The other night, a fellow novelist leaned over and confessed to me, in the hushed tones of one confessing to a murder, that she liked Jonathan Franzen. Liked his books, that is. She eyed me nervously and braced herself for the feminist smackdown that, she feared, I was about to unleash.

Instead I laughed and said, “Don’t worry, it’s okay — I like him, too!” She smiled with relief. Professing your love for Franzen’s books — even if you simultaneously acknowledge his personal shortcomings re: Jennifer Weiner interactions, baffling bird obsessions, anti-technology curmudgeonliness — feels like a risky move these days. Especially in progressive literary Brooklyn.

Then she told me how, after reading The Corrections, she posted a status on Facebook calling the book a masterpiece. She wanted to push back against all the criticism of Franzen’s supposed sexism, even though she worried that female friends might ostracize her for it. “I know this sounds silly,” she recounted, “but doing that felt like a brave act — like political activism.”

Her story confirmed something I’ve been suspecting for a long time: We’ve created a literary climate where women are scared to admit that they enjoy a male writer’s work, because some other women have accused him of sexism.

I’d already heard stories along these lines from friends who’d been castigated for reading Philip Roth. But Franzen? Franzen, whose character Denise’s storyline in The Corrections is among the best depictions I’ve encountered of queer female desire? Whose first 50 pages in Freedom form one of the strongest indictments of rape culture I’ve ever read? When he has “woman trouble,” I can’t help thinking that our liberal bubble has become so ideologically rigid that we’ve stiffened into a profoundly illiberal stance.

Take feminist writer Rebecca Solnit, who recently published a piece in Literary Hub titled “80 Books No Woman Should Read.” Solnit suggests with some self-aware hyperbole that, as a woman, I should swear off reading a slew of male authors, from Ernest Hemingway to Charles Bukowski to Henry Miller to, yes, Franzen. She places a bunch of literary heavy-hitters in her “no-read zone” because “some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty.”

To be fair, Solnit is riffing off the Esquire list “80 Best Books Every Man Should Read,” which really is terrible. She foregrounds her piece by saying “of course I believe everyone should read anything they want.” Her tone is tongue-in-cheek; she’s clearly presenting a rhetorical construct. Still, she’s using that construct to make a real argument about not reading sexist writers, and it’s an argument with which I wholeheartedly disagree, on feminist grounds.

First off, you can read an author, judge him sexist, and still learn something valuable about the human condition from his book. It’s pretty insulting to women’s intelligence to imply that we’re incapable of separating out the good from the bad in these works. I’ve read Bukowski and Miller and have had no trouble taking the wheat and leaving the chaff. I suspect most women are the same way. We almost can’t help but become experts in this sort of literary winnowing, precisely because 99% of the books humanity has thrown at us contain that chaff.

This is especially true for those of us with multiple marginalities. I am a queer, non-white, Jewish young woman. If I had to excise from my library every book whose writer was homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic and/or misogynist, my shelves would be pretty much empty. Everything from the Bible to Heidegger would land in the trash. Hell, I’d even have to toss out a writer Solnit admires, F. Scott Fitzgerald — remember Meyer Wolfsheim, the Jewish gangster who stalks the pages of The Great Gatsby wearing cufflinks made from human teeth?

But I haven’t thrown out these books, because I actually believe that we women have something to gain from reading sexist male writers.

Genuinely sexist works can give us insight into the history and logic of sexism. That’s important, because you can’t defeat something without first understanding what it is you’re fighting. Plus, these books help us understand the forces that shaped women of a certain time and place. Reading Miller gives me a window onto the sorts of attitudes his lover, Anais Nin, had to contend with — and also sheds light on the flaws in her own writing (see under: gender essentialism).

If reading sexist male writers is recommended for women readers, it’s downright compulsory for women writers. We need to be intimately aware of that language, need to speak it backward and forward, so that we can make our own books relevant and, ideally, cleverly subversive to boot. If I hadn’t spent years growing up in the Orthodox Jewish world and becoming fluent in that religion’s deeply misogynistic ancient texts, I’d never have been able to turn the misogyny on its head by having my female protagonist best her dad at Kabbalah in my novel, The Mystics of Mile End.

Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., has told audiences that she was able to channel her sexist male protagonist’s voice in part because she’s read so many books by sexist male writers. (Incidentally, she likes Roth and Franzen.) She subverts her character’s sexism by revealing it subtly, page by page, allowing him to incriminate himself and the male literary establishment he represents.

Waldman has also pointed out in interviews that “there are things that men can’t say in their novels because they would be accused of misogyny, but I can say them.” That raises a worrisome question: Do we give women more latitude when it comes to writing sexism, offering them the benefit of the doubt even as we jump to excoriate men, who often get conflated with their male characters? And if so, isn’t that the opposite of progressive?

Which brings me to another reason for reading male writers accused of sexism: Sometimes they’re not really sexist — they’re actually in on the joke.

Junot Díaz is a case in point. When his collection This Is How You Lose Her came out in 2012, many accused him of sexism because his young Dominican narrator, Yunior, spewed it on nearly every page. But others leapt to Díaz’s defense, arguing that the author is trusting us, the readers, to deconstruct the sexism of the text as we read. And that may just be profoundly feminist of him.

I’m in the camp of those who read Díaz sympathetically — I actually believe he did a brilliant job of revealing and critiquing sexism, without being didactic — but I still think it’s valid when people argue that, no, he only revealed sexism, he didn’t properly critique it. What’s not valid is when people hear that so-and-so author is sexist and, without so much as reading a page, ship him off to this indefensible place, “the no-read zone.”

18 Responses

  1. Eddie

    I love this article. I also love Bukowski, or I did, when I was twenty, and it always bothered me that people who read three or four f his poems dogmatically told me not to read him. I love this article. I will buy your book.

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  2. Janet

    Thank you for your insight and I agree. It worries me that women, people, are edging dangerously closer to a book burning mentality instead of learning from those writers with whom they vehemently disagree.

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  3. Fritze

    Thanks for a great perspective.

    I guess the old adage “the personal is political” is what leads to these lists of things women “should never do.” But we don’t become un-oppressed by isolating ourselves in a feminist/queer/whatever bubble. I think it’s more important to read these authors and talk about what we find offensive. It’s worth asking the author how his characters differ from his real life practices. Sometimes it’s pretty clear when an author’s own biases are peaking through. Sometimes it’s clear when a character illustrates something the author finds ugly. Other times, it’s muddy.

    I do try to be aware of how I “vote with my dollars,” and I have to admit, I haven’t read any Franzen since The Corrections. I did love that book, but he has given himself a certain ick-factor that makes me … choose other authors. For now at least. 🙂

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  4. Li Sian

    Honestly? I think people should just read what they want. Want to read sexist, racist lit? Read it. And enjoy it, if the book appeals to your particular tastes! Don’t want to read it? Don’t read it. I don’t see what gains readers (and yes, readers who are writers!) really make by ‘making’ themselves read for ‘insight into the history and logic of sexism’ (something I would suggest we’re drowning in all the time anyway, by sheer virtue of living in a kyriarchy).

    I do have sympathy with some aspects of this author’s argument. It can feel stifling when one’s reading preferences are policed. We all have ‘problematic faves’. What I will say is that by insisting that there is something particularly educational to be gleaned from reading sexist male authors (and racist white authors), our limited time and energies as readers are drawn away from reading women and people of colour writers, or writers who – gasp! – live in non-USian countries where sexual and racial hierarchies play out somewhat differently. Now, that would be missing out on some truly subversive literature.

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  5. Kevin

    Right. Categorical limits on reading limit your thinking and your writing. Can’t believe anyone would skip Hemingway because he’s not politically correct.

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  6. Jeb Harrison

    Saul Bellow must certainly be on “don’t read” list, along with just about every 19th century male novelist, I would imagine. If we must slap a label on everything and everybody, we have a better chance of keeping an open mind if we reserve the label for the work itself, rather than the author. In the case of The Corrections, Franzen was equally cruel to all of his poor, unloveable characters, resulting in one of the most misanthropic novels of recent memory. But I wouldn’t label Franzen a misanthrope because of it.

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  7. denise davis

    One of the greatest living writers, Martin Amis, is meant to be a misogynist. Roth was too (as noted in this article). But these men are/were not really women haters. They just have lingering perspectives – often that of the 1950s husband – about the other sex. I believe this aids them in their masterpieces. We learn much more about ourselves from fiction than we ever do from history books and psychoanalytical self-help guides. To deprive these ‘misogynists’ their voices would mean to deprive ourselves of real histories about the human condition and the opportunity to challenge their opinions and move forward. Suppression of their artistic fictions stifles our evolution. Like Samuel, I wholly agree that women are more than capable of separating the wheat from the chaff. To deprive us that opportunity by shouting down or ostracising or banning every male writer that writes from a masculine viewpoint would be far more demeaning. I believe the most sexist, misogynistic fiction is written by women who suggest we require the love of a man to have a fulfilled life, or that we want sex that hurts. Women’s bookshelves are heavy with these types of fiction. The books are also regularly made into films, spreading the perspectives to an even wider audience, including teen girls. These ‘examples of women are much more dangerous than Amis’s ‘Nicola’ or Roth’s ‘Faunia’.

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    • WD Clarke

      Nice point Denise. I remember when Amis’s novel Money came out, he tried to explain that his creation of the protagonist John Self was intended as an exploration of truly cretinous male desire, and that he intended Money to be a straightforwardly “feminist novel”. And yet there were some feminists who castigated him for it–perhaps because they did indeed conflate the author and narrator, and because of the author’s reputation as being something of a libertine. But I think it is worth quoting another highly masculine writer, Milan Kundera on this: “The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why
      I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own I ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.” And so yes, we can detect authorial sexism in the novels of Franzen, Amis or Kundera if we so desire, and thereby draw firm moral conclusions about these authors, conclusions that make us feel that our our daylight lives might thereby be apparently more secure . Or we can choose to see these novels as brave explorations of the shadowlands of our psyches, replete with the ambiguities, contradictions, and –yes, at times– just plain ugliness of our culture. Phallogocentrism is indeed a scourge, but it is also a complex one, bound up with the kind of historical, economic and sociological complexities call out for novelists to explore. Novelists when seen in this vein play the role that Socrates (in Plato’s account) saw himself playing: as the gadfly biting the noble but lazy horse that is in all of us, irritating it to point of having to look in the mirror. So instead of shaming readers for admitting to having read Franzen and Roth et al, and instead of pillorying novelists who have problematic narrators or evil protagonists, perhaps we should instead award them with the alternative punishment Socrates suggested for himself for allegedly corrupting the minds of the Athenian youth: free meals for life at the Prytaneum, a reward usually reserved for the city’s heroic Olympic athletes.

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      • Kathleen Maher

        Serious adult readers should ignore lists composed by magazine editors, social media, and the academic “canon.” Fiction requires a meeting of minds more explicitly than other art. It demands concentration and much more time than studying a painting or watching a dance. Serious music, for me, requires repeated, carefully listening. I don’t know if music without lyrics promotes male dominance, but women composers haven’t reached the level where an occasional listener like me can tell you my favorites.
        When I was in school, I read Roth, Burroughs, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Bukowski, etc. because they were “off-limits.” I liked their books. I started others, which I didn’t finish. Sometimes misogyny was a factor (Hemingway, Nelson Algren) but more often I put it aside for other reasons. I often put down a book one year and pick it up the next and find myself reading it nonstop, and in some cases, successively. The issues between men and women, and the way men mistreat women–and vice versa– are rarely the sole reason I don’t like a book.
        While in school, when a male writer captured a woman’s life, or even a feeling, I was thrilled. Years later, on a second reading, I doubted Tolstoy, Joyce, even Flaubert, who’s “Madame Bovary” reads as briskly and humorously as a contemporary novel. Later still, I learned that these empathetic geniuses had relied heavily on the writings of their lovers or wives. Fair enough.
        Yet consider the important women writers today who write from a man’s point of view as naturally as any man: imo, this results from girls growing up knowing they must learn what men think, what placates and pleases them–or their lives may be at stake!
        My daughter in high school wrote a paper on “Anna Karenina” in which she protested the characters’ self-indigent behavior within their privileged “society” so strenuously that her male English teacher wrote after her conclusion, asking what book she recommended instead. She proposed Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.” He agreed. That’s what they read now.
        However, she didn’t see this as a victory for herself, and showed me the paper marked with a big, red B+. I suggested she discuss this with him. It had, after all, changed his mind. But she had written what she had to say and considered begging for a top grade–degrading. Even more so, when I told her that while I had never contested a grade, I’d known students who did. They won. They always won.
        Misogyny still factors heavily in this world. As such, artists of all kinds should address it. But revel in it? Perhaps, if that allows him (or her) to write more originally and powerfully than anything else. Who knows? Esquire might give you an award.
        I once, briefly, thought feminism could dispense with “group think.” I still think that should be the feminist ideal. For despite the occasional woman leader, who (in most countries) no longer needs to disguise her sex, men still rule. In which case, women can at least think freely,. For for those thoughts to matter, though, requires great tolerance and respect for the individual But, male or female, people are people. Fashion dictates what’s art; what’s literature–and a few new books suggest what I’ve long believed–what’s science.

  8. Richard

    For me it’s a matter of life being short and art being long. ‘The Mystics of Mile End’ sounds interesting and now it’s on my to read list. That means there’s another book somewhere that I won’t have time in my life to read. The problem with lists such as the one in Esquire is that they represent a broader cultural assumption that the canon of worthwhile books is mostly male. How many sexist novels does a person need to read in order to understand the logic of sexism? Surely to get that understanding they could just leave their own house. Or stay in.

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