At first, it was an accident.
I was a freshman in college and was taking a 45-minute plane ride home to visit my parents. Due to some mixture of indecision and neuroticism (What if we crash?! I didn’t want to be stranded on an island, or worse, Waco, Texas, without something to read!), I always packed three or four books for the trip.
Hobby-wise, I’d barely graduated from high school, where I mostly got lost in sci-fi stories and other very conceptual plots recommended by teachers: Kurt Vonnegut, Chuck Palahniuk, Don DeLillo. I’d signed up for classes taught by professors who assigned more of the same, with the exception of one, who constructed a syllabus made up only of books that had been banned or censored at one point in time (a self-proclaimed scoundrel, he also dressed and talked a little like Han Solo). So, slowly, I learned about Henry Miller’s hunger and Vladimir Nabokov’s fancy prose.
It never occurred to me -- or, at least, it didn’t trouble me -- that I read far more books by and about men than books by and about women. There were a few fabulous exceptions, but overall gender didn’t dictate my reading list, the same way it didn’t dictate selecting a doctor or a roommate. Citing progressiveness, I claimed not to see gender. I read what I read because I liked solving the central puzzles, liked the anti-establishment tones, liked the thinly veiled philosophy lessons at the core of each story. What teen isn’t searching for an adoptable creed? I was a rambunctious reader; I didn’t want life explained to me plainly, or worse, with a shrug.
I didn’t look for myself in the stories I read, but sometimes I found myself in them anyway. When I did, it was like glancing in one of those pore-maximizing mirrors -- I looked away as quickly as possible.
So, any given carry-on could’ve had my worn copy of On the Road stashed in it, nestled under tampons and tangled headphones. But both in my light and thoughtful reading choices, I neglected to hear womens’ voices.
On this particular trip, I decided to pack John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (a suggestion) and an anthology of short stories (an assignment). An ex-athlete feeling disenchanted with the strange glory we attach to sports, I was looking forward to Updike, and cracked it open excitedly. But about 20 pages in, I had to stop. A paragraph I’d read made me physically sick:
Rich girls frigid? Nymphomaniacs? Must vary. Just women after all [...] Funny how the passionate ones are often tight and dry and the slow ones wet. The thing is play them until just a touch. You can tell: their skin under the fur gets all loose like a puppy’s neck.
I don’t support trigger warnings, but my experience with Updike feels like a case in their favor. Those words -- “all loose like a puppy’s neck” -- still pop into my head sometimes like an intrusive thought. Reading them for the first time, I felt reduced to a pet, an animal. But, still, I was conflicted. I remembered the words of my professor, the one who introduced me to more realistic fiction: “This isn’t Oprah’s Book Club. Reading isn’t therapy. It isn’t about you.” Why, then, couldn’t I appreciate Updike, a sort of linguistic wizard who, magically, strings letters together in ways that pop and dazzle? As a reader was I somehow less than if I couldn’t suspend my personal associations with a story, focusing instead on the way it moved, the way it artfully recreated life?
For the first time, I didn’t care. Because as much as reading and writing are about crafting cities and people out of letters and sounds that perfectly match their settings and characters, it is also about explaining the world, or a specific view of it. And as a freshman in a male-dominated English department, I listened to men explaining their specific views of the world to me all day.
Over the next few years I came to realize that, speaking very generally, books written by or about non-marginalized people (read: white men) tend to claim an objective representation of “truth” (as so happens in my once beloved On the Road). This makes sense -- their voices are already synched up with the loudest, or most amplified, voices we hear each day. Alternatively, they feature characters who are misfits, questioning or working against an overarching rule or viewpoint (as so happens in my still-beloved Slaughterhouse-Five).
On the other hand, books by or about marginalized people don’t need these constructed misfit scenarios to keep things interesting -- in a sense, we’re already misfits. We already work against society’s norms; all we have to do is tell it straight. And, as I’ve grown up, I’ve grown more interested in these subtler stories.
Obligatory disclaimer: #NotAllMen. Obviously, there are exceptions -- especially outside stuffy high school and college curriculums. But it’d be wrong to assume that egregiously misogynistic protagonists (only sometimes created by egregiously misogynistic authors) like Rabbit are relics. In plenty of contemporary male writers’ stories, women end up mocked, ridiculed and taken advantage of. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s self-effacing My Struggle relates his affairs with preteen girls; The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (who’s shown that he can write women well, if he tries) features a ridiculous feminist character who puzzlingly blames all of society’s problems on the phallic shapes of buildings; Jonathan Franzen’s forthcoming book Purity has a plucky female protagonist who’s destined to become a batty recluse once she loses her sex appeal.
These stories may accurately reveal some of life’s sad realities, but they shouldn’t drown out the voices telling us how women think about women. And they totally do. Books by men get reviewed more often, win awards more often, serve as inspiration for budding writers more often. As one writer recently learned, using a male pseudonym gave her a serious leg up with agents. These revelations have prompted movements, including 2014’s Year of Reading Women, and a new suggestion that 2018 should be deemed a Year of Publishing Women. And while I think the pool of what we publish should be anything but monolithic and restricted, I hope publishers jump on board.
Because whether I like it or not, gender is in everything I read, trumpeted loudly or tucked quietly between the lines. In fact, that day on the plane I unknowingly signed up for a longer-term commitment: a life of reading (mostly) women -- or at least as many women as I do men.
Put off as I was by Updike, I needed a palate cleanser. I opened the short story anthology to its Table of Contents, and chose the shortest one in it, just so I could fixate quickly on anything else. Grace Paley’s “Wants” was two pages long. Perfect.
It begins simply with a narrator running into her ex-husband on the steps of their local library. The disagreements that ended their marriage are quickly resurfaced: he had grand ambitions, she aspired to dreamier, less clearly defined accomplishments. He makes a snide remark about how she never had their mutual friends over for dinner; she’s left to contemplate her worth. In an evocative paragraph, Paley writes:
He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber’s snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, half-way to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment. What I mean is, I sat down on the library steps and he went away.
So simply, and in an aptly passive voice, she characterized the feeling I’d had minutes earlier reading Rabbit Run, sitting by as a man tried to explain me to myself. For this reason her story has become a classic; a writer who selected it for Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading newsletter mused of her “attempt not only to write the wrongs, but to right the wrongs, being an object lesson more important than any element of craft.”
Which is why women writers like Grace Paley matter. Because while reading “Wants,” and, later, her other stories, I saw myself. And I didn’t look sexy, or like some weird, furry animal. I didn’t have a mystical air or superpowers, but I didn’t need saving, either. I just looked like a person, flawed but good. I read the story over and over until the plane landed. Now, I practically know it by heart.
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