BY MATTHEW HERBERT
This was supposed to be the year I read more female authors. Call me politically correct, but the data about women in public life tell an undeniably appealing story–the more women are heard, the better. On balance, women are a civilizing force. Any society that features women in its A-list of artists, politicians and professionals has a better shot at being decent than a patriarchy does.
Last year when I reviewed Stephen Pinker’s magnificent The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I highlighted one of Pinker’s boldest conclusions: countries that empower women in politics have lower instances of social dysfunction across the board. The rising tide of female thought leaders, says Pinker, is one reason that developed countries are enjoying an era of decreasing violence and increasing protection of human rights.
Fair enough, you might say, women are great. But why make a special effort to read more of their books? Shouldn’t the free marketplace of ideas just bring them cresting toward me on a wave of excellence?
I suppose there’s is something to that. Middlemarch, by George Eliot, has long been my favorite novel in the English language. It includes better moral instruction and far more depth of feeling than the Bible. For recent social commentary, especially on the American scene, there is no better writer than Joan Didion. She is simply magical. I made no special effort to read these women, nor did I choose them for their “feminine” voices. They were (are) just outstanding writers, and I was hungry for their ideas.
But consider this. In the paragraph just above I tried, but could not follow, Aristotle’s advice to compose lists of threes. Eliot and Didion rose to the surface of my consciousness, but I couldn’t, without effort, conjure the name of just one more woman who had helped furnish my mind. I thought to add Hanah Arendt after the fact, but would I not be forcing a piety at that point? On the spur of the moment, I could only name two women whose writing had really shaped me.
Here’s a plain, solid fact: men predominate my mind, pacific as it is. I once dedicated a whole year to reading Dickens as Orwell understood him. This blog is literally a paean to Orwell. Another thing: glance down through the column of tone-setting quotations to the left and you will see men on parade–Whitman, Conrad, Orwell, Proust, Vidal, Camus, and Wittold Gombrowicz. You might not have heard of the last author, but I bet you can guess his gender. (Oops.) I searched my own posts for a third woman to mention in my introduction to this essay, but all I got back was praise for, inter alia, James Baldwin, Grotius, and Norman Mailer, a man who stabbed his wife in the neck.
The decision to read more women, then, seems to be a matter of putting my money where my mouth is. If I truly believe women deserve more space in an intelligent reader’s hall of heroes, it is actually right and proper to put more female writers to the test. And to do this, a reader must make a list and start checking it off, a blatant act of positive discrimination.
And so my admittedly trumped-up list for 2018 included Toni Morrison’s Beloved, all of Susan Sontag’s essays and novels, all of Naomi Klein’s recent criticism, and the major novels of Willa Cather. (Cather somehow enriched her soul from the raw materials of life on the underpopulated American plain, something I was unable to do. She also had no use for men except as buyers of her books, if you know what I mean.) I also wanted to discover the novels of Dawn Powell, a little heard-of author whom Gore Vidal praised to high heaven and called simply “the American writer” in an eponymous essay.
My plan has gone great, except for the beginning, and the part since then. Having nothing to read the day before New Years (when my plan should nominally have started), I snuck in Don Delillo’s White Noise rather than getting straight to Morrison’s Beloved. Everything I would read this year, I rationalized, would pass through a filter of post-9/11 American criticism. I would be better off just accepting this assumption, and using Delillo’s depiction of dumbed-down, media-entranced America to articulate my mindset going in.
Don’t get me wrong. I did read Beloved right after White Noise, and it was everything I hoped it would be, but somehow, I had to defer first to the solidities of my masculine self. Reading Delillo was my genuflection to maleness going into the temple of literature.
My regard for masculinity takes on physical size in my library. Several books by men’s men stand as pillars so large on my bookshelf, they pull like gravity. You are thinking it, so I’ll go ahead and say it: yes, pillars are phallic. Let us enlarge on this idea.
Two of the books in question are almost literally the product of a dick-measuring competition. Gore Vidal’s behemoth United States is a 1,200-page volume of essays written between 1952 and 1992, heavy on politics. I worship it: it catalogues Vidal’s magnificence as an American commentator. Norman Mailer liked it too, but in his own way. Not cottoning to Vidal’s faggishness but jealous of his heroic output, Mailer produced the 1,300-page The Time of Our Time to outdo United States. I have to believe he crossed the 1,300-page mark just to notch a victory of physical dimension. But boy foibles aside, The Time of Our Time is also a surpassingly great book. If you want to know, in your gut, what the riotous Democratic conventions of 1968 Chicago and 1972 Miami meant for America, you must read Mailer. And then you may, like myself, find you want to read him on other things as well.
Even mediocre masculinity takes pride of place on my bookshelf. To wit: there are, to my mind, two ways to understand the crucial concept of the power elite in America. One is to read C.W. Mills’ 1967 book of the same name. But my method of choice is to acquire and read every book ever written about America’s power centers by the great and dull chronicler Bob Woodward. I know in the upper reaches of my mind that Joan Didion is right about Woodward’s crippling inability to draw moral conclusions, but the Herculean task of digesting all of his solemn, hefty books does indeed leave one thoroughly instructed on the exercise of power in the Oval Office, the Pentagon, the CIA, the Supreme Court, and so on. Because I’ve found I can buy Woodward’s books cheapest in hardback, they stand like large fortresses on my bookshelf. They guard a certain something inside me, something “dumb-muscled, slap-bang” and male, as Don Delillo might put it.
What, then, am I trying to say here? I know where the majority-power lies in my mind–in the things that famous men say about the ideas and actions of other famous men. But if the principle of spotlighting the minority report is good enough for the U.S. Supreme Court, is it not good enough for your humble correspondent as well? Should I not make a deliberate effort to showcase dissent, even in the shabby, undiscovered theater of my own mind? And so I carry on with my list of female writers, knowing like Stephen Pinker knows, that it is a good thing, even if it takes effort. Everything worthwhile thing I’ve ever done has taken effort. Why should an education in human decency be any different? Bring on Sontag, Klein, Cather and Powell!