When I was twelve, I thought J. R. R. Tolkien the greatest writer in the world. By the time I was 15, I was appreciating Shakespeare, and reading systematically through the collected poems of Byron and Shelley. But it wasn’t until after my bachelor’s degree in English that I could read Dickens for pleasure, and I was doing my master’s before I became a fan of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and the other Victorian novelists. These experiences, I believe, indicate something that is often overlooked in high schools and universities – namely, that you can only read a writer in your own time, and when that time occurs is partly dependent on gender.
The question is not just one of age, although those who try to classify young adult fiction would have you believe everything is that simple. Admittedly, my own trail shows a progression in subtlety, from Tolkien’s action-packed adventures to the verbal cleverness of Shakespeare and the iconoclasm and revolutionary spirit of the Romantic poets (so suitable to a boy who believed in social causes), and becomes increasingly nuanced after that. But it is also a matter of increased experience and perception as well.
Just as few great novels are written by anyone under twenty-five, so few great novels are likely appreciated by men under twenty-five. The majority of teenage boys (and I was no exception) simply don’t have the experience to have developed the taste for demanding works when they’re young. The insights that underlie a novel, let alone the rhythms of a strong prose stylist, represent a kind of aesthetic puberty that teenage boys and young men haven’t reached yet. Few of them can appreciate such things any more than a pre-pubescent child can appreciate the intricacies of sex and love.
By contrast, plot-driven stories such as Tolkien’s seem accessible to males at a relatively young age. You only have to see the selection of blockbuster movies aimed at the taste of young males to see the truth of this fact. In much the same way, as a dramatist, Shakespeare externalizes experience, with introspection served up in the breaks in the action represented by the soliloquy. The shift to perception and point of view that is characterized by the novel is subtler than either – and also a relatively recent literary development, and one that wouldn’t have been possible without adventure tales and plays having been developed first.
The trouble is, the average male adolescent, no matter how full of social causes and good intentions, isn’t socially conditioned to want to seek out a female point of view like Austen’s. The definitions of male sexuality in the culture don’t encourage them to be aware that a female point of view even exists. If they do discover it, they are likely to be too egocentric to care much about it. If they approach it at all, they usually do so with reservations.
With the best will in the world, the female perspective is too foreign to them – and the novel, whoever writes it, has always been more about female perspectives than any other structural genre in English (which is why terms such as “chick lit” are nonsense). The average male in modern industrial culture needs five to ten years of relationships and even marriage to appreciate a socially-centered or psychological novel.
By contrast, the female experience seems quite different. Women start off with an advantage because, if they are interested in adventure at all, they have to learn early how to read around the male dominance in such stories. Probably, too, they are ready for the novel earlier, because its territory is more familiar to them – when I was teaching university English, I couldn’t help but notice that in the novel courses I taught, three quarters of the young students were women, while poetry and drama courses tended to have a slight majority of men.
Middle-age is a great equalizer, and I am glad to have arrived at an age where I can view both Tolkien and Hardy as great writers, each in their own way. But when I think of the gender-influenced delays and detours I took, I wish that I could have more daring or imagination and expanded my horizons more quickly. If I had, I could have had another decade or more to enjoy George Elliot! But, considering the odds, maybe I should just be glad that I managed to reach my current perspective at all.