Over on the Penguin Books blog, author, journalist, and feminist Caitlin Moran explains why she think that young girls should not read any read any books written by men. Those books, she says, will infect women with Toxic Masculinity, erode their self-image, and denigrate them to the point they’re not prepared to deal with the opposite sex. When girls get older, says Moran, and have been sufficiently buttressed in their self-esteem by reading only female authors, then they can do battle with the Authorial Patriarchy:
In The Guardian last week, Gloria Steinem – brilliant, bad-ass, pioneering, pack-mother feminist Gloria Steinem – was asked which book changed her life.
“Little Women,” she replied. “Because it was the first time I realised women could be a whole human world.”
Oh man, she’s right – so right I yelped when I read it. Because if I had one piece of advice for young girls, and women, it would be this: girls, don’t read any books by men. Don’t read them. Stay away from them. Or, at least, don’t read them until you’re older, and fully-formed, and battle-ready, and are able to counter someone being rude to you, in conversation, not with silent embarrassment, or internalised, mute fury, but a calm, “Fuck you very much, and goodbye.”
So for young Ms. Moran (born 1975), there was no Shakespeare, Cervantes, Hemingway, Faulkner, Rushdie, Proust, Plato, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or even Keats, Shelley, or Dylan Thomas. No, because her assumption is that every male author has the potential to poison the wells of female self-esteem. She preferred reading books that promoted a feminist ideology, at least implicitly:
Home-educated, we were simply left to choose what books we read – no reading lists for us, no GSCE English demands to read Catcher In The Rye. Instead, I was free to read whichever books I chose – and, without thinking about it, all I wished to read were female authors.
The Railway Children, Jane Eyre, Ballet Shoes, What Katy Did, Anne of Green Gables, Gone With The Wind, Pride and Prejudice, To Kill A Mockingbird, I Capture The Castle and, of course, Little Women – what I instinctively gravitated towards was stories about girls, and women. Stories about their lives – struggling with money, wondering what their careers would be, reading books, learning skills, finding clothes that made them happy, learning how to have relationships with siblings, friends and parents, chafing against societal restrictions, getting angry about the injustices of a wider world. Grieving. Hoping. Carrying on. [JAC: as if no books written by men deal with these issues!]
My world, in short. My life. Everything I thought and felt was reflected in these books – I felt befriended by these imaginary girls, spread across the centuries. I felt like we were all in this together. I felt normal. I felt like my life was a story, too – something to rejoice in; to share without fear, or embarrassment, or stumbling to find the right words. I felt – as you should, at that age – that me, and girls like me, were the centre of the world, and that we were important.
This is a woman who didn’t want her viewpoints challenged, nor to see the views of the half of the world that comprises men. Her assumption is that all male authors are sexist and that their books distort the views of women. If she had been Asian, would she have read books only by Asian authors, or, if black, by black authors? (I of course would recommend giving marginalized kids literature that shows them in a good light, but not only self-esteem-boosting books.) The privileged Moran is a Snowflake, who can’t find a single book written by a man that didn’t crush her ego. Did she perhaps read Anna Karenina or The Master and Margarita?
It was only years later – quite recently, really – that I started reading all the books you’re supposed to read: the books by the Great White Males. Faulkner, Chandler, Hemingway, Roth. The canonically brilliant. The men in them are brilliant, clever, awkward, compelling, complex – their stories drag you in, their voices are unstoppable. The dazzle and flair is undeniable. As both a writer, and a reader, I bow down to them.
But as a woman? What I noticed, straight away, was how unwelcome these books made me feel. How uncomfortable. As someone reading a book with my heart open, waiting to find out how the author would see me; talk to me; evaluate me, as a girl who might be in these books – as I was in the others I read – my heart was broken in the first few pages. Or else, slowly, creepingly chilled, until I had to stop, two chapters in: all love quietly crushed.
Is there no male-authored book that could speak to her as a human, and not just as a girl who already sees men as The Enemy? After all, men and women do share many traits of character that can lead one to enter into the spirit of a character different from yourself–that is, unless, you think that only a female character can speak to a female reader. And if she has that attitude, would she not be getting distorted views of men from books written by women? Or do women authors portray men accurately, while men always portray women in a misogynistic way?
Now is is true that there are distorted images of women—and sexist ones—in books written by men. Particularly in earlier times, women were seen as inferior, and that’s often reflected in literature. But Moran’s one example, which she belabors at too great a length, is Raymond Chandler. Raymond Chandler—that world famous producer of literature?
For as soon as a female character enters a story written by these dazzling, confident, 20th century men, the author is apt to look a her with a cold, cold eye. Describing how she looks in a way that I – raised on female authors, with their gentleness, pride and respect for female bodies – was wholly unused to. That famous Raymond Chandler line – a line which, in isolation, I thought so brilliant? “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
When you read that, in Farewell, My Lovely, it makes you think, in quick succession, “Man, that is a beautiful line,” and then, “Christ, what an exhausting thing to be.” A woman who makes bishops want to kick holes in stained glass windows. How’s her day going? What’s her story? How is she navigating this difficult life – of driving bishops insane, and violent, just by walking into a room?
As a girl, like her, I feel like putting my arm around her, and saying, “Dude – shall we go for a drink somewhere – somewhere away from cathedrals – and sigh over how difficult life is?” I think any grown, adult, confident woman reading it would.
And yet, in Chandler’s world – and for Chandler’s male readers – that’s the best thing a woman can be. This woman – surrounded by crazy men – is supreme.
I seriously doubt that all of Chandler’s male readers today embrace that view of women.
But yes, Chandler’s is a view of women as beautiful objects, and, though I haven’t read him, I’m prepared to accept that he sees women like that. But do all male authors? Has she read, for instance, Tender is the Night? The Grapes of Wrath? Women in Love? The Dead (in which the female is sensitive, her husband a dolt, and the author a male)? Ulysses? No, it’s all that misogynistic Chandler prose that made her neglect authors having a Y chromosome.
And that’s bigoted and despicable: the form of feminism that sees men as the enemy from the outset, and seeks to reinforce that prejudice by reading only books that keep her in her safe space. Pity she couldn’t read Elie Wiesel’s Night, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, or Primo Levi’s If This is a Man or The Periodic Table, for the authors had that toxic Y chromosome. She couldn’t learn about the camps.
Of course once she’s buttressed herself with books written by women, then, loins girded (was that sexist?), she’s ready to read The Men, who have somehow transmogrified into an ageist “old men”:
No. They are not the right books to read, if you are a young girl. They are not the voices you should allow in your head. Until you are grown – until you can argue, with confidence, with a narrator; with a genius; with a world-view – girls, do not read books by old men. They live in another century, and you are the future. You, and all those brilliant, beautiful girls, writing in the past.
No, the future, in both life and books, is men and women together, with a mutual understanding that can come only from learning about each other’s thoughts. Girls should read books written by both women and men. But I wonder if Moran thinks that boys should also read books written only by women, for that would reinforce the Patriarchy.
Fortunately Penguin UK still puts out books for both adults and children written by men and women.
But to check on my views, I asked Grania to read the piece to get at least one woman’s take. Here is her reaction to Moran’s piece:
I have a certain amount of sympathy for the sentiment, I can remember one very clear feeling as an avid, voracious child-reader – I very often felt marginalised if there were no relevant female characters in the book I was reading. I also sometimes came across characterisation of girls and women that made me choke in indignation (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe springs to mind). That is a genuine problem, and one that any educator of a child, whether formal (teacher) or informal (parent/guardian) can take steps to fix by including books in children’s reading lists that have female characters and female protagonists.
But you don’t achieve this by eliminating male authors. There are many male writers who have written books that girls and boys love. Roald Dahl, for example. Terry Pratchett. Neil Gaiman. All of these men write and wrote for their daughters and granddaughters and the love they have for women and girls shines through every book they’ve written. It would be a sad adult who removed these writers from their children’s libraries.
I might not expect a 19 year-old self-righteous twit to know this. But I’m very surprised that someone associated with Penguin—who are, I understand, in the business of publishing those flappy paper things with scribbles in them—apparently does not.
And that’s the way it is.