September 17, 2013

“Men, to the best of my knowledge, don’t even read,” Goldberg said. “When’s the last time you heard a man say, ‘I’ve been reading this great book, you’d really like it’? My girlfriend always tells me about these books she’s reading, and I don’t even see her reading the book! Where does this book live?”
-Lizzie Widdicombe’s New Yorker profile of Bryan Goldberg, founder of Bustle.com, the much-mocked News Site for Women.

Then again, given the cover of most books...
Then again, given the cover of most books…

Real men don’t read.

Well, not books, anyway. They glance occasionally at the assembly instructions on furniture, but just to reassure themselves that their instincts were correct. Then they burn those instructions in a fire. Sometimes, when they’re stuck in the restroom without their smartphones, they read the entire label of a tube of toothpaste, just to give their eyes something to do. Real men do stare at women’s chests, and sometimes there are t-shirts in the way, with text on them, so they pick up a word or two. But mostly they realize that reading, like brunching, feeling guilty about body hair, and understanding that Walter White is not a character to be glorified or emulated, is a pursuit best left to the Fairer Sex. At least this is what I have gleaned, anthropologically, from a close study of numerous CBS sitcoms, the occasional subreddit, and the recent public presence of Bustle founder Bryan Goldberg.

There’s been a much amusing hay made in pointing out the glaring and hideous flaws of the Bustle project, a Site For Women. The main problem with Bustle’s founder is that he seemed to have such ample contempt for the very market he was aiming at.

“I am a dude,” Goldberg told the New Yorker’s Lizzie Widdicombe. “I don’t have a lot of overlapping interests with most women my age. I’m really into history. I’m really into markets and finance… I don’t know a damn thing about beauty, but I don’t need to.”

Its founder’s lack of compassion for or comprehension of the site’s intended audience was strange and jarring. How did he attract a non-negligible amount of funding for a project whose animating idea seemed to be that women were strange creatures who might be good business if only someone translated news into their strange and bewildering language? Did these people not know of the existence of other news sites for women, sites like — HuffingtonPost, the Washington Post, or CNN.com, to name two that I don’t work for? If you want a feminist spin on your news, there’s XOJane, the Hairpin, Jezebel — Or there’s Bustle, where the model, as Widdicombe notes, is to make women write enough things that other women will be swept into the site by brute force:

Right now, Bustle’s staff cranks out sixty articles a day. Eventually, Goldberg hopes, they will produce “a thousand articles a day—a thousand relevant articles a day,” covering “every topic that young women care about—all their favorite shows, all their favorite celebrities, all their favorite fashion brands, every news story that’s relevant to them.
Goldberg’s vision—with its triumph of mathematical certainties over editorial art—reminded me of the infinite-monkey theorem: if you were to have monkeys randomly strike typewriters for an infinite amount of time, the proposition goes, they would eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. If you assemble a sufficiently large and diverse group of young, female writers, they will eventually produce a Web site that is popular with young women.

Reading the coverage of Goldberg, I’d wondered: “How are you so completely void of any interest in the contents of other people’s heads that you assume the best way to create content that interests women is to just throw women at the Internet until something sticks? Did you not even notice that even in your former venture, BleacherReport, you had to appeal to a specific unifying interest — sports — to attract a largely male readership, not just create a site targeted at “Menfolks, that mysterious monolith.”

“How do you spend 30 years on the earth without realizing that women are, for lack of a better word, people?”

Well, the answer is pretty simple: you don’t read.

Reading is one of the few sure-fire ways to become better at being human. So it’s a problem when anyone doesn’t do it — and an especial problem recently, when boys are increasingly slipping behind, at least compared to their female counterparts.

As of 2009, boys lagged 39 points behind girls, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment. One of the suggested reasons that boys aren’t reading is that unlike girls, who are somehow fonts of empathy capable of leaping from one perspective to another at a single bound, reading books from male or female perspectives with equal vigor and ease, boys can only be summoned to respond to the stories of other boys. And ever since books stopped being exclusively by boys, about boys (they never quite were, but in some eras it was a close call), literature has driven men from its fold.

It’s a Catch-22 — reading builds compassion, but until you have the kind of compassion engendered by reading, you don’t want to read.

To read is by definition to put yourself in another perspective, to crawl around in someone else’s sentences and see the world differently. And this is an exercise that Mr. Goldberg has, by his own admission, been missing out on.

No wonder Bustle’s been such a PR nightmare. Suddenly it all makes perfect sense.

The whole essence of reading is to transport yourself outside of yourself. A book need not be written in the first person; it still requires you to travel across time to somewhere you are not, to exist among people whom you do not know, and to remain at home there for 200 pages or so.

If you don’t read, you are only aware of other people as wonderful machines glimpsed from without. Men, women, it doesn’t matter. They have no interiors. You are the only real person. You can’t hear how you sound. You don’t want to.

And — it would appear — you found Bustle.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.