April reading: White Review Short Story Prize, Ben Lerner… but mostly: why I read so few women writers, and how you can help me kick the habit

[NB: Click here for the follow-up post, my ‘Reading list, for the misogynist and myopic, of women writers’]

april 2013 reading

Okay, so here’s my pile of books from April. Some can be dispensed with quickly: the Knausgaard I wrote about here; the Tim Parks was mentioned in my March reading, about pockets of time and site-specific reading; the Jonathan Buckley (Nostalgia) was for a review, forthcoming from The Independent; the White Review, though I read it, stands in for the shortlist of the White Review Short Story Prize, which had my story ‘The Story I’m Thinking Of’ on it.

In fact, a fair amount of April was spent fretting about that, and I came up with an ingenious way of not fretting: I read all the other stories once, quickly, so as to pick up their good points, but I read mine a dozen times or more, obsessively, until all meaning and possible good qualities had leached from it entirely, and I was convinced I wouldn’t win. Correctly, as it turned out, though I’m happy to say I didn’t guess the winner, Claire-Louise Bennett’s ‘The Lady of the House‘, the best qualities of which absolutely don’t give themselves up to skim reading online. It’s very good, on rereading, and will I think be even better when it’s read, in print, in the next issue of the journal.

That leaves Jay Griffiths and Edith Pearlman. Giffiths’ Kith, which I have only read some of, I found – as with many of the reviews that I’ve seen – disappointing. Where her previous book, Wild, seemed to vibrate with passion, this seems merely indignant, and the writing too quickly evaporates into abstractions. In Wild, Griffiths’ passion about her subject grew directly out of her first-hand experience of it – the places she had been, the things she had seen, lived and done – and the glorious baggage (the incisive and scintillating philosophical and literary reference and analysis) seemed to settle in effortlessly amongst it. Here, the first-hand experience – her memories her childhood – are too distant, too bound up in myth.

The Pearlman – her new and selected stories, Binocular Vision, I will reserve judgement on. It’s sitting by my bed, and I’m reading a story every now and then. The three that I’ve read (‘Fidelity’, ‘If Love Were All’ and ‘The Story’) have convinced me that she is a very strange writer indeed, and perhaps not best served by a collected stories like this one.

Those three stories are all very different, almost sui generis, and each carries within itself a decisive element of idiosyncrasy that it’s hard not to think of as a being close to a gimmick. They all do something very different to what they seemed to set out to do. They seem to start out like John Updike, and end up like Lydia Davis. Which makes reading them a disconcerting experience, especially when they live all together in a book like this. It makes the book seem unwieldy and inappropriate. I’d rather have them individually bound, so I can take them on one-on-one. Then they’d come with the sense that each one needs individual consideration. More on Pearlman, I hope.

The book that I was intending to write more on, this month, was the Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, which I read quickly (overquickly) in an over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived fug in the days after not winning the White Review prize, which also involved a pretty big night’s drinking.

But my thoughts about Lerner are very much bound up in a problem which is ably represented by the book standing upright at the side of my pile: Elaine Showalter’s history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers. This was a birthday present from my darling sister, who, if I didn’t know her better, might have meant it as an ironic rebuke that I don’t read enough women writers.

Okay, I do know her better, that is almost certainly what she meant – and if she didn’t she should have.

I don’t read enough women writers.

Or, let’s rephrase that: I read very few women writers.

I’m not going to tally it up, but if you look at my book piles since I’ve started writing this blog it will be become clear that my stats are terrible, as bad the worst offenders in the analyses by VIDA, the cultural feminism group that counts how many women writers review and are reviewed, or otherwise contribute, to major literary journals and the like.

(And this comes in the week after the Wikipedia scandal, when it was spotted that American Women Novelists had been made a subset of the American Novelists category.)

Now, my response to that cannot be other than equivocal – I review books for newspapers, I enjoy it and make (a small amount of) money from it. I’m not going to remove my hat from the ring because I’m a man. Likewise, I write fiction. I’m not going to not submit my work because there are already too many male writers, or because I’m more likely to be picked by prejudiced editors. (Or should I? Is that what it’s going to take?)

But, I can change what I read.

My birthday was April 30, that’s the day Elaine Showalter’s book fell into my lap, and so I am quite happy to take it, whether intended or not, as, if not a challenge – for that would paint my decision as more noble – and condescending, than it is, then a goad.

So, my May reading will be women-only. And my June. And July. That might be enough to at least shake myself out of my complacency.

But, if I am to address that complacency, I feel I ought to try to articulate why it is that I read more male writers than female – for I would like to think that there is more to it than simple misogyny. (Let it be, for instance, mere chauvinism…)

And that’s where Leaving the Atocha Station comes in, for this is the kind of book that plays absolutely to my prejudices as a reader. It is, in short, a solipsistic and self-justifying descent into depths of the male mind, that obsessively picks over the faults of its narrator as if that very act – that of ‘knowing oneself’, in all one’s exquisite awfulness – excuses the simple failures of generosity and sympathy that mark his path through the world.

Take, for example, the scene in which he more or less manages to seduce a woman he has heinously (although inadvertently (though not forgivably, for his inability to pay attention to those around him is absolutely symptomatic)) offended by smiling his way through her late night, fire-side story of personal loss… and does this by pretending that his mother is dead. There is no shortage of regret and mortification for what he has done, but through the treatment of that mortification in the prose – in the application of consciousness to it – it becomes somehow exalted.

These are kinds of books I read. Where once the heroes of our books were existential anti-heroes, who through their doomed struggles with an aggressively absurd world gave new expression to the human condition, now they are small-time neurotic chauvinists, dredging up their most petty of offences and passing them through the car wash/particle accelerator of poised, dialectically minded prose until they come out shining.

It’s as if the acts themselves exist in a vacuum, and by writing about them, applying the full weight of our consciousness (if not conscience) to them, we might discover some hitherto suspected but never-seen particle: the Higgs boson of contemporary quantum existence that would explain everything, or at least serve as justification for all male misdeeds over the past however many centuries (and specifically that thing I did last week).

That’s putting it comically.

More seriously, when I read, I read to find in the sentences a patterning of thought that matches those I sense in my own consciousness but have never been able to pin down. And as I’ve never been to war, or fought bulls, it makes sense that I’m most likely to find that in writers whose grand deeds are really nothing more than petty jealousies and missteps. Not that everything I read is so pathetically, bathetically minded, but I mean what I say about the play of consciousness on the page: it’s there, at various levels, in Geoff Dyer, Chris Bachelder, Nicholson Baker, Javier Marías, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Henry James, Thomas Bernhard.

It wasn’t there, quite, in Ben Lerner, or rather it was there only on the surface – its play of petty neuroses were too obviously its plot, although it had some incisive things to say about translation, and about the person and history, and it enacted them too. It seems to me now like a slight book that buckles under the weight of hype that has been forced upon it.

But, here’s the thing: can’t women write about all that? Well, yes, obviously they can. Jane Austen enacts social consciousness as intricate as any in Henry James. Virginia Woolf puts the flow of consciousness clearly and seductively on the page – but the way that consciousness is interwoven with perceptions of the exterior world makes it slightly a period piece: that’s not our phenomenology today, or at least that’s not my phenomenology. There’s Elizabeth Hardwick, and Elizabeth Smart, but I don’t think I’m going to get more out of them than I already have.

I suppose the last ditch of my defence is that male consciousness is different to female consciousness: that men think, or feel, or think-feel, differently to women. Now, I don’t know if I truly believe that – and even if it were true it would hardly be a reason not read the other sex – in fact it would be a reason precisely to do so – but if it were it might at least explain my prejudice, or inclination.

The other answer to that position would be that if my male (Western, white, heterosexual… however tight you want to draw your distinctions) consciousness is different to women’s, then perhaps it’s as a result of all that reading: that I’ve managed to shape my consciousness into this ‘natural, immutable’ form through of all the books I’ve read.

In which case I can be trained to see that we’re all alike by reading women’s writing that shows me that, at base level, human consciousness (and conscience) is indivisible.

So: where to start?

Well, I’m currently reading Lucy Caldwell’s All The Beggars Riding, to review, so that’s a start. Unfortunately I’m also reading, also to review, Ryu Murakami’s massive From the Fatherland With Love. But, beyond that…

Stacy Patton, another White Review shortlistee, pointed out on the evening that, if I read all this self-reflexive, autobiographically-quizzical stuff by male writers, what was I doing not reading How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, so that’s on the list.

I’ve read a few Henry James but no Edith Wharton, which is clearly a prejudice, so something by her. Any suggestions?

I love Lorrie Moore’s short stories, but have never read a novel. Ditto Ali Smith.

I’ve been meaning to read Gilead by Marilyn Robinson for ages, so that’s there.

I have a proof of Galley Beggars’ second book, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, which looks fascinating.

Tessa Hadley and Herta Muller have both drifted down the to-read-pile, and so can easily be brought back up to the top.

Another birthday present was the delightful Tove Jansson’s Art in Nature. Onto the pile it goes.

Renata Adler is going to be in there somewhere, no doubt.

Beyond that, I’m willing to submit to chance. I mean, I could read more Woolf, more Spark, more Mansfield, but they’ve been reasonably well covered, and I want to explore. Any suggestions gratefully received.

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9 comments

  1. Belinda

    I went through a similar realisation a couple of years back and as a woman my preference for ‘male’ fiction was somewhat shameful. I’ve since made it my mission to explore more female writers and I can’t say I’ve been disappointed. My recommendations:
    Helen DeWitt – she’s only written 2 novels but they’re both amazing. Best things I’ve read in years. If you like Nicholson Baker you should love Lightning Rods.
    Marilynne Robinson – particularly Housekeeping.
    Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall + Bring up the Bodies.
    Deborah Levy – Swimming Home.
    Yoko Ogawa – The Diving Pool & The Housekeeper & The Professor.
    Barbara Kingsolver – everything.
    Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook.
    Ali Smith – Like
    Sigrid Undset – Kristen Lavransdatter – long but grossly underrated.
    The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu.
    Penelope Lively – Moon Tiger
    Anita Brookner – Hotel du Lac
    Angela Carter – everything
    Joyce Carol Oates – Black Water / Rape a Love Story
    Marguerite Duras – The Sailor from Gibraltar
    Helen Oyeyemi – Mr Fox
    Nicola Barker – Darkmans
    Enough to keep you going?

    • Portisham

      I don’t know what you mean by saying that Undset is “underrated”; she did get the Nobel Prize after all….

  2. Jonathan Gibbs

    Belinda, thanks for your reply and your list. I’ll add in – some I’ve read, some I know I need to. DeWitt, Barker (well, Darkmans), Levy, Robinson seem to be the most frequently mentioned so far.

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