It happened while I was reading a perfectly normal novel by a perfectly normal author: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, to be specific. Although I had read The Corrections during the Oprah kerfuffle and responded with an equivocal “meh,” I finished this novel in a fit of gender rage. Have you ever met a woman who would be cool with her husband converting their vacation home into a bird sanctuary named after his dead girlfriend? I have not. As my self-righteous anger escalated, I started to wonder where this fury was coming from. Sure, Freedom is sexist, but so are scores of books, many films, and every show that has ever aired on CBS. Why the feminist rage? But then it hit me. Freedom was different from every other book I had read in 2013. It was written by a man.
I hadn’t planned to swear off men. It just happened. Reading women turns out to be an occupational hazard of starting a gender and culture blog. Shocking, I know. And there were just so many women to read. Zadie Smith, Shelia Heti, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Meg Wolitzer, Chinelo Okparanta, Rachel Kushner, Claire Messud, Susan Choi, Lauren Beukes—90% of all YA authors. I was enmeshed in a veritable cornucopia of lady talent. But when I finally emerged from this estrogen bubble—dizzy and smelling of vanilla lotion—everything seemed a bit off.It was like when you turn on a TV set after spending a significant period of time streaming television online. Suddenly, you’re covering your ears and asking why those Kia hamsters can’t play a different song. You never used to notice the commercials, but now they’re all you can hear. My experience was kind of like that, except instead of noticing the heightened volume of a CGI rodent, I was noticing that whenever I opened a book by a man—whether it was a literary classic or a well-reviewed contemporary darling or even a work of nonfiction—I simply couldn’t find many women. With a few notable exceptions, I instead found male anxiety wrapped in a vagina.
I was clearly out of practice inhabiting the minds of male narrators, and my ability to view women as a set of attractive limbs was fairly rusty. So it was odd to read so many acclaimed men writing female characters who bore no relation to the hundreds of women I’d encountered during my months in lady land. They didn’t even seem to be the same species. Or any recognizable species. It then suddenly occurred to me that I’d spent most of my reading life inside the heads of these men—a bunch of dead white guys who had been mansplaining to me since I was six. I hadn’t even noticed.
As a studious kid and dutiful English major, I’d spent my formative years consuming the standard crop of profound male writers before ever encountering Their Eyes Were Watching God or Orlando. Even though I had read so much Hemingway and Pound that I could recite misogyny in verse form, I still graded male authors on a curve. Genius must be forgiven for the cultural standards of its time, right? But after forgoing testosterone for a year, I realized this was kind of nonsense. Even if the writers I grew up with—Tolstoy, Twain, Dickens—remained weighty figures whom everyone should read in high school, it was still kind of messed up that I had been expected to learn what it meant to be a woman by reading men who didn’t like us all that much.
Now, I’m not arguing that women shouldn’t read Tolstoy. Of course they should. But they probably shouldn’t have to wait until their junior year of college before encountering a syllabus with more than one woman. And that woman shouldn’t always be Jane Austen or some other white lady in petticoats. Because fiction—like all media—functions partly to teach young people how to construct their own identities. Some critics may argue that we shouldn’t let young women be influenced by film, television, the Internet, or even books, but unless you’re raised in a soundproof booth on an Amish farm, you’re going to be influenced. And, the truth is, you should be—especially by literature. That’s kind of the point. But white men can’t be the only ones doing the influencing. It’s not that white male writers are somehow inherently sexist. It’s just that their perspective is limited. Because white men, as it turns out, are not actually omniscient oracles.
Yet young girls are still sitting in classrooms where teachers say “great American novel” when what they really mean is great novel by a white guy who probably thought women weren’t smart enough to become doctors. And things aren’t really getting better. There are fantastic contemporary male novelists who write about gender with an understanding of their privilege, but this is not a large club. Cultural studies has certainly become a central component of university lit departments, but high school reading lists still remain tilted heavily male. And the popular literary press—yes, it still exists—continues to approach white male authors’ work as though it alone is capable of describing the universal human condition. Jonathan Franzen wrote a novel about a curmudgeonly environmentalist with a vendetta against house cats. I’m pretty sure the only condition he was writing about was his own.
While most stories of people forgoing something for a year—be it makeup, mirrors, carbohydrates, or sex—always result in the author’s shocking conclusion that moderation is key, my year abstaining from male writers didn’t make me more temperate. It made me want to write in support of female writers until my fingers shrivel into arthritic claws. Because we shouldn’t be raising young women who can only judge themselves by first considering what a man might think. We need to support the work of female writers, including female writers of color and lesbian writers and everyone else whose story is almost always filtered through a white male lens. We need to arm young women with the critical understanding that their experience is valid—that they are not a trope or a category. Leaving a few Dickens novels off the syllabus in favor of some Virginia Woolf or Jamaica Kincaid may be a small step. But it’s a start.