Culture » March 6, 2014
The Perils of Reading While Female
Alienated by sexism in ‘Great Books’ (cough, Kerouac), some women create a secret canon.
Dayna Tortorici says that she consciously read the 'boy canon' as a teenager in order to overcome her twin afflictions of being from Los Angeles and being a woman, and will 'never forget reading Bukowski’s Post Office and feeling so horrible, the way that the narrator describes the thickness of ugly women’s legs.'
When I was in my early twenties, and not any kind of writer, I was trying to impress a guy who loved Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog. He loved the eponymous protagonist’s voice, his enraged missives to the culture, the way the book was “all about discourse.” Well: I went out, and I bought Herzog. And somewhere in the middle of Herzog, I realized that it was not just “all about discourse.” It was also “all about hating women.” The ex-wife was vicious and castrating, the girlfriend was sexually available yet pathetic, even random women on the street had “bitch eyes.” It was around the point in the book when Herzog reflects, “Will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood,” that I realized that I didn’t want to finish it.
Which put me in a tight spot. If the man I was interested in asked me about the book, I would have to say that I quit reading it; if he asked me why I quit, I would have to give him a reason. So, the next time it rained, I opened a window and put Herzog out on my windowsill, and I left it there until it was ruined, so that I would have an excuse. I believed it was smarter and more appropriate to destroy a book and lie about it than to admit that the book’s sexism had turned me off.
There are a lot of Herzog moments in No Regrets: Three Discussions, the new “small book” published by the magazine n+1. The book is built around three conversations among three different groups of female writers about reading: what they read when they were younger, what they didn’t read, why it mattered or didn’t. Stories about reading supposedly “great” dudelit only to feel hurt or repulsed come up repeatedly: No Regrets editor Dayna Tortorici says that she consciously read the “boy canon” as a teenager in order to overcome her twin afflictions of being from Los Angeles and being a woman, and will “never forget reading Bukowski’s Post Office and feeling so horrible, the way that the narrator describes the thickness of ugly women’s legs.” Elsewhere, the conversation turns to Henry Miller (Elif Batuman: “he compared women to soup” ), Portnoy’s Complaint (Emily Witt: “I cannot read another passage about masturbation. I can’t.”) and On the Road (Sara Marcus: “I remember putting [it] down the first time a woman was mentioned”).
It’s intensely validating to get outside confirmation that seeming “intellectual” and demonstrating basic self-respect can come into direct conflict for female readers: If you admit to disliking a “great” book simply because it seems to actively hate your entire gender, you’re perceived as petty, “personal,” an identity-politics philistine who values gender-based axe-grinding above aesthetic or intellectual concerns. If No Regrets makes it all right for even one young woman to admit that Kerouac gives her a headache, it’s doing the Lord’s work.
But what struck me most about No Regrets was the sense of each woman having created her own alternative framework, her own way of reading. Alongside the complaints about the boy canon, there are potential subversive readings of its writers: practical lessons that can be drawn from their work without requiring uncritical worship. For example, Emily Gould is able to appropriate some of the swagger of the “midcentury misogynists” (Roth etal.)—the sense that she, too, might be able to write “a novel that says … ‘This is what a novel is, and you can like it or you can get off the bus.’ ” Witt is able to use the boy canon to pinpoint the narratives the men in her life are emulating and her own place as a woman within those stories. My favorite idea in No Regrets is Carla Blumenkranz’ concept of the “secret canon,” the unspoken agreement to valorize a particular set of books and authors in order to belong in a given social group. Blumenkranz sees the “secret canon” as exclusionary, and for the most part, I agree—woe betide you if you tell a certain variety of pseudointellectual man-hippie that you didn’t like On the Road—but No Regrets also invites a more liberating possibility: Maybe every woman writer has to create her own “secret canon,” her own list of essential books, in order to survive the male-dominated cultural definition of “great literature.”
Elsewhere in the book, the participants share their own reading lists: books by women that helped them to orient themselves within the maledominated canon or to form their own ideas of what “good writing” looks like. Judith Butler comes up in more than one conversation, as does Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick—a book about “solving heterosexuality” and the self-enforced oppression therein—and the work of Eileen Myles, of whom Marcus says: “I was diligently trying to find some brilliantly written prose that didn’t respect boundaries between fiction and nonfiction and that dealt with young queer women hanging around in cities and fucking up.” It’s a very specific requirement, but might I also suggest some Michelle Tea?
Once one’s own canon is formed, it no longer needs to be a secret: I got No Regrets from Emily Books, an ebook subscription service run by Ruth Curry and Emily Gould (for which, full disclosure, I’ve written reviews). Its appeal is much the same as the reading lists in No Regrets: the sense that every book that comes down the pike is a further elaboration on a very specific, very interesting idea of what good writing looks like.
Which brings me back to the Herzog incident. The power of a personal canon, secret or not, lies in the authority one needs to create it. Women need to trust that they know what’s good, what’s bad, and what serves them intellectually in order to reject or reclaim the books in their lives. This was exactly what I lacked when I destroyed Herzog. I wasn’t stupid, and I wasn’t a bad reader. But decades of socialization had taught me otherwise. There were the disastrous conversations with men about Eminem, the Beats, Judd Apatow; there were the condescending male classmates in college, such as the guy who made a point of sitting behind me and pulling faces whenever I talked because I’d once complained too forcefully about “whiny white guys”; there was the lit professor who made me rewrite a paper three times because it focused too exclusively on sexism and who told me that the purpose of his class was “appreciation” of the assigned readings, not critique. All of this had given me the implicit belief that I was simply not qualified to decide which books were good for me, that I would be seen as anti-intellectual if I decided that a sexist book was not worth my time.
What No Regrets argues for most powerfully is the right of women to reject that line of thinking and to believe that they are qualified to decide what literature should be. It argues for the public claiming of formerly secret canons: the right to create your own vision of what is best in the culture and to have that vision influence what books other people read and value.
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Sady Doyle is an In These Times staff writer. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady