When Should I Start Worrying About My Pride & Prejudice Obsession?

Guys, I have a sort-of-awkward question to ask you.

Since the start of the New Year, I have consumed over a dozen Pride and Prejudice adaptations, with no signs of slowing down. In addition to listening to the original text on audiobook (beautifully performed by Rosamund Pike), as well as Bridget Jones’s Diary, I’ve watched:

  • the 1995 BBC miniseries,
  • the 2005 Keira Knightley version,
  • (twice),
  • The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,
  • Austenland,
  • The Jane Austen Book Club, and
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I’ve also read:

  • Eligible, last year’s atrocious modern retelling,
  • Epic Fail, another lousy adaptation set in a Los Angeles high school,
  • Austenland (the book), and
  • The Jane Austen Book Club (ditto).

Oh, and I bought myself these adorable post-its.

I can’t decide if there’s something deeply wrong with me, or if this is the best use I’ve ever made of my free time. It seems impossible, even to me, that I have not yet tired of this story and these characters—despite the occasional unfortunate rendering. But there’s no such thing as a healthy addiction, even to Jane Austen… and the rest of my TBR is growing resentful.

So, inevitably, my question is this: When should I start worrying? Where is the line between everyday-fan-of-a-beloved-classic and devout-disciple-of-a-new-religion? Is it when I begin referring to my husband as “Mr. Darcy” and asking him to call me “Miss Elizabeth”? Is it when I stop leaving my house? Is it when I start acting out scenes from the book with my Pride and Prejudice post-its?

Because, you know, I’d like to be on the lookout. The moment cannot be long in coming at this point.

P.S. If you have any recommendations for P&P adaptations not listed here, please send them my way. Thank you in advance.

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Eligible: Abandon All Joy, Ye Who Enter Here

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Matchmaking books and readers would be one of my favorite hobbies if I got to do it more often—that is, if I had more friends. It is nothing short of a thrill when someone comes to me and says, “I loved that book you recommended. What should I read next?” or “What did you think of such-and-such? Is it worth the time?”

But every once in a while, I come across a book so appalling I want to shout it from the rooftops. Every once in a while, I feel like rushing from one acquaintance to the next to un-recommend a book—to remove it from the shelves of, first, my friends, and then my enemies, on a singular mission to make it un-exist. Every once in a while, I dedicate an entire blog post to a book that made me wish I could un-learn to read.

Most recently, I had this experience with Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Hating Eligible was not a foregone conclusion, despite my love for the source material. I’m not an Austen purist; in fact, I love adaptations. I’ve seen countless film versions of her novels, as well as a theatrical rendition of Pride and Prejudice, and enjoyed them all from start to finish. I even loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, if only for turning the Bennet sisters into fearless, impeccably coiffed warriors. I’m a fan of the looser adaptations, too, from Clueless to Bridget Jones’s Diary to The Jane Austen Book Club, and I laughed at every cringeworthy plot twist in 2013’s Austenland.

But Eligible wasn’t just a listless reimagining of Austen’s original; it was dull, irritating, and offensive. Parallels between the two are abundant and apparent, but usually clumsy and crude. That said, it is, perhaps, the more obvious deviations from Austen’s starting point(s) that precede Eligible‘s weakest stumbling blocks.

“Innocent until proven guilty,” you say? Fair enough.

I haven’t even launched into my opening argument.

Eligible is set (mostly) in Cincinnati, Ohio, which in itself feels wrong. Pride and Prejudice is a quintessentially British story begging for rolling hills and sleepy shires. Of all the things that went wrong with this story, though, I’m willing to overlook the setting—so Cincinnati, Ohio, it is. Liz and Jane Bennet are back home from New York, caring for their father post-heart surgery. Both are nearing 40 and unmarried, though Liz is dating the (married) douchebag who strung her along for a decade and Jane is pursuing motherhood through artificial insemination.

The younger Bennet sisters are aggressively useless. Lydia and Kitty, in their mid-twenties, are CrossFit gym bunnies who text a lot. Mary is working on yet another online Master’s degree. All three live at home and freeload off their parents, who have mismanaged their finances to the point of bankruptcy.

Enter “Chip” Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Chip is best known to the Cincinnati elite as the star of last season’s Bachelor-esque reality show Eligible. Darcy is a neurosurgeon, obvi. Each combines enormous wealth with zero personality to make a perfect catch. Chip and Jane date enthusiastically until Jane finds out she’s pregnant via donor sperm. Chip’s sister Caroline jumps on the opportunity to push them apart, because that’s a thing that happens in the 21st century.

Liz and Darcy engage in Hate Sex until, for Darcy, it turns into Love Sex. His attempt at a grand gesture is to knock on Liz’s door and announce that “she’s neither beautiful nor funny, but he’s in love with her anyway, although that may just be the oxytocin talking.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but not by much.) A few misunderstandings later, Liz proposes. Chip and Jane reconcile in the kind of happy ending only a reality TV wedding can bring about.

A large portion of the plot revolves around Liz’s efforts to save the Bennets from themselves—because God forbid a family of privilege actually live with the consequences of their poor decision-making. Mr. Bennet, at 60+ years of age, doesn’t even have health insurance.

Lucky for them, Super Liz is around to act as cook, maid, chauffeur, accountant, real estate agent, exterminator, and mover to this lazy brood of asshats. She spends all her savings bailing them out of their various financial messes, then proceeds to co-sign Kitty and Mary’s new lease and pay their rent. You could argue, in one sense, that Liz retains the original character’s status as The Only Sensible Daughter… but a sensible person would know when to quit. Instead of rooting for her to set the Bennets straight, you root for her to wash her hands of their superficiality, disrespect, and ingratitude and hightail it back to New York.

Add to this a Glee-like approach to “social issues”—a sort of heavy-handed, transparent, [insert issue here] strategy—and you’ve got an exhausting, insufferable read in your hands. If it’s not Darcy’s anorexic sister, it’s Jane’s lesbian roommates or Kitty’s black boyfriend. I would appreciate the diversity if Sittenfeld’s main characters were any less bigoted—that is, if any of the minority characters were treated like people instead of problems.

Did I mention this book is gratuitously transphobic? The major conflict of the story—intended to mirror the original Lydia’s elopement with ne’er-do-well George Wickham at the cost of her reputation—is when Sittenfeld’s Lydia elopes with her transgender boyfriend. The Bennets are, at best, confused (e.g., Jane and Liz)—and, at worst, horrified (e.g., Mrs. Bennet). Darcy is applauded all around for restoring harmony by explaining gender dysphoria as a birth defect… because that was easier than persuading Mr. and Mrs. Bennet to be tolerant.

Believe it or not, the dialogue is even worse than the plot, which is even worse than the character development. For all her determination to update Pride and Prejudice to the year 2013, Sittenfeld clung steadfastly to 19th-century language. Here’s Liz’s response to Jane’s bewilderment at Chip’s reality TV fame:

“Oh, Jane,” Liz said. “So innocent and unspoiled. You’ve heard of the reality show Eligible, right?”

And here’s Darcy at his first run-in with the Bennets:

I’m sure they do their best, but Cincinnatians are painfully provincial.

Painfully provincial! I would call this book painfully provincial if it didn’t reflect poorly on my manners. Y’all know I’m delicate AF.

Oh, and if you were hoping for a more overtly feminist Bennet clan in this modernized take, you will be disappointed on that front, too. All of the novel’s most “independent” women—Jane, Liz, and Liz’s BFF Charlotte—uproot their lives to move across the country for men they barely know:

  • Charlotte meets the Bennets’ step-cousin Willie exactly one time at a party. After exchanging a handful of emails with him, she quits her job at Procter & Gamble to move into his house in the Bay Area. She is then horrified to discover that he snores, which should be the least of her worries IMHO.
  • By the time Liz proposes to Darcy, they’ve only spoken a handful of times, including their bouts of (so-called) Hate Sex. Liz, who loves NYC, announces mid-proposal that she knows she’ll “need to move to Cincinnati”—as if it’s out of the question that Darcy might, at any point, leave his job to live with her in New York.
  • Only Jane and Chip actually date before moving in together, if only for a brief period. She follows him to LA when he decides to make an abrupt career change, after zero discussion of her own work prospects. (Let’s hope that baby is super fulfilling, amirite?)

This book goes from bad to worse so often that the feat seems impossible—like one of those auditory illusions that keep descending until your brain implodes. Eligible, as Michiko Kakutani puts it,

reads less like a homage or reimagining of Austen’s classic than a heavy-handed and deeply unfunny parody.

Ursula Le Guin—channeling Emma‘s Mr. Knightley—declares, more pointedly,

It was badly done.

I wish I hadn’t read it. I hope no one else ever reads it. I physically cringe at the thought that Jane Austen inspired it. Not only are her subtle wit and human insight absent from this grotesque P&P mutation, but they’ve been replaced with corrupt characterizations, infuriating plot points, and belligerently shabby writing.

Has Eligible ruined me forever when it comes to Austen adaptations? Definitely not. But I must have learned nothing from Pride and Prejudice after all, because I won’t be giving Sittenfeld a second chance at a first impression.

Reading Retrospective: 2016

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Howdy, folks. Sorry to be the bearer of old news, but I’m here to remind you of the not-so-distant yesteryear of 2016.

I decided to do a Reading Retrospective for 2016 not because my reading year was in any way exceptional, but because:

(a) I like making book recommendations,
(b) 2016 mostly sucked, except for my literary undertakings, and
(c) I might not get another chance—at least, not anytime soon. I’m on track to finish The List by April or May, at which point The Challenge (and this blog) will come to an end. Far from being sad about this, I am ecstatic to move on to other reading and writing projects and, hopefully, get a refund on my sanity.

So here it is: Your very own tour of My Year in Books, 2016 Edition. There were thrills and slogs and frolics and dawdles and everything in between, so plan your route carefully. God knows I didn’t.

First things first: I read a total of 57 books last year—unless, that is, you count In Search of Lost Time as six books instead of one. (I do.) (The List doesn’t.) Then I read 62.

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Me + books + sepia = ? (Not my bookshelf, BTW, but it might as well be.)

Here’s a breakdown of the 57 books that nudged their way into my 2016. Of those 57:

  • 17 were classics for The List (if ISoLT = 1)
  • 40 were purely for “pleasure” (at least, in theory)
  • 45 were works of fiction
  • 12 were non-fiction (of which 8 were memoirs)
  • 47 were first-time reads
  • 10 were rereads
  • 21 were audiobooks
  • 36 were paper books
  • 46 were “for adults”
  • 7 were “for young adults”
  • 4 were “for children”

Now for a summary of the books that stood out the most, in good ways or bad:

Best First-Time Reads:

  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. (Illuminating.)
  • Lady Susan by Jane Austen. (Playful.)
  • America Again: Re-Becoming The Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert. (Clever.)
  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (Penetrating.)
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. (Thought-provoking.)
  • Shrill by Lindy West. (Necessary.)
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain. (Validating.)

Best Rereads:

  • You Had Me at Hello by Mhairi McFarlane. (Charming.)
  • How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. (Spot-on.)
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. (Hilarious.)
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. (Nostalgic.)
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. (Witty.)

Worst Reads:

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. (Twisted.)
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. (Boring.)
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. (Stupid.)
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais. (Tedious.)
  • Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Listless.)

Longest Book:

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. (At 6 volumes and 4,217 pages, it’s the longest book I’ve ever read. It’s one of the longest books anyone has ever read, if Wikipedia and the Guinness Book of World Records have anything to say about it. Proust and I were together, on and off, for all of 2016—and a little sick of each other by the end of it.)

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It’s possible Volume 3 spent too much time in the sun.

The longest single-volume book I read was The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, at 1,120 pages.

Shortest Book:

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. (It may be short, but it packs a thousand gut-punches.)

Wait. Now that I think about it, We Should All Be Feminists was probably shorter. And while we’re on the subject, it, too, packs a thousand gut-punches—but mostly to the patriarchy.

The moral of this story is Don’t Judge a Book by Its Size. (If you don’t make room for the little guy, he’ll just develop a complex.)

Pleasant-est Surprises:

  • Every Day by David Levithan. (Touching.)
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. (Compelling.)
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. (Arresting.)
  • Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. (Revelatory.)

Biggest Disappointments:

  • Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding. (Mournful.)
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. (Self-aggrandizing.)
  • Naked by David Sedaris. (Creepy, I guess? Maybe he shouldn’t narrate his own audiobooks?)
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. (Disappointing ONLY because nothing can outdo Beloved, which I knew before I started.)

Most Original Reads:

  • The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. (First novel, anyone?)
  • Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. (Seriously, WTF?)
  • The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams. (Absurd and unpredictable.)
  • In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. (Philosophical and eloquent.)
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl. (Empowering and literally magical.)

Sad Books I Hope to Repress ASAP:

  • Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. (Cue tears.)
  • Every Day by David Levithan. (Cue loud cries of “Noooo!”)
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. (Cue slow torture.)
  • Native Son by Richard Wright. (Cue outraged lectures directed at anyone willing to listen.)

Memorable Characters I Couldn’t Repress Even If I Wanted to:

  • Achilles, from The Iliad. (Crybaby.)
  • Lady Susan Vernon, from Lady Susan. (Devious.)
  • Ringer, from The 5th Wave. (Badass.)
  • Sergeant Dime, from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (Commanding.)
  • Tyler Durden, from Fight Club. (Misguided.)
  • Bernadette Fox, from Where’d You Go, Bernadette. (Misunderstood.)

Book-to-Film Adaptations I Scrambled to Read Just in Time:

  • Lady Susan by Jane Austen.
  • Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding.
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey.
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

I loved all the films, for the record—especially Love and Friendship, based on Lady Susan.

Standard-Ass Classics That Left Little to No Impression:

  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.
  • Nostromo by Joseph Conrad.
  • Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  • U.S.A. by John Dos Passos.

Largely Unremarkable Memoirs (a.k.a. Why Do I Keep Reading Memoirs?):

  • I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley.
  • Sounds Like Me by Sara Bareilles.
  • The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer.
  • Naked by David Sedaris.

Miscellaneous Reads I Didn’t Love or Hate Enough to Fit Into Any of the Above Categories:

  • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
  • Who’s That Girl by Mhairi McFarlane.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.
  • Paper Towns by John Green.

And now, before I say my final “Thank you and good night”Fuck off forever” to the atrocity that was last year, here’s a quick glimpse at all the high points of my 2016. I hope you join me up here sometime; the view’s fantastic.

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Best Quotes of 2016:

Americans are incredibly polite as long as they get what they want.

-Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a Man of his age!—just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the Gout—too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.

-Jane Austen, Lady Susan

Boredom may well be the very essence of evil.

-Günter Grass, The Tin Drum

Social media is a great tool for all of us introverts and decent people alike as it speeds up the time between thinking someone is great and realizing they’re the worst.

-Amy Schumer, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo

But by far the worst thing we do to males — by making them feel they have to be hard — is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.
And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males.

-Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

Then they gave us heartfelt advice: if we wanted to rise in the courts of great noblemen, to be as economical as possible of the truth.

-François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel

“That’s right,” she told the girls. “You are bored. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret about life. You think it’s boring now? Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it’s on you to make life interesting, the better off you’ll be.”

-Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Long ago, I learned how to be brave, how to go forward always.

-Homer, The Iliad

I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better.

-Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman

Women matter. Women are half of us. When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time—that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.

-Lindy West, Shrill

“I once slept with this guy who had an ENORMOUS penis. Like, it was a problem. The condoms wouldn’t even fit. I was so overwhelmed that I accidentally laughed at it. And then it shrunk. He was not pleased.”
“That should be a comic book. Penis giganticus is his superpower, and women laughing at it is his kryptonite.”

-Jenny Lawson, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

I am the one not running, not staying, but facing.
Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity.
And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.

-Rick Yancey, The 5th Wave

Life is strewn with these miracles for which people who love can always hope.

-Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Bloody fucking dog pig black-livered bastard from hell. I hope his face gets put on a porcupine.

-Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.

-Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

There will never come a dawn when you do not have my heart.

-Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on—can you hear me? Pass it on!

-Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

If you stare at the center of the universe, there is a coldness there. A blankness. Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us.
That’s why we have to care about each other.

-David Levithan, Every Day

A very happy New Year to you all. And, as always, happy reading!

“Chick Lit” and Other Horror Stories: My Interview with SpareMin

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First things first: I know.

I know it’s a random Wednesday at the end of October, and I know the air is chilly and the leaves are crunchy, and I know you’re probably halfway through a spreadsheet or a surgery or a stock… broking… maneuver.

I know.

But take a moment—right now if possible—and think back with me to this summer.

Remember June? June was warm, and sunny, and picnicky, depending on your chosen climate/hemisphere. June was pre-split for Brangelina, pre-Ghostbusters for those of us who saw and kind’ve liked it, pre-Olympics for the legendary Simone Biles, and pre-pussy-revelations for Trump. June was innocent, and hopeful, and naïve, like a first shot of tequila—a simpler, if not a better time, followed by an autumn that feels like a hangover.

I spent my June researching and writing an exhausted, exhausting, and (I hope) exhaustive post on Sexism in Classic Literature, something I come across all too frequently on The List. And then, because that was so depressing/distressing/discouraging, I added a post on Bookish Feminism a few weeks later.

Satisfied that I’d said my part, at least for the moment, I moved on with my summer.

So it came as a surprise when, in September, I was contacted by the founder of a new app called SpareMin. He had read my Sexism/Feminism posts and invited me to be part of a “mini-podcast” on the subject. The deal was that the SpareMin team would use the conversation to promote the app’s call-recording features, and I would get to talk about something I am passionate  fanatical maniacal about for 15 whole minutes.

And, last week, we did. Check out my talk with the lovely Abi Wurdeman here.

I’m including a transcript below—tidied up a little for clarity’s sake—to fill in any gaps in the audio, and to include all the appropriate links in all the appropriate places (huzzah!). Abi is in bold, and I am not, because I am incredibly modest and extraordinarily humble (if I do say so myself).

Happy listening!

Hello, this is Abi. Is this Jamie Leigh?

Yes, this is Jamie.

Hi, welcome! How are you?

I’m fine, thanks. I’m glad this worked.

Me too! Me too. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

No problem. Just to warn you, someone got out a chainsaw in my neighbor’s apartment, like, ten minutes ago. So if you hear a lot of noise, that’s why.

Oh, OK.

I hope they’re doing construction.

Yeah! Yeah, I hope so, right? OK, so, just for listeners—just so they know who I’m speaking to—I’m speaking with Jamie Leigh, who is a reader and writer, and we’re speaking about the representation of women in the literary world. So, let’s start with the first general question: What attitudes do you notice in the literary world towards female authors and books with female protagonists?

Right. Well, we can start off with the fact that there’s a genre called “chick lit,” right, but no genre called, like, “dude lit.” I’m far from being the first person to point this out, but it’s like the industry’s way of saying that books written by and about men represent the sort of universal human experience, but books by and about women represent only the female experience—which, then, reinforces this idea that the male narrative is the default narrative.

And this starts really early on, right? Like, even in children’s books, there are more boys than girls in central roles. And we definitely, as a culture, you know, tolerate young boys’ contempt, I guess, for books about girls—or anything associated with girls, really. So we end up teaching boys from a really young age, without necessarily meaning to, that it’s OK to dismiss us, or to ridicule us.

So I guess the most common pattern I see is one of, you know, neglect, or of belittlement. I think a good example is Jodi Picoult. She writes these really—really, like, sober books, right? She’s written about school shootings, and mercy killings, and cancer, and suicide, and stem cell research. And still critics call her books “chick lit” and “beach reads.”

And then the opposite happens when a man starts writing in an area dominated by female authors. Like, this happened in YA, this happened in romance. You know, romance is one of the most ridiculed genres. But, of course, Nicholas Sparks comes along and he’s able to build a respected career for himself writing romance novels. I, uh, I hope—I hope he and all of his movie deals will be very happy together. But that’s bullshit.

Yeah. It’s true, it’s true. It always makes me think of—I mean, as you said, there are a gazillion examples of this happening. The one that I always think of is—and this is a movie review that I believe was in Variety, about Wild, which you know, of course, was a book first—but the reviewer, a male reviewer, actually said—was letting everyone know—this is a cool movie for guys to watch, too. And the line that he used in it was, “It’s—this isn’t—” it was something like, “This isn’t a woman’s story; this is a human story.” 

Oh, for God’s sake. Thank you for, yes, defining women as human. Yeah.

Right, right. And the title of that was “Wild Is Actually Macho.” He talked about how—his focus was “It’s a macho—it’s something that guys can get, too, because the emotions she expresses aren’t just lady emotions. It’s crazy! It’s nuts!” 

I actually—so, the person who did that screenplay was Nick Hornby, and I saw him speak a couple of years ago in New York. And he—someone asked him about—well, actually I think he was telling a story about someone who’d asked him how he was able to kind of “get inside the mind of a woman.” And he was like, “…She wrote a memoir. I read her book, and I adapted her book to the movie…” Yeah. Not that hard.

Yeah. It’s crazy. So then, I guess you kind of addressed this, the next question, of the differences that you notice between the ways that the publishing industry markets books written by men versus by women. Is there anything else—any other points on that you want to make before we move on?

Yeah, um, a couple things. So, I guess one of the most obvious differences is book covers. You know, women’s book covers have a lot of flowers, and horizons, and makeup, and hearts, and wedding dresses, and pink. Basically anything stereotypically feminine. You know, things that imply that they’re not worth taking seriously, in a lot of cases.

And then men’s book covers are usually darker and edgier. Less cluttered. Less domestic. Less frivolous. And this is important, right? Because a book’s cover contributes to our perception of its quality, along with other things like the blurbs, and the comparisons to other novels, and where we shelve it in a store, and that kind of thing. 

So, yeah, I think book covers are a big one. Oh, I just read this article about a woman who wrote a memoir about the years that she spent working as a war photographer in Afghanistan. And her publisher—I think it was Random House—changed the title, without asking her, to Shutterbabe—

Ew.

I know. Ew, right? And then their initial design for the cover was a naked cartoon torso with the camera covering the crotch, all set against a pink background. Yeah, her war photographer memoir, right?

Wow.

So she had to explain to Random House that it is “usually her eye behind the camera, and not her vagina.”

Isn’t that how they work?

Yeah. Oh, she also said that almost all of the publications that reviewed her book—which wasn’t very many, even though this went on to become a bestseller and has been taught in journalism schools—almost all of those reviews called her a stay-at-home mom. Like, when is the last time a male author was called a stay-at-home dad? That never—that never happens.

Wow. No. 

So book reviews are also a problem. I’ve heard it’s getting better, so that’s good news, but still I think most of the major review publications have mostly male reviewers, and the reviewees are less likely to be women. So, basically, what ends up happening is that men are the kind of “literary gatekeepers,” and then they’re more likely to open the gates to other men.

Which doesn’t actually make a lot of sense if you look at book sales. There was an, I think it was an Atlantic article, out maybe this summer, that pointed out that women buy more books than men, and we read more fiction. And, in the U.S., there are more women than men who have degrees in literature. So, if anything, we should probably be considered the default readers. Like, we are the greater part of the literary audience. Women are not a niche market.

Yeah. So, now, let’s talk about—I guess this actually branches off on what you were saying earlier about children’s books, and what we learn about how to value female stories and male stories and female authors and male authors when we’re young. And you and I had spoken a little bit—I talked about, I mentioned to you how I, as I got older, I realized that I sort of internalized these ideas accidentally, that male literature is insightful and says powerful things, and female literature tends to be more niche. So let’s talk about the classics, and required reading in high school. Of the classics that are frequently assigned to high school students, where are overlooked instances of sexism or misogyny in those stories?

Um, yeah, like—well, everywhere, first of all. Yeah, when we talked about this before—well, on my blog I’ve talked about how rape happens all the time in the classics. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever having classroom discussions about male entitlement, and how that leads to sexual assault. Even though it’s this, like, meta-theme that ties a lot of the classics together. You know, English—English teachers love that shit, right?

I think part of the problem is how rarely we’re willing to call rape rape. Right? Anything to victim-blame, right? The example that shocked me the most, actually, was Lolita. Because it’s hailed as this, like, great love story, even though it’s, you know, it’s about a middle-aged man who kidnaps his twelve-year-old step-daughter and rapes her repeatedly over the next two years. Which is the complete opposite of a love story. And it’s not even ambiguous, even in the book. Nabokov says in the preface to the book that Humbert is a monster. He calls him a—he calls him a “moral leper.” And then I turn my book cover over—my book over to the back cover—and I see a quote from Vanity Fair that says that the book is “the only convincing love story of our century.”

Oh my God.

Isn’t that horrifying?

I just threw up a little bit.

Yeah. So rape is definitely one. But there are broader issues, too. I mean, in my experience, literary curriculum in general overlooks female authors and protagonists. I can—I can only think of three books assigned in my high school that were by or about women. I mean, out of dozens, right? Meaning I spent entire semesters—and even entire years—reading books by men about men. And that was just normal, right? But if I’d wanted to take a class that featured only female writers, I would’ve had to wait until college, and I would’ve had to sign up for some specialized class in the Women’s Studies Department. Again, as if we’re this, like, niche offering.

Yeah. Yeah.

And while—yeah. And it is true that, historically, men have dominated literary culture, but most of the novels that exist today have been written in the last couple of centuries. So there are plenty of women to choose from.

And I’m not sure that being a man has ever been an excuse to dismiss or exclude women. I’ve criticized Tolkien on my blog before for underrepresentation of women, and some guy was like, “Well, what do you expect? He was a conservative Catholic academic born in the 19th century.” And I was like, Tolstoy. Thackeray. Flaubert. Henry James, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Richardson, Thomas Hardy… All men. Some Catholic (probably). Some conservative (probably). All born well before Tolkien, and all of whom thought women were, at least, like, minimally interesting. Interesting enough to write novels about, apparently.

And yeah, the last thing I was going to say is that there are, um, I think there are a lot of missed opportunities for discussion around intersectional feminism in the classics—like, this idea that the various forms of oppression intersect. So, for example, a poor black woman is going to experience oppression differently than a rich white woman. I just finished Native Son in September. It’s this book, set in the ’40s, about this 20-year-old black boy who accidentally kills a white girl—who’s his boss’s daughter—and then deliberately murders his black girlfriend. But when he’s captured and put on trial, it’s only for killing the white girl—and the black girl’s body is brought in as evidence.

Whoa.

Yeah. Evidence of his, like, inclination toward violence. And as he’s sitting there, in court, he thinks to himself that even though she’s dead, and even though he killed her, he knows that she would resent her body being used that way. You know, in a way that essentially erases her personhood.

Yeah. Yeah. So what—yeah, sounds like an intense read. I have not read that one.

Yeah, it is an intense read for sure.

So what women authors or woman-centric books do you think should be added to high school curriculum to help teenagers now get the experiences and perspectives that you and I didn’t get when we were in high school?

Well, I guess in the case of my high school, like, any would be a good start. Because there were so few. I—I looked up a list recently of the most frequently assigned books in U.S. high schools, and it was all Shakespeare and the Greeks and Steinbeck. And, you know, us ladies, we get, like, The Scarlet Letter. Which is so boring we all wish it never existed in the first place, right? And it was written by a man.

But some of my favorites—and this is definitely subjective—but I would say of the books that actually do justice to female characters, probably Jane Eyre or anything by Jane Austen. Margaret Atwood’s books. Toni Morrison’s books. Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf and Zora Neale Hurston all wrote wonderful, complex women. I know some high school curriculum does include some of their books, but mine definitely didn’t. I wasn’t assigned any of those authors, at least not until college. Which is such a shame.

Yeah. My best friend from college, I always really envied. We had a few—we would have, like, maybe two female authors a year when I was in high school, so there was a little bit. But my best friend in college went to an all-girls Catholic school, and the nuns very deliberately made sure that fifty percent of the authors they read were women. And I was so jealous when I first met her—I was like, “I’ve gotta catch up to you!” Cuz there were these books I didn’t even really know existed, or had a vague sense of—but no one was saying, “You need to go out and read these,” so I didn’t prioritize them.

Right. Right. So, like, for example, why did I have to read both 1984 and Brave New World, but didn’t get to read The Handmaid’s Tale in school—you know? And why did I have to read everything Shakespeare ever wrote, but I had to find Jane Austen and Toni Morrison on my own? There’s just such a huge imbalance.

Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. This was a great conversation.

Thank you so much.

Have a good day. 

Thanks, Abi.

Bye.

In listening to this after the fact, I realized I did not reciprocate Abi’s initial “How are you?”—like some kind of mannerless monster—and I did not wish her a good day in parting. Normally both are reflexes, so the evidence of this wanton incivility on my part fills me with shame. My only defense is that I was distracted by setting up the call, preparing my notes, checking the time (the call was set to cut off automatically after 15 minutes), and, of course, tuning out the roar of my neighbor’s chainsaw.

Anyway, there you have it. This probably isn’t the last you’ll hear from me on this topic, but it’s probably the last you’ll hear from me about it today. Feel free to return to your spreadsheet, or your surgery, or your stocks, as the case may be. I’ll be here, as always—reading and writing and banging my head against the wall on behalf of women everywhere.

Moby-Dick + “Call Me Maybe” = ?

Despite the solid C vocals, I give this “Call Me Maybe” parody video“Call Me Ishmael”—an A for effort.

The lyrics of “Call Me Maybe” lend themselves startlingly well to the plot of Moby-Dick… or maybe this was just very cleverly written. In any case, here are a few of my favorite lines:

From the chorus (version 1):

Hey, I just met you
And you look crazy
But there’s a white whale
So call me Ishmael

It’s hard to harpoon
Cetaceans matey
But there’s a white whale
So call me Ishmael

From the chorus (version 2):

Hey, I just met you
And you look crazy
But there’s a white whale
So call me Ishmael

And all the other boats
Try to warn me
But there’s a white whale
So call me Ishmael

From the bridge:

Moby comes into our sight
From hell’s heart we’ll stab
From hell’s heart we’ll stab
At he we’ll stab, stab, stab

In other (not) news, I am an easy shot for any and all cross-pairings of classic literature and pop culture. The witty allusions! The peg legs! The catchy melodies! The beloved characters reimagined as Fight Club members!

May they live long as hashtags, and then some.

Book-cation

My recent disappearing act was one symptom of a (much-needed, but everyone says that) vacation, and now I’m back with a vengeance as well as some sunburn.

But all is not lost, blog-wise, since I managed to fit in a tidy handful of readerly, nerd-tastic, bookish fun-tivities on my holiday. I spent last week in Cornwall, where Daphne du Maurier lived and wrote, then ventured to London for the wedding of two close friends. (Check out this list of some of my favorite London-based novels if you are so inclined.) And yes, I’m aware of the irony of spending July 4th in England.

Early on Monday, bleary-eyed and droopy-tailed, I took the train to Bath in Somerset. A trendy spa town in the 18th and 19th centuries, Bath is a touristy spa town in 2015. Sightseeing itineraries revolve around the Roman baths (built in 60 AD), the medieval abbey, and the stunning Georgian architecture featuring local limestone (highlights include the Royal Crescent and the Pump Room).

The Royal Crescent

The Royal Crescent

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey

Another significant draw for tourists is Jane Austen, who lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806 and wrote about the city in both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Her favorite place of residence in Bath was just off Great Pulteney Street, opposite Sydney Gardens.

Chez Jane

Chez Jane

On Gay Street, a few doors down from another Austen address, the Jane Austen Centre houses permanent exhibitions on her family, her life in Bath, and the social customs of the era. I tried to write my name with the quill and ink provided in the writer’s desk area, but it turned out splotchy and took an hour to dry.

Things I learned about Jane Austen at the Centre:

  • Her parents were married in Bath.
  • Two of her biological brothers were adopted outside the family.
  • This came in handy later because one of them grew up rich and gave them a house.
  • Jane and her sister Cassandra were the only girls, and neither ever married.
  • She wrote very little while in Bath; her years in the countryside were much more productive.
  • £400 a year was enough income for two servants, one groom, and one horse.

I haven’t even gotten to the best part of literary Bath yet. I think it merits its own post, though, so I’m going to save it for next time and leave you in Kafka-esque suspense. Suffice it to say that local bookshop Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights hosts a Reading Spa for book addicts that had me rushing to secure train tickets to Bath four months in advance even though I’ve visited twice before.

Oh, and I almost forgot: When all of us found our seats at the wedding reception, we discovered that the bride and groom had hand-selected a book for each of us to take home as a wedding favor. Mine was Life: Great Short Stories by Women, a collection chosen by Victoria Hislop. My husband’s was A Song of Stone by Iain Banks.

Friends like that—thoughtful and book-obsessed—are, I think, a compliment to me.