At Slate, Amanda Hess reviews the N+1 pamphlet No Regrets on how some women have responded to reading “midcentury misogynists”—you know, the work of guys like Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Philip Roth, John Updike, et al. Hess:
The result is a fascinating exploration of the development of female readers, from their disillusionment with manly canonical works to their discovery of books that speak to a female experience and toward a complicated understanding of how both sexist and feminist works have influenced their view of the world.
What’s so “fascinating” and “complicated,” at least according to Hess? Well, first, readers get angry because these writers are so sexist:
For many of these women, the reading experience begins from a place of seething rage. Take Sara Marcus’ initial impression of Jack Kerouac: “I remember putting On the Road down the first time a woman was mentioned. I was just like: ‘F***. You.’ I was probably 15 or 16. And over the coming years I realized that it was this canonical work, so I tried to return to it, but every time I was just like, ‘F*** you.’”
Then they get worried because there are all of these men reading these novels and acting out exactly what they read because that’s how reading works:
This isn’t just about the books. When young women read the hypermasculine literary canon—what Emily Gould calls the “midcentury misogynists,” staffed with the likes of Roth, Mailer, and Miller—their discomfort is punctuated by the knowledge that their male peers are reading these books, identifying with them, and acting out their perspectives and narratives.
(Good thing Crime and Punishment isn’t read much these days or middle-aged female pawnbrokers and their angelic sisters would be in for a world of hurt.)
But some—a select few, I guess—pressed on and managed to learn something from these ole bigots. Take Kristin Dombek for example. She couldn’t finish Hemingway because (again) he made her “so angry.” But: “years later, I read Hemingway and wished I could have read him earlier. Because I might have learned to write f****** short sentences, which would’ve been really good.”
Two quick thoughts: First, readers are free to like or dislike whatever they want for whatever reason, and there are a fair number of novels that are not worth the time. I am not a huge fan of Bukowski, and I disliked Nabokov’s Lolita because I couldn’t stomach it. But I wouldn’t pretend (I hope) to have any great insight regarding Lolita simply because of my revulsion, and I don’t see much insight or complication or much that is “fascinating” here, at least in Hess’s telling, other than the somewhat self-important dismissal of a bunch of novels.
Second, readers can and should make moral judgments about books. That’s a central part of reading. But good readers should allow books to judge them, too. Otherwise, why bother reading? Of course, if you are offended at the smallest divergence from your own habits of thought and rather narrow worldview, it is going to be tough going. But the good news is that there is more to Hemingway than short sentences.
The apparent banality of these responses to Hemingway and Roth and others may be due to Hess’s selection, but it doesn’t seem so. Reviewing the same volume in The New Republic, Julia Fisher writes: “If you don’t buy the premise that men and women require different books, or at least tend to read the same books differently, too bad. The panelists seem unmoved by the notion that the aim of reading is to transcend one’s narrow perch in the world, not to seek others whose perches are similar—and similarly narrow.”