The XX Factor

“It Was Like a Pile of Kleenex”: Women Writers on Reading Literature’s “Midcentury Misogynists”

When women read the hyper-masculine literary canon, their discomfort is punctuated by the knowledge that their male peers are reading these books, identifying with them, and acting out their perspectives and narratives.

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In 2007, the literary magazine n+1 asked a group of writers to engage in a dialog about the formative books in their lives as young readers. The exercise returns this month with the pamphlet No Regrets, which recruited a cast of exclusively female participants to talk about the books they read (or didn’t) early on. “I knew that women speak to one another differently in rooms without men,” moderator Dayna Tortorici writes. “Not better, not more honestly, not more or less intelligently—just differently, and in a way one doesn’t see portrayed as often as one might like.” The result is a fascinating exploration of the development of female readers, from their disillusionment with manly canonical works to their discovery of books that speak to a female experience and toward a complicated understanding of how both sexist and feminist works have influenced their view of the world.

For many of these women, the reading experience begins from a place of seething rage. Take Sara Marcus’ initial impression of Jack Kerouac: “I remember putting On the Road down the first time a woman was mentioned. I was just like: ‘Fuck. You.’ I was probably 15 or 16. And over the coming years I realized that it was this canonical work, so I tried to return to it, but every time I was just like, ‘Fuck you.’ ” Tortorici had a similarly visceral reaction to Charles Bukowski: “I will never forget reading Bukowski’s Post Office and feeling so horrible, the way that the narrator describes the thickness of ugly women’s legs. I think it was the first time I felt like a book that I was trying to identify with rejected me. Though I did absorb it, and of course it made me hate my body or whatever.” Emily Witt turned to masculine texts to access a sexual language that was absent from books about women, but she found herself turned off by their take: “many of the great classic coming-of-age novels about the female experience don’t openly discuss sex,” she says in No Regrets. “I read the ones by men instead, until I was like, ‘I cannot read another passage about masturbation. I can’t.’ It was like a pile of Kleenex.”

This isn’t just about the books. When young women read the hypermasculine literary canon—what Emily Gould calls the “midcentury misogynists,” staffed with the likes of Roth, Mailer, and Miller—their discomfort is punctuated by the knowledge that their male peers are reading these books, identifying with them, and acting out their perspectives and narratives. These writers are celebrated by the society that we live in, even the one who stabbed his wife. In No Regrets, Elif Bautman talks about reading Henry Miller for the first time because she had a “serious crush” on a guy who said his were “the best books ever,” and that guy’s real-life recommendation exacerbated her distaste for the fictional. When she read Miller, “I felt so alienated by the books, and then thinking about this guy, and it was so hot and summertime … I just wanted to kill myself. … He compared women to soup.”

Just by reading the book, the woman reader is forced to grapple with her relationship to being that girl, framed in opposition to the boy whose full story is being told. It’s not just that the roles of women are conscribed in the books, but that a woman reader is conscribed in the experience of reading the books (and her experience living in the world when the book is finished). The men who read them can easily slip into the role of “the deceptive, neurotic, charmingly flawed hero balancing competing claims for his affection … the bearer of narrative,” Emily Witt says, but women are resigned to “the role of the bovine female,” in the mind of the narrator and that of the reader, man or woman.

This experience is not specific to books, obviously. Take this hilarious exchange between Tortorici and Kristin Dombek:

Kristin Dombek: I feel like the thing that I spent most of my time doing in college when I wasn’t studying or reading was watching guys play music.

Dayna Tortorici: I did a lot of that too.

Kristin Dombek: Just sitting around in living rooms …

Dayna Tortorici: “Jam sessions.”

Kristin Dombek: Sitting through jam sessions.

Dayna Tortorici: Yes.

Avoiding these male-dominated spaces and books can be a helpful coping mechanism for women—Tortorici says that she did not read Roth because “I don’t want to live in a world in which this mirrors reality”—but ultimately, that world is impossible to avoid. Emily Gould talks about how she initially steered clear of certain books in order to avoid boxing herself into the roles they laid out for women: “Worlds without straight men appealed to me,” Gould says. “I liked the idea that there could be narratives that didn’t operate on the presumption of women’s dependence on men for love, money, and support.” She later realized “that women who love men are going to have to come to terms with their complicity in their own repression and subjugation, and find ways to address it.” And of course, failing to read books that are repulsive to women also prevent women readers from acquiring knowledge that has nothing to do with a book’s masculine perspective. As Dombek says, “For some reason I couldn’t read Hemingway. I would get so angry. I just couldn’t read him.” But “years later, I read Hemingway and wished I could have read him earlier. Because I might have learned to write fucking short sentences, which would’ve been really good.”

Of course, women are not the only ones trying to figure out their identities through reading. Take what happened to male writer Mark Greif: “Philip Roth is the person I’m most sorry I read when I was young,” Greif said in a 2007 n+1 panel. “It ruined my life.” Reading him as a 13-year-old, “I was convinced I was going to get laid. … Philip Roth seemed to make it clear that you become a writer, and then you have sex all the time, and you’re ridiculously rich …  I was like, ‘This is all going to be so easy,’ not realizing that in fact what he was offering was not what life offers most people, and not what it was going to offer me.”

Greif was upset that he was promised a male narrative that didn’t pan out. What he didn’t consider is who was on the other side of that promise. (Not mattering might be even worse than not getting laid.) Young women are often barred from feeling the easy pleasure that comes with reading and identifying with the classics. But we also benefit from a critical perspective on these books that many of our male peers don’t have. We don’t see ourselves in them, so we grow up challenging them.