The Perils of Reading While Female

Alienated by sexism in ‘Great Books’ (cough, Kerouac), some women create a secret canon.

Sady Doyle March 6, 2014

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. (Stokkete/Shutterstock)

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.

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.'

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.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing 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.
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