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What can novels tell us about how men and women respond to a crisis?


The below is an extract from an article written for BBC Arts. Read the full article here.

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised questions about whether male and female leaders respond differently in times of uncertainty. University of Wolverhampton’s Professor Sebastian Groes and Professor Karina van Dalen-Oskam from the Huygens Institute in the Netherlands think their new study of novels about power and politics might give us a clue.

Recently, news stories from a range of sources including The Guardian and The New York Times argued that countries led by women have handled the Covid-19 pandemic better than those led by men.

The NYT singled out leaders such as Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel for a ‘new leadership style’ that avoids bias, groupthink and blind spots by making use of many different sources of information.

This is a provocative claim. The same papers took pains to point out that dividing leaders into homogenous groups of men and women is not necessarily helpful. However, it raises interesting questions about whether, and why, there might be differences in the way that men and women react to moments of political upheaval.

Recently, a panel of authors and literary experts selected ten novels about power, politics and protest that shaped their world. Re-reading these and other novels, and using innovative computational analysis, has highlighted differences between the books written by men and women.

We can ask why this might be the case. Do men and women use language differently? Have the unequal opportunities faced by women, in literature as in politics, led them to adopt different strategies in public spaces dominated by men? Or do publishers and panellists choose to recognise different kinds of fictions from authors of different genders?

Seeking answers to these questions may throw new light on different political responses.

The Novels That Shaped Our World panel chose ten novels on ‘Politics, Power & Protest'.

The BBC novels address a broad range of conflicts. Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta focusses on oppressive government. Malorie Blackman's Noughts & Crosses imagines a world in which Africans have enslaved Europeans. Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns is an analysis of women in Afghanistan. This eclectic selection shows there’s no such thing as feminine and masculine subject matter.

However, there may be differences in the way men and women approach these topics. Some authors take on political events and regimes directly. James Plunckett’s epic Strumpet City traces the lives of a dozen (mostly male) Dubliners during the violent 1913 Dublin Lock-out, and does not shy away from explicit descriptions of poverty. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is an analysis of politics and violence among young men.

By contrast Carol Shields’ Unless is steeped in gender politics, but also a beautiful, introspective meditation on ordinary lives. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird reveals stark truths about racism, but focuses on how these injustices are perceived by children.

In her essay ‘Women and Fiction’ (1929), Virginia Woolf argues that women have different values to men, allowing them to undermine male-dominated ideology and convention by expressing themselves differently.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 have inspired many novels. A recent book made the bold claim that male and female authors have responded differently. Women tended to write about 9/11 indirectly, through form, style, imagery and symbolism. Men, to put it crudely, were more likely to show falling bodies and crashing planes.

Men including Philip Roth, John Updike, Don DeLillo, Martin Amis and Jay McInerney often represented the event soon after the attacks. Many women withheld their responses. Lionel Shriver withdrew her novel The New Republic because she felt the depiction of violence might upset readers.

In the BBC list, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire was published more than a decade after 9/11, and addresses intricate problems of Muslim identity since then.

In our Novel Perceptions study we have used innovative computer analysis to take a closer look at the language of the BBC panel’s selection. Using computer analysis we have identified words which occur significantly more than statistically probable, and noticed differences in the pronouns that our male and female authors favoured.

When we compare nouns referring to family in the women’s novels we find ‘dad’, ‘mum’, ‘sister’, ‘folks’, ‘mother’, ‘aunt’, ‘family’, ‘aunty’, ‘daddy’, and ‘mama’ occurring frequently.

In the novels by men we only find ‘father’ and ‘mammy’. The novels by women writers tend to take a broad view of society, while the focus on family is narrower and more hierarchical in male novels.

This is an extract from a BBC Arts article. Read the full piece here.

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