I was at my book club meeting on the weekend, and we were talking about David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. This post has nothing to do with DFW, by the way, and let me say that I genuinely liked about half of that book, so no literary bros need to get mad at me. The conversation got round to male authors writing women, as it often does at book club (mostly because I bring it up, but this time it wasn’t me, I swear, friends who are no doubt rolling their eyes right now). I’ve said it before at book club and I’m sure I’ll say it again: so many male authors are very bad at writing female characters who feel like real people.
That’s not a point I’m trying to argue here, because it is just something that I believe to be true. Dickens, whom I love, is not exempt (though many of his characters feel nothing like real people, male or female). Neither is F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Philip Roth, or even writers who are still alive and working in the year 2016 like Dave Eggers and Tom Wolfe, or any number of other male authors. (Philip Roth is also still alive! Who knew.) I could go on. Often you don’t notice, because there might be one woman in a book by someone and she’s just there, the Token Woman, and you’re grateful to have one at all. Even then, it doesn’t always prevent me from enjoying a book, but it does usually prevent me from feeling that pang of recognition that yes, this author understands me in some indefinable way. And why read books if you’re not going to feel that feeling every so often?
There are about a million reasons for this, I’m sure, not least the fact that patriarchal societies don’t bother to teach boys much about caring about girls as people. I do think women are better at writing men (though of course I don’t know for sure), simply because to be a woman is to be forced to recognize and empathize with, over and over, the experiences of men. Watching movies, reading the news, maybe even in our own private lives: stories about men, front and centre, all the time.
Because good writers are, you know, good at their jobs, there are exceptions to this. Read Brooklyn. Read Far from the Madding Crowd or Winter’s Bone or, seriously, even The Fault in Our Stars, and there they are, female characters who behave in recognizably human ways. They aren’t ciphers, or sex symbols, or Manic Pixie Dream whatevers. There’s no one way to be a woman and thus no one way to write a female character who feels human, but you’ll know it when you read it. Especially if you’re used to reading Kerouac.
The reason I can’t come up with more exceptions is that I don’t read that many books by men these days. Another topic that came up at book club! A friend asked if I make it a point to not read books by men. The short answer is that it usually just turns out that way, especially lately, but it’s not a conscious choice. But then I wondered if it should be a conscious choice. I like to think that people should just read whatever they want, so usually I do, and that turns out mostly to be books by women with the occasional Jude the Obscure thrown in. But when I just read whatever I want without thinking about it, I’m not great at reading books by diverse authors and authors who aren’t British/American/Canadian. (I’m still not great at that even when I think about it. I’d like to be better.) And, okay, you may argue this point, but I think it is important to read books by diverse authors. Representation matters, especially in reading, because reading allows us to see and experience lives that aren’t our own.
So, I think, it is important to make conscious choices about what you read, and International Women’s Day seems like an appropriate time to say it. I don’t feel bad about not reading tons of books by men. Most of them sell plenty of books without my help. I’ve worked in bookstores for many years, and let me tell you, it is disappointingly impossible to sell a book about a woman written by a woman to a male customer. (Even a book about a woman written by a man is a very tough sell.) The only thing I can do is buy those books myself and encourage as many others as I can to do so.
I meant for this to be an International Women’s Day post about the books by women that I’ve loved, the books that have understood me in some way or helped to shape my idea of womanhood. So here’s to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Lucy Maud Montgomery and Judy Blume, to Jane Austen and the Brontes (sometimes, anyway!), Virginia Woolf and George Eliot, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore, and Roxane Gay, Eden Robinson and Alice Munro. To all those female teen sleuths whom I think I still idolize, and Miss Marple, and Cassandra in I Capture the Castle and the March sisters and Sylvia Plath’s glorious fig tree passage in The Bell Jar. Thanks for the twin pangs of recognition and possibility.
One thought on “By and about women: books and International Women’s Day”
Shout out to Margaret Laurence, the first woman writer whose work I read and then thought to myself, “Hey, wait, you know what? I think I can do this too.”