Should women read books about bastards?
I started writing about this subject tangentially for Ordinary Times as a part of a different piece, and I realized that my piece was getting too far afield. So instead of giving you one overly long and ranging piece, you, my super awesome readers (all six of you) get two slightly more focused ones. Two for the price of one, that is a bargain! But please do dart back to read the original piece if you have the time.
Anyway, there’s an essay by Rebecca Solnit called 80 Books No Woman Should Read. I strongly recommend reading it because she makes a lot of good points, even though I mostly disagree with it, because I do think women should read books by bastards and about bastards.*
There are noble reasons for this and you can read Marina Manoukian writing about them here or read Elissa Strauss writing about them. But the real reason you should read men’s books is IMO the most noble of all – self-protection.
Because you need to be fucking warned about what men really are, ladies. (hint – it’s bastards)
Not all of them, not all the time, but to paraphrase Lincoln, who himself was probably a bastard I assume since his wife Mary Todd got driven nuts for SOME reason (when it comes to crazy women, cherchez l’homme, just sayin) some men are bastards all of the time, and all men are bastards some of the time, so as a woman you gotta assume that any given man has the potential to be a bastard all of the time. Even the generally nice ones.
If you were like me, growing up you were innocent and naive and probably read a lot of fluffy girly books and even some very serious and important ones, and you likely watched movies like The Princess Bride or When Harry Met Sally and maybe you watched Days of our Lives and Moonlighting on TV. And these delightful pursuits maybe made you think – as I did, with every fiber of my being, until life beat it out of me – that most men are looking for a special woman that suits them better than all the other ones, that he’ll love her for who she is even if she’s different from him or high maintenance and he would never expect her to change, and once he finds her he will be completely devoted to her forever and she won’t have to work slavishly at keeping him every second of the day and of the night.
And I’m so sorry (you have no idea how sorry I am) to report that this is completely bullshit. A woman being special and unique in the eyes of any man effortlessly and forever is a line of crap that people have sold us to get us to buy romance novels and to get us to behave ourselves, because if our man thinks we’re special just the way we are, what happens if we change, so we’d probably better not.
The truth is, most men end up in relationships not with the most superspecialawesome woman they’ve ever encountered but just with that chick that works in the building next door or that nice girl who their friend happened to know from Pilates and they stay in that relationship till they get bored or someone better – or new, at any rate – comes along. There is no magic here. There is nothing remarkable or unique about us (well, there is, of course, but don’t count on your man friend there to see it). And a LOT of men secretly think they could probably do a lot better than you or me and are constantly on the lookout for any reason to trade up.
Aside – while men of course do get massively obsessed with women in many cases it’s women that they barely even know, like a chick they once saw on a bus, or who they lived next door to when they were 10 but she moved, or Gabrielle in Marketing. This fantasy woman is not an actual woman, but is a fictional character who they can imagine to have all those qualities that they think the ideal woman should have in any given moment, and the nice thing about her being a fictional character is that her qualities can change with a man’s mood. When and if they conquer said woman and realize “oh wow she’s just a regular chick after all” and they have to start putting up with her bullshit, the bloom is off the rose and the relationship often sours.
Given all that, the good thing about reading the worst types of men’s novels is that you get a front row seat into the way men think about women. Reading Lolita (every woman on Planet Earth should read Lolita immediately) shows you just how actually evil some men can be when it comes to getting what they want sexually, even when they know full well that what they want sexually is actually evil. Reading Fight Club (definitely do, when you get around to it) gives you an insight into how modern society, that men themselves largely created and have benefited from hugely, can demoralize younger and less successful men who haven’t had a chance to hugely benefit from it yet, and how these young men often look around and see women standing there and think “well there’s a likely cause for my unhappiness”, especially their moms. Reading Bukowski (I wouldn’t bother, except for the poems, many of which are online for free and will kinda give u the jist) reveals how men think women are disposable and replaceable and how some men eventually decide to “treat women like human beings” as if it’s somehow noble of them, like they’re doing us a favor, as if they’re granting women a boon that we should be eternally grateful for.
The fundamental reason women need to read men’s books is because we need to know about the existence of men other than Prince Charming and Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables. Because these men are legion and in fact these men, at least certain aspects of them, are lurking inside of every man, even Prince Charming and Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables. Trust me, I beg you, it’s good to have a heads up on this in advance, as there are a whole lot of women who learn these truths about men eventually and are gobsmacked by it after building their whole entire lives on the lie. Or so I hear, like, through the grapevine, or whatever.
The bad thing about reading the worst types of men’s novels is that they’re fucking boring as hell after you’ve read the first few and unless you’re 22 years old you’ve probably lived this shit already up close, personal, and repeatedly. Take it from a middle-aged woman, by the time you’re a middle-aged woman you will have had ample opportunity to observe men, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
So sure, maybe it’s desirable, indeed, necessary, to read a few important men’s novels along the way. Some of them are worth your time for any number of reasons. But there is absolutely no need to read them all. And there is absolutely no need to continue to read them forever, if, as in the case of Charles Bukowski, a small taste would suffice. Because they’re all the same variation on that same damn theme, a bastard and his penis and their delightful adventures, how they struggle for recognition and adoration from their parental units and society as a whole even though women are kind of insipid and disappointing and a boy’s precious penis deserves so so much much more, like that girl they lived next door to when they were ten who was perfect, but she moved.
Regardless of your opinion on penises – and I got nothin’ against ‘em – IT’S BORING.
A dear friend of mine recently suggested I read the Rabbit series by John Updike (a man who David Foster Wallace, himself a dick with a dictionary, once referred to as “a penis with a thesaurus”). I took this recommendation very much to heart since this is a dude whose judgement I trust and whose writing I greatly enjoy.
But when I looked up Updike’s books I realized could never actually read them. The first in the series, the very famous and beloved-by-many Rabbit, Run, involves a man who gets bored with his tedious existence of like, having to have a job, and take out the trash maybe I guess, it does kinda get old, abandons his pregnant wife to have a 2 monthslong affair with a prostitute, then comes back when his wife has the baby, tries to have sex with her as soon as she has the baby, can’t because firstly that is against the medical rules and secondly anyone who has had a baby will tell you that would be incredibly painful, jacks off onto her all pissed-off-ed-ly, and leaves. Then the next day because she was so upset about her husband being a ginormous asshat, she gets drunk and accidentally drowns the new baby in the bathtub (it was a girl, naturally, since they are disposable). But don’t worry, the prostitute is pregnant so there’s already a replacement on the way.
I mean seriously, I don’t even know what to do with all that. Rabbit’s wife can’t even make a terrible mistake on her own. She has to be forced into it by the actions of a man; because he’s withdrawn his affection she can no longer function. Lack agency much, Janice? And then God-The-Author essentially punishes the temerity of refusing her husband sex by taking her baby away from her.
This doesn’t mean my friend was in any way wrong for liking Rabbit, Run. By all accounts it’s great and undoubtedly brilliantly written and it’s a product of its time and should be viewed thru that lens. He’s right, I probably should read it to be the well-informed person I hope to be. It just means that for me, personally, I’ve had enough. My father left, my stepfather left, I’ve been pressured into sexual encounters I didn’t want and have talked to thousands of women (at my regular job as a fertility counselor) who have also been pressured into sexual encounters they didn’t want and/or who were themselves abandoned by fathers and husbands. I have been told by a variety of sources that any physical weakness I have (such as, Janice needing more than 10 minutes to recover after giving birth before getting back in the saddle again) is simply me being a pussy and I need to suck it up and not complain and keep my man happy because a man’s temporary happiness is more important than a woman’s physical pain. I have read dozens if not hundreds of books about the subject of male ennui, and seen hundreds, if not thousands, of movies and TV shows about it.
I. Have had. Enough.
I’ve had enough of it in my personal life and I’ve for sure had enough in my fictional one. The last time I checked, engaging with fiction is a voluntary endeavor and not like eating my fucking spinach. Reading as a chore? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Please don’t get me wrong here. I believe that men’s experiences as relayed in these sorts of novels are profound and meaningful to other men. I believe fully that men have a different set of drivers and experiences than women starting at conception itself (don’t @ me, people, it’s really actually science, the Y chromosome makes testosterone in the womb and it does stuff to ya as your brain forms, even if as some people claim there are exceptions and I’d never dare to quibble with their lived experience, it is the general rule) and they deserve to have books written by and for them about those drivers and experiences. I get that in many, many cases these tales are told not as recipes for happiness/success, but as cautionary tales or as commentary on brutal reality. In many, many cases there are larger points being made and a greater theme underlying the penis pity party. I do get that. I would never presume to tell anyone that novels of male indulgence are bad, or not worth reading. I believe men have the absolute right to tell their stories and humans can and should sip from lots of different fictional cups along the way.
But do they all have to be presented as MUST READ? Because there are SO MANY OF THEM!!!!
Seriously, women have drivers and experiences too and there are far fewer books about the female experience. Additionally, a whole lot of books allegedly written about or including the female experience – even those written by women – are written like women ARE men or are there for men’s gratification (either the character or the reader) , such as in The Corrections where Jonathan Franzen writes a lesbian character and somehow has her act first like a seductive ingenue, then like a man’s sexual fantasy of how a lesbian would act, and finally brings it on home having her act how a man would act in a similar situation (so she sleeps around and mistreats her partner badly). And Franzen then is somehow PRAISED by “the critics” as being good at writing women.
Less often, but too often, women are written from the perspective of maleness as a default setting, as if women are flawed and lamer men and not some other thing entirely, or that they’re entirely some other thing and not people at all. Or we’re regaled with a thinly veiled parable about how men have made the rules and women need to live within them in a certain way or be considered failures to be punished accordingly (Anna Karenina, looking at you here). There are really very few great novels featuring female protagonists at all, let alone that I relate to, and barely any that I find uplifting. I walk away from most books containing a female protagonist thinking “wow, thank God I’m not her,” and I find I’m mighty tired of women-who-misbehave-will-get-beaten-down cautionary tales.
Aside from that, it’s condescending as fuck to have our heads patted and be told “here’s a list of the greatest books in human history, Hon, read them to be a learned and well-educated person” only to find out that the Greatest Story Ever Told was actually Portnoy’s Complaint.
Or if you prefer a more tangible example, here:
Acclaimed literature, y’all, by Updike lover, and probably really cool guy Nicholson Baker. I think it’s meant as a joke, and Christ, I sure hope so.
There is no written law that states anybody has to read an endless stream of books that are boring, gross, 400 pages too long, and shed no light on our personal experience in order to be well-rounded people. And we for sure don’t have to read them at the expense of other things we’d rather be doing. It isn’t a black mark on our cool-chick-ometer if we decline the invite. It isn’t a sign of a willfully ignorant person for a woman take a pass on learning more about a topic (bastards and the inner lives of bastards) she feels she is already an expert in. There is no shortage of material out there to read and watch and listen to. Somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million books are published a year, depending on the statistics you use, and in my rough estimation 190,000-1.9 million of them are male-centric.
And if that’s not enough, streaming is a thing now if you prefer to watch rather than read. We don’t have to waste our lives engaging with concepts we would rather not hear about any more.
I still believe, fully, that everyone should read books about everyone. Of course. Fiction is a lens through which we can learn to view the motives of other people with empathy, even as they do some pretty heinous things . But once you’ve read some of them and feel, like I feel, that you’ve had enough of a bad thing, I hereby absolve you of the need to continue reading similarly themed books till you’ve crossed them all off some arrogant dude’s imaginary list of bastard-centric literature.
I think it is absolutely fine and dandy if a person prefers to read The Hunger Games or Little House on the Prairie or Anne of Green Gables because even though they are kids’ books, kids’ books are one of the few places I recall ever seeing a true and realistic accounting of my experience as a female human – even though, or possibly BECAUSE, they are completely asexual. This doesn’t mean I’m asexual, or that I require or desire that in my fiction, just that stories without that dynamic have been where I’ve found the truest representations of myself.
I happen to find that interesting and worthy of reflecting upon. I think there’s a reason why women write and read more YA novels than men tend to and it’s because it’s the only place we can be free of penis-based literature.
In closing, my fellow women, I call upon you – yes YOU – to stop reading some man’s book list before you feel you can write your own stories. Write your story before you spend another second reading someone else’s.
Look, I’m just like you. I’m a mom, I’m middle-aged and haven’t accomplished much creatively speaking as of yet, but I’m out here giving it a whirl because I know I have a unique perspective just like you do. All these men’s books of the past half- to three-quarters-of-a century are regaling us the same goddamn story about the needs of a sad penis and the dull and weak women who surround said penis and fail to live up to its like, so totally reasonable expectations.
I heard that one already. I want to read your story, ladies!
*I enthusiastically agree with the part of this essay where Rebecca Solnit called Hemingway’s prose “Tonka Toys”. One of my fave encounters with mansplaining in the wild was when I wrote a piece about a romance novel I enjoyed as a teen written by a woman who revolutionized the genre and pretty much singlehandedly invented “bodice rippers”. Hey, a woman did something and I found that worthy of note. Men came winging out of the stratosphere to define “purple prose” for me as if it was a term that I’d never heard before and to explain that Hemingway was better because he wrote sparsely. It was even suggested that the Twilight books were well written because they were sparse (How far would YOU go to prove an absolutely meaningless point? If it’s to the point of calling Twilight well-written, I humbly submit you may have gone too far).
Tonkas may be fine for little boys but I’m a girl and I prefer playing with my sparkly holiday Barbie, so fuck off and get trampled by a bull, why don’t you?