Good Riddance, Norman Mailer

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” (Jorge Luis Borges)

Lately, I’ve been purging a lot. No, not the stomach-heaving purge of despair or disgust (though ask me again on November 4), but merely the welcome elimination of excess paper, emails, and detritus surrounding me.

While thus engaged, I came across a wonderful article I first encountered in 2017, “The Man Who Doesn’t Read Women.” This is a meaty article—definitely worth your time and attention—but I will only address one part of it here.

The author, Lorraine Berry, describes a conversation she had with her neurologist while he was treating her for severe migraine headaches by injecting Botox into the muscle next to her eye. Knowing that Berry was a writer, the doctor engaged her in chat about books and authors—he being a voracious reader. During the conversation, she was shocked to hear him admit quite matter-of-factly that he had never read a book written by a woman.

Then he corrected himself to say that oh, yes, he had read one: Charlotte’s Web.

After assuring him that Charlotte’s Web’s author, E.B White, was indeed a man, Berry considered his original assertion: he had never read a book by a female author.

She restrained her desired response (“WHATTHEFUCKDOYOUMEANYOU’VENEVER READABOOKBYAWOMAN?”). After all, he was holding a needle filled with poison right next to her left eye. But she felt gut-punched, nonetheless.

Sadly, Dr. Eyeball is not alone. There are apparently many men who have not and will not read female authors. Another being Norman Mailer, whose lengthy commentary on the subject is quoted in Berry’s article and is worth reading—especially if you seek justification for disliking Norman Mailer. Suffice it to say that he claims a good novelist requires two particular elements of the male anatomy that females lack.

Well, screw Norman Mailer. (Trust me, if you read the full quote in the article, you will say the same thing. Kindness takes a holiday.)

The article goes on to explore many facets of this issue, including the fact that the American journalistic and publishing world has long shown a deep bias with regard to who gets published, how much they get paid, who gets reviewed and where, and who is honored by the major literary awards. All of these have long favored white male authors, while authors of color and women are often overlooked or silenced. This despite the fact that women, by far, spend more on books than men, and college-educated Black women are the top consumers.

In the three years since this article first came out, we’ve seen many significant changes in the publishing world. There’s been acknowledgement of bias and inequalities. Both the #MeToo Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement have brought attention to books by female writers and authors of color. Steady progress has been made, and I think it will continue to advance.

But I keep going back to Dr. Eyeball. How does a well-educated man get to middle-age, or even adulthood, without ever reading a book by a woman? Clearly, there were gaps in the educational system, ones that I dearly hope are long gone. And then I remember who currently serves as America’s Secretary of Education and I am again gripped by despair.

To his credit, Dr. Eyeball did ask Lorraine Berry for a suggestion of a book he might like written by a woman. From other comments he had made, she judged him to be fairly conservative both politically and culturally, so she looked for a “safe” recommendation that would not reinforce his supposition that a woman writer couldn’t capture or hold his interest. She finally settled on and suggested Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the novel describing Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of Henry VIII.

What would you have recommended to the good doctor, or to another man who has never read a book by a woman?

In nonfiction, there are so many great books where the author’s gender makes little difference. Off the top of my head, I’d suggest Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken or Seabiscuit; anything by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and the amazing Educated by Tara Westover.

In fiction, I’d want to know more about the reader’s tastes. Even though the very literate mystery writer Rex Stout repeatedly claimed that Jane Austen was the best writer who ever lived, I would probably not recommend Austen—too much danger of the male reader seeing only the girly aspects of her novels and missing Austen’s subtleties, her irony and wit.

For an inaugural female author, I would be more inclined toward Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage; Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House; Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers; and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

To a reader of genre fiction, there is no shortage of first-rate female crime and mystery writers: Ngaio Marsh, Donna Leon, Jacqueline Winspear, Sara Paretsky, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and countless others. A reader of science fiction and fantasy certainly cannot claim that there are no female authors to interest him, not with the likes of Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, and Octavia Butler to captivate an imagination.

These are all just the tip of the bookberg. What would you add?

As appalled as I am by the notion of a man who has never read a book by a female author, or a woman who has never read a male author, should that ever be possible, I think there’s something to be learned here: As a reader, I could do better.

Even though I feel solid about the gender balance of my literary appetites, I think I could do better when it comes to expanding my reading of authors from other countries and cultures, and authors of color. I certainly don’t avoid them, and happily read them if directly encountered or recommended to me, but I don’t think I’ve made enough effort to really expand my literary horizons. I’m going to try to do better in the months ahead.

Do you make an effort to read books by authors with a very different identity from your own? I welcome your recommendations (for me or Dr. Eyeball).

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” (Haruki Murakami)


24 thoughts on “Good Riddance, Norman Mailer

  1. I rarely know the author of a book I’m reading….I look at the blurb and decide if it’s what I want. And presently (I just checked) I’m reading one book by a man and one by a woman. However, I know for a fact I end up with mainly books authored by women. So I don’t know what my point is…

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a new one to me, Neil. I just looked it up on Amazon (the evil empire), and from the description, it sounds fascinating. I also see that the Kindle version is selling for 99 cents, or one can get a paperback edition for $855.58. I may spring for the Kindle. Thanks for the suggestion. I hope being Mailer’s neighbor provided some interesting stories for your aunt and uncle.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I love Barbara Kingsolver, Janis, and The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books ever, but I have never read The Lacuna. Don’t know how or why I overlooked it, but I will remedy that in the coming year…. Thanks for the suggestion.


  2. I always make sure to know the gender of the author I am reading. I was an English Lit major, some things stick. I find it appalling that anyone, male or female, would make such a claim. People suck, of course– but this sucks more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, it’s a pretty appalling claim to make, Ally. I majored in Russian and Soviet Literature, where there was only one female author in three years of intensive study (though lots of long-suffering authors’ wives). I wouldn’t change my course of study for the world, but I did make up for lost time with female authors after I graduated.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t really care who has written the book as long as I enjoy it. And that system has worked for me, as I’ve read books written by all sorts of people from all over the world. One of the nicest things about reading is that it gives us a chance to see the world through someone else’s eyes, which is becoming a rare thing. These days, lots of people actually brag about only engaging with those who share their views, which I think explains a whole lot of the strife we see in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re exactly right, Ann. The joy of reading is experiencing things we might not otherwise experience, and seeing life through different eyes. Always reading books by people who look like us and think like us offers no growth. It’s like always going to the same restaurant and ordering the same thing every time. I think some people are afraid to have their minds opened.


  4. I keep writing a reply then deleting it before posting for being too sweary or just angry. Presumably the Norman Mailers (I’ll call them that) assume being female means having lesser intelligence in some way. I wonder whether they would have considered it acceptable to make the same assertion about black authors, for example?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s hard not to be sweary when confronted with such blatant bias and ignorance, Mick (I’m guessing 2020 will be the sweariest year on record). I think you’re right to wonder if the same prejudice that dismisses female authors would do the same to authors of color. I suspect so. And it probably extends to female and minority politicians, doctors, pilots … you name it. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve never consciously “gender balanced” my reading schedule, but I’ve always read quite a few female authors, simply because I enjoy them. On the other hand, I’ve never read Norman Mailer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the only Mailer I’ve read, Mitch, is an article or two in Esquire or The New Yorker, and he came across as something of a curmudgeonly dinosaur. I like your criteria that enjoyment dictates what you read, not gender. It’s sad that so many people with closed minds are inordinately proud of that fact.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I had to check my physical collection (or at least the ones not yet boxed up) and noticed that there are more books by male authors in my pile. Didn’t really consciously choose them, but maybe bec. they are more published and featured in mainstream bookstores years ago when I only bought paperback. I do tend to visit bookstores when I’m abroad and saw this one featuring female authors in Auckland. I must say, that was bookstore heaven.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bookstore and heaven are two words that certainly go together. Sometimes I fantasize about being locked in a bookstore overnight. One with a comfortable reading chair, a lamp … and a display of gourmet chocolates. Yep, heaven. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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