Sunday, November 16, 2008

Gender on the Brain

The New York Times published an article this weekend about the declining percentage of women making up computer science students—10%, down from 20% seventeen years ago and from 40% in the mid-eighties.

Meanwhile, I am reading Journal of Artists’ Books (JAB) 24, which features a long interview between Tate Shaw and Chris Burnett about road literature and the artist’s book, coinciding nicely with Burnett’s talk on the same at Pyramid Atlantic last weekend. Inevitably Kerouac’s classic is referenced, not least because the famous scroll manuscript is currently on display at Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Book and Paper, the current home of JAB.

My own strong response to On the Road at age 15 aside, there seems to be a gender divide in its contemporary reception. Particularly coming to it as adults, many women I know have little patience for the book.

And I find myself asking: is there a gendered aspect to road literature?

Over the course of a road trip covering 700 miles, Shaw and Burnett conversationally compile a prodigious list of 235 references—books of many sorts, pieces of art, fiction, theory. To the best of my ability, I calculate that thirty of these were works by women (with fractions figured in for works with multiple authors). This is roughly 13%, so it is safe to say that road literature is doing better than computer science by a narrow margin.

My goal is not to fault Shaw and Burnett for this disparity. To be sure, any attempt at gender balance in academic and critical conversation is hampered by a deeply entrenched history of bias in publishing, academe, the arts, and the culture at large. And I wonder how the overall theme of the road trip ties into our gender norms.

Burnett discusses stream of consciousness writing as linear, parallel to but never quite caught up with real time (20). On the other hand, comics artist Lynda Barry points to the act of writing as the actual carrier of the art, the image, the narrative (What It Is, 2008, Drawn & Quarterly)--rather than simply its scribe.

Meanwhile…yes, all this attention to the road coincides with the 50th anniversary of On the Road’s publication, but it also comes at a time when the road trip’s death knells are sounding. The price of oil has sky rocketed. The limits of our fossil fuel supply are becoming clearer, as are the disastrous impact of a car culture on the earth’s climate. If I throw out the term “eco-feminism,” that says enough, right?