On women and words

The other day, Esquire magazine published a list of 75 books every man should read. It’s not exactly an original list – a quick glance suggests it’s identical to a list from a couple years ago – and it’s self-dismissively biased (utterly biases, it says, almost reflexively) towards a certain kind of author: the older white dude; Cheever, Mailer, Hemingway, etc.

All in all, it’s not a bad list. I’ve used the 2008 one while hunting for new authors to check out (it turned me on to Wallace Stegner, for instance) and liked what I read.

But it’s a shallow list, which is kind of odd for something of it’s length.

There’s several novels about wars fought by Americans, yet few about things that touch on other parts of the world. There’s only a handful of books written by minorities, most of them the kind of book assigned in high school, like Native Son or Invisible Man. And there was only one book on the list written by someone possessing only X chromosomes. Put another way, it’s an interesting list with some great books, but not one that covers as much ground as you’d think 75 books would.

It’s neither original or shocking – it’s barely interesting, at this point – to point out most people don’t read much prose from women writers; a cliche is that they only write romantic, sentimental stuff. And, of course, that cliche is complete bullshit. Just take Joan Didion, for instance. But it doesn’t stop undue criticism from pompous white authors.

Enter VS Naipaul, Nobel-Prize winning scribbler of words, who recently said no woman was his literary match. One feels the urge to suggest it must be lonely up there for Naipaul, who is such a great reader he can tell which gender the author is after only a few words. No doubt he is often compelled to put down a book he has been so grossly crossed by after blindly opening and reading to pick up a bottle of Hennessey. And one especially feels for him on the days where he is confused by authors like George Eliot or George Sand.

While he’s only one writer and Esquire is only one magazine, it’s hard to shake the idea that lazy readers would agree with them: the best books are written by men. Or, maybe, the only books worth reading are by men. It’s a silly notion, but it’s an easy trap to fall into. Name four authors you’ve recently read. Chances are they’re men. Just this morning I looked at Amazon’s top 10 selling books and only one, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, was written by a woman.

It isn’t that people doubt good stuff has been written by women. Most people know who Jane Austen is, even if they haven’t read her. Maybe they’ve read E. Anne Proulx’s The Shipping News, but that was only because of the movie. It’s probably got something to do with being lazy in reading, sticking to what you like and not pushing your boundaries. Like somebody at work said to me the other day, “You’re always reading the classics. Don’t you ever get bored?”

So consider this an addition to Esquire’s list: Six books written by women that I’ve read and liked. Try at least one of them next time you’re at the library.

  • Breaking and Entering – Joy Williams
  • The Pillow Book – Sei Shonagon
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem – Hannah Arendt
  • The Shipping News – E. Anne Proulx
  • Adam Bede – George Eliot
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem , The White Album – Joan Didion

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