A Resolution

Warning: this week's Feminist Sunday post will be 2/3 pure, undiluted rant and 1/3 a New Year's resolution I can get behind. It started with a post I read earlier this week on Blog of a Bookslut. Jessa Crispin talks about how she's never read some of the so-called great male authors:
It's not like if you decide not to read any John Updike, because it just sounds like being trapped in a car with a narcissist with his dick out, it's not like you run out of books. For a while I thought I should read everything, back when I was trying to be a book critic. So I read that dreadful Franzen, I read that dreadful Messud. I had opinions about Dale Peck reviews! God help me, why did I do that. And then I remembered again, that one could decide not to read things. (...) And I'm beginning to think that this stance of non-participation might be a more important one than, you know, this bores me I don't want to read it.
That post is written from the perspective of a critic/writer, but it resonated quite strongly with me, as a reader. I've come to a point where I feel I waste way too much energy reading and then hating on certain kinds of books, mostly books that belong to the "self-indulgent male narrator" genre. 2013 was particularly bad in this regard: this is the year when I read both Bukowski and Sabato. And it’s not like I picked them up randomly in a bookstore, having no clue what I’m going to find inside. I knew pretty well what to expect from both, and yet I subjected myself to them. I made myself go through hundreds of pages of boring narcissism, unengaging plotlines, and misogynistic drivel, simply because I thought that was something I needed to do in order to be able to participate in the conversation about them. I felt like a fraud dismissing Bukowski as “a slightly more successful Tucker Max” having read just a handful of short-stories; I felt it would be a moral and intellectual failure to throw Sabato across the room when his narrator opened with something along the lines of  “I killed a woman because I couldn’t possess her fully and I know you won’t understand, you limited reader, but I am compelled to tell you all about it anyway.” And, before that, there were Hemingway, and Miller, and Vonnegut. I read them all because, well, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do as a reader? Read the famous important writers, not cheat on high school reading, not abandon books that are deemed important?

The question that I should have asked myself is “deemed important by whom?” I used to accept the canon as the best that humanity has to offer, because I assumed that all of humanity contributed to its selection. The stories that I like to read are the ones that feel universal (one of my favorite books is Portrait of a Lady, and the reason I love it so much is that the circumstances of late 19th century England seem incidental to Isabel Archer’s characterization; even the circumstances of her being a woman seem inconsequential to her inner life), and I used to think that the canon simply collects the authors who have achieved this universality. But this, of course, cannot be true. The criteria for calling a book a "classic," the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow literature, the curricula, weren’t formed in an unhistorical frictionless vacuum. They were formed within and together with institutions; the books that are compulsory reading were chosen by the same authorities that devised racist admission criteria and sexist salary distribution. If we accept that academia and journalism are biased, we have to accept that the literary canon reflects those biases.

But even in circles (academic or not) where this is self-obvious, the admission is usually followed by attempts to broaden, finding things to read besides the canon, not instead of it. I am very grateful that these discussions happen at all (I'm glad I've discovered many new, exciting books in unexpected places, since I've been around as part of the internet community of readers). But this doesn't entirely solve my problem: the urge to read and engage with self-indulgent male narrators is still there. Even if criticizing and pointing out problematic aspects is useful in itself, at the end of the day, this means a lot of time and energy spent on books that aren't worth it. And it means subjecting myself to narratives that both capitalize on and inform the structures that oppress me, straight from the mouth of the oppressor.

Stepping out of your comfort zone, discovering new books and authors, and filling out the gaps are important goals. But I may never get to achieve them unless I stop wasting time and energy. This is why my resolution for 2014 isn't about what books I want to read, but about books I want to avoid. It doesn't matter if I'll miss out on a few good pages. In 2014, if I pick up a book and it starts along the lines of “I killed a woman because I couldn’t possess her fully...”, I will try to remind myself that it's ok to throw it hard against the wall. Unless it’s on my Kindle. Then I’ll simply delete it. I love my Kindle.



"Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged." 

You can read the guidelines here or check out what other people wrote this week here.


15 comments:

  1. This is such a good post, Iris!! I can't thank you enough from the bottom of my heart for writing about this topic and making it known to everyone.

    I have struggled with the canon for years and years, I even had a discussion with a blogger who thought being well-read meant reading the American and English canon, the famous "Classics" that we all are supposed to read and appreciate, because if not, what kind of people are we? And then I got to study 21st century literature and I got to postmodernist theories and it all made sense. If I don't want to read a book because it is mysogynist or simply offends me, I won't do it just because someone says I have to read it. As you say, who is that "someone"?

    This is why feminism and postcolonialism are so important, because they deconstruct that idea that what is universal is white, male and English or American.

    THANK YOU

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    1. Thnaks, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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  2. Amazing post! I have not read the majority of the male 'canon' and yet I still consider myself well-read. I honestly do not care to waste time that could be spent reading completely wonderful books trying to read books I feel I 'should' (whether my male or female authors). And, as you say, who even decided which books are worthy of being within the canon?! Someone who I wouldn't care to meet, no doubt.

    A brilliant post, thank you.

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    1. Hi, Ellie, thanks for commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed the post :D

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  3. Yes! This. I've been thinking about who we read for - do we read for ourselves or for others (or both)? If we read for ourselves, there is absolutely no reason to read something that is bothering you, to even pick up something that you know will bother you. If we read for others, in order to be able to engage in certain kinds of bookish conversations, there are always alternative books that can accomplish the same purpose - so even then, it's worth a careful personal curating of one's reading choices. You're right about the absolute horridness of how the classical canon is developed. Even in music history (I'm a grad student in music history), canon creation often has a whole lot more to do with extramusical factors like nationalism and economics than it has to do with any sort of musical expression of universality. That being said, there's hope! Both in music and in literature, there are trends towards examining what's NOT in the canon and asking why. It's bound to be a slow process but in the long run the world will be greatly enriched. It takes posts like this one and readers like you and me to help tip the balance. Thank you for writing this!

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    1. I've been an awfully lazy person re:commenting, but I just wanted to say that I really liked that post of yours, on who we read for. That post, together with a post from O of Behold the Stars and a very recent one from Love in the Margins, gave me a lot of stuff to think about and helped me clarify some vague questions/feelings I had about reading (which may or may not end up in a post at some point). So - thanks for writing it and thanks for writing this comment, too!

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    2. It's awesome to hear that it helped you out - that was one of those posts I wrote just to help clarify my own thoughts. Do you happen to remember where I could find those other posts you mentioned? I'd love to check them out!

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    3. Yes. Here they are:
      - O's post: Why are some books more intimidating than others?
      - the Love in the Margins post, about reader shaming in the romance community. I actually don't agree with the main thesis in this one, but the conversation is interesting and worth having.

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  4. I just want to leave a link to this post and particularly this comment here:

    But actually, most of the curriculum remains extremely Eurocentric, white, and male, with a few texts from other traditions sprinkled in. The result is that we have a lot of context for reading Shakespeare (or T.S. Eliot), and less for reading Hurston. So a lot of times when students "get less out of" texts written by authors of color and by women, it's because half of it is whizzing right over their heads. They aren't catching the references or the contexts because they've seen so little of the tradition. To be properly impressed by Invisible Man, you need to know your Melville and your DuBois (and much more besides). If you take an African American lit class (or several, which would be more than warranted, but one is already more than most students take), more of it starts to fall into place. But "I'm not getting as much out of these texts for which I have little context and little history" is pretty much a foregone conclusion, is it not?

    We can rest on our laurels, re-read the same stuff in different ways, and pat ourselves on the back for noticing how racist some older texts are (we're so mindful of their problems). Or we can actually attempt the harder but far more responsible task, which is to remake our understanding of what "literature" and "culture" are in light of rich but under-documented and under-studied traditions. This is important for studying more canonical texts, too. Hawthorne looks different if you also know something about the "damned mob of scribbling women" of which he was so famously contemptuous.

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  5. Yes! I read 1 Philip Roth book (Every Man maybe?), hated it from the first page, but kept going, only to keep hating it, and then spent a couple years feeling bad that I didn't want to read more of him, Updike, etc. Eventually I got over it, decided I could be well read regardless, and am a happier reader for it.

    But I do still have another issue. I love to read globally and read authors of colour, so when I start a book by, say, a South American male author that begins "I killed a woman because I couldn’t possess her fully...” I start making mental allowances and keep reading, although it never ends well. Murgh. And it's one of those things that's tough to talk about too, because of course I encounter problematic male authors from all over the globe. But if I encounter a higher percentage of problems in authors from certain regions, how do I say that without sounding like a cultural imperialist? And how much of it is which authors are chosen by Western publishers for translation/re-publishing vs being actually representative of their countries? And then, if I still want to read globally, but confine myself primarily to women authors, suddenly my options narrow disturbingly dramatically. Especially if I also want to read older books, even fifty years old. It's all incredibly frustrating.

    I'm not sure how much of that comment made sense, but I just wanted to say I loved reading this post! In fact, as I planned to write about an Ana Castillo novel tonight, I'll probably talk a bit about this kind of stuff too. Thanks for the inspiration. :)

    **Eva (I couldn't figure out how to make the comment system display my name vs blog username.)

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    1. Hi, Eva, thanks for stopping by!

      I had thought about Sabato being from a different background than guys like Roth or Updike. But then, I'm Eastern European, and Roth and Updike are also foreign language literature for me. South American lit is popular around here, and I think the way all these guys are framed here (as great international literature) is very similar.
      Even so, it’s true that many of my narrative expectations are formed from Western lit. Last year, I think pretty much all I read was American. So, in reading Sabato, I tried to allow for a subversion of expectations (or for a recontextualization of the plot) brought about by his different background. But once I was done, I had to take the story to face value. And then it felt natural to me to lump it with the Western novels that start “I killed a woman…”, especially since, in the canon around here, they have the same weight.

      Hmmm, the conversation gets even more complicated if we start looking at how the canon differs even inside Europe.

      I'm glad I helped with the inspiration. I'll go read your post now :)

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    2. Oh! I didn't even process in the post that Sabato was Latino, so my reference to Latin American lit was independent of your thoughts. Which I think is quite telling about the situation! To be honest, I've yet to read one Argentine male author who didn't offend me to a greater or lesser degree. :/ (I think I've tried 5 now? Alberto Manguel is the least offensive, but he's still made a handful of obnoxious comments re: women in the books of his I've read.) Of course, the same thing is true of all of the male Chinese authors I've tried (more than 5 but not sure how many), so I'm not picking on one country alone!

      When I studied abroad in Russia, I remember Coehlo was *huge*. Every bookstore I popped into had a giant display of his works somewhere! Would you say there's a difference between how North and South American men authors are marketed vs women?

      I'm not terribly familiar with the canon of continental Europe, but the lists of classic writers is certainly dominated by men. And there's a certain type of 'existential' lit, be it Argentine or Hungarian (I'm thinking of Marai), in which I find the 'women as sex objects to fight over and/or kill' particularly tiresome, if only because the authors so clearly aspire to be modernist. And I would argue Sabato is very much part of that European tradition vs the magical realism that's more associated with South America.

      It's funny, but as time goes on my tolerance for classic/canonical authors' with *serious* women issues shrinks dramatically (vs, say, Trollope and his Victorian paternalism, in which he certainly punishes women who are too independent but at least isn't fantasising about murdering them). It's like a reverse of exponential growth! Things that even a year ago I'd have been willing to overlook, are now deal breakers for me. Sadly, though, that means the percentage of my reading that consists of older books is also shrinking. I'll have to try to figure out a solution.

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    3. (I know this makes me sound like a crazy reader, imposing modern standards on authors who lived years ago. But that's truly not the case: I adore a lot of old authors, even if I don't care for all of their social constructs. Hell, I even love most of the Greek plays I read, and it's difficult to find a society less interested in women than Ancient Greece. They barely even sexually objectify them. ;) It's just the authors that seem to cross the line from sexism to outright misogyny, that make me feel as if I need to look over my shoulder to make sure they're not creeping up on me, that I no longer tolerate.)

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    4. Well, I don't think it's that much of stretch, expecting authors from a while ago to not be complete douches. There are some who have written women characters decently, so it was defintely possible. And if Henry James or Galsworthy managed, that leaves very little excuse for mid 20th century authors. There is a difference between books where the author failed to treat the characters fairly, because he wrote in a stereotype as if it were a fact without realizing, and books where punishing women for independence is part of the point.

      Re: Sabato. Yes, he is part of the European tradition, explicitly so. The Tunnel was championed by Camus, which makes sense, seeing as it falls under the brand of éxistentialism' you described.

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    5. Oh I agree (and you made me laugh), I just wanted to add a disclaimer, because whenever I try to bring up stuff like this on my blog, I often get at least one comment telling me I should try to understand the past better and know it wasn't like our times. :/

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