Girl Books and Screwing in the Lightbulb.
I was picked on for the books I read growing up, because they were often the “girl books.” As I grew from adolescent literature, I found that this trend continued, even in literary fiction- I prefer women’s writers.
I’ve been trying to put that into perspective and understand why I have a penchant for the ladywriters of the world, when I stumbled upon Mallory Ortberg’s light-hearted piece “Male Novelist Jokes.” A hilarious piece full of the tropes of the most male of male novelists told in a light bulb joke. Midway through I read this joke,
Q: How many male novelists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: You wouldn’t understand.
Something about that resonated with me. I traced that thought and found that one of the things I find male novelists (usually, white) guilty of doing is trying to construe their character’s experience as so highly singular to be unique to the world. The women who I enjoyed reading often did the opposite- they were speaking to an experience that they felt others could share in.
If I were allowed to paint this gendered (and arguably racial) dynamic in broad terms (and I am since it’s my blog), I would say we have rugged individuals versus struggling communitarians.
For instance, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye feels misunderstood and is so concerned with the phony because he believes he is authentic. It’s an incredibly self-centered view of the world that posits his existence as more real than others. He defines himself by his exclusion.
This contrasts drastically from a character like Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God whose struggle in life is to find and retain community where she feels valued. She accepts the history of her existence and its relation to others in her life.
And yes, it’s totally bizarre to try and compare Janie and Holden, but they are both fundamentally on a “coming of age” journey, and I think they are exemplars of the phenomenon I’m discussing. I accept that there are obviously notable exceptions on both sides of this, but it generally holds true in a walk through my literary history.
Here’s the part where I give caveats. This is a highly individualized conception of literature that will be affected by the stories that every reader has encountered. This is where I say that my example has the added dynamic of racial difference. This is where I say that there isn’t necessarily wrong with telling a compelling story about an individual in a big world.
When men tell stories that are highly individual, the microscopic focus obscures the basic humanity that binds us. Holden believes he should be authentic, but that doesn’t say anything about morality. One can easily imagine a scenario in which authenticity to a teenage boy may not be the most ethical thing imaginable.
The real power of a story is, to me, its ability to transmit human emotion to the reader. I believe that stories that take into account multiple perspectives and emotional truths, which I believe more books written by women do, give us more opportunities to grow as people.
I’ll stick with my girl books.