I subscribe to GQ, which means that issues left on my coffee table with Megan Fox in a bikini top on the cover prompt visitors to ask which member of my all-female household gets the magazine. (I sometimes become too lost in the heteronormative gender clichés in this circumstance to be able to answer cleverly.)
But I like GQ’s feature stories. I like menswear — my admiration for Patti Smith is largely sartorial, and what I can’t pull off (which is often more than I think) I try to impress upon my brother’s and male friends’ wardrobes.
I’ve always had a thing for glossy men’s fashion and lifestyle magazines. I think they’ve over-emphasized the “sex sells” angle in recent years, trying to compete with younger lad mags like Maxim, Stuff and FHM that promise more semi-naked women for your dollar. But for consistent airport reading, GQ and Esquire still provide more journalistic weight than their mainstream counterparts for women. Why don’t we see — or even expect to see — stories on tourism in post-genocide Rwanda in Cosmopolitan?
Esquire recently published a list of 75 books every man should read. It was a decent list, markedly “macho,” with several books I’d recommend myself. But the entries were often accompanied by cringe-worthy two-line descriptions — ” ‘The Grapes of Wrath’: Because it’s all about the titty.” Oy.
In response, Jezebel.com — Gawker’s pithy blog on “celebrity, sex and fashion for women, without airbrushing” — posted a list of 75 books every woman should read. “Most of the extant rosters of must-read classics are full of old white dudes,” wrote the Jezebel editors.
Circulated by email, the lists sparked intense debate among some friends.
“Both the Esquire and Jezebel lists rely more on gender clichés than literary merit, which make them pretty worthless to me,” scoffed one friend.
This week, I finally got around to going through both lists (easily found via Google), checking off a) the books I’ve read and b) the authors listed whom I’ve read (but may have been listed for a different work). Yikes. I’m not going to tell you how many books I’ve read from each list — I know, I know, they’re all very subjective anyway. But as an English major, I always feel a little guilty when I haven’t read or heard of all of the books on these types of lists.
Based on my calculations, I’ve read about 50 percent more of the books on the men’s list than on the women’s. Growing up in a generation where our understanding of the literary canon was expanded to include more than just old white dudes — or rather, where alternative canons were created to answer feminist and post-colonialist criticisms of this preservation/praise of said old white dudes — I felt more than a little guilty for not having read Doris Lessing or Flannery O’Connor. Am I feeding into the patriarchy’s idea of the canon because I haven’t read more female authors (or books not necessarily by women but addressing concerns of women)? Are both lists, for the most part, using gender clichés to dictate taste in literature? Is it silly to have a small freak-out because of them?
Yes, yes and maybe not. We all need to reevaluate what we’re reading (or have already read) once in a while. Our tastes change, on average, every 10 years; perhaps it’s time to look at Jane Austen again.
I love Joan Didion (listed on the Jezebel list for “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”) and Jhumpa Lahiri (for “The Namesake,” though I think “Interpreter of Maladies” would have been a better choice). I love Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” and Alice Walker. But Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” would probably make my non-gender-specific-list-of-books-everyone-should-read, too. So would Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” (both on Esquire’s list).
So to make an unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of books I think highly of (especially because I wasn’t happy with a list that ran in the Bside earlier this semester), here goes:
“Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett,” Samuel Beckett
Because you can’t ask me to choose between “Play” and “Krapp’s Last Tape.”
“Foe,” J.M. Coetzee
A story from the canon, rewritten in the point of view of a woman, by a male author.
“Interpreter of Maladies,” Jhumpa Lahiri
An easy choice, but a clear choice.
“Say You’re One of Them,” Uwem Akpan
Cruel, unforgiving and beautiful prose — from a University MFA.
“The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” Jose Saramago
Make it to the ending — it’s worth it.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion
“Vintage Didion” is a good introduction, too. A writer I’ve always wanted to emulate.
“Pale Fire,” Vladimir Nabokov
“Lolita” may be the sexy favorite, but this is his most clever.
“Homebody/Kabul,” Tony Kushner
“Story of My Life,” Jay McInerney
A personal favorite. If you know anything about the ’80s, or Rielle Hunter…
“Confessions,” St. Augustine
Reading this — and, yes, listening to Sam Cooke — makes me want to believe in God.