Sunday Bookchat

October 21, 2007

One of the great things about being a high-profile columnist with a blog is that you can respond directly to ignorant and ax-grinding reviewers. Which brings us to Paul Krugman’s new book, The Conscience of a Liberal, and Krugman’s response to this review.

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Personally, I don’t think men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Experience tells me it’s more along the lines of, Men are from Lawrenceville and women are from Princeton: though there are some obvious differences, they’re already pretty close, and it doesn’t take much effort for one to reach the other. Deborah Cameron’s new book The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages? appears to make roughly the same argument, though Cameron would probably make other geographical comparisons. Guardian reviewer Steven Poole has a very amusing critique:

In the end, the most economical disproof of big theories about innate differences in language-use is that things are actually the opposite way round in other cultures. The men of the village of Gapun in Papua New Guinea prize indirect and subtle speech, while the women practise a form of highly abusive monologue called a Kros. As Cameron comments: “In Gray’s terms, Gapun would seem to be a place where men are from Venus and women are from Mars.” She is to be applauded for having resisted the temptation to conclude that Gray is from Uranus.

Last year, a book claimed that women talk three times as much as men, on average speaking 20,000 words a day against men’s 7,000. This factoid raced around the world, engendering countless newspaper headlines, before it was pointed out that it was based on zero evidence. Cameron suggests that such “news” is welcomed by those who resent the fact that women no longer meekly stay at home to cook and look after babies. “Culture change is hard: it causes anxiety, conflict and, in some quarters, resistance. That is why the myth of Mars and Venus has had such a warm reception from the educated western middle classes.”

At one point, she mentions a website called the Gender Genie that, by counting the frequencies of various words (“the” is supposed to be a “masculine” word), predicts whether the author of a supplied text is male or female. Excitedly, I raced to perform an experiment. The Gender Genie told me that an essay by Susan Sontag was written by a man, and an extract of my own work in progress was written by a woman. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, isn’t there?

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Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov talks with Bill Maher about his new book How Life Imitates Chess and the risks inherent in being a loud, high profile critic of Vladimir Putin. Crooks and Liars posts the entire, highly watchable interview here.


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