National Book Awards fiction longlist includes Antopol, St. John Mandel, three more women

The UnAmericans   Molly Antopol

StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes   Emily St. John Mandel by Dese'Rae L. Stage

The National Book Foundation announced the longlist of 10 nominees for the 2014 Fiction award today. Unlike the controversial list of nonfiction nominees released yesterday (nine men and one woman, with no memoirs or essay collections), the fiction list is an impressive group, divided equally between men and women.

Much-admired and often-awarded writers Jane Smiley (Some Luck, due Oct. 7) and Marilynne Robinson (Lila, also due Oct. 7) lead the list, which also includes well-regarded writers Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven), Anthony Doerr (All The Light We Cannot See), Elizabeth McCracken (Thunderstruck and Other Stories), Richard Powers (Orfeo), and Rabbih Alameddine (An Unnecessary Woman).

The fiction committee also nominated debut story collections by Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans) and Phil Klay (Deployment), and the first novel by Mountain Goats lead singer John Darnielle (Wolf in White Van).

Read my reviews of The UnAmericans here and Station Eleven here.

Reviews of Some Luck and Lila are forthcoming.

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EUPHORIA combines compelling characters, intellectual ambition, mature sensibility to powerful effect

Euphoria

Euphoria

By Lily King

Atlantic Monthly Press: June 3, 2014

$25, 257 pages

With Euphoria, Lily King tells a compelling love story for mature, thinking adults. Set in the 1930’s, it follows the adventures of three anthropologists working in the Territory of New Guinea: American Nell Stone (loosely based on Margaret Mead), her Australian husband, Fenwick Schuyler (called Fen), and Andrew Bankson, an Englishman who has been working alone studying the Kiona tribe on the Sepik River. Nell and Fen have been studying the Mumbanyo tribe with little success and much frustration (as well as great risk to their own well-being) and decide to return to Australia.

The couple meets Bankson when they converge at the Government Station in Angoram. Bankson has been so despondent following two years of work with the Kiona that he attempts to drown himself, but fails, symptomatic of his efforts in general. He decides he needs time away, so he opts to spend Christmas downriver with some other ex-pats in Angoram.

The result, not surprisingly, is a love triangle among three very different and very complex people. The Stone-Schuyler marriage is troubled for several reasons: a miscarriage, professional jealousy, mutual self-absorption, the shadow of one of Nell’s earlier love affairs, and their drastically different approaches to their anthropological work. Bankson is personally and professionally lost. But his discussion of the Kiona and the other tribes along the Sepik River fascinates Nell and Fen, and they agree to return upriver, where Bankson will help find them a new tribe to study. The whole feels to them as if it were greater than the sum of its three parts.

Although Nell and Bankson are intrigued by each other from the start, the relationship remains platonic and professional as he observes her working methods, so different from his own. She has heard a great deal about him from Fen, but it doesn’t match the man in front of her. In her journal she writes, “But what was all the fuss about him anyway? If he was ever cold or arrogant or territorial, his 25 months with the Kiona must have knocked it out of him. Hard to believe the stories about the string of broken hearts he’s left back in England. Plus Fen says he’s a deviant. What I saw was a teetering, disheveled, unaccountably vulnerable bargepole of a man. A skyscraper beside me. I’m not sure I’ve seen such height and sensitivity paired before. Very tall men are so often naturally removed and distant.”

But Fen seems thrilled to have a friend only a few hours away by canoe, and Bankson feels rejuvenated by their presence, both personally and professionally.

Their relief in finding each other and their pleasure in each other’s company soon wanes and conflicts arise in nearly every aspect of their lives. Nell has published a book about her work, The Children of Kirakira, that breaks new ground with its narrative skill, making it the rare science book that is popular with the general public. When she gives it to Bankson, he reads it straight through, then again the next day. “It was the least academic ethnography I’d ever read, long on description and sweeping conclusions, short on methodical analysis….She wrote with an urgency most of us felt but did not have the courage to reveal, because we were too beholden to the traditions of the old sciences. For so long I’d felt that what I’d been trained to do in academic writing was to press my nose to the ground, and here was Nell Stone with her head raised and swiveling in all directions. It was exhilarating and infuriating and I needed to see her again.”

Fen feels overshadowed by his charismatic, intellectual celebrity of a wife, who acknowledges in her journal that “Once I published that book and my words became a commodity, something broke between us.”

Bankson falls in love with Nell, first as a professional admirer, then as a man who discovers he has a hidden romantic streak. Fen is not unaware, but he is preoccupied with a professional obsession that he takes pains to keep from the others.

While a plot summary can make Euphoria sound like a potboiler, it is actually a nuanced evocation of the intellectual fervor of single-minded people dedicated to understanding another culture. King’s measured prose maintains a placid surface while the plot percolates beneath.

In particular, King has given us a marvelous fictional creation in the character of Nell Stone, a feminist who makes her case with actions rather than words. She is fearless in simply living the life she wants to live. Writing in her journal, she confesses, “I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world. But the world is deaf. The world — and really I mean the West — has no interest in change or self-improvement and my role it seems to me on a dark day like today is merely to document these oddball cultures in the nick of time, just before Western mining and agriculture annihilates them. And then I fear that this awareness of their impending doom alters my observations, laces all of it with a morose nostalgia.” Nell is a thoroughly modern woman with a gift for prescience in her work, if not in her personal life.

As we observe Nell alternately at work and play, in and out of love, ecstatic and despondent about her professional and personal lives, we come to understand what makes this unusual woman tick and to fall under her spell just as first Fen and then Bankson have.

One of the most memorable scenes comes late in the novel when Nell and Bankson, who have a more compatible work style than Nell does with Fen, are typing up their research findings in Nell and Fen’s hut. “I loved the sound of our two typewriters,” writes Bankson. “It felt like we were in a band, making a strange sort of music. It felt like I was part of something, and that the work was important. She always made me feel that the work was important. And then her typewriter stopped and she was watching me. ‘Don’t stop,’ I said. ‘Your typing makes my brain work better.'” Euphoria depicts a meeting of the minds, not just the hearts, of two rare people.

The euphoria of the title refers to those rare moments when an anthropologists achieves a cultural breakthrough in his or her work. Nell describes it well when Bankson asks her the favorite part of her work.”It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.” (Bankson laughs and tells her that “a good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.”)

The novel’s title also refers to the even more moving experience of truly understanding another person from one’s own culture, to that moment when you realize you are in love with someone new and your world seems to open up before you.

Euphoria is an absorbing and thought-provoking read. Like the long line of novels exploring journeys into uncharted territory on the map and in the heart, from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Euphoria depicts the inexorable consequences of the encounter between intellectual ambition and romantic sensibility.

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Guest blogger Maya Lang: On TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and Ferguson

Maya Lang  To Kill a Mockingbird cover art

Every person has that book she hasn’t yet tackled, the revelation of which causes friends to gasp in horror. For me, it was To Kill a Mockingbird (go ahead—gasp). Despite my intentions (and friends’ entreaties), I somehow never got around to it.

I finally decided to remedy this lapse in August. I’d just read a series of books that proved disappointing. I turned to Harper Lee’s classic knowing I would love it. I turned to it happily.

What I didn’t anticipate was its timeliness. Days after finishing it, the events in Ferguson erupted. All of the elements from the novel seemed to be playing out in real time: lack of due process, blindness to facts because of systemic prejudice, aggressors acting like victims while victims are treated like criminals, and a sickening outcome. One man killed Mike Brown, but many parties (a whole community, institutions of power, decades of history) had their hands on the trigger.

In both the fictional Maycomb and the real Ferguson, a black life is taken as a result of white fear. An encounter occurs between two individuals (one black, one white) that is unknowable, yet endless conjecture about what “must have happened” ensues. The stories that get spun—which seem to defy logic—are meant to stir sympathy for the aggressor. At their root, an unspoken message: You know how those people can be.

The gift of literature is that it can resonate over time. I wish To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t feel uncanny in its relevance. I wish it felt dated, the door to that period of American history closed. It is a testament to the open wound of race in this country and to Harper Lee’s talent that a novel about Alabama from 1960 can speak to us still.

Had I read Mockingbird at any other point in my life, I would have reacted to it differently. In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about Atticus Finch. A well-regarded member of the community, Atticus is appointed to represent a black man accused of raping a white woman—not a role he would have volunteered for, he tells us, but one from which he does not shy away.

Justice never arrives on time. It didn’t for Finch’s client, Tom Robinson. It didn’t for Mike Brown. But Lee’s novel reminded me that how we react to injustice is no small matter. When enough people act like Atticus Finch, speaking up, speaking out, even if it feels futile, especially when it feels futile, then justice eventually lumbers in. Slow, late, vague about how long it will stay, but finally, fleetingly present.

Atticus Finch & Tom Robinson

To Kill a Mockingbird reminded me of my own voice. Some would say that there’s no point in using it. Facebook posts, Twitter shares, blog posts—what can these possibly accomplish? Better to share vacation pics that will get actual “Likes.” Better to write an essay about that other novel you read. No one likes the preachy, the indignant. How much easier to be funny and popular.

But silence means complicity. This, too, is something I wouldn’t have considered had I not read Lee’s novel. Scout Finch, Atticus’ daughter, wishes to visit the house of Calpurnia, their black housekeeper. Scout’s aunt forbids it. “The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only” are conspicuously silent. They give neither Tom Robinson nor the Finch family their support. Within the codes of “proper” Southern life, rigid socioeconomic and racial hierarchies are not to be disrupted, even by an eight-year-old girl.

To Kill a Mockingbird -- Calpurnia

Had I not read Mockingbird, I don’t know that I would have spoken up about Ferguson as much as I have. Perhaps I would have felt too self-conscious, as if it were not my “place.” But such notions of place and propriety are part of the problem. Ultimately, the very worst thing to feel is alone in our suffering. “Your burdens are my burdens.” This is the message behind kindness, behind community, behind literature. Scout’s desire to be Calpurnia’s “‘company,’ to see how she lived, who her friends were” is the same desire that prompts us to read.

Before reading this novel, I’d always wondered about its title. Few titles begin with an infinitive verb, and I contemplated its strange temporality. Not Killed A Mockingbird or The Killing of a Mockingbird, but To Kill, suggesting possibility, being on the cusp.

To kill or not to kill: that is the question. More than fifty years later, it still applies.

We are called upon by events like Ferguson. When we witness violations of basic rights, when we observe the purely wrong, we have a choice, a bird in our hands. There it sits, pulsing, quivering. Is it our future? Our innocence? Perhaps it is our very humanity.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a title as well as a choice: to be silent or to speak, to close our hands to what we hold or to open them to our own possibilities.

Maya Lang is the author of The Sixteenth of June, which has been long listed for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan Prize [my review is here]. She is a recipient of the Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Scholarship in Fiction and finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. Lang graduated from Swarthmore College, earned her MA at NYU, and holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from SUNY Stony Brook.

 

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Karen Joy Fowler one of two Americans to make Booker Prize shortlist

karen-joy-fowler-we-are-all-completely

Karen Joy Fowler has made it to the Booker Prize shortlist with her brilliant 2013 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. What makes her nomination even more notable is that this is the first year American writers were eligible for the prestigious award, which was previously open only to UK and Commonwealth writers. American Joshua Ferris also made the shortlist of six novels with his third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

The other finalists are Richard Flanagan (Australia) for The Narrow Road to the Deep North (which I highly recommend, along with all of his previous novels), Neel Mukherjee (India/UK) for The Lives of Others, Howard Jacobson (England) for J, and Ali Smith (Scotland) for How to Be Both. Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question.

Fowler received the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for her novel last April.

In honor of Fowler’s nomination, I’ve reposted my review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, originally posted on April 13, 2014.

 

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A Conversation with Dylan Landis: Rainey Royal “comes from my own lifelong fascination with mean girls”

Dylan_Landis

Interview by Ellie Gaines

Special Contributor to Read Her Like an Open Book 

 

During the last semester of my senior year in high school, I did an internship with the novelist Jessica Anya Blau. I was beyond excited when I saw that on the long to-do list that Jessica made for me was a request that I read two galleys (Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal and Katie Crouch’s Abroad) and interview the authors. Reading a book that wasn’t out yet seemed a lot more exciting than organizing bookshelves (that was also on the list!), and to be honest, it made me feel pretty special. And getting the opportunity to interview these writers truly thrilled me.

From the opening pages of Rainey Royal I fell in love with Landis’s prose. When I finished the book, I went to Jessica’s bookshelves and borrowed Landis’s debut novel-in-stories, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Over the next two days, I devoured the stories every chance I got. Here’s the conversation I had with Dylan Landis.

 

In your first book, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, we see the characters Rainey and Leah. What made you decide to continue on with these characters in Rainey Royal, and make a whole book dedicated to Rainey? Where did you get the original idea for this character?

               Rainey was one of the most compelling characters in Normal People Don’t Live Like This—a school bully, a radiantly sexual girl with serious troubles at home. But after the first two stories she vanished, because I was focusing on Leah, who had troubles of her own, and also because this was my first book of fiction and I didn’t know much about structure. My mentor and teacher, the novelist Jim Krusoe, suggested I add another Rainey story, but I was impatient to have a book out and thought my manuscript was finished. That unwritten story left a little hole in the book that readers often pointed out—”What happened to Rainey?”

And that became the opening for the new book, Rainey Royal. The fact is that I missed her and she never stopped talking to me. She comes from my own lifelong fascination with mean girls. I grew up not just wanting to hide from these girls; I wanted simultaneously to be them. They seemed so beautiful and fearless and free; they seemed to have some knowledge about the world and its mysteries, which I took to mean sex. I wanted to stand near them, just out of their sight. I wanted to absorb something magical from them. Later on I became a bit wild like them, but I never became the real thing. I write about them instead.

Normal People Don’t Live Like This is composed of connected short stories while Rainey Royal is more novelistic in that each story centers around Rainey, and we move forward in time. Why did you choose to do it one way or another?

All I knew, moving from story to story in Normal People, was that Leah would get older. She grows from twelve to twenty-two. I circled her life, pausing to write about a conflict here, a problem there. That circling and pausing is what makes it more of a linked story collection, though because she matures it’s possible to see it as a novel-in-stories.

Writing a novel, or something closer to a novel, felt like a natural next step, a more fluid way to tell a story that took place over fourteen years.. I tried to stay conscious of a narrative arc, aware of specific problems that had to persist and either blow up or resolve as the book progressed. The novelist Benjamin Percy calls these problems “flaming chainsaws.” They have to keep recurring, and they have to move forward each time. So a chapter may stand on its own and may be published as a short story—I was thrilled when the story “Trust” won an O. Henry Award—but if the flaming chainsaws are juggled well through the entire book, you should end up with something that has the weight and the arc of a novel.

In Normal People Don’t Live Like This we see a few short stories that revolve around Leah and her mom. The fact that Leah’s mom is anorexic adds an interesting tension to Leah’s relationship with her mom. Why did you decide to have Leah’s mom be anorexic? Did you want to relate her lack of food to the lack of connection she has with her daughter? A starvation in two senses?

That link between anorexia and emotional starvation came straight from the basement, the writer’s subconscious. So it wasn’t a decision but rather a discovery that Helen was anorexic—though that word wasn’t so much in use in the 1970s. We just called it dieting. You put your finger on it exactly, though: a starvation in two senses. I didn’t think about it while I wrote, but in revision I saw the starvation as being Helen’s lack of connection, not just to Leah, whom she genuinely loves, but to her own self. It always intrigued me that when Helen first gets sensually involved with a man, she takes a bite of food from a spoon he holds.

Rainey Royal begins with Rainey making connections between Saint Catherine of Bologna and herself. When you started writing did you know that Saint Catherine would be woven throughout the book? Or did you write about Rainey and then discover their similarities? Why did you believe it was important for Rainey to relate to such an unusual character like a saint from the times of Columbus and Queen Isabella?

I had a moment of inspiration, while making notes for the first story, that Rainey—who loves libraries—would look up the patron saint for artists. And of course she’d make the connection personal, and call her Cath. To Rainey, Cath is not some ancient, inaccessible religious figure; she is a chick just like herself, a girl who can draw like crazy, and whose mother is out of the picture, and who must have problems with grown men, because don’t all teenage girls have problems with men? If you’re Rainey, isn’t that part of the territory? I knew right away, reading Saint Catherine of Bologna’s bio, that she would make a great sister-protector for Rainey, who desperately needs one.

In Rainey Royal we follow Rainey from the age of fourteen until she is in her mid-twenties. Is there something important about those years particularly in a girl’s life? Is there something important about a girl’s relationship with her father in those years?

Those are the coming-of-age years; they’re packed with emotional growth and pain. My memories of those years are the most vivid I have, more vivid than yesterday’s. So it’s good, rich earth to turn over and pick through when I’m looking for psychological material. And I think by the time a girl is fourteen or fifteen her father has taught her, by example or by neglect, how she should be with men, and how they should be with her. If that’s a lesson she has to unlearn, as Rainey does, she’s going to have a struggle on her hands.

Tina is Rainey’s best friend and is very protective of her. She also does the one thing that scares Rainey the most, when she develops a relationship with Howard. Can you explain the love/hate dynamic between the two girls? Do you think all female friendships are double sided?

Adult female friendships can be utterly devoted in the most straightforward way, but in adolescence I remember them as passionate and sometimes two-hearted. There’s a moment where Tina thinks about how she and Rainey are so close, “she doesn’t get why God made them both girls,” and a contrasting moment where Rainey thinks about how, with Tina, she “always has to mention the one thing that hurts; it’s like nudging a loose tooth.” Those are the two hearts, the urge to push away and the urge to fuse. It’s not always that complicated, but as a writer I’d rather explore both aspects of female friendship.

Both of your books are centered around the 1970s.  Why did you choose this time? Do you think your stories would be different if you set them in modern day times?

               The era chose me. I was writing about teenagers, and that was the time of my adolescence, the decade when emotional memory, and memory of visual and auditory detail, were strongest. If the stories were set now I’d be consulting the internet and my friends’ teenage children for details and veracity, and it’s possible things might not feel as true.

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RAINEY ROYAL: Troubled teen artist recovers in alpha female persona

Rainey-Royal   Dylan-Landis

Rainey Royal

By Dylan Landis

Soho Press — Sept. 9, 2014

$25.00, 256 pages

Dylan Landis’s debut story collection, Normal People Don’t Live Like This (2009), featured a range of memorable characters, one of whom returns as the titular protagonist of her first novel, Rainey Royal.

While she was a minor character in the first book, Rainey gets her moment in the spotlight in this raw and prickly coming of age story set in 1970s Greenwich Village. In these 14 interconnected stories, Rainey is the 14-year-old daughter of legendary jazz musician Howard Royal, whose rundown five-story brownstone serves as something of a commune for him and his musical acolytes and groupies.

Howard’s parenting style can best be described as benign neglect, sprinkled with occasional philosophical advice. Howard’s sidekick, Gordy, lives on the same floor of the house as Rainey and visits her most nights to talk and engage in a variety of inappropriate, if not quite criminal, behavior that Howard excuses in his distinctive (and infuriating) hippie-beatnik blame-the-victim manner. Rainey’s mother is of no help because she’s bailed out to live on an ashram in California.

As a result, Rainey is a damaged but daunting young woman. On one hand, she displays a level of independence that is impressive even for a child raised in Manhattan. On the other, she is a borderline sociopath who manipulates her friends and uses her intelligence, charisma, and precocious physical attributes to unsettle her teachers and other adults.

In “Rapture and the Fiercest Love,” Rainey has to serve detention with her English teacher, Mr. Moreno. He wants her to revise her essay.

“‘I don’t remember what I wrote,’ says Rainey, and rises from her chair. ‘I have to see.’

‘Stay right there,’ says Mr. Moreno. His voice is a closed door.

‘I just need to see,’ she says in her little-girl voice. She plants her palms on the front of his desk and leans forward. And then Mr. Moreno says something that doesn’t make sense.

‘I’m bulletproof, Rainey.’ He looks directly into her eyes. ‘Are you?’”

In “Trust,” Rainey and her friend Tina follow a couple as they walk home, at first “playing” with the idea that they will rob them. Except Rainey has taken Howard’s gun and the girls force the couple into their apartment, where Rainey and Tina verbally and psychologically abuse and rob them, all the while engaged in the type of internecine argument at which young women excel.

The stories follow Rainey as she struggles to gain control over outside circumstances and events – which range from amusing to appalling — and her inner conflicts. Frequent visits to museums to view and sketch the works of the masters help steady her progress toward sanity, adulthood, and her dream of a life as an artist. By the time she reaches her early 20’s at the end of the book, there is hope for her despite having raised herself in a world with little stability, much abuse, and no real love.

While Rainey Royal really is a story collection rather than a unified novel, and it strays from its strengths a bit toward the end, these are minor flaws in an otherwise unsparingly honest collection.

Dylan Landis has created a remarkable, if difficult, character. Landis’s lean, muscular prose is perfectly suited to the characters and events. She never flinches and never looks away from her young protagonist’s troubled life, as she is at first tortured and later saved by art and artists. It’s a rough ride, not for the faint of heart, but ultimately a rewarding one.

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Guest Blogger Robin Black: On Learning To Spell Women’s Names While Men Buy My New Book For Their Wives

Robin Black is the author of Life Drawing (Random House, 2014), a compelling study of betrayal and penance in a marriage between a writer and a painter, and If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a short story collection published in 2010. [You can read my review of Life Drawing here.] Both books received critical acclaim in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the UK. Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010.  She holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Here, Black addresses the vexing matter of men who won’t read fiction written by women.

RobinBlack2014   Life Drawing

I was at a party earlier this summer, a celebration of my novel, thrown by old friends, and filled with couples around my age, middle-aged men and women. My host had asked me to read a bit from the book, which I did, and I answered some questions about my process, about the publishing world; and then I stepped out of the spotlight so that something closer to a normal party might begin. A normal party that included one guest selling and signing books, that is.

Those interactions, while also wonderful, are inherently a little socially awkward, so I expected to feel both fortunate and a bit sheepish, which I did. But this time I also felt a different, distinctive discomfort settling in as more than one man approached me, book in hand, and told me he wanted to buy it  – as a present for his wife. You can make it out to. . . Carol. . . Jane. . . Kathy. . .

Whatever.

I began to feel grumpy. I don’t believe it showed, but I was starting to feel unmistakably irked at the unspoken assumption that I had written a book for women. Only women. That a man who bought a copy for himself might as well also buy a pair of heels and some jewelry to accessorize the purchase.

To be clear, I wasn’t ticked off at these individual men. They were – to a man, so to speak – warm and encouraging, said kind things about the work I’d read aloud, and expressed interest in the whole process of how a book comes into the world. My friends are lovely people, and they had gathered lovely friends of their own. But . . . One particularly engaging man told me he belonged to a book group. A men’s book group. “You should suggest this to them,” I said, poking a bit, consciously making mischief.

At least he was forthcoming. “It’s really tough to get them to read books written by women,” he said. “It’s viewed as. . . “ He shook his head and shrugged.

Sigh.

 

I recognize that I am writing for a blog that owes its very existence to this problem, that I’m not exactly introducing an unfamiliar phenomenon here. But something about this experience, the line of actual, living, breathing men armed with spellings of women’s names, made the imbalance feel true and – excuse me – just so fucking weird, in a way that no statistics, no documented trends ever have.

Really, guys? Really?

Yes. Really.

Part of why it’s weird is because it never occurs to me when I write that I am writing for one sex almost exclusively, which it turns out I am. To me, I am just a person, writing a novel for other people to read. As a writer, I am obsessed with the simple, central question of why people do what they do. Is that a particularly feminine  preoccupation? I hope not. I hope it’s something we’re all thinking about, a lot.

“Men love this book,” I finally said to one fellow guest, thinking of the men who have, many of them friends and family, their ages ranging from 23 to 81. “You might be surprised.”

“Well, I did like what you read, a lot. . .”

Dot. Dot. Dot. Awkward silence.

All righty, then. I guess I’m not going to change the world at a book party.

“And how is Carol spelled? Is there an e?”

 

I’m not angry at any individual. I’m not a bit sure I’m angry at all, though the word is, of course, inevitably, tiresomely melded to all observations that might be termed “feminist” – and so I feel some obligation to contend with the presumption. In truth, a bit weary, on this day anyway, I feel more frustrated than angry; and as for the frustration, it’s certainly not lastingly directed at the men who bought my book, much less the friends who so generously celebrated it. My primary emotion about that evening is one of gratitude.

The frustration itself is familiar, like some kind of natural element, innate to existence by now. It disperses into the air we all breathe and refills my lungs; strolls with me down sidewalks; prickles, uncomfortable, as I watch stereotypes play out on my TV. This a Big Social Problem, and so society, culture, history must all shoulder the blame – though of course, as always, it falls on individuals to fix what entire civilizations have broken. It isn’t ever acceptable to let the weariness win out.

Or, it turns out, to forget to be angry. Or to disown the emotion because others have used its name as a weapon against women. . . Shame on me for that. Anger it is.

And so the analysis begins, anew: Why don’t men read books by woman?

Friends and I have puzzled over that one endlessly. Is it the fear of being seen holding a pink cover, a logical if unfortunate response to an unabashedly gender-coded message that literary marketing has sent? Is it the outgrowth of a process that begins with people telling newborn girls how sweet and pretty they are, encouraging them as they grow, to be nice and worry about relationships, while telling boys how big and strong they are, encouraging them to be tough and smart? Does that well-documented distinction make reading what women write – always presumptively about domestic relationships – seem a feminine activity? (While not making reading male-authored fiction about domestic relationships problematic – as if those books have some kind of blue-for-boys won’t-lessen–your-manhood stamp of approval on them.) Is this just another corner of the world in which those who are taught to view women as equated with emotions, and emotions as equated with weakness (and therefore, by the transitive property. . .) reward the lifelong brainwashing inflicted on them by acting accordingly?

Or, to put it another way, do girl books have girl cooties? Is it really that much a legacy of the schoolyard? Of the nursery?

Probably. That’s all doubtless part of it. But, having gone through what felt like a strangely ritualistic enactment of a statistic I haven’t wanted to believe, I am filled more with questions about the larger implications of men not reading fiction by women than about the causes. If you think that because I’m female what I have to say in my novel won’t interest you, what about the things I say when I am talking to you about the research project in which we’re both engaged? About the funding needed for the public school system? How about when I am arguing a case in court? Filing an insurance claim?

Is it credible that fiction occupies a unique place? Credible that men who dismiss what female storytellers have to say as irrelevant to them, aren’t also inclined to dismiss – albeit unconsciously – what females of every variety have to say?  To think it somehow less relevant than what the other men say? Is it credible that this often unexamined aversion is a special case of some kind? A glitch?

Just as the fact that men skip over female fiction authors has never felt as real to me as it now does, the possibilities of what that fact might mean have never seemed as serious. And to the extent that I am limiting my exploration here to “men” and “women” as if our genders divide anything like so clearly, let me just say, I have no doubt that these issues are all the more complex and disheartening for those whose gender does not fit mainstream definition.

But back to the mainstream for a moment, back to traditional gender presumptions, which are almost certainly at the root of all this. The book that I wrote has been described in reviews as tense, taut, and brutal. I’m not suggesting that had it been called tender, sweet, and heart-warming, men would be right not to read it. But I must say that when you write a book so commonly described with adjectives that are viewed in this (dysfunctional, sexist) society as “male,” and men still aren’t interested in reading it because the author is female, it’s . . . it’s depressing. That’s the word. Depressing.

To me, anyway. I am bummed out about this, since that session of learning how to spell yet another set of women’s names. Not because I don’t value my female readers nor because of the impact on my career or sales numbers, but because of the questions to which this imbalance inevitably leads, because of my hunch that this book-avoiding nonsense is only a relatively innocuous hint at something much more important, something both endemic and profoundly ugly, something that has precious little to do with literary taste.

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