Book 1.4 If on a winter’s night… The Male Gaze

The main character in If on a winter’s night a traveler is “You,” the reader. As I wrote before, this isn’t unlike the old Choose Your Own Adventure books where the hero was actually “You,” the person reading the book.

(Some other books that do the “second-person” thing are Robbins’ Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas – my uncle Bob’s favorite novel – and, as Wikipedia reminds me, Bright Lights, Big City, a book with a title so good that few read it but. everyone. references. it.)

The thing about writing a book where “You” are the hero – “You” have to have a personality of some sort or, gulp, you end up sounding like… one of the heroes of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

Through the first thirty or so pages of traveler, this is the way things go. “You” the reader are left defined only by the fact that you are reading a kinda quirky book. Then comes the Other Reader. In the plot, “You” the reader are returning a defective copy of a book when you meet an attractive woman who is also returning a book. The same book. “You” are attracted to her and pursue her. Toward the end of the chapter  “You” are identified as a man. Now “You” are no longer a nonentity. You are a man who, ostensibly, is single, likes to read, and likes women.

Let’s do a little math here. Let’s assume “You” are American (though obviously it is assumed the reader is Italian).  There are around 307 million Americans. Of those, 151 million are male. Of those, about 72 percent fall within the age range of 18 or older: 109  million people. Of those, 41 percent are single, or  rounded up to 45 million people. Of those, about 13 percent will have a  “proficient” level of literacy. (The reader of traveler is clearly a “proficient” reader). Rounded up, again, there are only six million potential candidates for “You” in the United States. (We can knock several hundred thousand more off to account for sexual preference, but there are no reliable stats for that.) In the end, this means that less than two percent of the total population could be considered “You.”

What is most interesting about all of this is the Male part. It gets at the old fictional trope known as the Male Gaze. Simply, this is the point of view that most books and films take. The camera or the narrator, though supposed to be genderless, inevitably gives away a male leaning. Why? Because most writers, in TV, film and literature, are male, and most advertising firms are run by males. TV Tropes, a site that dissects every cliche you can think of, has a good take on this:

“Common symptoms of Male Gaze include assuming that the audience will identify or empathize primarily with male characters, and will have typically male experiences, preferences and expectations.”

This is why movies and books about men are “books” and “movies” while books about women are chick lit and movies about women are chick flicks.

Now, back to traveler here. I don’t mind that Calvino is starting to give the “You” more personality, but, as a male, it makes me wonder how a female reader reacts to this revelation. “You” are now no longer any “You” but a “You” who is, so the statistics show, far from universal. It is unfortunate that women, by nature or merely necessity, have to assume a Male Gaze of their own in order to pretend to be the “You” of Calvino’s plot. Or is it? In a book this self-aware, it is dangerous to label something as “bad” or “unfair” so early. I’ll let this “You”  flesh out a little more before coming to any conclusions.

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