May Reading: Heti, Levy, Luiselli, Müller, Butts

Tattoo of Sheila Heti from a set by Joanna Walsh (@badaude) available from

Tattoo of Sheila Heti from a set by Joanna Walsh (@badaude) available from

When I set out to read only women writers for the months of May, June and July, it was with the idea that the exercise might help me focus my mind on the prejudices that might be lurking in my lizard reading brain, that preconscious part of my literary apparatus that nudges me towards male books, and male books of a certain tenor.

Basically, if you asked me to name the books and writers that make up my personal (contemporary) canon, you would hear names like Javier Marías, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Geoff Dyer, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, WG Sebald, Alan Warner, Roberto Bolaño, Ben Marcus, Michel Houellebecq, Alan Hollinghurst, and so on, before you heard a female name. These are the writers who have produced the books that I value the highest, that have the greatest worth, that tell me the most, and tell me best, about what it is to be a thinking human in the world today.

Or are they just telling me about myself?

Has the literary publishing-reviewing-academic complex, with my collusion, created a model of what ‘great’ literature is, that favours a certain masculine way of seeing and writing the world? For, certainly, the female names are there – Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore, Brigid Brophy, Muriel Spark would be the ones that spring to mind. But, you see, already I’m reaching backwards in time and, in any case, my lizard brain whispers to me, are you really equating the stories of Lorrie Moore with the achievement of Your Face Tomorrow? Where is the female equivalent of My Struggle? Or Underworld? Or 2666? (Some answers to this below…)

Which means that, already, I’m beginning to see the problem in terms of that old divisive dichotomy of the ‘great’ vs the ‘domestic’ novel. Sometimes when I sit down at the computer to write this stuff, I scan through my ‘Classical’ genre on iTunes for some music – and how many female composers are there in there? Well, far fewer than there are female books on my shelves. But I think it runs deeper than that.

I’ve always had an ambivalent fascination with the little Penguin 60 presenting the opening arguments of Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae (which I haven’t read in full). Her argument, that man is Apollonian, woman Dionysian, and the brilliant aphorisms she produces from it, seem at once intuitively right and politically suspect.

“Hence the male domination of art and science. Man’s focus, directedness, concentration and projection, which I identified with urination and ejaculation, are his tools of sexual survival, but they have never given him a final victory.”

“Man, the sexual conceptualizer and projector, has ruled art because art is his Apollonian response toward and away from woman.”

Which goes so much further, so much deeper, than the idea that women write ‘domestically’ because they spend so much time domestically, but is still somehow linked to it. Women keep the cave warm. Men wander about, and bring home the odd mammoth.

I read Paglia, and I think: That seems right, but am I allowed to think it? Or, alternatively, is that only half the story, and there is an irony that, in my self-satisfied solipsism, I can’t bring myself to see.

(NB If there’s a writer that these thoughts makes me want to reread, and who I think best answers the call for a female response to Knausgaard et al it’s Simone de Beauvoir. The Mandarins, Les Belles Images – and I haven’t read much more than those – do speak to their time, and beyond it, and give a female perspective that can’t be divorced from a human one even by the narrowest-minded male reader…

…and this leads me to another thought. If I’m a ‘male’ reader, it’s not like I’m reading Andy MacNab or Wilbur Smith. The masculinity that dominates the literary scene, and with which I must identify myself, is, in terms of general gender politics, a pretty feminised one. We’re not playing paintball and listening to Black Sabbath. We’re reading Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. There is a flight into irony, like the taking on a cloak of invisibility, that I want to explore with regards to Heti, but this is getting confused. Enough for now.)

Obviously, the sexual dynamics of society are changing – my wife earns far more than I do; the industry in which I work (journalism) has areas that are increasingly dominated by women (as Alex Clark pointed out at the end of her brilliant and pertinent piece about gender divisions in British book culture and reviewing in particular); I’m the one who collects the kids from school and [pause while I empty the washing machine that beeped at me ten minutes ago] empty the washing machine and hang out the laundry, between which I sit at the computer and try to conceptualise a mammoth to go out and kill.

Are male writers more serious than female ones? Or is ‘seriousness’ a construct that men have extrapolated from their way of seeing the world? In which case, I’m allowed to go on reading my big boy books, because they speak to me, but I mustn’t allow their overwhelming and unfair presence in the book review pages (and the literary culture at large) to convince me that they are somehow better than the little girl books I (and they and it) ignore.

These are some of the confused notions that I came into my women-reading quarter with, to poke and prod at.

I do it with no great illusions: it is a false set-up from the word Go.

I shall be approaching every page with toxic levels of self-awareness.

The part of my reading brain that I am hoping to examine is the very same imp who pulls the levers and strings that control the thinking brain with which I hope to examine it.

Deborah Levy's 'Things I Don't Want to Know' not shown as it was read in digital form. Ugh.

Deborah Levy’s ‘Things I Don’t Want to Know’ not shown as it was read in digital form. Ugh.

All that said, it was a pretty terrible – or confused – month’s reading. Firstly, I had to get through Ryu Murakami’s massive From the Fatherland, With Love for a review before I could turn to female writers.

Secondly, a certain amount of my reading brain and time was spent getting hold of some of the books suggested by the many people who contributed to my reading list for the misogynist/myopic – and making a pile of books on my desk that I flicked through, and skimmed, rather than delved into.

I read Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, a crucial text in my examination of the current trend in male writing that seems to be wanting to make greatness out of sometimes extreme pettiness and self-obsession (Ben Lerner, Knausgaard, Dyer) – but I read it in one fraught, over-caffeinated day, travelling to and from a funeral on the train. So, not the best time, and it will be getting a second read, for a thing I’m hoping to write that will address that aspect of the whole question – but which perhaps will start from my confusion and exasperation in the face of the book’s sexual persona. All the disquisitions on blow jobs, all the Song of Solomon paeans to Israel’s cock… I don’t know how to take them, I don’t know where I stand, I don’t know – yes, yes, okay – how to do the trigonometry on them that would place them in a secure position with regards to me, and Heti, and the world.

The other problem with May’s reading was that, perhaps as a result of time constraints, and eagerness to get on with the project, I ended up parallel-reading books that shouldn’t have been read like that.

I started Herta Müller’s The Appointment, I started Mary Butt’s Armed With Madness.

Then I was commissioned to review Valeria Luiselli’s essay collection Sidewalks – which impelled me to read her novel Faces in the Crowd.

Then I was commissioned to review Deborah Levy’s book-length essay for Notting Hill Editions, Things I Don’t Want to Know – which impelled me to re-read Swimming Home.

(Swimming Home: Some of the same thoughts applied as on first reading – it just doesn’t have the fireworky pizzazz of, for example, Beautiful Mutants, my favourite of Levy’s books – until, I realised on second reading, you get to the book’s final section, named for the now adult Nina Jacobs, who was the teenage daughter observing the cataclysmic holiday during the novel proper. When Nina speaks, she speaks in exactly the tone and tenor I remember from the best of Levy.

“Whenever I dream my twentieth-century dream about father, I wake up and immediately forget my passwords for EasyJet and Amazon.”

She speaks like Levy – my Levy – writes. Bearing in mind the long and difficult gestation (oof!) of Swimming Home, as discussed in parts of the essay, this leaves me wondering where Levy will go next – it’s as if her latest novel shows her fighting to find the voice from her earlier ones…)

The first part, especially, of Things I Don’t Want to Know (would it get more male approbation if I christened it with an acronym? TIDWTK) speaks directly to my worries over how accepted or entrenched sexual models play out in terms of literary norms.

“Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to  get  her through January, never mind all the way to December,” she writes, but then much of what she writes is around maternity, rather than sexuality. Perhaps there’s no splitting them, but the way the thought is formulating itself in my mind just at this moment – and I’m fully aware of the terms in which I’m putting it – is this:

Are women “as they are” (as they have been constructed, etc) because of motherhood, which places so many social constraints, and forms such deep and focused emotional bonds, as opposed to fatherhood, which sidesteps them (Levy), or because of female versus male sexuality, ie the unseen vagina and ‘imagined’ female orgasm as against the manifest penis and the ‘thought’ erection (Paglia)?

I feel I’m getting somewhere: I’ve split the question in half, at least. After all, false assumptions love big answerable questions. If my lizard brain has been skirting over its attitude to femininity in writing because it’s been capitalising on my own inability to look closely at what I think about women (writers/female writing), then this is a step forward.

Back to the reading:

A flow-chart of my reading for the second half of May would be a horrible confusion of snippets and swaps and quick-changes, not helped by a week’s camping during half term. In a previous blog post I was rather snooty about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, saying that a book of interrupted narratives wasn’t all that special, because that’s how I read all the time, anyway – but now I feel I have to revise that.

Parallel readings only works for certain kinds of narratives – the kinds, in fact that Mitchell writes; although I don’t have a copy in the house, from memory his individual narratives are more-or-less straightforward and familiar takes on whichever genre they inhabit.

Not so with The Appointment, or Faces in the Crowd, both of which are twitchy, restless narratives that continually jump about from their interiorised, first-person positions, the Luiselli especially, which moves in and out of fantasy, and layered narratives, in short asterisk-divided sections, but with none of the clear signposts with which Cloud Atlas helps its readers. It’s perhaps best compared to Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

I’m still only two-thirds of the way through Faces in the Crowd, but I honestly couldn’t tell you very much at all about what it’s about. Either it doesn’t suit bitty, tired reading, because that’s what it’s like – or it’s the perfect match, and my confused, partial (at best) understanding is what it’s aimed at. By comparison, Sidewalks fitted perfectly into the month’s scattershot reading schedule. Across the whole book it may travel far and wide in thought and reference, but in terms of each essay it sticks reasonably close to the route of its particular diversion, as it were. Perhaps I was disappointed with the novel, as compared with the essays, with seem hugely accomplished in their critical worldliness, but perhaps it needs more careful reading.

The Appointment is a harder one. A few scenes stick in the mind, but really it told me nothing unexpected about life in Ceauşescu’s Romania, or about what it does to the human mind.

As well as devolving to familiar questions of sexism in the literary world, and the deeper issue of gender mythology/neuroscience (Men are from Apollo, Women are from Dionysus), this whole project feeds into another of my idée fixes: why do we read, and, moreover, what is reading? If I read The Appointment, am I doing it to learn what life was like in Romania? what life is like for a woman? for a woman there and then? for all of us, everywhere, all the time? to learn something about her, then, there, or about me?

Am I a better person for having read it? (Hard to say. I don’t feel much changed.) If not, why did I read it? Did I enjoy reading it? (Well, not that much.) Would you have read it if it didn’t say ‘Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature’ on front? (Well, that probably had something to do with it.) Would talking about it help? (Um…) What, you only read books so you can talk about them to people afterwards? (I…) Are you worried they won’t find you interesting? Or that you won’t have anything to say to them otherwise? (Look…) You do like people, don’t you? (Of course I like people. Some people.) I’m not sure you even like books. You deride books that are merely escapist, but all reading is escapist. You’re just escaping into a fantasy where the kinds of books you read make you smarter, deeper, a better person. At least people who kid themselves that Dan Brown is ‘good’ aren’t kidding themselves that badly. (I think we’ve reached the end of this particular train of solipsistic thought, actually.) Only because you refuse to actually answer any of my bloody questions.

One comment

  1. Slightly Bookist

    This is a fascinating blog post, and I love your description of Paglia’s arguments as intuitively right but politically suspect. All criticism, I think, would be much better with a little more self-interrogation, and perhaps some explicit and honest reflection on whose taste gets to be top of the hierarchy. I’ll be following your blog with interest.

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