Reading Across Boundaries: How to Move Beyond Canonical Men

I have been busy recently, so not much time to write blogs – i.e. procrastinate. However, I’ve managed to keep up my reading habits and still get through a book per week. Recently most of the books I have (re)read are written by female authors, a coincidence which struck me when I read this column by Jessica Valenti. She basically argues that a hidden form of sexism is revealed by the content of our bookshelves: most of us predominantly read male authors and ignore women writers. To solve this issue, she claims, we should read more books written by women to make sure our reading does not reflect and maintain social inequality.

I beg to differ with this statement, keeping in mind that while it is definitely a good thing to read beyond the boundaries of the male literary canon, this approach runs the risk of overlooking other forms of social inequality. Should a truly inclusive style of reading not include writers with non-Western backgrounds, non-heterosexual authors, or artists with disabilities? Why focus on women only? Of course it would be hugely impractical to base your choice of books to read on this model: how on earth do you make sure you don’t overlook a minority? And isn’t reading books because of the author’s personal characteristics an act which perpetuates the emphasis on inequality, instead of overthrowing it? Personally I pick books because I like them, or because I like the author’s other works, and I don’t care whether the author is male of female, black or white, straight or queer. It is important to not only read books written by straight white men, if only because that would cause you to miss out on loads of wonderful texts, but I don’t think it should be an end in itself.

All that said, what did I read? I started by rereading Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, simply because my dad got rather excited when watching a film adaption and reminded me of how good the story was. It is, and it is also a lot darker than I remember. Perhaps I didn’t quite grasp the things that are left unsaid when I was younger, but I was struck by how awful yet compelling a character Heathcliff is. And how layered the story is: it is narrated by an outsider, who mostly relays the words of his housekeeper, who was not present during some of the story’s key events. It puts an entirely new perspective on the old question of the unreliable narrator: who is actually speaking to us, and why should we believe them? What actually happened between Heathcliff and Catherine? And what makes him act the way he does? The novel only offers some suggestions and never clearly answers the question. It makes the novel somewhat frustrating to read, but then again, I like being challenged by a book.

Next I finally got to a story people have been recommending to me for years. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a story about a woman who loses her mind during a rest “cure” prescribed when she struggles to cope after giving birth. The story is autobiographical, inspired by Perkins’ own experiences, which makes it all the more haunting. Unlike Wuthering Heights, this story never suggests that its narrator might be reliable. From the start it’s quite clear that she’s mentally unstable. At the same time the story’s message is everything but unstable and repeated in different forms in Perkins’ other short fiction. Her stories feature women who stand up for their rights, often successfully, and who gain personal freedom or financial independence by taking great risks. Intriguingly Perkins often describes men (husbands, fathers) as supportive of their wives and daughters: while some struggle to accept the changing power balance in their household many eventually wish their female companions well. It suggests that Perkins was not writing against men but against patriarchy and the terrible things it does to women. She was taking on an entire social system, a move which was not only ambitious but also downright courageous, and her stories are great at showing how difficult her fight must have been.

Finally, I’ve delved a little deeper into the oeuvre of Shirley Jackson. I finished The Haunting of Hill House earlier, and was struck by its ability to scare without relying on gore or explicit descriptions of violence. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a very different novel yet uses the same principle: it is scary as hell without showing you the horrors taking place in the background. Merricat and her sister Constance live with their uncle Julian in the family mansion, despised by their neighbours since their other relatives died after a terrible incident with a poisoned sugar bowl. In the hands of a lesser writer this plot could have resulted into a wonderfully cheesy gothic tale, and that would have been fine. But Jackson does something else: she writes a story which makes you go “argh” without knowing why. This story is profoundly unpleasant yet weirdly engaging, and like the novels discussed above it is about women, though it rarely mentions womanhood or feminism explicitly. Constance and Merricat try to carve out a life for themselves, and from an outsider perspective appear to fail, while they consider themselves happy and safe. It poses the question what freedom really means: can you be free if your freedom traps you within the walls of your own kitchen?

Reading these stories in a row was a pure coincidence: I always pick whatever I like without considering whether it’s time to read a “woman” book, or an “ethnic minority” book. But it’s good to get out of your comfort zone now and then, move away from (in my case) Mailer, Ellis, Palahniuk and Thompson, and see the world through the eyes of someone different. Therefore I’m currently moving towards a new project: watching vampire films. For research purposes, of course *clears throat*.

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