The Top 10 Highlights of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

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Assuming the #1 highlight of The Challenge will be finishing, topped off with my celebratory pie party, I give you the other 9 in all their glory:

#10. Finishing Tristram Shandy. No, Clarissa. No, Proust. There were many challenges within The Challenge, but some were more challenging than others.

#9. Working with Punchnel’s to publish a series of classic reviews adapted from this blog—not to mention my first-ever byline, 10 Reasons You Should Be Reading the Classics. (Yes, I cringe whenever I see this article and would rewrite every word if I could.) (Not to sound ungrateful, or anything.) (At least all the cringing means my writing has improved?) (Hopefully?)

#8. Learning to embrace book polygamy. Pre-Challenge, I was unable to avoid reading books simultaneously, but loudly and openly begrudged it. Now it’s unusual for me to read fewer than four books at once. I’ll probably scale back a little now that I’m reading mostly for “fun,” but I doubt I could ever be faithful to just one book again. It’s a two-book minimum for me from here on out, and my bookshelf doesn’t have any choice but to forgive.

#7. The many milestones along the way that served as motivation boosters: 50 books, 75 books, 80 books, and, especially, 90 books. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them beckoning me forward and cheering me on, except simmer in a stew of self-pity and resentment.

#6. Finally having my say, after years of silent frustration, on sexism in classic literature. Calling bullshit on this bullshit was more than satisfying. Just a few months later, I recorded a mini-podcast with SpareMin on bookish sexism and bookish feminism, because I hadn’t quite wrapped up my assault on the patriarchy.

Needless to say, I still have plenty of ammo left.

#5. Connecting with my fellow book bloggers, and trading views on everything from literary villains to logolepsy. Keep it up, blogosphere! I’m rooting for you.

#4. 2014. In 2014, I read Anna Karenina, Invisible Man, The Call of the WildDangerous Liaisons, and One Hundred Years of Solitudeall of which ranked immediately among my most favoritest classics. Every time I came across a Lawrence, or a Faulkner, or a Steinbeck on The List, I just had to remind myself that a Tolstoy, or a London, or a Márquez waited right around the corner. Discovering authors like these served as compensation for the suffering I endured at the low points of The Challenge.

Almost.

#3. Finding excuses to support indie bookstores like The Strand, McNally Jackson, Astoria Bookshop, Indy Reads, Trident Booksellers & CafeSherman’s, and Le port de tête. Bookstores are, by now, more of an addiction than a hobby. But I have no regrets.

#2. Starting the Quick Reviews series in an attempt to spread myself a little thicker. This may have literally saved my life, assuming a blog can kill you. (At one point, I was convinced it could, and very well might.)

#1. See above. 

The Challenge has had its ups and downs, most of which I’ve documented painstakingly over four years of blogging. YOU’RE WELCOME, INTERNET. And while I wouldn’t wish my bookshelf on anyone, we’ve been through so much together that friendship and affection were inevitable.

Just don’t tell it I said so.

My Wish List for Future Classics (and All Other Books)

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98 books and nearly 400 blog posts later, I think it’s safe to say I’ve cultivated some measure of expertise when it comes to the classics. The 100 Greatest Books Challenge has, at least, given me that.

There are, of course, many ways to define the classics. Karen of BookerTalk put together a great post on this topic, detailing Italian author Italio Calvino’s 14-point interpretation in “Why Read the Classics.” His points range from the indisputably relevant to the bewilderingly ambiguous. Here’s a random sample:

  • The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory.
  • A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
  • The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through.
  • A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.

(Yeah, I don’t know about that last one either.)

But my Challenge has less to do with “classic” status than its even-more-subjective cousin, Greatness. Most of us would agree that The List is full of classics. But I’m certain we’ll disagree on which ones are Great.

Long ago, I identified my own criteria for what qualifies a book for Greatness: Originality + Masterful Craftsmanship = Great, in my less-than-humble opinion. I like this definition because it’s broad yet demanding, and because it gives me license to denounce Lawrence, Hemingway, and Updike as a bunch of sorry hacks.

I also like it because it’s open, at all times, to new members. But as long as I’m throwing open my doors to the latest, Greatest books, I’d like to make a few special requests.

This is my Wish List for Future Classics (and, of course, books in general):

1. More diversity.

Like, a lot more. Almost 90% of the books I read for The Challenge are classifiable as American or Western European, leaving more than three-quarters of the world dramatically underrepresented. I can recall only a few non-white protagonists, and even less who would identify as disabled or LGBTQ. And while many classic defenders invoke “era” to cover all manner of sins, this problem persists today.

Fortunately, the call for diversity is growing so loud that publishers can no longer ignore it. Unfortunately, their response has been slow.

2. Less misogyny.

Along those same lines, we need better—more complicated, more realistic, more equal—representation of women. This applies to both authors and characters. Only 14 female authors made it onto The List, and none of them broke the Top 10. (George Eliot is the first to appear with Middlemarch at #12, and she had to publish under a man’s name to be taken seriously.) Only two of the Top 10 protagonists are women, and they are both adulteresses who eventually kill themselves.

…Which brings me to my next point: Can we cool it with the Madonna/whore complex? Classic literature is full of exactly two women: the angelic flower petal/Disney princess, and the morally degenerate hag/hellion. I’m looking at you, Isabel Archer. And Laura Fairlie. And Becky Sharp. And the Marquise de Merteuil.

Oh, and speaking of whores, could we engage a little less often in the casual solicitation of prostitutes? I’m so over fictional brothels, and the human colostomy bags who frequent them.

Once we manage to write and publish and respect female authors/characters on par with their male counterparts, I’m convinced I’ll stop coming across so many literary passages like this one:

When I say woman I mean a sex so weak, so fickle, so variable, so changeable, so imperfect, that Nature — speaking with all due reverence and respect — seems to me, when she made woman, to have strayed from that good sense with which she had created and fashioned all things. I have pondered over it five hundred times yet I can reach no solution except that Nature had more regard for the social delight of man and the perpetuating of the human species than for the perfection of individual womanhood. Certainly Plato does not know into which category to put women: rational animal or irrational beast. (Gargantua & Pantagruel)

And this one:

“Get yourself a housekeeper closer to your own age. And a good lay, too. What’s wrong with that? Or we’ll find you a gorgeous brownskin housekeeper. No more Japs for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Or maybe what you need is a girl who survived the concentration camps, and would be grateful for a good home. And you and I will lead the life.”
(Herzog)

And this one:

When it was over, she wasn’t crying. She didn’t care. He was walking up and down the room sobbing. She got up and straightened her dress.

He came over to her and shook her by the shoulders. “If you ever tell anybody I’ll kill you, you damn little brat.” (U.S.A.)

It will be a great day for literature, and for my mental health.

3. Less bigotry, in general. 

Yep, I’m on a roll here. I promise I’ll quit whining when the classics quit offending. Just keep in mind that that may NEVER HAPPEN, because the classics are putrid, decaying outhouses infested with bigotry and other bullshit.

I’m excluding, of course, the classics that actively, deliberately deconstruct prejudice in its many forms—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Native Son, and Faulkner’s novels, to name a few. I’m taking aim, rather, at the many perpetrators of nonchalant intolerance: Robinson Crusoe, Gone With the Wind, U.S.A., and everything Hemingway are all guilty of thoughtless, mindless attacks on Jews, homosexuals, and/or people of African or Asian descent. Stereotyping is rampant up and down The List. Rarely is discrimination called into question.

I’m not saying all of these novels should be stripped of their “classic” status. I’m not saying we should stop reading them, or discussing them, or learning from them. I’m not saying I’m some kind of progressive genius who can fix the world one book at a time, or that my opinion on this subject is even especially valid. I agree with Book Riot’s Amanda Nelson that

we wouldn’t have a canon to speak of if we only read books that lacked racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

I’m just saying that on my Wish List for future classics, up-and-coming authors would be a little more thoughtful about race, and religion, and sexuality—and a little less inclined toward the careless dehumanization of marginalized people.

4. Improved readability.

If the classics really want to step up their game—and be read, occasionally, outside of class—this may be their best and only strategy. We all want to engage with Great minds and big ideas, but not when they leave us unconscious with boredom. I’d love to see classic authors tidy up their plots a little (yes, you, Thomas Mann), and give their dialogue a fresh coat of paint (please, Dreiser? Please?). And if they can make their point in 300 pages, it’d be polite of them not to use 800. Or 1500.

In other words, it’d be great if—someday—The Challenge were less of a challenge.

This is all my long-winded way of saying not all classics are necessarily Great books, and that Greatness itself is a matter of opinion. I am under no obligation to enjoy every classic, and enjoyment is (for me) separate from Greatness.

But if I had my way, or the canon gave me a vote, I’d tell the classics that they still have work to do. I’d tell them that, as is, they’re not enough—that they could do more to illuminate the limitless facets of the human experience, in all its breadth and detail. Because that, I think, is the role of a classic.

Or, at least, I wish it were.

The Best Literary Links I’ve Come Across This Week (Round 4)

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Here we go again with Literary Links. (I should probably do this every week, but that would get in the way of my laziness.)

Hope you enjoy! And if not, I’m just the messenger!

I’d like to draw special attention to Rufi Thorpe’s MOTHER, WRITER, MONSTER, MAID over at Vela Magazine—a thought-provoking long-form piece on whether motherhood is fundamentally incompatible with a career in the arts.

Also, don’t miss the hilarious comic Every Dystopian YA Novel by adamtots over on reddit.

Happy reading, as always!

Literary Incest: Classics Within Classics

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The more time you spend with the classics, the more you notice the time they spend with each other.

Because, as it turns out, the classics spend a lot of time with each other. They’re kind of obsessed with each other, consumed by each other, locking each other into their own word prisons playgrounds whenever they have the opportunity. It’s a little bit sick, and a little bit twisted, how wrapped up they are in each other’s interests and arms.

That’s why I call this phenomenon Literary Incest.

When I first took on The 100 Greatest Books Challenge way back in 2011, I created a spreadsheet to track meta-themes. My reasons ranged from the obvious (mere curiosity) to the nerd-tacular (spreadsheets are a hobby) to the profound (a need to extract meaning from this endeavor, in the form of half-assed statistics). I tracked recurring subject matter as broad as “social commentary” and “religious commentary,” plot points as specific as “protagonist dies,” “protagonist kills self,” and “protagonist attempts to kill self,” and personal impressions as vague as “characters have weird names” and “book is categorically boring.” As soon as I finished a book on The List, I would dive into my spreadsheet to tick off every box that applied.

At the far end of the spreadsheet was a column labeled Incest: references within the classics to other classics. It was here that I recorded every member of the literary “family tree”—and here that I discovered the Greek and Latin classics to be a sort of father figure to all the rest.

It’s an understatement of irresponsible proportions to say that the Greek and Latin classics show up everywhere in literature. Among the classics that make direct reference to The Iliad, The Odyssey, or The Aeneid are:

  • The Divine Comedy
  • Middlemarch
  • The Portrait of a Lady
  • The Magic Mountain
  • Tristram Shandy
  • Tom Jones
  • In Search of Lost Time
  • Gargantua & Pantagruel

And those are just the ones I happened to make note of, and that happen to appear on my List. Add to this the fact(s) that Joyce’s Ulysses parallels The Odyssey, that Lowry’s Under the Volcano parallels Ulysses, and that Virgil’s Aeneid is a kind of Odyssey/Iliad two-for-one deal, and we’ve got quite a lot of inbreeding in our hands.

Well beyond Homer and Virgil, though, we can still find countless cases of classic overlap. Middlemarch also contains allusions to Don Quixote, The Canterbury Tales, and Gulliver’s Travels. On the Road makes reference to Gargantua & Pantagruel, The Sun Also Rises, and Moby-Dick. Brave New World has a Shakespearean fixation, and Tristram Shandy is on speaking terms with Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Quixote, Hamlet, and Gargantua & Pantagruel.

Naturally, the older the book, the more often it is referred to. After the Greek and Latin epics, no book is cited more frequently than Dante’s Divine Comedy: Lolita, The Count of Monte Cristo, An American Tragedy, In Search of Lost Time, and Middlemarch borrow pieces of his genius. And some books, of course, make incest their own filthy habit. Finnegans Wake invokes nearly every preceding classic, and Lolita teases at least six others:

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The Divine Comedy
  • King Lear
  • Madame Bovary
  • Brideshead Revisited

So what are we to make of all this? If my spreadsheet is any indication, not much. Lately arrived on its deathbed, this blog is the brightest glimpse of daylight it will ever see.

But if we all put our heads together like some big, perverted family, we might come to the conclusion that the literary greats looked toward one another for inspiration. And when they found it, they gave credit where it was due. And when we’re writing, we should consider doing the same.

Or maybe it was just as show-offy then as it is now to casually name-drop Homer or Dante into conversations/publications, and they were trying to look cool.

But hey, who cares?

There are worse crimes.

Sexism in Classic Literature

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Sexism is everywhere in life, so it should come as no shock that it’s everywhere in literature.

But it does, a little. It does, every time.

It does, because I grew up believing I had inherent value as a person—that I’m smart and strong and capable, that I can express my opinions freely. And then I come across all these scenes in literature that tell me I don’t. I’m not. I can’t.

So yeah, it’s still a mild shock when I encounter sexism in books, like seeing a coin-sized black spider on a white wall or, like, shoving a finger in an electrical outlet. Books were always supposed to be my refuge—my escape. And when they dismiss me, when they belittle me, when they reject me and all women, it feels like the ultimate betrayal.

There are many ways, of course, that sexism manifests in book publishing. It is, frankly, hard to find a book without it. There’s the representation of women in fiction—or, all too often, lack thereof. (A special shout-out goes to the utterly rampant Madonna/whore complex, and the too many books both young and old that cannot pass even the bottom-barrel standards of the Bechdel test.) There’s the pervasive and insidious use of sexist language (“man up”; “cry like a girl”) that promotes toxic masculinity as the ideal, the goal, the standard—as if other gender identities were a handicap the rest of us must overcome. There’s the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, the simultaneous sexualization and slut shaming of female characters, their objectification and routine disposal, and the boiling cauldron of rape culture. There is the frilly, flowery book marketing of so-called “chick lit.” There’s the industry-wide assumption that books written by and about men represent the human experience, while books written by and about women represent only the female experience.

There’s also a seemingly willful neglect of female authors in contests, on panels, and in review publications—and, especially, in classrooms. Because in classrooms, more often than not, we teach the classics.

And many of the classics stand among the best-known examples of sexism in literature.

Like YA author Maureen Johnson, I struggle to recall high school reading assignments by or about women. There was The Scarlet Letter, boring as Puritan Heaven and written by a man. There was To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m not totally convinced a child narrator counts. There was Frankenstein, penned by Mary Shelley but highly male-centric.

And that’s it. That’s all I remember.

In my high school, in four years of English taught exclusively by female teachers, we did not read Pride and Prejudice, or Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights, or anything by Virginia Woolf—not even in Brit Lit. We didn’t read Edith Wharton, or Toni Morrison, or Margaret Mitchell. Instead, we read Shakespeare, and Dickens, and Orwell, and Steinbeck—all of whom are easily identifiable by their surnames alone because they’re just that ubiquitous.

The gender balance was equally bleak when I sought out The List in 2011. Of the supposed 100 Greatest Books of All Time, only 17 were written by women. Of course, some of those authors appear more than once, putting the grand total of female authors at a mere 14 (11 of which were white). George Eliot, the first to appear on The List with Middlemarch at #12, had to publish under a man’s name for her work to be taken seriously. And if that seems ludicrous today, when half of all authors are women, remember that J. K. Rowling’s publishers insisted she hide her gender behind her initials.

In making my way through The List, I’ve had the wind knocked out of me by sexism ranging from the benevolent to the hostile. And because screaming into my pillow is slightly less satisfying than screaming into my keyboard, I decided to take you all on a little tour of Sexism in Classic Literature.

We’ll start with Catherine Barkley in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms—a character so insubstantial that we barely notice her inclination toward self-effacement:

There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.

 …

Then there’s Dido, in Virgil’s Aeneid, who famously stabs herself on a makeshift funeral pyre after Aeneas unceremoniously dumps her—concluding her downward spiral from savvy Queen of Carthage to hysterical ex-girlfriend, all at the whim of the gods:

[…] “Must I die,” she said,
“And unreveng’d? ‘Tis doubly to be dead!
Yet ev’n this death with pleasure I receive:
On any terms, ’tis better than to live.
These flames, from far, may the false Trojan view;
These boding omens his base flight pursue!”
She said, and struck; deep enter’d in her side
The piercing steel, with reeking purple dyed:
Clogg’d in the wound the cruel weapon stands;
The spouting blood came streaming on her hands.
Her sad attendants saw the deadly stroke,
And with loud cries the sounding palace shook.

Next up is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, in which women are literally given as gifts to the men of Crusoe’s newly colonized island:

From thence I touched at the Brazils, from whence I sent a bark, which I bought there, with more people to the island; and in it, besides other supplies, I sent seven women, being such as I found proper for service, or for wives to such as would take them. As to the Englishmen, I promised to send them some women from England, with a good cargo of necessaries, if they would apply themselves to planting.

In Homer’s Iliad, women are “won” and traded as prizes and property, but we only hear Achilles complaining about it:

Now the son of Atreus, powerful Agamemnon, has dishonoured me, since he has taken away my prize and keeps it.

We can’t possibly omit Saul Bellow’s Herzog from any discussion of literary sexism; his runs the gamut from mundane to downright vile:

It was true, he couldn’t offer much. He really was useless to her. With Gersbach she could still be a wife. He came home. She cooked, ironed, shopped, signed checks. Without him, she could not exist, cook, make beds. The trance would break. Then what?

Please, Ramona, Herzog wanted to say—you’re lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch—everything. But these lectures! For the love of God, Ramona, shut it up.

“Get yourself a housekeeper closer to your own age. And a good lay, too. What’s wrong with that? Or we’ll find you a gorgeous brownskin housekeeper. No more Japs for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Or maybe what you need is a girl who survived the concentration camps, and would be grateful for a good home. And you and I will lead the life.”

And, speaking of vile, François Rabelais shares some interesting theories on womanhood in Gargantua and Pantagruel:

When I say woman I mean a sex so weak, so fickle, so variable, so changeable, so imperfect, that Nature — speaking with all due reverence and respect — seems to me, when she made woman, to have strayed from that good sense with which she had created and fashioned all things. I have pondered over it five hundred times yet I can reach no solution except that Nature had more regard for the social delight of man and the perpetuating of the human species than for the perfection of individual womanhood. Certainly Plato does not know into which category to put women: rational animal or irrational beast.

Not to be left out, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain regales us with the story of how the narrator’s uncle fell in love with a pair of unforgettable breasts:

Most assuredly, in matters of civilized behavior she could not have held a candle to Madame Tienappel down in the flatlands. But one Sunday evening in the salon after supper, the consul made a discovery, thanks to a black, very low-cut sequined gown: Frau Redisch had very feminine, soft, white, close-set breasts and a cleavage visible from a considerable distance. And this discovery had stirred the mature, refined man to the depths of his soul, thrilling him as if this were a totally new, unexpected, unheard-of phenomenon. He sought out and made Frau Redisch’s acquaintance, carried on a long conversation with her, first standing, then seated—and went to bed humming. The next day Frau Redisch was no longer wearing a black sequined gown, but a dress that covered almost all of her; the consul, however, knew what he knew and remained faithful to that first impression. He made a point of catching up with the lady on their walks, so that he could stroll beside her and chat with her, turning and bending toward her in a special, insistent, but charming way; he toasted his glass to her at dinner, and she responded with a smile, revealing several sparkling gold-capped teeth; and in a conversation with his nephew he declared her to be an absolutely “divine creature”—and at once began to hum again.

In USA, John Dos Passos leaves out the hostile misogyny and the overt objectification in favor of some good, old-fashioned benevolent sexism:

Women have been a great inspiration to me all my life, lovely charming delicate women. Many of my best ideas have come from women, not directly, you understand, but through the mental stimulation.

But in the infamous Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov takes us back to basics with 200 pages of male entitlement and pedophilia:

At one of these [desks], my Lolita was reading … and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk.

(For anyone unfamiliar with the book, Dolly is the middle-aged narrator’s nickname for Lolita, the twelve-year-old girl he kidnaps, coerces, and rapes repeatedly. In this scene, he pays her for sexual favors before stealing the money back so she can’t run away.)

Are we done with the tour yet? Do you want to be done?

I want to be done.

But some of the sexism in classic literature can’t be summed up in a quotation. For example, I can’t quote the women who aren’t there, or the men who don’t seem to notice their absence. Because women are conspicuously missing, or nearly so, from Don Quixote, Lord of the Flies, The Call of the Wild, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Slaughterhouse-Five, and many, many more. Sometimes this makes contextual sense (Moby-DickCatch-22). Sometimes there’s literally zero excuse (The Lord of the RingsThe Wind in the Willows).

And rape—rape written, most often, from the man’s point of view, and rape that, most often, dismisses its victims—is a fixture of the classics, appearing (and, often, reappearing) in Dangerous Liaisons, A Clockwork Orange, The Tale of Genji, Clarissa, The Canterbury Tales, Beloved, and others. Here’s a typical rape scene, from USA:

“Let’s go skating, Frank, it’s so awful to be in the house all day.”

“Everything’s horrible,” he said. Suddenly he pulled her to him and kissed her lips. She felt dizzy with the smell of bayrum and cigarettes and whiskey and cloves and armpits that came from him. She pulled away from him. “Frank, don’t, don’t.” He had tight hold of her. She could feel his hands trembling, his heart thumping under his vest. He had grabbed her to him with one arm and was pulling at her clothes with the other. His voice wasn’t like Frank’s voice at all. “I won’t hurt you. I won’t hurt you, child. Just forget. It’s nothing. I can’t stand it any more.” The voice went on and on whining in her ears. “Please. Please.”

She didn’t dare yell for fear the people in the house might come. She clenched her teeth and punched and scratched at the big wet-lipped face pressing down hers. She felt weak like in a dream. His knee was pushing her legs apart.

When it was over, she wasn’t crying. She didn’t care. He was walking up and down the room sobbing. She got up and straightened her dress.

He came over to her and shook her by the shoulders. “If you ever tell anybody I’ll kill you, you damn little brat.”

We like to think we’ve come such a long way in a single century—that we can pat ourselves on the back for women’s suffrage, for women’s independence, for women’s participation in academics and the workforce. We like to think that these books—the sexist books, along with the racist and homophobic and classist and otherwise discriminatory books—are merely “products of their time.”

But doesn’t that assumption discredit the progressive thinkers of previous eras? We know they existed. Tolerance isn’t a 21st-century invention. 

And shouldn’t it bother those of us who do believe in equality for all, who are actively writing and speaking and working for change, that if humans, 200 years from now, were to look back at 2016—at our governments, our salaries, our legal rights, our media—they would assume progressives were just as few and far between?

Because they would. They would. At the rate we’re still churning out misogynistic garbage, those future humans would have a hard time believing we existed at all. They’d look at the world population, now, the same way we look at the humans of the 19th century, or the 16th, or the 3rd—like we must not have known better, if this is what we have to show for ourselves.

Every one of the sexist frameworks we deplore in centuries-old fiction is still prevalent today. The 20th and 21st centuries have applauded and immortalized the works of openly chauvinistic male authors, including Bret Easton EllisV.S. Naipaul, T. S. Eliot, Jonathan Franzen, and Norman Mailer—the same Norman Mailer who stabbed his wife at a party and then said, to a shocked audience,

Don’t touch her. Let the bitch die.

We have made bestselling phenomena out of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey—both of which feature controlling, abusive male leads and frame their behavior as romantic. We have awarded two Pulitzer Prizes to John Updike instead of apologizing to the trees that bear his words. We have upheld an exclusionary and binary definition of gender, and an oppressive social system that hurts even those it benefits. We have raised our children on books that reinforce female invisibility and traditional gender roles, and we have raised boys in particular to ignore or ridicule books by and about girls.

And, worst of all, we have made excuses for all of the above. We have justified every point as valid, or normal, or acceptable. And in doing so, we have sent the message over and over again that marginalized groups really are inferior, for a whole world of reasons.

So how about this: How about we just stop? How about, the next time we give a book a prize, or elevate it to “classic” status, we make sure it does us a favor? How about we pick a book that makes us look good to those future generations, or at least better, like we’re actually trying? How about we pick a book that confronts, deconstructs, or subverts some of the poisonous prejudices we’re drinking every day?

I know we can do it. I know we’re starting to do it already. But until I stop feeling the wind knocked out of me every time I pick up a book, I’m going to keep asking for more.

Why Would I Even Bother Writing Titles Anymore

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When I was a senior in high school, I opted to take an elective called “Novels.”

Novels was the god of all blow-off classes—the class every other blow-off period would strive to be if they weren’t all such slackers. It was quite literally an hour and a half at the end of the day set aside for reading. We could choose any book we wanted off a long list of popular novels, spend as long as we cared to reading it, and then move on to the next at our leisure.

We weren’t even tested on them, or required to write reflective essays. We just had to “conference” for ten minutes with the woman who called herself our teacher but spent every afternoon holed up in her dim office wearing sunglasses, complaining of a light sensitivity.

The “conferences” went like this:

Teacher: So, you read Little Women.

Student: Yes.

Teacher: So, what are your plans after graduation?

Student: Like, college.

Teacher: You should go to Prague instead.

Student: OK?

Teacher: When I graduated, I went straight to Prague.

Student: …

It was during the course of this class, Novels, that I discovered Edith Wharton for the very first time. Just one page of The Age of Innocence later, and I was a goner. My friends and I were truant for a lot of Novels as the semester dragged on, but that book kept me in my seat for days at a time. I had never read anything quite like it, in all its wrenching irony, devastating romance, and exquisite disdain.

In college, I read The House of Mirth for an American Literature course (the legitimate kind, this time) and fell in love with Wharton once more, for exactly the same reasons. I look forward to finding her again and again over the years to rekindle our passionate affair. And when an opportunity came up, in the form of a Headstuff assignment, to investigate the lives and legacies of world-famous writers, I immediately chose Mark Twain and Edith Wharton herself.

Wharton seems, at least by my impression, to be one of those names everyone has heard but doesn’t know anything about. This, of course, is exactly why I chose her. I was not disappointed or bored for a second in my research on her life and writing—but with both articles behind me now, I can say with all certainty that biographies are not my calling. I take pride in milking tedious material and churning out entertaining results, but biography has left me coming up empty.

Maybe it just can’t be done? I’ll have to read Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare and find out.

Anyway. Remember when I frantically wrote my Mark Twain piece in firework bursts of panic, and Headstuff casually rejected the title? I managed to be microscopically offended, even though they simply wanted to keep the titles consistent across the series (“The Open Book”).

Well, this time around, I didn’t even supply the outstanding and click-worthy title I had come up with—”Edith Wharton: Accomplished Writer, Comprehensive Badass,” it went—to save myself another infinitesimal agony. AND THEN THEY GAVE IT A DIFFERENT, NON-SERIES TITLE ANYWAY—something standard and competent that Edith Wharton would have liked.

The very nerve.

I’m OK, though. I’m coping. I’m even considering a trip to Prague.

It is, after all, long overdue.