Let me start with a confession: I’m a British male in my late twenties, I have a degree in literature and consider myself a feminist, but until the summer of 2018 I had never read a Jane Austen novel. Or a novel by Charlotte Brontë. Or, indeed, an Emily Brontë novel.
A lazy vacation finally forced me to confront the gender gap in my reading history. I found a copy of Pride and Prejudice in the house where I was staying, and I decided that “not really liking 19th century literature” was no longer an excuse. I had read a good part of Dickens, after all.
I was lost to my fellow vacationers for the next two days, reveling in Austen’s unrivaled prose.
Back home, I studied my library and found that the authors were diverse in terms of race and sexuality, but only about 25-30% were women. A terrible comeback, even taking into account the white male-dominated (and alarmingly crafted) headlines I have to read for my work covering global corruption and authoritarianism.
Something had to change. I have resolved not to read a single novel by a man in 2019.
Some male friends – normally enlightened feminists – were on the defensive. “About 60% of the books I’ve read this year are written by women, but I don’t see the need to completely exclude men,” said a friend who cares about gender balance in reading.
In some ways he was right – I could have achieved parity by simply reading more female authors. But the decision was not about hard data. I wanted to radically change the way I choose and think about books.
It meant discarding the habits learned over nearly three decades of patriarchal socialization. Before my resolution, there is little chance that, on the “18 thousand pounds” of the legendary New York Strand Bookstore, I would have drawn a straight line towards a novel marketed under the name of “the black Bridget Jones”. This time I picked up Candice Carty-Williams right away Queen.
Watching the book on the subway at home brought back a childhood memory. When I was 13, I happily perused my mother-in-law’s copy of Bridget Jones Diary. I was drawn to Bridget’s lively, human voice; by then-new-to-me author Helen Fielding’s use of the diary as a literary form; and experiencing a life that is totally foreign to me. But my joy was colored by a lingering unease: I knew teenagers weren’t supposed to read this kind of book.
Shortly after, I was having lunch with my family and friends. Someone said, with the slightest hint of derision: “Max read Bridget JonesThe table turned as one to look at me.
“Really?!” a family friend smiled.
My skin tingled with a burning blush. “What’s wrong with that? It’s an interesting book,” I mumbled.
She attempted a friendly explanation. “Well, it’s more a question of how you might have anything in common with a woman in her early 30s struggling with celibacy.”
Seeking only prospects you already know is, of course, far from the point of reading literature. But my 13-year-old self didn’t know that.
My family friend was not acting out of malice. Like all of us, she was playing her part in a system that the feminist theorist denounces calls the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. The system maintains that straight white men are the social norm. Anyone who transgresses this norm by refusing to follow traditional gender stereotypes is skewed and, on a small and large scale, treated as an outcast. We all face a choice as to how to deal with it: speak out and endure the alienation, or adapt and bury your true self. When I got home after that lunch, I tidied up the suite, Bridget Jones: The edge of reasonand never finished reading it.
In the literary world, the most tangible effect of this norm concerns female and homosexual writers. Between 1950 and 2016, there were only one year where the number of female-authored books on the New York Times the best-selling list equaled the men’s. Women who succeed in selling their books do so on average at close to half price of their male counterparts. Unsurprisingly, female authors can struggle to get their books picked up by publishers. After submitting her book to 50 publishers and receiving only two manuscript requests, writer Catherine Nichols created a male pseudonym, submitted the same book 50 times and received 17 manuscript requests. “He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book,” she wrote in a 2015 piece for Jezebel. There is little data available on the treatment of trans writers, but non-binary authors have written less than 0.5% articles that appeared last year in 15 of the leading English-language literary publications.
But the problem goes much further than the book market. The fight for gender equality requires the buy-in of men who, as human beings, tend to be driven by stories rather than data.
By separating men from all women’s novels that are not considered “great” literature by the often sexist world of literary criticism, we deny them crucial insights into how patriarchy affects women.
My Reading Experience Queen is a case in point. Or Bridget Jones showed me a foreign world, Queen takes place in the world I inhabit. It’s about a millennial (like me) from South East London (where I grew up) working in the media, but experienced from a black woman’s perspective. Before reading the book, I knew intellectually that black women suffer from extraordinary levels of sexualization, whether verbal, subtle, aggressive, or physical. But it wasn’t until I endured this relentless barrage of harassment from the inside of Queenie’s head that I could truly begin to understand the grueling psychological toll it must have taken on my friends and colleagues.
Queen goes well with the brutality of Adelle Waldman The Loves of Nathaniel P.. A precursor to today’s “softboys”, Waldman’s anti-hero, up-and-coming writer Nate, exemplifies budding progressive male intellectuals who pretend to care about feminism while happily enjoying and perpetuating the misogyny of the literary world. For any decent man with a modicum of self-awareness, this is excruciating reading: in Nate, we see the embodiment of all the worst things we say, think, or do. In books like Queenie, we see and feel some of the consequences.
But my resolution was not a self-righteous, self-prostrating chore. It was a joy. I reveled in a plethora of wonderful authors that I ignored for so long, browsing from canonical writers like Joan Didion, Andrea Levy, and Eve Babitz, and contemporary writers, like Kamila Shamsie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Lauren Groff. Looking for an easy comedy to wind down, I turned not to my usual retreat, PG Wodehouse, but to Nora Ephron. Where Wodehouse tells somewhat meaningless stories in exquisite comedic prose, Ephron brings wisdom and insight with the laughs. (I also found myself making the cabbage strudel recipe she spent decades looking for.)
Being forced to go beyond authors, men and women, who grab the applause and headlines can reap great treasures. Wanting to indulge in a new obsession with trees, I did not open Richard Powers’ famous album. The dominant storybut the little known Semiosis by Sue Burke. It turned out to be the best science fiction novel I have ever read. Its story of humans starting over on a planet with super-advanced flora is a supremely clever reflection on everything from the nuclear family to the surveillance state. It also grabbed me in a deep, all-encompassing way that few books have done since I was a kid. However, while The dominant story won a Pulitzer and Powers is a MacArthur Scholar, Semiosis is marketed with lines like “A Fascinating World”, from The edge.
In the middle of it all, I have to admit: I cheated. Once. While vacationing in Vietnam, I couldn’t find English copies of the only Vietnamese author I had been recommended, and I was tempted by Graham Greene. The Quiet American. Pleasure was hollow. Despite Greene’s appearance serious attempts to confront what Edward said later called orientalism, it is clear that its main female character is an exotic shell.
It wasn’t the only way I let myself down. Despite my first intentions, I have read only one homosexual author (the wonderful book by Andrea Lawlor Paul takes the form of a mortal). I haven’t seen the great names of the 19th century like Edith Wharton, George Eliot and the Brontes. And the books I’ve read are almost exclusively written by Europeans or Americans.
But I agree that I failed. All men are flawed feminists. We’re constantly messing up, and most of the time we don’t even realize it. For me, being a male feminist is about catching as many mistakes as possible and doing your best to correct them. It’s a constant cycle of trying and failing, acknowledging that failure and getting up to try again.
I will try to fill these reading gaps next year.