Why I read women (or, why “universal” literature is bunk)

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If you’ve spent any time on my blog–if so, thank you! –I think you’ll soon realize how few books by men I seek out, read, and write about. Scanning back a few months, the last two books by men that I’ve mentioned were Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (in September) and November Road by Lou Berney, in a Friday Bookbag all the way back at the beginning of August.

It’s not that there aren’t books by men that I enjoy. To discount the artistic ability of nearly half the population would be absurd, right? (Ha.) It’s that, for me, reading is personal. I have always read what I want to read, and I want to read about women.

Luckily, at least in this regard, I grew up homeschooled. (The only formal schooling I got before college was one hellish year in kindergarten.) While the experience was a mixed bag, one thing I remain grateful for was that my mother did not insist I read classics, leaving me instead to read…well, everything else.

Before starting this blog, I ran a YA book blog titled “Bibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf” (clearly, I’m not particularly creative with blog names) from 2009-2013 or so. I took it down some time ago–it was full of embarrassing coming-of-age content that I no longer wanted to broadcast to the web–but the experience was profound. It was my first exposure to ARCs, reviews, the ins and outs of publishing, and most importantly, the incredible diversity of books that are out there if you’re willing to find them.

Once, both for that blog and for my own enjoyment, I read 365 books in a year. It’s a great fun fact.

And yet I’ve never read Moby Dick. I’ve never read Lord of the Flies or 1984 or Lolita or Steinbeck or Twain or Dostoyevsky or any of the dozens more defining books of the English-language canon.

It’s not something I’m proud of, per se, because canons exist to create common ground, and no reader is an island. I may not have read Moby Dick but I have read countless other books by authors who care a lot about Moby Dick. To be so unfamiliar with their source material is a loss, not a gain.

But I still don’t know if I’ll ever read Moby Dick, because I value fun–or at the very least, human connection–in what I read, and Moby Dick strikes me as neither fun nor about the kind of humans I care for, although perhaps I would be interested in the whale. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

There is also, quite simply, so much else to read.

I once began a college essay with “I have never been fond of feminism as a way of being.” It was an essay for an English literature class; an essay on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, no less. It’s an essay I look back on with a fair amount of embarrassment, but also, strangely, delight.

Because earlier that same year, I devoured Mockingjay, hunting an elusive release day copy at every bookstore in town. I would soon be introduced to Tris of Divergent. I already loved the kooky, Southern Belle-esque feminine wiles of Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, about a schizophrenic biracial girl who returns to a Lovecraftian Texas town to fight monsters. I was enthralled by Gemma Doyle, Libba Bray’s Victorian witchy badass who has a vulnerable side, too. I was addicted to Philippa Gregory’s “historical,” smutty novels about the women of Tudor England. Which is to say nothing of Katsa or Lauren Olamina or Offred, or–heaven help me–Bella Swan, or Merricat and Constance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle itself, or the dozens of other intense, prickly, complex heroines who have profoundly shaped my life.

I am delighted by my crappy college essay because it has the broken-clock quality of understanding that feminism, to me, is not a way of being, at least not in any cohesive sense. It is merely–and perhaps that is the wrong word–merely the acknowledgment that the lives of women and nonbinary people are not second-rate. (Revolutionarily.)

Their stories aren’t second-rate, either, something I must have understood already, based on my tastes. Based, as well, on my analysis of Jackson’s creepy, idiosyncratic, lovely novel about two sisters, an uncle, and a sugar bowl. I still think that analysis is quite good; I found that novel to be deadly serious, and still do, just as I find the lives of young girls everywhere to be deadly serious.

If I were to assemble a personal canon, here are the novels I would place most prominently within it:

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
  • and, yes, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

It is not the canon. It is a canon, and I am always re-shaping it. It is a key to my heart and also, somehow, my heart itself. I encourage you to develop your own.

My life is not second-rate. My experiences are not second-rate. And neither of the stories of other oft-forgottens, especially the stories of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color. I am always reading–devouring–stories that affirm that truth, however frivolous they seem. (In fact, the more frivolous, the better.) This is an act of self-love and an act of love for the universe.

It is not that I find the male literary canon to be irrelevant. It is that it is a treasure that already has a home and a prominent shelf to itself.

And I am looking to find treasures of my own.

I’m obsessed with author bios, especially Shirley Jackson’s.

Today I ran across this charming piece about one of Shirley Jackson’s author bios over at Literary Hub. (Consider this another of my eternal plugs for signing up for their newsletter, which is great.)

TheRoadThroughTheWall CoverApparently the bio–to be included with Jackson’s 1948 novel The Road Through the Wall–was written by her husband, and it includes the following delightful details:

  • “She plays the guitar and sings five hundred folk songs…as well as playing the piano and the zither…”
  • “[She] is perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch…”
  • “She is passionately addicted to cats, and at the moment has six, all coal black…”
  • “She does not much like the sort of neurotic modern fiction she herself writes, the Joyce and Kafka schools…”

I’m a die-hard Shirley Jackson fan and would have loved the article no matter what, but while reading it I was especially struck by how much author bios affect my love of books no matter who the author in question is. Shirley Jackson’s witchy reputation made her career (even as it earned her plenty of angry letters from busybodies), and I’m sure that author bios have held uncanny power over many other authors’ careers, as well.

If an author has a long and quirky bio like Jackson’s, that tells you something about their fiction; Jeff VanderMeer has a particularly strange one included in the paperback edition of Annihilation, an extremely strange–and wonderful–book that definitely has whiffs of Jackson to it.

If their bio is barren of anything other than where they live and their previously published titles, that tells you something too: Rachel Kushner’s bio at the back of The Mars Room is no more than one dry sentence long, as if the publisher (and author) are asking you to view the book in a vacuum.

Bios rarely make me feel like I know the author better; rather, they add a particular flavor of mystery that, in its own strange way, can make or break my reading experience. They are an elaborate art form all their own. A long and flowery bio at the end of a book as harsh as The Mars Room would have felt tone-deaf in the extreme, but to be left with nothing at the end of Annihilation–or a Shirley Jackson novel–would be a missed opportunity.

Of course, fairly or unfairly, I put the author bios included in memoirs under even more scrutiny. I read Cheryl Strayed’s bio at the end of Wild over and over, trying to glean some extra mystery and meaning from a book that already offered plenty. I did the same to Leslie Jamison’s bio in The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, a harrowing memoir-slash-journalistic-deep-dive about alcoholism and addiction. I’m not sure what information I was trying to grasp: that she was okay? That she was writing from a place of healed authority? Either way, my expectations were unfair, but I tried to satisfy them anyway.

Such is the power of the author bio. I don’t understand them, but I can’t stop myself from poring over them.

You can read the rest of Shirley Jackson’s lengthy and mischievous bio, along with some other charming biographical details about her work, over at Literary Hub.