, but I thought I’d re-post this in her memory.

From the National Library of Australia

When deciding what book to write about, the book I would use to introduce myself, as it were, I was torn between so many of my childhood milestones. The first book I have clear memories of reading: The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien. The first New Zealand book I remember reading: Jellybean, by Tessa Duder. My first science fiction: Doomfire on Venus, by Ken Catran, followed speedily by rapid consumption of Isaac Asimov’s work. The first book I saved up for: The Invasion, by K. A. Applegate, the first novel in one of Scholastic’s pulpy science fiction series, Animorphs. My mother refused to pay for it; luckily, it was cheap. My first book of short stories: The Door in the Air, Margaret Mahy’s enduringly wonderful collection. Other influential series and characters sprang to mind: the Alex quartet, Tamora Pierce’s spunky fantasy heroines, my first adult book (The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, snuck in with its teenaged protagonists) and the first book I hated (The Fat Man, by Maurice Gee, disliked mostly, and unfairly, for its utter lack of resemblance to the O trilogy!) In the end, though, one stuck out for not being a milestone book, not being the first of its kind, but nevertheless being a book I remember with great clarity and affection: My Sister Sif, by New Zealand-Australian novelist Ruth Park.

My Sister Sif is set on an imaginary Pacific island in the near future. Its protagonist is Riko, the daughter of a Scandinavian merchant-seaman and a Polynesian seawoman – a mermaid, simply. Riko returns to the island after being at school in Sydney to find pollution destroying the local environment. Torn between the landpeople and the seapeople, Riko and her sister, Sif, have to choose whether to go with their migrating sea family or stay and try to change things on land. The encroaching pollution and tortured earth eventually kill Sif, while Riko remains to try to change landpeople’s dsetructive ways.

My Sister Sif‘s themes are straightforward, and its principal, conservation, although topical, is not unusual (even for 1986, when it was first published). Its writing is workmanlike but not moving; occasionally, it is preachy. I struggled to figure out why My Sister Sif spoke to me, and continued speaking to me through repeated re-reads. Little about My Sister Sif was new to me. I had read books with angry, lonely protagonists like Riko before; I had read books with conservationist themes, science-fiction novels, books set in the South Pacific. It was, perhaps, the first time a fictional death had moved me, certainly the first time a fantasy novel had moved me. But what struck me about My Sister Sif, and what endeared it to me, was the fact that it combined all of these. It was science fiction, but not set in outer space; it was conservationist, but it included mermaids; and, perhaps most importantly, its protagonist was an Islander, not a coloniser, and the reality in which it was set was close to mine, but not too close – an urban (well, island) fantasy, rather than a portal fantasy. Reading My Sister Sif for the first time was the first time I understood that a book didn’t have to be any one thing, and that characters in books didn’t have to be or act a certain way in response to the kind of book they were in.

Penguin Children's Classics cover

Before I read My Sister Sif, I had had a very rigid understanding of genre. New Zealand novels involved sports, or possibly serious illnesses meant to teach readers a lesson. Fantasy novels were set in something like mediaeval Europe, or in England, or in another world entirely. Science fiction meant space opera. There weren’t many female protagonists, and the ones that were, were preoccupied with their own femininity. Conservation novels were all written by Jean Craighead George and involved boys living in trees. My Sister Sif changed all that for me. I found out that fantasy novels could ask serious questions about the real environment; fantasy novels could make you cry. Although its treatment of colonialisation is shallow, perhaps for that reason I understood My Sister Sif much better than I understood the oblique discussions of the same in the works of New Zealand writers (despite the fact that their writing was more immediately relevant to me, growing up Pākehā in a Wellington suburb).

Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover opens with its protagonist, Laura, reading the back of a shampoo bottle.

Although the label on the hair shampoo said Paris and had a picture of a beautiful girl with the Eiffel Tower behind her bare shoulder, it was forced to tell the truth in tiny print under the picture. Made in New Zealand, it said, Wisdom Laboratories, Paraparaumu. Just for a moment Laura had had a dream of washing her hair and coming out … to find she was not only marvellously beautiful but also trasported to Paris. However, there was no point in washing her hair if she were only going to be moved as far as Paraparaumu.

Mahy has written about The Changeover as her first New Zealand book, and about the cultural cringe that made it difficult for her to set her material in the country she lived in. This must be especially true for fantasy: so much about the genre conditions readers to think that fantasy landscapes and characters look and speak a certain way – European. Like My Sister SifThe Changeover reimagines an ordinary landscape into a fantastic one, and it does so with a New Zealand landscape, not an English one. My Sister Sif goes further by also reimagining its protagonist as part Islander, and reimagining the fantastic landscape as peopled by menuhene, rather than elves, and Polynesian mermaids rather than the familiar pale blondes. Reading about Riko, I understood that, just as Ruth Park had done in the Pacific Islands, someone could easily write a New Zealand fantasy that didn’t draw on the European canon, and wouldn’t require Pākehā protagonists.

Probably every New Zealander has had the experience of reading the book that first showed them books could really be set in New Zealand, without the requisite cultural cringe. Oddly, although My Sister Sif is not set in New Zealand and was not the first New Zealand book I read, it performed the same function for me. Since I read My Sister Sif, I have come across Gaelyn Gordon’s StonelightMindfire and Tripswitch,Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider and The Sky Dancer, and more recently Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead and David Hair’s The Bone Tiki. I am happy to say that it is no longer new or surprising to me when fantasy novels are set in New Zealand, or when they incorporate elements of Māori myth rather than the stock-standard European style. Some of these are probably better books; they are undoubtedly more sophisticated in terms of their prose and in terms of their respectful incorporation of myth and legend. But My Sister Sif was, in the end, a complicated kind of first for me, and it’s stuck with me for fifteen years.

The Sunday Read: Gifted, by Patrick Evans

28 Nov

Cover image of the novel Gifted: white background and a green hedge with a gap in it.I have an embarrassing confession: I know hardly anything about Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson. This is tough to admit for an English major, but in fact I spent four years taking English Literature at the University of Canterbury where Evans teaches New Zealand Lit and I assiduously avoided all of his classes. (It’s not Evans himself. I’m sure he’s lovely. But I had different interests.) And I’ve hardly read any of their work, either. To the Is-Land, of course, in sixth form. A bunch of F rame’s short stories, mostly during high school; the one that stands out for me (although I have no idea why) is “The Bed Jacket”. And I’ve started, but never finished (I will! I promise!) Owls Do Cry. My record with Sargeson is even more dismal. Once, probably when I was around seventeen, I owned a collection of six New Zealand novellas or long short stories, and Frank Sargeson’s was the only one I did not finish. It put a permanent crimp in my potential affection for him – although, to be honest, I don’t believe I would ever have much enjoyed his work. We share few interests and attitudes.

So I came to this novel, which explores the year and a half where Frame lived and wrote on Sargeson’s property, with very, very little knowledge. In fact I really knew two things: Janet Frame had been in a mental asylum, and Frank Sargeson was gay. And as a friend of mine said after her own experience with the book, that’s all she came away knowing, too. This friend found that experience frustrating; I found it uplifting. I’ve read a number of reviews of Gifted, and they were all – understandably – preoccupied with the historicity of the novel. How much of this portrait of two famous New Zealanders is real? Can we trust it? Will Evans reveal to us some great or shocking mystery? How about sex?

She came into my life heralded by trumpets, or in fact a car horn, two peremptory parps irrupting into my early Saturday afternoon snooze, followed ten or twenty seconds by a rat-a-tat-tat! at the door … And that is how I acquired Miss Janet Frame, promising-writer-in-chrysalis-form, genius-in-the-bud, and for an unspecified period of time my live-in house-or-hut guest. Because, momentarily, I saw her as a fellow-sufferer, a comrade-in-arms in the unsleeping fight against the enemy that, like the Japanese at Singapore, attacks from behind.

Well, no. Hardly any of the novel – at least, so Evans claims – is factual. The set-up is different – Frame shows up more or less unannounced, while in reality Sargeson invited her. Other than Sargeson’s “on-again off-again come-again mate” Harry Doyle, none of the peripheral characters are historical. Absolutely no sex. In fact the fictional Sargeson spends around three pages talking in circles to produce in the reader the impression that old people don’t have sex, and gay people don’t have sex, and old gay men definitely, definitely don’t have sex. Sargeson thinks Frame is having sex, but actually – spoiler – she’s just knitting. And there are no great revelations – at least I didn’t notice any – about either writer. I didn’t learn, in that demanding way we require of certain kinds of historical books, very much from this book.

What I did get from this book was a feast of wonderful writing and two delightful characters, only somewhat familiar to me, who sprang off the page and fought each other all across Takapuna and through the vegetable garden. This book is a wonderful book about writers and writing that manages not to be alienating to those readers who, like me, feel strongly that writers tend often to overdramatise the difficulties of their life’s work. (I’m just reading Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys in which he describes writing as “the midnight disease” which forces writers to do horrible things to the people around them so they have something to write about. If I could only be confident Chabon was joking, I’d be enjoying the novel a lot more.) Instead the fictional Frame and Sargeson treat their writing as a job, a real one, but not mundane or optional: something they must do, but something from which they are capable (certainly in Sargeson’s case; perhaps less in Frame’s case) of gaining a little distance and a critical eye. Their writing may define the shape of their lives, but does not ruin it. Both Frame and Sargeson have external difficulties which are capable of doing that themselves, and perhaps it is those that keep them from cursing their writing as the dark burden so often described by the helplessly Byronic.

Perhaps my favourite thing about the novels was the clash between the fictional Sargeson and Frame’s purposes and businesslike attitudes towards their writing. For Sargeson,

Then you become–I don’t know– an anatomist of folly. You take this world with all its mindless restrictions, its–obsession with other people’s sexual business– and you turn it on its head– … I mean, was your childhood like that? I demanded. Was it like Little Women?
No. No, it wasn’t–
Then there’s your task! I told her. That is what you must do–it’s the task of every serious writer in this country. Tell the truth about puritanism–

… that what we write owes something to society, that it comes out of society–society, life, whatever you want to call it–and goes back into it in an endless cycle …

However magical they might seem now we look back at them, however exotic, in their time they were just plain old words, and most of them, I think you’ll find, bleared and smeared with toil. The two go hand-in-hand, sad to say, talking and trading. Disappointingly prosaic, but that’s the hard fact of it–words and work–

Slowly, I started to set out for her what it was we’re all doing, not just writers but of course those of us who find ourselves fetched up here in a time and a place that culturally speaking are on the dark side of the moon. Introduce the landscape to the land— an excellent phrase one of my friends used in a recent poem: I talked about that, and I used a similar phrase from a review I’d read a few years ago about living with the land. It’s not that I thought completely like that, you understand, I mean I always knew there was something more to our project than just that first accommodation. But I wanted to make it clear to here that is is a project that the writer of today is involved in here, and that because of history we are obliged to work together to find a way of writing about what is around us so that those who come next don’t have to do it, so that they may have what we never had, the beginnings  of a local tradition. And I did in fact think in terms of terra firma, the ground we stand on–that cultivated world outside my window where green shade grew green thoughts and for whose continued growth my own generation (such as we were) must provide heroic, willing compost–

For Evans’ Sargeson writing is a matter of social responsibility, a matter of reflecting eloquently and accurately the Real World, the Way Things Are, and also to preserve things that are lost. The fictional Sargeson speaks movingly about a lost New Zealand and his search to immortalise it in the tales of the old men with whom he spent a great deal of time, and also in this passage, he suggests that the task of New Zealand writers of his generation was to get the landscape down, as it were, to create a foundation for a New Zealand literature that would then no longer have to be quite so preoccupied with its own New Zealand-ness. This is writing as a very specific kind of project. It’s interesting to wonder, in the context of the publication of this book, whether the task was completed: does this book, dwelling as it does with the landscape of (Pākehā) fiction in New Zealand, constitute another contribution to the foundation? Or because it does look at these accepted, canonical Greats, does that mean it must have succeeded, there is a New Zealand Literature and NZ books no longer have to introduce the landscape to the land? Because they’re there to be pointed at?

On the other hand, the fictional Frame speaks eloquently of language itself as the point of writing:

You speak a world, she said. Yes, that’s what it is–a language that uncreates
She’d been working it out in front of me, working it out for herself as she sat there. I waited. She looked at me for a moment and then away–
A language that rolls back the reel of time and reverses the Fall, she said. So there’re no more gaps between us, people aren’t strangers anymore … A language that will heal us and make us whole, she said … Language as utterance–

This is much less obviously writing as work, but it is, if you look at it, and I think that’s probably my favourite thing about this book. Writing as  something that gets done while the people doing it are also fighting and knitting and gardening and cooking and missing people and loving people and making wine – and not while they’re drugged to the gills, cheating on their wives, sleeping with teenagers. They certainly aren’t doing those things because they’re writers. At any rate Frame’s idea of fiction is obviously much more modern and more familiar to me because, after all, I know her work better. And it’s just generally charming – she prefaces it with an anecdote about St Cuthbert who was preaching in the sea, to the waves, and the otters came and listened and then dried his feet. This is a very specific kind of magic that’s also familiar to me from, you know, actual fantasy – you speak things, and they occur; because your language is so good, so precise, so complex and close in its understanding of what it’s speaking about that it causes these things to come to pass. (Readers familiar with Diane Duane’s young adult fantasy series, Young Wizards, will also find this concept very familiar.) Anyway, it’s a really lovely explication of the idea.

I know I’m supposed to have a concluding paragraph here, but I’m not really sure what to put in it. The language in this book is lovely, creative without being maddening; the book is lively and juicy in its images, its ideas, and its wordplay. Frame and Sargeson leap off the page rather wonderfully, and it’s an absorbing, delightful read as well as a nice period piece, thoroughly soaked in its 1950s Takapuna setting. Don’t read this book if you’re looking for a great reveal – oh, that‘s what Frame meant when she wrote that – that’s not the purpose of this book or, rather than putting words in Evans’ mouth, I’ll say that’s not what I got out of it. Instead I got out of it a what-if, a wondering. What were they like together? What did they do, how did they play, did they talk to each other about their prose, about their wider relationships? The novel isn’t a definitive answer, but it’s a charming one.

Want to read reviews of Gifted written by people who are actually familiar with the birth and death dates of Frame and Sargeson? Good idea. Try this interview with Evans, the ODT review, and “A new frame for Frame”, the Listener review. Want to buy Gifted? Makes a great Christmas gift! NZ$30 direct from VUP (only $15 for the ebook!) or from your local independent bookshop.