“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)