I understand that there is a writer named Jonathan Franzen
February 26, 2016 8:47 AM   Subscribe

 
So, she didn't actually make a list, she's just complaining that there should be one? She should make a list.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:54 AM on February 26, 2016 [10 favorites]


roomthreeseventeen - she's critiquing the Esquire list "The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read" , and saying her list would be the exact same list, just retitled "80 Books No Woman Should Read".

The article is worth a read, especially for this kinda perfect takedown of the always-popular Hemingway style among young male writers: And because the terse, repressed prose style is, in his (Hemmingway's) hands, mannered and pretentious and sentimental. Manly sentimental is the worst kind of sentimental, because it’s deluded about itself in a way that, say, honestly emotional Dickens never was.
posted by Think_Long at 8:59 AM on February 26, 2016 [32 favorites]


No, I understood her article, but I don't think those 80 books are books women shouldn't read.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:01 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is an important part of the linked article:
The list made me think there should be another, with some of the same books, called 80 Books No Woman Should Read, though of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty. Or they’re instructions in the version of masculinity that means being unkind and unaware, that set of values that expands out into violence at home, in war, and by economic means.
!
posted by Fizz at 9:03 AM on February 26, 2016 [103 favorites]


roomthreeseventeen - she's critiquing the Esquire list "The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read" , and saying her list would be the exact same list, just retitled "80 Books No Woman Should Read".

She says that her list would have "some of the same books," but not all, and notes some places where they'd differ. I, too, was expecting a list at the bottom of this piece.
posted by Shmuel510 at 9:07 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


I agree with her critique but think that these are books women should read, if only to know what they're up against.
I agree that William Burroughs is seriously creepy and obviously had tremendous issues with women, but he is also an indisputably great writer, with a very unique voice. Having said that I can certainly understand why women wouldn't want to read him.
Solnit's "A Paradise Built in Hell" is a very well written and thought provoking book, I recommend it.
posted by crazylegs at 9:07 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


It may be worth reading many of those books from the same angle that one would read Mein Kampf or watch Birth Of A Nation.

On preview: what crazylegs said.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:08 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah the article is great, but the Esquire list has some books that yes, everyone should read. Like Ellison's Invisible Man, Joyce's Dubliners and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. But it's still a terrible framing of a list (one weird trick to grow your penis: read these books!) and even more terrible for ignoring great women writers in favor of mostly forgettable stuff like Master and Commander.
posted by dis_integration at 9:10 AM on February 26, 2016 [7 favorites]


This is a ramble, not a clear argument. Why mention Franzen when you've never even read him. This is her first draft, which would have made me think a lot more about her thesis were it much more cohesive and a developed idea.
posted by archimago at 9:11 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


There are good and great books on the Esquire list, though even Moby-Dick, which I love, reminds me that a book without women is often said to be about humanity but a book with women in the foreground is a woman’s book.

YES!

> I agree with her critique but think that these are books women should read, if only to know what they're up against.

Some women surely come to adulthood without knowing what we're up against. That is very much not true for a lot of us. I don't need a novel with no women in it, or one in which the (male) protagonist's "humanity" is horribly and unremarkably misogynist, to teach me what women face in this world.
posted by rtha at 9:12 AM on February 26, 2016 [85 favorites]


So the books on the Esquire list are all about men, and books about "humanity" are all about men because it's expected that women be able to empathize with men, but not that men be able to empathize with women. Don't think this starts when men and women reach Jack-Kerouac-reading age. I was in McDs the other day (yeah, so what, they have great pancakes) and noticed that the happy meal toys that week were books. And what's more there was just one set of toys. Great...except that all the books were books about boys. Paddington Bear, If you give a mouse a cookie, and a couple of others, I don't recall. Not that McDonalds has ever been anywhere near the bleeding edge of gender equity, but I was still pretty disgusted.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:13 AM on February 26, 2016 [8 favorites]


It may be worth reading many of those books from the same angle that one would read Mein Kampf or watch Birth Of A Nation.

Someone makes that point in the comments, to which another commenter swiftly responds, "You make a strong point, but the problem is that it is always women who are forced to read and try to understand the 'alien' perspective while said perspective is normalized for men. This has been what the literary canon is all about. It's time for men to try to empathize with women as well."

I love this comment from stoneandstar in another thread, and think it's relevant here.
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:13 AM on February 26, 2016 [49 favorites]


I get her point- however, I do think that my reading of a lot of the books on the list gave me insight into a certain type of man. I purchased a book of Hemingway's short stories for a younger friend last year, prompting me to re read him (I hadn't since my early 20's) . What a tool. But- he was a reflection of the history and mores of a time.

And I still think this story is brilliant- it spoke to me in my youth Abortion in a Nutshell
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 9:14 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Writer Emily Gould described Bellow, Roth, Updike, Mailer as the “midcentury misogynists” a few years back, and it’s a handy term for those four guys on the Esquire list.

At my house, we have always called them "sixties assholes", along with various film directors, etc. One need not have had a career only in the sixties to be a sixties asshole, but the whole "I'm either cool or tormented because of women and their sexy, sexy ways, also I am cool, also let me describe and/or film women in creepy, objectifying and explicit ways" thing is central.
posted by Frowner at 9:14 AM on February 26, 2016 [41 favorites]


Just to be clear, I have nothing against those books, I just think there's no reason why there couldn't also have been some books with female protagonists and that boys couldn't read them just like girls can read Paddington Bear.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:15 AM on February 26, 2016


I enjoyed this, thank you!

This is a ramble, not a clear argument.

It reads a little like a stream-of-consciousness essay to me, which I gather is not your style, but individual tastes vary! If it makes you feel better, I don't think she wrote this specifically with you in mind.
posted by duffell at 9:17 AM on February 26, 2016 [46 favorites]


Looks like there's considerable overlap with Mallory Ortberg's List of Books That Literally All White Men Own.
posted by Rangi at 9:17 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


I like the idea of reading as an outward-seeking act of empathy regardless of a book's genre/label; not just about what's read, but in what spirit it is read.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:19 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


Before attempting a critique of this article, it's worth reading her follow-up: "Men Explain Lolita to Me"
When I wrote the essay that provoked such splenetic responses, I was trying to articulate that there is a canonical body of literature in which women’s stories are taken away from them, in which all we get are men’s stories. And that these are sometimes not only books that don’t describe the world from a woman’s point of view, but inculcate denigration and degradation of women as cool things to do.

. . .

I had never said that we shouldn’t read Lolita. I’ve read it more than once. I joked that there should be a list of books no woman should read, because quite a few lionized books are rather nasty about my gender, but I’d also said “of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty.” And then I’d had fun throwing out some opinions about books and writers. But I was serious about this. You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.
posted by sallybrown at 9:21 AM on February 26, 2016 [76 favorites]


Way off topic but referring to a book mentioned in this post, I recall years ago teaching lit at an all-woman's college, and a student wanting to refer to the Flannery O'Connor collection by the title, reversed the title and said "O'Connor's A HARD MAN IS GOOD TO FIND."
posted by Postroad at 9:22 AM on February 26, 2016 [19 favorites]


Actually, one thing I wish about this type of article is that we lived in a society where the writer didn't feel obligated to include a list of "good" men writers just so that we can be reassured that it's #notallmen.

I don't think anyone who reads a lot actually, literally thinks that all books by men are trash because they are by men; one should not have to provide reassurance that some men are all right when discussing misogyny.
posted by Frowner at 9:22 AM on February 26, 2016 [13 favorites]


I read Charlie Pierce's blog religiously which I love but it's hosted on Esquire and I keep getting these annoying popups wanting me to read the list of the "75 Movies that every man should see" as if men should see different films than woman or something. I find it very weird.
posted by octothorpe at 9:26 AM on February 26, 2016 [7 favorites]


I think it's always going to be difficult to deal with the fact that one can be a terrible person and a brilliant artist, even when one's horrible characteristics cannot be separated from the art.
posted by howfar at 9:28 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


as if men should see different films than woman or something. I find it very weird.

I mean, of course there's a wide range of movies that men like and that women like, but what you are describing is just a marketing concept.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:29 AM on February 26, 2016


If it makes you feel better, I don't think she wrote this specifically with you in mind.

The only thing I feel is that it is a poorly written essay, an interesting thesis thinly argued, and in which she undermines her own argument.
posted by archimago at 9:29 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Why mention Franzen when you've never even read him.

I kind of don't want to respond to this but I also think this is very much the point of the article (even though that's also a throwaway line that made me laugh out loud at the bus stop, causing a nearby homeless man to look at me in alarm). Whether or not you've read him, Franzen's very presence shapes the conversation about literature. I personally don't want to read him. I'm not that interested and I hear he's not great on women. I probably will never have time to read all the books I want to read in life so why should I bother with him?

There was a thread about Rudyard Kipling a while back, and some South Asian Mefites commented and said they had no interest in reading his racist crap. Some other people got pretty upset at that and defended Kipling's writing and said not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I've never read Kipling either; I'm not a member of one of the specific groups he has issues with, although I do feel a bit of reflexive distaste for him based on that, but mostly I just have other reading interests and no particular feelings on Kipling either way. But a canon means that certain writers will cast shadows wherever you go. That, if you are a woman or a person of color, certain people - a lot of people - will act disappointed in you if you state plainly your unwillingness to read books that treat you as "dirt" or "accessories" or "evil and empty."
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:30 AM on February 26, 2016 [66 favorites]


I agree with her critique but think that these are books women should read, if only to know what they're up against.

Look, I only have so many hours left in my life, I am not going to spend it digging through shit because I keep being told there's a pony in there.
posted by emjaybee at 9:30 AM on February 26, 2016 [89 favorites]


I think it's always going to be difficult to deal with the fact that one can be a terrible person and a brilliant artist, even when one's horrible characteristics cannot be separated from the art.

This is not a criticism of the article, by the way. The article is a fun way to grapple with the problem in the context of the appalling misogyny of so much literature.
posted by howfar at 9:31 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Every time an article like this shows up, Bukowski's name shows up. A friend gave me a book of his poetry a while ago and I've read a little bit of it, here and there (how I typically digest poetry). It didn't strike me as being in the same vein as Updike (I did something for an attractive girl, got in trouble for it and it's all her fault) or Roth (old professor sleeps with hot student and how it impacts his life). Did I just read the wrong (or right?) poems, or is his misogyny in his novels?
posted by Hactar at 9:31 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


A few years ago, Esquire put together a list that keeps rising from the dead like a zombie

So let it lie.
posted by Segundus at 9:33 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


I like Rebecca Solnit as a writer, and I like this essay. I wish more writing was like it.
posted by brennen at 9:33 AM on February 26, 2016 [7 favorites]


The only thing I feel is that it is a poorly written essay, an interesting thesis thinly argued, and in which she undermines her own argument.

And I disagree! Hey!
posted by maxsparber at 9:34 AM on February 26, 2016 [13 favorites]


But this article is not about the canon. I think that is what I am reacting to -- is that her thesis seems to be about the canon of literature that shapes modern thought, but at the same time not really. The mention of the Cosby biography instantly makes her argument not about the canon.
posted by archimago at 9:35 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


There's a tag in the list at the bottom of the article. It says "the canon is shaped like a dick".
posted by brennen at 9:37 AM on February 26, 2016 [19 favorites]


her thesis seems to be about the canon of literature that shapes modern though

It's specifically about the Esquire lists of books. You've turned her essay into a different discussion than the one she intended -- and explicitly states -- and are now critiquing her for not effectively arguing a point she did not make.
posted by maxsparber at 9:37 AM on February 26, 2016 [28 favorites]


Wonder how that Esquire list managed to pass over Robert A. Heinlein?
posted by fuse theorem at 9:38 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Did I just read the wrong (or right?) poems, or is his misogyny in his novels?

His misogyny is all over...read more of his work and you'll find it, easy.
posted by agregoli at 9:38 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


(Of course, now I notice that's already on this post. Oh well.)
posted by brennen at 9:39 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Everyone should just drop the Hemmingway and pick up Martha Gelhorne, Hemmingway play acted at being a war reporter, Gelhorne actually was and he resented the hell out of her for being better than him at it.
posted by The Whelk at 9:39 AM on February 26, 2016 [38 favorites]



I agree with her critique but think that these are books women should read, if only to know what they're up against.


But we all choose books based on what we've heard about the books. I wouldn't read even the most awesome feminist explicitly violent horror novel, because I know that explicit violence generally freaks me out. I don't want to read Eugene Onegin because I don't like the fragments of the translation that I read and I don't like novel-length narrative poems. I don't read hard science fiction that really focuses on math and/or tons of the actual science of biology. I don't read old school superhero comics because the pace and dialogue tend to annoy me. It does not seem radically different to say "based on what I know of this writer's work, it sounds like it's just going to infuriate and depress me, so I'm going to read something I actively want to read instead".

If I get really interested in a literary through-line, sure, I'll read some misogynist author so that I understand where he fits in the field. But that's a different thing from pre-emptively reading him just at random.
posted by Frowner at 9:40 AM on February 26, 2016 [12 favorites]


I was sort of a fan of Bukowski until I watched The Charles Bukowski Tapes, which is, like, six hours, and he is so relentless abusive to his girlfriend in the videos, at one point physically, that I though, well, there are plenty of other poets out there.
posted by maxsparber at 9:41 AM on February 26, 2016 [9 favorites]


I don't know if this is the thread for it, but here is how something like this plays out from another angle, as a person of color: I'm reading a book of essays by Nora Ephron. The essay I'm reading is about hair and grooming, and I'm laughing, I like this, I relate to this. This is so great, so much better than all those misogynist male writers people keep telling me I should read, this is about me and my experience. She's talking about all the effort and angst that goes into maintaining one's hair as a woman and I'm nodding, laughing, and then I get to the part where she says "I envy all Asian women—I mean, have you ever seen an Asian woman whose hair looks bad? (No, you haven't. Why is this?)" and I feel as if a hand has reached up and yanked me by the (frizzy, flippy, out-of-control) hair.

She's not saying anything mean. She's saying she envies me! It's a compliment. But she's calling me "you," and "you" is clearly a white woman, and "they" is an Asian woman, and "they" are on the outside of this conversation.

This isn't so bad. Usually when I trip over a moment in a novel I was enjoying, it's a white character casually insulting an Asian woman by calling her Yoko Ono. (Like this happens a lot more than it needs to and I really don't understand why.)

The point is that in any and all nooks and corners of the reading life, that hand can suddenly reach out and slap you. And if you state plainly that you're uninterested in literature that treats you this way, you're seen as starting some kind of trouble.
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:49 AM on February 26, 2016 [109 favorites]


It's specifically about the Esquire lists of books.

I disagree, and that's ok for both of us, as well as the writer.
posted by archimago at 9:50 AM on February 26, 2016


(Like this happens a lot more than it needs to and I really don't understand why.)

Ah, I can explain this reference to you. Sit down, and I'll take a few hours to tell you all about the singular importance of The Beatles. You'll get to enjoy my thoughts on Bob Dylan as well, as a little bonus.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:54 AM on February 26, 2016 [9 favorites]


Wonder how that Esquire list managed to pass over Robert A. Heinlein?

Because it's a pretty lame list. Prepare not to be surprised.

I was prepared to be annoyed, but in fact I agreed with most of her take downs, though sometimes for different reasons.

The list itself doesn't do much for me. If we're talking desert island time and a lighthouse bookcase that can fit eighty books, less than a handful would make my cut. Almost totally fiction, largely post war, and much of which I suspect will not stand the test of time. I think I saw one work of history? McCullough's Brooklyn Bridge book.

On the other hand, I don't agree with her heroes list either, which I suppose is a bit philistine of me.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:57 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Max, agregoli, thanks. Makes me feel better about dropping the book in mud a couple of years ago. It will probably stay on my shelf for a while, as it dodged the last great book purge and it's not time for the next.
posted by Hactar at 9:58 AM on February 26, 2016


Before attempting a critique of this article, it's worth reading her follow-up: "Men Explain Lolita to Me"

Bibliographing: "Rebecca Solnit doesn't explain Lolita to anyone"
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:03 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


It was pretty unpleasant growing up reading John Updike, John Barth, Milan Kundera, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, JD Salinger, Don DeLillo, etc., and having it pretty thoroughly drummed into my head that women were mysterious, vile, alluring, mercurial beings; calculating and unpredictable and alien.

Having more voices like Cynthia Heimel, Merrill Markoe, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler around really helped me get a better sense of perspective.
posted by jfwlucy at 10:06 AM on February 26, 2016 [18 favorites]


The most recent time this meme resurrected itself, Esquire published a list of 80 books every PERSON should read, curated by "female literary powerhouses." It's an interesting update.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:11 AM on February 26, 2016 [11 favorites]


Wonder how that Esquire list managed to pass over Robert A. Heinlein?

Because it's a pretty lame list. Prepare not to be surprised.


Actually, I was indeed surprised because I saw a few gems among the rocks on that list. But re Heinlein, to clarify, I was coming at that from a "bad for women" perspective. I'm still disgusted by Stranger in a Strange Land and it's been a few years since I read it.
posted by fuse theorem at 10:19 AM on February 26, 2016 [4 favorites]


Having more voices like Cynthia Heimel, Merrill Markoe, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler around really helped me get a better sense of perspective.

For me it started when I read Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood in the 80s, after college.
posted by Lyme Drop at 10:33 AM on February 26, 2016 [12 favorites]


I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty. Or they’re instructions in the version of masculinity that means being unkind and unaware, that set of values that expands out into violence at home, in war, and by economic means.

Huh well ok. Video games cause violence too, I guess?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:50 AM on February 26, 2016


Maybe you could look at just a little more of the quote you sampled? How about the part that says:
But I was serious about this. You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.
Does it really seem outlandish to you that reading books in which women are barely even recognized as human beings might have an impact on a female reader?
posted by palomar at 10:54 AM on February 26, 2016 [29 favorites]


Or a male reader for that matter. I don't know if I can connect the dots between that and war, but certainly casual dismissal of women makes for a world in which domestic violence is possible.
posted by sunset in snow country at 10:58 AM on February 26, 2016 [9 favorites]


Does it really seem outlandish to you that reading books in which women are barely even recognized as human beings might have an impact on a female reader?

Or even on the male reader? When you grow up in a world in which Literature is stories about men and stories about women are "genre fiction," you certainly get an idea about whose stories are important.

I mean, heck, look at what Franzen himself had to say about this subject:
"So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I'm sorry that it's, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say "If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it." Those are male readers speaking. I see this as my book, my creation."
I mean, right there, this guy is saying "I regret that the most powerful woman in the world endorsed my book, because now it is tainted by girl cooties and the men I REALLY wanted to reach won't read it."
posted by KathrynT at 11:04 AM on February 26, 2016 [61 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that reading mostly male authors was a serious contributor to the internalized misogyny that I am still working to shake off. I had a pretty sizable Bukowski collection, for example, and saw myself more as the hard-drinking, heart-breaking type than the shitty, pathetic, awful women that populate his world.

Did you know that the world views a woman with multiple concurrent romantic partners differently than they do men? Especially if she appears to go to a shitty bar every night? I probably could have figured that out from Bukowski, if I imagined myself as one of those women rather than the horribly-ugly-but-inexplicably-sexually-magnetic Henry Chinaski. 'Drunk whore? I think you mean ANTI-HERO!'

An anti-hero is the coolest. He had his own code, hated hypocrisy, couldn't be held down by the world, made his way on his own terms, and was basically smarter than anyone else, even if he was failing in some worldly sense. The Esquire list is chockablock with anti-heroes. The anti-heroes of my youth were always, always male.

The space reserved for the countercultural woman was usually no different from mainstream life, except she was cooking and cleaning and raising children for a cool man who she wouldn't hold down with her outdated mores about monogamy and husbandly responsibilies. Or if she was really different, she would probably die by the end.

Boo to that, said adolescent me, and rejected womanhood entirely, despite considering myself a staunch feminist. Because the problem was the world made women suck, but I was a rare wise woman who saw through the world's attempt to make me boring, pathetic, untrustworthy, and shallow. It is hard to shake the training of my formative years.

I am now raising a daughter, and I struggle with pink and purple and princess and pretty. I desperately do not want her to devalue her own femininity, but I never even tolerated my own. At any rate, I will not be recommending Bukowski to her when she hits adolescence.
posted by palindromic at 11:04 AM on February 26, 2016 [57 favorites]


does it really seem outlandish to you that reading books in which women are barely even recognized as human beings might have an impact on a female reader?

This is the problem I'm having with this essay. What exactly is she arguing?

Is this about reading lists being forced on people via curriculum? So young women in high schools and colleges are being forced to read themselves as dirty?
Is this about not having access to different books? Because the argument above begs the question why a woman would continue to read these texts unless access was limited.
Is she arguing that some male writers denigrate women, and magazines targeted at men celebrate this? Because my guess is her intended audience for this essay already knew this.
posted by archimago at 11:05 AM on February 26, 2016


Huh well ok. Video games cause violence too, I guess?

I know. It's inconceivable that video games might ever spawn a toxic misogynistic culture that would include something as ridiculously unlikely as relentless harassment and bomb threats against women simply for having the temerity to be critical of misogynistic tropes in video games.

I mean, thank God we live in a world in which this is inconceivable and should just be scoffed at.
posted by maxsparber at 11:05 AM on February 26, 2016 [64 favorites]


right there, this guy is saying "I regret that the most powerful woman in the world endorsed my book, because now it is tainted by girl cooties and the men I REALLY wanted to reach won't read it."

Not rushing to defend Jonathan Franzen, but I think he's observing a perception many men already have/had about Oprah's Book Club. I didn't read that as Franzen presenting his own opinion. Just seeing the landscape.
posted by witchen at 11:06 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Right, but even under that interpretation, this is definitely the available literary landscape.
posted by KathrynT at 11:08 AM on February 26, 2016 [9 favorites]


One of my oldest friends is a Bernie bro type of well-meaning lefty soft misogynist, and he was talking about how a cool girl he met on Tinder is cool because she reads David Foster Wallace. Just as a thought experiment, I asked him what's the last book he read by a woman. He could not come up with one.

I don't know what argument there is to be made there, but it's worth noting that men--even (especially?) those that take pride in being socially conscientious--don't read female authors as often as women read male authors.
posted by witchen at 11:08 AM on February 26, 2016 [19 favorites]


Is this about reading lists being forced on people via curriculum? So young women in high schools and colleges are being forced to read themselves as dirty?
Is this about not having access to different books? Because the argument above begs the question why a woman would continue to read these texts unless access was limited.
Is she arguing that some male writers denigrate women, and magazines targeted at men celebrate this? Because my guess is her intended audience for this essay already knew this.


Yes. Yes. and yes? I don't know if "preaching to the choir" is an actual criticism to make though, especially on the internet when the article has been shared a lot.
posted by Think_Long at 11:09 AM on February 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


This is the problem I'm having with this essay. What exactly is she arguing?

Ah, yes, I see your problem, and I think it is actually your problem. You seem to think that the essay should be written in the same form as a high school debate, with one thesis that everything in the essay must support.

There are actually a wide variety of essay forms, some, like this one, simply a series of responses to a single idea, suggesting other ideas, and why the original idea might have some problems. It doesn't fail because it uses this form, it simply succeeds in a way that is different than what you expect.
posted by maxsparber at 11:10 AM on February 26, 2016 [32 favorites]


Rustic Etruscan, I gotta say I have no idea what the writer at your link is on about. They seem angry, but also seem to not understand anything Solnit says, but also to blame her for that? It's like there's some kind of translation error happening.

It's kind of happening in this thread, too. archimago asks:

This is the problem I'm having with this essay. What exactly is she arguing?

I don't think she's "arguing" anything. I think she's wryly observing how sexist the VF reading list is and how women are justified in skipping it if they want to.

Is this about reading lists being forced on people via curriculum? So young women in high schools and colleges are being forced to read themselves as dirty?

She doesn't seem to get into those specifics in this piece.

Is this about not having access to different books? Because the argument above begs the question why a woman would continue to read these texts unless access was limited.

She doesn't say anything about access?

Is she arguing that some male writers denigrate women, and magazines targeted at men celebrate this? Because my guess is her intended audience for this essay already knew this

Yes, but why is she not allowed to reiterate it? It's her blog, on which she made observations/comments about a persistent article on what books men should read.

Really I am baffled at the strong reactions.

(on preview; sorry if we are piling on archimago, but others have asked similar questions/seemed confused in the same way)
posted by emjaybee at 11:13 AM on February 26, 2016 [24 favorites]


One of my oldest friends is a Bernie bro type of well-meaning lefty soft misogynist, and he was talking about how a cool girl he met on Tinder is cool because she reads David Foster Wallace. Just as a thought experiment, I asked him what's the last book he read by a woman. He could not come up with one.

I've met some people like that - they usually haven't read DFW either.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:17 AM on February 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


I've seen this article in a couple of places, and there is a consistent subset of people who get really hung up on the title. Based on my experience reading her work, Rebecca Solnit regularly employs different rhetorical devices, and I suspect the title is one of them!

It does get pretty old, all the man books that make up various canons. The important literature canon, the bro canon, the manly manon, etc., and they're almost all just lists of stories told from the male perspective. You will never, ever be done reading all the important books about the complex emotional lives of men. There's always more.

Go listen to some hardcore misogynists sometime. Like, go find a men's rights forum or something and pay particular attention to their understanding of women's behaviors and motivations and such. They are almost all based on mainstream media representations. Sometimes, they'll be trading anecdotes that I'm 95% sure they saw on some crap sitcom or something. (I don't think most of those guys read much, but it trickles down.) They're super-extreme examples, but they're not unique. They're just less subtle than smarter people, so it's easier to identify quickly.

They've been exposed to a constant, lifelong stream of media directed toward them that's told from a male perspective, and most of it is formulaic crap. And the formula involves identifying with a male protagonist as he is hindered by obstacles in pursuit of a goal. So when they encounter female characters, they're usually either the obstacles or the goals, fully defined by their relationship to the male protagonist.

And that perpetuates itself. We're all so used to intimately exploring and empathizing with the experiences of less than half of the population that we don't even seem to notice how egregiously bad the representations of everyone else is. But a writer who is bad at writing non-male characters is a general purpose bad writer. There are niches where an otherwise talented writer can only write male characters, but there are a lot of mainstream, non-niche writers who are terrible at writing women characters, and we don't even seem to notice. Watch the first two seasons of Breaking Bad and tell me that that writing does not suck. It does. It sucks bad. It wasn't entirely the audience's fault that they hated the main female leads, because they were written as implausible buffoons whose sole purpose was to get in the way until I think somewhere in the third season. But almost nobody even noticed that it was badly written because we are so used to seeing poorly written female characters that we don't even notice it. And to varying degrees, as with the MRAs, some people seem to actually believe that women are just thinly realized subhumans who exist only as they relate to men.

It's not that nobody should ever read anything written from a male perspective ever again or something, but anyone who reads canonical literature has read about that stuff already, and it's maybe time to start noticing how bad a lot of it is and start looking elsewhere for writing that sucks less.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:20 AM on February 26, 2016 [59 favorites]


This is the problem I'm having with this essay. What exactly is she arguing?

She's using a list in a men's magazine as a hook to share some of her thoughts about misogyny in literature.

Because my guess is her intended audience for this essay already knew this

Many do, and many don't. Many might have some unformed, subconscious feelings of unease with the books that they're expected to read, but they may lack the ability to articulate it as eloquently as Solnit does. Those that do already know it, and have thought about it, may also enjoy a well-written essay by a smart person about something that's important.

I'm just saying that I think it's poorly written.

The mere assertion doesn't make it so.
posted by Mavri at 11:23 AM on February 26, 2016 [14 favorites]


I think those questions are revealing, actually. It's definitely not about access, in this age of Amazon. It's not really about school reading lists, except indirectly. It's more intangible than that; it's that so so so many of those male writers who denigrate women are ... I used the word "canon" earlier and I get why that does not seem quite right either when we're talking about current bestsellers, but they are must-reads, they are tastemakers, they shape the conversation about literature, and they are seen as neutral where women writers are feminist and writers of color are diverse, there to fill the needs of a certain segment of the population and round out reading lists where white male writers are meant to be read and appreciated by everybody. This is a squishy thing, but it's definitely there.
posted by sunset in snow country at 11:26 AM on February 26, 2016 [23 favorites]


DUDE: Male-dominated though it may be, you must read the established literary canon in order to have the breadth of knowledge and experience necessary to critically engage with the written word in a nuanced and thoughtful way

WOMAN BLOGGER: [rhetorical device]

DUDE: HURF DURF DO YOU MEAN THAT LITERALLY?
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:29 AM on February 26, 2016 [36 favorites]


(not directed at archimago ^)
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:30 AM on February 26, 2016


[Couple comments removed. Kinda feels like there's not more to be had form arguing either with or by archimago about how they felt about the article, and they've stated those feelings pretty clearly already, so let's all move on.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:30 AM on February 26, 2016


Not to mention I've included examples, not just repeated myself. I'm going to continue to read because I actually think this thread and discussion is interesting, but I won't comment. I've been exposed to many, many great writers both here and in the green from user suggestions, so I value the discussions about letters here.
posted by archimago at 11:32 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Rustic Etruscan, I gotta say I have no idea what the writer at your link is on about. They seem angry, but also seem to not understand anything Solnit says, but also to blame her for that? It's like there's some kind of translation error happening.

I have to agree with the above. I wondered if that blogger had read Lolita, because she didn't seem to understand anything Solnit was saying. That, or she's taking Solnit's criticism of Humbert Humbert as a critique of Nabokov.
posted by gladly at 11:34 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


The thing I think people don't get about Lolita is that writing it was an act of vengeance against the entire despised Western society in which Nabokov found himself such an unwilling participant.

Nabokov, like the Marquis de Sade, was an enraged and desolate aristocrat displaced by a popular revolution, and as with de Sade, writing was the only weapon of retribution left to him.

Given Nabokov's detestation of Dostoevsky, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Lolita began as a perverse inversion of Dostoevsky's famous parable, the lesson of which is that abolishing the world's evil at the cost of torturing and murdering a little girl would be futile because in that act, all evil would be recreated -- only in the case of Lolita, the rape, debauchery, and ultimate death years later in childbirth of a little girl only serves to reinflate for a few weeks the absurd and pathetic aristocratic pretensions of one Humbert Humbert.
posted by jamjam at 11:44 AM on February 26, 2016 [7 favorites]


I've been sitting here trying to figure out the difference between the pushback one gets for not reading Jonathan Franzen and the pushback one gets for not reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (because you see both happen, right? But they seem qualitatively different), and I think I've figured it out thanks (ironically) to prize bull octorok's comment: With certain white male writers, people try to tell you that you cannot hope to be let in to the literary conversation at all unless you read that specific writer. I often hear people argue that you can't have a full reading experience without reading women writers and writers of color in general, but I don't think I've ever seen proponents of diverse reading try to hold people hostage to any particular book in that way.
posted by sunset in snow country at 11:56 AM on February 26, 2016 [23 favorites]


I used the word "canon" earlier and I get why that does not seem quite right either when we're talking about current bestsellers, but they are must-reads, they are tastemakers, they shape the conversation about literature, and they are seen as neutral where women writers are feminist and writers of color are diverse, there to fill the needs of a certain segment of the population and round out reading lists where white male writers are meant to be read and appreciated by everybody. This is a squishy thing, but it's definitely there.

I'm a big reader, and a single woman. I was trying to date last autumn via Tinder and OKCupid, and because books are important to me I listed some of my favorite books or authors in my profiles. The men who noticed that information and used it when talking to me were always like "whoa, you like David Foster Wallace, you're such a cool girl" or "you read Updike? me too!" or "omg, David Mitchell, so good!". Nobody ever asked me what I thought of any of the actual books, or tried to discuss them with me, the only comments were praise for my good taste. If anyone ever mentioned the female authors I named it was to criticize them -- again, not to ask my opinion of said work or even give specific criticism of what they didn't like about the work produced by female authors. Just to tell me it was foolish and wasteful to spend time on things by Margaret Atwood or Kelly Link or Donna Tartt or Roxane Gay or Jesmyn Ward or whoever, because they're not good writers. I remember with a special fondness the guy who told me I seemed mostly cool but it was too bad I liked "teen romance novel crap" like Geek Love, I should try some Hunter S. Thompson instead to put some edge into my reading material. I still laugh at that guy whenever he crosses my mind.

I know a lot of men who actively seek out female authors and respect their work as much as they do male authors, but evidently those guys are rare as hen's teeth...
posted by palomar at 11:57 AM on February 26, 2016 [43 favorites]


Rustic Etruscan, I gotta say I have no idea what the writer at your link is on about.

Agreed. The piece completely misreads Solnit's two main points:
So what does she have to say about Lolita? ...There are two main points: that men say it’s wrong to “identify with” a character, and she says they’re wrong about that (she doesn’t explain whether it’s correct, necessary, okay, one possible thing to do, etc.); and that it’s a book about “a white man serially raping a child over a period of years.” At no point does she explain what that is supposed to mean.
First of all, it's not that men say it's wrong to "identify" with a character, and she says they're wrong about that -- it's that Solnit identifies with the Lolita character, and men dismiss and diminish that fact.

Second, what part of it's a book about "a white man serially raping a child over a period of years" is so very difficult to understand?

The nicest thing I can say about this is that it's a wholly uncharitable reading.
posted by Lyme Drop at 12:03 PM on February 26, 2016 [8 favorites]


Speaking of DFW, he was asked at a reading in 2004 who the greatest living author was, and he said Alice Munro.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:11 PM on February 26, 2016 [15 favorites]


I read Lolita in high school, on my own, not in a class, and I was completely horrified. To the point where it's affected decisions I've made to this day... and I was very surprised to learn that it was supposed to be funny! There is no way I'm ever re-reading that book just to see what was redeeming about it.

I also had a hard time with the mid-century misogynists (haha love it!) but somehow always thought it was just me. Hemingway I'm totally cool with though.
posted by maggiemaggie at 12:27 PM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


It may be worth reading many of those books from the same angle that one would read Mein Kampf or watch Birth Of A Nation.

Exactly. Books by infamous jackasses like Hemingway and Mailer are important for women to read; one must know the enemy to defeat them (him).
posted by aught at 12:28 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


I mean, right there, this guy is saying "I regret that the most powerful woman in the world endorsed my book, because now it is tainted by girl cooties and the men I REALLY wanted to reach won't read it."

Angela Merkel just read your comment and is really confused because she has no idea who Jonathan Franzen is.
posted by aught at 12:36 PM on February 26, 2016 [7 favorites]


I hate to break it to you but I think Oprah has more of an impact on our collective culture than Angela Merkel. I know it's super fun to nitpick these things but I feel like it's pretty obvious that the power being referred to is cultural influence, not political leadership.
posted by palomar at 12:41 PM on February 26, 2016 [8 favorites]


I hate to break it to you but I think Oprah has more of an impact on our collective culture than Angela Merkel.

I have been eating a lot of bread lately...
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:51 PM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


one must know the enemy to defeat them

I'm generally content to let smart professional readers warn me what not to read and give me enough quotes and summaries to explain why. Life is literally too short to spend reading a lot of long-winded shits just to prove to myself that I should not have read them.
posted by pracowity at 12:58 PM on February 26, 2016 [17 favorites]


First of all, it's not that men say it's wrong to "identify" with a character, and she says they're wrong about that -- it's that Solnit identifies with the Lolita character, and men dismiss and diminish that fact.

I read Lolita relatively recently and I'm completely baffled by the idea that you're not supposed to identify with Lolita, or that you're supposed, somehow, to identify with Humbert.
posted by dng at 1:03 PM on February 26, 2016 [14 favorites]


Just came in to quote this: Maybe it says a lot about the fragility of gender that instructions on being the two main ones have been issued monthly for so long.
Now I'll go RTFA, and read all the comments.
posted by mumimor at 1:03 PM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


too bad I liked "teen romance novel crap" like Geek Love

I just half-choked myself on a mint I had in my mouth. That hurt, damn it.
posted by rewil at 1:04 PM on February 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


Whether or not you've read him, Franzen's very presence shapes the conversation about literature. I personally don't want to read him. I'm not that interested and I hear he's not great on women. I probably will never have time to read all the books I want to read in life so why should I bother with him?

Well, why should you? I'm a fifty year old white guy and I've never read Franzen. I probably never will. (Tho I did just buy five Philippe Jullian books to further complete my collection.) No one I know talks about him and my circles run to the literary. I was at a book festival last weekend and Franzen's name came up not once. The best panels at that festival were on coming out in the American south stories and one on women singer/songwriters. I'm not convinced that that conversation about literature that he is presumed to shape even exists beyond a pretty narrow subset of lit bloggers, New York publishing gossip connoisseurs, and some smaller subset of MFA students.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:04 PM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


> Well, why should you? I'm a fifty year old white guy and I've never read Franzen.

Man, come on. Are you really intending to play the "I haven't experienced it, therefore it doesn't exist" card?
posted by rtha at 1:07 PM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've said this before but feel like repeating it.
As a woman who dates men, I've found it exceedingly rare to come across a man's profile on OKC that mentions any female artist in the "favorite books, movies, shows, music, and food" section. I really wonder why I would want to date a man who finds nothing created by a woman to be of interest (other than a sandwich, I suppose).
posted by mcduff at 1:10 PM on February 26, 2016 [20 favorites]


I read Lolita relatively recently and I'm completely baffled by the idea that you're not supposed to identify with Lolita, or that you're supposed, somehow, to identify with Humbert.

You'd have to be a monster to seriously identify with Humbert. I certainly identified with Lolita when reading that as a teen (and a male). You certainly don't have to share demographics with a character to identify with them.
posted by aught at 1:12 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Are you really intending to play the "I haven't experienced it, therefore it doesn't exist" card?

I'm not "playing" anything. I'm saying that IME, which tends toward the literary, I have not encountered this presumed power that Franzen has to shape our conversations about literature. I mean, maybe IYE Franzen is a looming topic of literary conversation, if so, then I can only say that your experience is different than mine.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:16 PM on February 26, 2016


I was also, very emphatically, stating that a lack of Jonathan Franzen in one's reading diet will not result in anything resembling literary scurvy.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:24 PM on February 26, 2016 [4 favorites]


there's a case to be made for getting people to identify with monsters in literature/media so that they experience a moment of self-awareness and choose not to be monsters IRL, but the way that tends to play out in the actual world we live in is people thinking "being the monster is AWESOME" and putting Heisenberg decals on their cars so idk.
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:24 PM on February 26, 2016 [17 favorites]


octobersurprise, I think we mostly agree, and I should add that no one I've encountered in real life has ever tried to get me to read Franzen, thank God. (We're all talking about Elena Ferrante and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, when we're not talking about YA and We Need Diverse Books!) But it is an attitude that one encounters occasionally. I was using Franzen as a shorthand since he seems especially beloved of the type of person who likes to bludgeon others with their reading preferences in this way, but if you like, replace with Kipling per the rest of my comment.

I think palomar's comment about online dating is REALLY interesting, and now I wonder if any of these guys get shirty with other guys for not having read Franzenupdikewallacebokovmingway, or if they only use those names to belittle women who suggest that reading women writers is worthwhile?
posted by sunset in snow country at 1:26 PM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Are you really intending to play the "I haven't experienced it, therefore it doesn't exist" card?

Sounded to me more like the "I haven't experienced it, therefore it is not as universal a rule as you seem to think it is" card.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:27 PM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


Walter White is a good person fallen from grace. Humbert Humbert is a monstrous sociopath from the word go.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:27 PM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty.”
Does Solnit think Lolita is one of those books? She never quite states her opinion one way or the other. If she does, I think she's wrong.

She was right to identify with Dolores. The man who reproved her for identifying with anyone in the book misread his hero Nabokov, who meant his readers to see through Humbert Humbert's distortions and perceive the real situation, as Solnit did. Nabokov would never put it this way, but I think he portrayed rape culture pretty well when he began the novel with a preface from a chummy public servant who refers to Humbert's "crime." In a dark twist, it turns out the public servant means Humbert Humbert's murder of Clare Quilty, Dolores's other rapist, rather than his kidnap and rape of Dolores Haze, which latter would occupy the whole attention of anyone with a working moral compass. Her nickname is Dolly, for crying out loud: That no one treats her like a person is the point. It is supposed to horrify and disgust the reader.

But "I don't need that horror and disgust. I live with it every day," is a fair response to all that.
And the women who read Nabokov’s novel in repressive Iran, says Azar Nafisi of Reading Lolita in Tehran, identified too: “Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such she becomes a double victim—not only her life but also her life story is taken from her. We told ourselves we were in that class to prevent ourselves from falling victim to this second crime.”

When I wrote the essay that provoked such splenetic responses, I was trying to articulate that there is a canonical body of literature in which women’s stories are taken away from them, in which all we get are men’s stories. And that these are sometimes not only books that don’t describe the world from a woman’s point of view, but inculcate denigration and degradation of women as cool things to do.
I agree: There is a canonical body of literature in which women's stories are taken away from them, and all we get are men's stories. Lolita obviously belongs to this canon, but it takes its heroine's story away from her on purpose, as part of the horror its villain should inspire, and so it doesn't quite fit beside the less self-aware bulk of that canon.

But again, "So that one is self-aware. It still exhausts me like all the others," is a fair response to all that.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:33 PM on February 26, 2016 [14 favorites]


now I wonder if any of these guys get shirty with other guys for not having read Franzenupdikewallacebokovmingway, or if they only use those names to belittle women who suggest that reading women writers is worthwhile?

Bin-go!

Me, trying to tailor my female authors to suit a man's interests: "I like Donna Tartt and Lionel Shriver; she wrote the book about the kid who ends up being a mass murderer"

Him: "Yeah, but have you read this lesser work of Franzenupdikewallacebokovmingway? Heh, yeah, it's pretty obsure."

I heard that type of thing constantly when I was dating around, and it was clear I was being tested for coolness. Tartt = not even on their radar. Hemingway = the end-all be-all for Serious Literature and Culture. In almost all cases, the dude in question had terrible grammar, spelling, and/or usage, and/or was an actual MRA.
posted by witchen at 1:38 PM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


I wonder if any of these guys get shirty with other guys for not having read Franzenupdikewallacebokovmingway,

I think of this as Eng lit grad school behavior when everyone—and especially guys—and especially especially a certain kind of guy (who might otherwise be haranguing you about the best sports team or the best band)—argued passionately that their man or (less frequently, true) woman (Grace Paley was a name that came up a lot then) was the only real writer worth reading. It was obnoxious then and it will never cease being obnoxious.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:39 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


As a data point, plenty of my lady bookworm friends are on about Franzen's newest, along with a certain amount of healthy eye-rolling about how he's a fatuous windbag. I also think he's a fatuous windbag, but the two books of his I've read were entertaining and so now I've effectively been peer-pressured into reading the latest, if only to dish about the manifestations of fatuous windbaggery within. I don't know if the high-falutin' types take him all that seriously but he's middlebrow Time magazine popcorn.
posted by zeusianfog at 1:53 PM on February 26, 2016


I was sort of a fan of Bukowski until I watched The Charles Bukowski Tapes, which is, like, six hours, and he is so relentless abusive to his girlfriend in the videos, at one point physically, that I though, well, there are plenty of other poets out there.

There's a famous clip - I'm guessing the one you mean - where he literally kicks her off the couch. I knew about Charles Bukowski being shitty to women before I knew about him doing anything else, really.

Anyway if you think this a kind a of narrow take on, say, Hemingway, realize that the original list she's taking a shot at was actually far more superficial. (Also I read the comment on Nabokov here as a compliment but I dunno).
posted by atoxyl at 1:55 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Franzen has got such a reputation as an asshole now that people - like me - who haven't ever read his books make fun of him. Among people I know and critics I read, more often than they express any respect for him. But again I'll tell you right now I have no idea, though that man himself sure says some dumb things.
posted by atoxyl at 1:59 PM on February 26, 2016


For whatever reason I never dated fellow English majors/book types, and I am now wondering if that was some kind of subconscious self-preservation on my part. I might never forgive someone who gave me shit about the books I loved.
posted by emjaybee at 2:00 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


(Also I read the comment on Nabokov here as a compliment but I dunno).

Yeah, you're right. The original list's summary is, in toto:
So gymnastically lyrical. So damningly heartfelt. So horribly dirty. So, so good.
what the fuck, Esquire
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:02 PM on February 26, 2016 [6 favorites]


You think that's bad?! Their comment on Grapes of Wrath was "Because it's all about the titty!"
posted by zeusianfog at 2:05 PM on February 26, 2016


Tartt = not even on their radar.

You see, maybe this is a generational thing. Because I remember when The Secret History came out and suddenly it was the novel to have. It had bisexuality, an elite college, ancient Greece, and literary references you were supposed to be smart enough to get. It was like carrying around a copy of Lazer Guided Melodies or something.
posted by octobersurprise at 2:07 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


> I'm not "playing" anything. I'm saying that IME, which tends toward the literary, I have not encountered this presumed power that Franzen has to shape our conversations about literature.

Okay. Apologies for the misread.
posted by rtha at 2:12 PM on February 26, 2016


I think of this as Eng lit grad school behavior when everyone—and especially guys—and especially especially a certain kind of guy (who might otherwise be haranguing you about the best sports team or the best band)—argued passionately that their man or (less frequently, true) woman (Grace Paley was a name that came up a lot then) was the only real writer worth reading.

I actually think of this as more wannabe grad student behavior--dudes who may have gone to prestigious colleges for their undergrad degrees but now are out in the world searching for that social reinforcement that they're still soooo smart. (The lady equivalent is reading certain of the articles in the Toast. I say this with love.) Actual grad student battles may be equally pointless and ego-driven, but do tend to be way more arcane. Heck, for much of the past thirty years, I'm not sure that the average English literature grad student would be prepared to admit that there could be a standard for "real writers worth reading."
posted by praemunire at 2:47 PM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


I had something to say about the inevitable inclusion of Burroughs but I don't remember exactly. I guess it's just that I've really never been able to figure out one way or another what I ought to make of the death of Joan Vollmer. And it seems like some of the misogyny in his writing has to be read in context of where he came from and where he was trying to go regarding queerness. But then he was at one point pretty much telling women to stay the hell away from his books so, you know, fair cop on balance.
posted by atoxyl at 2:49 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Why mention Franzen when you've never even read him.

i don't want to take anything away from sunset's comment, and may be stating the obvious, but i am pretty sure it's a joke, playing on the fact that franzen has criticized jennifer weiner without having read her:
[...] he admitted not having read any of her novels. “I have yet to hear one person say, ‘Oh, she’s really good, you should read her.’ And basically if two people say that about a book I’ll read it. I know no one, male or female, who says, ‘You’ve got to read Jennifer Weiner.’”
posted by andrewcooke at 2:56 PM on February 26, 2016 [7 favorites]


And speaking of the Toast:

The Rage of Jonathan Franzen

Contains the fantastic line: "Every woman must decide how not to sleep with Jonathan Franzen in her own way."
posted by praemunire at 2:58 PM on February 26, 2016 [15 favorites]


It was pretty unpleasant growing up reading John Updike, John Barth, Milan Kundera, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, JD Salinger, Don DeLillo, etc., and having it pretty thoroughly drummed into my head that women were mysterious, vile, alluring, mercurial beings; calculating and unpredictable and alien.

Yes, thank you. My list of authors was slightly different, and I also was firmly given the impression that women were all those things *and* also disposable and irrelevant. If not disposable and irrelevant because of the man's passion, then she needed to be destroyed so the man could regain his independence.

It was always difficult - being pressured by immature men to prove your bona fides by reflecting their interests back at them, while feeling unnerved and by and unable to love this supposedly brilliant literature.
posted by Squeak Attack at 3:14 PM on February 26, 2016 [20 favorites]


This is a ramble, not a clear argument.

It reads a little like a stream-of-consciousness essay to me,



Whats the difference?
posted by TheLittlePrince at 4:33 PM on February 26, 2016


I miss Cynthia Heimel.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:07 PM on February 26, 2016 [7 favorites]




had something to say about the inevitable inclusion of Burroughs but I don't remember exactly. I guess it's just that I've really never been able to figure out one way or another what I ought to make of the death of Joan Vollmer.
I have always found it astounding that the William Tell story gets retold without blinking, with out question, when it seems pretty preposterous. Also when you figure Burroughs and his colleagues helped cover up another murder (can't recall the name- it was some supposed "gay panic" thing, or at least was rationalized that way). Yet another reason I avoided Burroughs in college even though he was Mandatory Hipster Lit.

The Luc Sante article linked within Solnit's article was pretty great. Another good read is the section on women Beats in "The Beats- A Graphic History" by Harvey Pekar. Pretty straight-up sociopathic behavior all-around.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 9:49 PM on February 26, 2016


Rebecca Solnit is a fucking national treasure. Surprised this hadn't been posted before--good stuff.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:10 PM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]


Also when you figure Burroughs and his colleagues helped cover up another murder (can't recall the name- it was some supposed "gay panic" thing, or at least was rationalized that way

Lucien Carr. It's - a little bit more complicated than that but since the story only comes through a.) his famous friends, b.) his family and c.) 1940s media it's kind of hard to know exactly.
posted by atoxyl at 10:53 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thing that both warms my cockles, and amuses the hell out of me. The majority of people in the US have never read any of the books that the 100 or so people in this thread talked about today.
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 10:55 PM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


THE BIBLE haha owned
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:24 PM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Cynthia Heimel! Such a necessary corrective after a season reading everything by Milan Kundera translated into English ca. late 80's, and especially after watching that movie based on Unbearable Lightness. I wanted to be Therese/ Juliette Binoche so bad! When I wasn't wanting to be Lena Olin/ Sabina! Neither of which were remotely like me or anyone I knew!
posted by goofyfoot at 1:26 AM on February 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


I hate to break it to you but I think Oprah has more of an impact on our collective culture than Angela Merkel.

Maybe in America, but here in Europe this is the first time I've even heard Winfrey mentioned in a long time. I think Winfrey might be on television here, but Merkel is in (and often just is) the news every day.
posted by pracowity at 3:35 AM on February 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


The next time a guy asks me out I'm going to ask him what the last book he read by a woman was, and what he thought of it. Thanks to this thread for an excellent sorting mechanism.
posted by sallybrown at 9:14 AM on February 27, 2016 [9 favorites]


What if it's a Danielle Steele novel?
posted by Lyme Drop at 9:47 AM on February 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


What if it's a Danielle Steele novel?

Stop getting my hopes up!
posted by sallybrown at 9:50 AM on February 27, 2016 [14 favorites]


What if it's a Danielle Steele novel?

Bwahahaha. I had exactly the same thought.

There's a lot in this thread that I love and is making me, as a woman who read a lot of books by white dudes in my formative years, think a lot about how that might have shaped me in ways I hadn't even considered.
posted by bunderful at 10:00 AM on February 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


When I was 13, my great aunt moved out of the house down the street and into a nursing home and she gave us (among other things) an entire box of old romance novels. I picked one up and got totally sucked into it, and for about 2 years romance novels were the bulk of what I read. My family teased me about it a bit, but they didn't care that much, so I was mostly left to read in peace. After a couple of years, I stopped reading them and I've never really gone back to them.

For a long time, I used to regard that part of my history as a reader as sort of shameful. But a couple of years ago, I decided to spend an entire year only reading books written by women, because I was so sick of the way many men wrote about women (and my god, it was like coming home after a long, hot, sweaty day and getting to drink a cool glass of lemonade on the porch when I started reading books again that actually treated women like people). Halfway through that year of reading only women authors, I realized something: romance novels can have all sorts of other problems, but they are primarily written by women from a female character's perspective, and when I was 13, I wasn't old enough to be able to verbalize it, but that still felt like a reaching an oasis in the desert, no matter how flawed that oasis was.
posted by colfax at 10:13 AM on February 27, 2016 [19 favorites]


"Ever since I was a kid, I tried to live vicariously through the hooker-in-the-wind adventures of Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Henry Miller. But I could never finish any of the books. Maybe because I just couldn't identify with the fact that they were guys who had women around to make them coffee and wash the skid marks out of their shorts while they complained, called themselves angry young men, and screwed themselves with their existential penises."

- Erika Lopez from Flaming Iguanas: An Illustrated All-Girl Road Novel Thing
posted by crone islander at 12:19 PM on February 27, 2016 [7 favorites]


I would date the hell out of a dude open-minded enough to enjoy a Danielle Steele novel (for what it is, mind you; if he thought it was Great Literature, we might have some compatibility issues) and confident enough to admit it to a woman he was interested in.
posted by praemunire at 12:49 PM on February 27, 2016 [7 favorites]


If anyone's looking for a female-centric take on the Beats, Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson is really good. I gave that to my brother's girlfriend as a Christmas gift, since she has "nothing is true, everything is permitted" tattooed on her arm and accredited to Burroughs. (Whoops.)
posted by pxe2000 at 1:36 PM on February 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


I have read Franzen and it is some truly awful stuff. What gets to me isn't that everyone thinks he's some great author anymore (I guess I spend a lot of time around hip young people and they all love to make fun of him), but that he was part of this stupid coterie of very aggravating white, male writers (DFW, Eugenides, Franzen, the other guy) who everyone wanted to be the Next American Literary Genius and none of them were worthy of the title, ESPECIALLY cozy little domestic, male-version-of-chick-lit writing Franzen. If I had to rank them worst to best I'd go Franzen, Eugenides, DFW, but honestly I can't stand any of them and it's ridiculous that they're more popularly known than any of the actually good non-male and/or non-white authors of today.

Franzen's Oprah thing is trash, too. Isn't his writing on like fricking Chipotle bags now?
posted by stoneandstar at 3:50 PM on February 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Yeah, if a man read Danielle Steele novels I'd be moved and enthralled and probably marry him on the spot. (I've never read one, but it would be such an overwhelming display of general and gender-related chillness.)

My boyfriend won't read any of the female authors that I discuss with him, whether it's Simone de Beauvoir or Alissa Nutting or Toni Morrison or Patricia Highsmith or Sara Paretsky. However, when I said John Williams was incredible, he was all over that. He also doesn't really read "for fun" the way I do, not sure why. (If I were a man, this would be my crypto-misandrist way of saying "girls just don't seem to like science! Not sure why exactly they are so deeply flawed and stupid, hm.")

I love John Williams, but one of his books has ~1 female character, and another one is about a man with a frigid wife and a graduate student he falls in love with (he's a professor). If you limit yourself only to the best of male fiction, your view of the world is severely compromised.

(He also really loved reading Willa Cather's The Professor's House, which we both read for a class, and I loved it too, but the female characters in that are I believe an old spiritual maid, a vain wife, and a selfish daughter. I may be forgetting what was up with the other daughter. But women's books are acceptable if they are about men and don't ruffle any male feathers.)

The Solnit article is excellent and I'm glad not every essay has to be formulated as a polemic. It's definitely well written and trenchant. I also think it's seems clear that she's saying Lolita is complicated; a complex book in a complex world. The unfortunate part is when you can't talk about Lolita from the perspective of the semiotics of womenhood/girlhood because men assume you're misunderstanding it despite what is in the text (and in Nabokov's own interviews).

It reminds me of that Philip Roth(?) character who thinks his girlfriend(?) is not really an intellectual because she seems to get most excited about crime novels. So... not an intellectual because she reads both seriously and for fun, and talks about novels the way men today talk about True Detective or Breaking Bad (serious male shows). Men's interest in crime fiction is considered experimental, while women's crime fiction assumed to be merely lurid and empty. (Rather than a pseudo-gothic avenue to express anxieties otherwise suppressed in our cultures.) Got it.

I mean, I definitely know some serious intellectuals, both male and female, who wouldn't read a crime novel or watch a television show. I wonder why he didn't date one of those, instead of the big-eyed soft breasted one he chose? Oh, because it illustrates the existential anxiety of men, who consider themselves the victims of their own misogyny, of course. SUPER fascinating. Would much like to keep hearing about how misogyny affects men while ignoring rich cultural tapestry of women's writing and art.
posted by stoneandstar at 4:14 PM on February 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


colfax's great comment about romance novels reminds me of the couple of years in my late teens when I only read comics by women. I didn't think of it as a political act at the time; I had just read a long string of acclaimed comics by men who seemed to only imagine women as traitorous creatures who could grant or withhold sex (unless they're mothers who can grant or withhold love!). Chester Brown's I Never Liked You was the last straw, I recall (this was well before he wrote Paying for It, his memoir of soliciting sex workers, and completely reaffirmed all my thoughts about him). I was just done. I read some fantastic books during those years, and I still feel a kind of guarded tiredness when I pick up yet another acclaimed comic by a male author that fits the pattern.

The really frustrating thing, though, is that I've rarely been able to talk to men about this without igniting a lot of defensiveness. "You don't like Chris Ware? Seth? Adrian Tomine?" "No, I didn't say that; I just... get tired. It feels oppressive, like a humid day with a storm system coming in and you can't breathe." It's like it's a personal insult to them, almost, and yet I don't get to expect everyone to have read Moto Hagio and Roberta Gregory and Lynda Barry. Anyway, Rebecca Solnit is the best. She's like the spirit-of-the-stairs for everyone trapped in a conversation of unthinking sexism.
posted by thetortoise at 4:23 PM on February 27, 2016 [13 favorites]


Books by infamous jackasses like Hemingway and Mailer are important for women to read; one must know the enemy to defeat them (him)

My view of Hemingway has shifted over time, as mentioned before. I used to think of his stories as just about overgrown boys in macho poses written in a simplistic style, but the idea was suggested to me that his whole approach was a kind of parody of masculinity. When you think about it, most of his protagonists end up ruined, defeated, and ultimately loosing because of this fake macho ideal that they are trying to live up to. So what you end up with is "just overgrown boys in macho poses written in a simplistic style", but with a subversive undertone.
posted by ovvl at 4:30 PM on February 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is the thing that I have always loved about literature- it can be morphed any way you want to read it. And it brings up the question of who really wrote this- Bacon? Shakespeare's girlfriend? Some other unknown who could have been a hermaphrodite for all we know?

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

― William Shakespeare, Hamlet
posted by LuckyMonkey21 at 5:08 PM on February 27, 2016


I've read a bunch of Danielle steel novels!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:22 PM on February 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


A couple nights ago, I was hanging out with my friend Tim, and we were lamenting Marvel's decision to cast Danny Rand as a lily-white dude instead of as some form of Asian to reclaim yellow peril nonsense etc. At one point, he paused, and then he said a little hesitantly, "And, I mean, honestly, how many more stories about white guys do we need?" And I laughed and said, "Man, I don't think I've read a new book written by a white guy about a white guy in like two years, and it's awesome." And it is awesome. I'm so much more jazzed about my reading than I've been in years. Don't get me wrong, I've got lots of favorite books starring white dudes, and I've got lots of favorite white guy authors, and I reread many of them regularly. But when it comes to new stories, yeah, just about anyone else is already three steps more interesting. Mass Effect as a woman Shepard is fascinating. Mass Effect as a male Shepard is yawn-inducing, because I've already experienced the "space marine dude shoots everyone he doesn't have sex with and some of the people he does" story. Sorry, white guys, I love y'all, but you're played out.
posted by Errant at 10:08 PM on February 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


My view of Hemingway has shifted over time, as mentioned before. I used to think of his stories as just about overgrown boys in macho poses written in a simplistic style, but the idea was suggested to me that his whole approach was a kind of parody of masculinity

IMO it's unintentional parody.
posted by Lyme Drop at 10:20 AM on February 28, 2016


Mallory Ortberg's List of Books That Literally All White Men Own.

the toast, but not mallory ortberg.
posted by advil at 1:05 PM on February 28, 2016


The really frustrating thing, though, is that I've rarely been able to talk to men about this without igniting a lot of defensiveness. "You don't like Chris Ware? Seth? Adrian Tomine?" "No, I didn't say that; I just... get tired. It feels oppressive, like a humid day with a storm system coming in and you can't breathe."

I don't read a lot of comics, but Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings, in particular, is so acclaimed and lauded and when I read it as an eager undergrad minoring in Asian American studies it just ran me right through. Young, politically aware Asian American men are brutal (often rightly so) toward any media that has even a whiff of negativity toward Asian men, but when they say ugly, hateful things about Asian women and wax poetic about their desire for the unattainable white woman we are supposed to nod thoughtfully and applaud and praise them for their honesty and give them literary awards. No, thank you. I get that the main character isn't supposed to be entirely sympathetic, and I want to support nuanced portrayals of Asian American men because God knows we need them, but I just do not feel like reading stories where I am repeatedly crapped on. (Don Lee's The Collective, I'm fucking looking at you too.)
posted by sunset in snow country at 11:12 AM on February 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


Pushing for masculine values by masculine writers shouldn't be a reason for women not to read these books. But I see her point. Reading these books as a young woman was, in short, like being on a really annoying date.
posted by canteven3 at 7:28 AM on March 1, 2016


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