A Year in Reading Women

The first of a 2 or 3 part series. I gots to spreeeeaaaaaaaad out on this topic.

In honor of The Millions‘ Year in Reading series, my favorite of which were Zadie Smith‘s and Matt Dojny‘s—brevity!—I present here my discussion of a year of reading mostly women novelists.

First entry: Why did I make this commitment?

Partly this. Gender disparity in publishing. Dresses-and-heels book covers, no Time covers, not even close to 50% of book reviews and so forth.

Partly my guilt that after earning a Ph.D. in contemporary fiction, I was appallingly ignorant of living women fiction writers. Appallingly. Though I could, probably, blame the system as much as myself. A scholarly system that separates “race and ethnicity” and “gender and sexuality” fields from “contemporary US fiction.”

Partly post-academic burnout. I spent years investigating novels written by men. Mostly white men. No longer beholden to a professional agenda, why not take a break from my diss dudes?

Partly an experiment. Like a year of living biblically or a year of no sex or a year of eating only orange foods (yes, salmon counts). My year of reading only women writers.

So how, exactly, did this work?

Well, I made a few exceptions: Nathan Englander because I was excited about his new story collection. So I read his old one: go figure. Dave Eggers because it was laying around in the house.

I also read pretty much everything in the New Yorker and Atlantic magazines (except the fiction in the Atlantic is mostly dumb. Sorry, friends. It is), no matter who wrote it.

But otherwise, from libraries and bookstores I read only books by women. Not just novels, either. I read some nonfiction: most of Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin book (it got a bit dull when the first two Rin Tin Tins died) and all of The American Way of Eating. Plus Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids?, which I liked.

How did it feel? To make this choice and commit to it? Despite understanding that men and women don’t actually write differently? That men write awesome novels that sometimes even feature fully realized women characters sometimes?

How did it feel to reject this rational understanding of gender and writing?

Mostly awesome.

Rock music offers a simple way to understand this:

This year I bought two CDs that came out in 2012: Jack White’s Blunderbuss and the Corin Tucker Band’s Kill My Blues. Both rock.

But one makes me feel like shit, and one doesn’t.

Most reviews mention how violent the Jack White album is. He wants love to slam his fingers in the door, love makes all his body parts fall off, women enjoy beating him up.

Hah hah hah! He SAYS had an amicable divorce, but his solo record sure sounds angry!!

Hardly any reviewers, however, mention how deeply misogynist it is.

To wit: “Freedom at 21,” about a heartbroken dude: “She don’t care what kind of wounds she’s inflicting on me,/ and she don’t care what color bruises that she’s leaving on me,/ cause she’s got freedom in the 21st Century.”

Because that’s what feminism is about, right? Destroying men for the fun of it? That’s EXACTLY the kind of freedom I’m looking for, as a 21st century, liberation-minded woman. As a feminist blogger.

After listening to the record a few times, I started to believe he deserved it. Not the violence. But the contempt? Absolutely.

It’s not just that song. Dude’s got a serious woman problem. A problem with seriously hating women. It’s all over this record. So when I’m listening to it and loving how it sounds, I’ve got to just not hear the lyrics.

And you can imagine how good I am at that.

But the Corin Tucker Band record sounds just as good. Musically different, but still awesome. Many of the same elements: powerful, emotional voice, lots of guitar, kick-ass supporting musicians, compelling songwriting. Plus, I met her and she signed my shirt.

The kicker? I don’t have to feel guilty about liking it.

The lyrics don’t piss me off. It’s all love songs and ballads of teen life, and family life, and a little letter to Joey Ramone. A great song about how we’re still fighting the same feminist battles our mothers fought. A killer song, “Neskowin,” about a teenage girl who hits the town on a family vacation and feels powerful. Nothing bad happens to her! Nothing! She’s actually proud of how different she is!

Did you guys know that you could make a rock-solid rock record without a single song of bitter heartbreak? I didn’t. Till this record came out.

So onto the books, which admittedly offer more complicated gender politics than rock music. But the basic experience is the same: I don’t have to feel guilty when I read women. I can pretty much trust that the women characters will be interesting, and that the men characters will also be interesting.

I cannot trust male authors, even the sainted David Foster Wallace, in the same way. In DFW, for example, you get a little bit in the famous state fair essay about how amazing it is that teen girls wear really short cutoffs. Or you get a bunch of sexualized women of various shapes and sizes and grotesqueries. Or you get fans and critics celebrating how “human” his writing is. When, to me, it’s only about half human.

I was going to save the “results” of my experiment for another post, but I just walked into it: My forced eschewing of men novelists gave me some (frankly, unwanted) perspective on some of them. Like DFW. I’d been thinking for a while about the disjunction between fan and critic appraisals of his radical humanity and the grotesque depictions of his fictional people. His characters, every single one of them, are crippled either emotionally or physically. In The Pale King it wasn’t so egregious. But it was there: sexualized, manipulative women and troubled, vulnerable men. And yet, critics and fans cite his voice as the foremost voice of human experience.

So some DFW warriors might say that NO ONE is depicted respectfully in DFW. Everyone’s got a big ol’ problem. And yet, I’d argue that, in general, in his fiction, the women have bigger problems and shallower, more sexualized representations. Similarly, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I loved and put in my dissertation, everyone gets symbolically raped. But the women get symbolically raped more.

DFW and Murakami fans might also say, as I said for a long time, but he’s SO F-In GOOD. Sure, maybe the woman thing is there. But HE’S SO GOOD.

With women novelists, though I don’t have to worry about it. I don’t have to constantly negotiate a compromise.

It’s a fantastic novel, but I wasn’t nuts about the way the women were shallow foils for the men’s emotional progress.

It’s an incredible film, but I was uncomfortable with the way  the woman star was sexualized.

It’s a great rock album, but all the women in it are evil sadists.

With women novelists, I don’t compromise. I don’t have to anxiously anticipate the possibility of having to compromise. I don’t have to examine my reactions for evidence of internalized sexism.

I can just relax. Enjoy the language, character, and story. Like a bubble bath.

The real reason I let Englander into my experimental year was that I didn’t think I’d have to make the Feminist Compromise. And I was right. Eggers wasn’t so bad, either, at least on that score.

And I know that plenty of men writers get women right. In fact, feel free to offer suggestions in comments. But for a year, I just didn’t want to have to worry about it.

And I didn’t.

Next entry: What I did and didn’t read, and more on why it matters.

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9 thoughts on “A Year in Reading Women

  1. stacylavin says:

    I haven’t spoken to you in months, but your evolution in thinking about DFW as expressed in this post brings me up to date in your world more effectively than would daily phone calls. Also, you ate only orange food for a year??

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hah! Sure! But we should actually talk.

      I don’t know if I’d call it an evolution. I always felt this way. When I was trying to create an academic career in DFW scholarship, I thought studying embodiment in his work would answer some of these gender questions.

      Now that I’m pursuing another career, I don’t have to worry about it! It’s a relief, though I may eventually get tired of this break I’m taking.

      I’m curious about your post-academic thing too! Maybe when we TALK…

      On Dec 14, 2012, at 9:46 PM, Thinker For Hire

  2. […] Friday I articulated the notion of Feminist […]

  3. Melissa says:

    Elizabeth! Finally I got to read this. And I have a painful confession to make. I am finally sick of how sexist Murakami is. You’ve been gently bringing this up with me for years, and I haven’t been ready to hear it. Because I like being with him — I mean, his books — too much. But now that I’ve read every single one of his novels (sigh), I can’t ignore it any more. It wasn’t an intellectual decision. I was walking home from dropping my son off at preschool one morning thinking about how much I love Murakami and suddenly I both loved his books AND felt deeply disappointed in his weird gender hangups. And how they affect his portrayal of women. One of the hardest books for me was Hard Boiled Wonderland because I loved it SO MUCH (dual worlds! unicorns!) and yet the sexism was SO OBVIOUS. I mean, he spends pages talking about how nice it is to have sex with pudgy women! But not in a respectful way, you know? The pudgy woman in question never wins his respect (despite saving his life multiple times) or even his attention (despite throwing herself at him). And then he has a female character who can eat excessively yet stays super thin and beautiful — what a weird male fantasy — and she helps him even though he’s a weirdo and has lots of sex with him. And cleans his apartment. Ugh. So, yeah. I’m sad about my loss. Please fill my void with women novelists. Please.

  4. […] readers may recall “Feminist Compromise,” the feminist experience of wanting to enjoy, say, a superawesomeSFTVshow, while also wanting and […]

  5. […] you’re getting that sense of ambivalently non-feminist slime dripping into your eyes, even if it’s in the New Yorker (“Thirteen Wives”) you […]

  6. […] then my second reaction was OH! HE MADE TWO WOMEN the MAIN CHARACTERS! Usually dude writers don’t do that. Or, if they do, I don’t usually care for such depictions. But he’s a mensch, as […]

  7. […] y’all, I’m working on another post-ac essay. It’s Part Three of last year’s two-part blog series about reading only women […]

  8. […] host of publishing inequities having to do with gender but also with race, of course, but I’m fixated on gender these days, still, and am less well-informed about writers of color trying to get […]

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