The effect of literature on the individual

Posted: February 2, 2015 in Rants, Reviews & Ramblings
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            The degree to which literature can influence or affect an individual is dependent on many factors, and is all but impossible to measure objectively. Even narrowing our focus to look only at the way gender is portrayed in children’s books, and the part these books play in shaping the attitudes and ideas a child forms in relation to gender stereotypes, is difficult to gauge. One person may say that a particular piece of literature had such an impact that all of their views on gender are based on just one book; for another, literature has played a tiny part in an immense amalgam of conflicting and complementary ideas and influences from all manner of sources; and for another still, literature may have no direct influence whatsoever.

            Personally, there are many books that I enjoyed as a child that I now recognise are full of conservative ideology – and not just with regard to their portrayal of gender stereotypes. The extent to which those books influenced or affected my life, however, or the notions I formed about gender when I was a child is hard to say. But as Patrick Kurp explains in his blog, reading has “helped populate my interior landscape, overhauled my imagination,… kept me amused, [and] honed my critical faculties.” So the books I read during my formative years must surely have played some part, right?

            Before I’d really sat down and thought through my answer to that question, the narrow-minded cynic in me couldn’t help but think, as Phillip Roth put it during an interview in 1984, when he argued that books simply “provide readers with something to read.” I enjoy reading but I cannot say that there is any single piece of literature that I feel has profoundly changed me as a person or shaped the direction I have taken in my life, so the affect literature really has on a person mustn’t be all that extensive. This attitude is, of course, dependent on one ignoring the mountains of evidence that suggest that literature can and does play a massive part in shaping peoples’ lives.

            The internet is awash with criticism of books that reinforce stereotypes (not just those associated with gender) and a great many children’s books are criticised, as Early Childhood Australia points out, for reinforcinggender stereotypes rather than upholding cultural progress and preparing future adults for further change.” So there is no getting away from the idea that the books people read when they are children must have an influence on them in some way or other.

            What of those books I read as a child, whose depictions of men and women must have held some weight in determining my personal notions of gender roles and stereotypes? Or the effect of the kinds of books I see in the Children’s section in bookshops has on today’s children?

            In contemporary children’s books like The Boys’ Book of Adventure: Are You Ready to Face the Challenge? by Steve Martin (2010), and For Boys Only: The Biggest, Baddest Book Ever by Marc Aronson and H. P. Newquist (2007), gender stereotypes are still upheld. Apart from being specifically meant for boys, they reinforce stereotypes such as: boys enjoy facts about super cars, repairing spaceships, embarking on mythical quests, being a detective, handling meat-eating plants, and weapons that changed history; “Cool stuff… [like] adventure, sports, animals, magic, warriors, movies, video games, and even danger.”

            The Double-Daring Book For Girls, by Andrea J. Buchanan, Miriam Peskowitz, delves into areas traditionally held as the conservatively classical domain of boys – football, cricket and fishing. But it also plays on the stereotype that girls are concerned more about their appearance, explaining how a girl can dye her hair using Kool-Aid and how to tie a sarong, and that girls enjoy arty things like decoupage, keeping a dream journal and attending slumber parties.

            As a child I greatly enjoyed The Railway Series of books (upon which the popular children’s television series Thomas & Friends is based). All of the characters in positions of power are men and the few female characters are usually only carriages following obediently behind the male engines and play little or no part in the stories.

            I also enjoyed Arthur Ransome’s 1930 novel, Swallows and Amazons, which tells the story of a group of children who spend a summer in the Lake District of England, sailing, camping and playing pirates. While all of the characters, both male and female, take part in the swashbuckling adventures, the female characters still obediently take care of the domestic duties – cooking, cleaning, and mothering their siblings – while the male characters are the ones in charge – the eldest boy is the captain of the Swallow, and he does none of the cooking or cleaning.

            Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats books and cartoons were also a favourite of mine as a child. As Anne-Marie O’Neill asserts, the male characters in Footrot Flats are in constant conflict with the female characters, a “conflict between male mateship… based in labour and play… and heterosexual normality,” where blokes run the farm and the sheilas run the local beauty salon, and where “mating is seen as distracting and absorbing the male agenda and culture into a feminine agenda and culture.”

            And yet, despite counting these and other books that are criticised for reinforcing conservative gender stereotypes amongst those I enjoyed as a child, I like to think that I have still grown to be a reasonably enlightened person, that I learnt to see those stereotypes and the way they are portrayed for what they were; that rather than engendering me with outdated notions of gender or any particular gender-bias, the books played a part in educating me, allowing me to gain an understanding of the negative ideologies they depict.

            But while literature certainly does influence and affect people’s lives, it is difficult to measure the extent of that influence and the exact effect it has. A child presented with the same or similar literature that I have referred to might well grow up with a completely different set of values in relation to gender. This is because any number of factors – including culture and access to literature – contribute to a person’s development, and therefore, the extent to which literature affects or influences a person’s life differs from person to person and is next to impossible to define in general terms.

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