In September, David Gilmour, a writer and visiting professor at the University of Toronto, said in an interview that he tends to teach books by “serious heterosexual guys”; the interview went off like a starter pistol, and much of the Canadian literary internet responded, in both opposition and support. In a subsequent interview with The Globe and Mail, Gilmour said “I’m very keen on people’s lives who resemble mine because I understand those lives and I can feel passionately about them – and I teach best when I teach subjects that I’m passionate about.”
Let’s be really real about this: it’s not just him. Whenever I ask my non-fiction writing students who they love to read, everyone says David Foster Wallace; one in 10 might say Zadie Smith. Books by men (which usually means books about men) are often better known and more appealing to both men and women of the reading generation that David Gilmour and I stand on either end of: Joan Didion aside, the superstars that influence and inform – really, that are studied and copied and quoted, made heroes, by readers who want weirdness and newness and what a frosh might call “truth” – are pretty same-same. They’re Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, Bukowski, Updike, Roth, Kerouac – whose “new” book, The Haunted Life, is out this month – many of them paperback-spine celebrities to everyone who at 13 or even 30 knew they were Holden Caulfield, or Sal Paradise. In real life, I was a girly-girl book-nerd living in the suburbs of London, Ont., but I wanted to be Tom Sawyer, because the girls in the books I loved weren’t really doing anything other than babysitting or getting mad at each other.
Reading is, so often, an act of identification and relatability, all because of the unmatched intimacy of words and books. Maybe this is why my male writing students aren’t initially psyched about the Susans Minot or Sontag until after they’ve read Monkeys, or 10 words of On Photography, and probably why older male colleagues assume that I’m a super-fan of Meghan Daum, or Joan Didion or Joan Didion or Joan Didion, but not, say, John Jeremiah Sullivan. (I am, I am, and I am.)
Maybe it’s this, too: for David Gilmour and other men who are used to seeing versions of themselves in books, on TV, and in film, that relatability is a more literal experience, but for me, and other readers like me who can’t directly identify with the kind of men who create and exist in so much of popular, considered-cool literature (which now includes writers like Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and Chuck Palahniuk – I’ve still never heard a guy casually reference Lorrie Moore at a party, though he’d do well to), it’s a vicarious one.
Obviously this isn’t an indictment on women, or women’s writing. Lately, no one has been making the non-argument that women are somehow less able to write beautifully and intelligently and perceptively; several people in my social-media sphere have posted about only reading books by authors who aren’t straight, white men in 2014; influential tweeter Anil Dash wrote recently that he had decided to only retweet women; attention is increasingly paid to the “VIDA count,” which keeps score of male and female bylines in major publications (the most recent was semi-encouraging) and the “Bechdel test,” which gauges gender bias by asking if a work has at least two women in it – women who have names, other than something like “Girl at Bar” – and do they talk to each other, and do they talk to each other about something other than a man, all good and important expressions of consciousness about and support for women’s voices.
Still, as a reader, even as a young woman and a writer who can easily outsmart the Gender Genie (an online tool that predicts whether a man or woman wrote something) and with an above-average knowledge of feminist theory, I most often go back to the same 20th-century-canon guys. Reading was what I did, and who I was, first, and much of that was owing to the books on my dad’s very dad-ish shelves, where almost everything was a mystery to me, in every way, with covers of unfamiliar fonts and faded, strange colours. I read E.B. White’s letters and Arthur Miller’s plays and John Updike’s novels; I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV or any grown-up movies, so my whole sense of the adult world came from the work of this very male, very masculine cohort, with their various indulgences, usually in women, alcohol, isolation, their own ideas, whatever.
What I liked best were books about experiences that seemed the very furthest away from mine, so I went for Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe, and Tom Robbins. I bought the Hunter S. Thompson memorial issue of Rolling Stone at a supermarket and have kept it smooth through something like 20 moves and almost 10 years; I have taught his work to every kind of student at every opportunity.
None of that was about seeing myself in his, in their, writing – I have and want nothing to do with the kind of life that “my” writers led, or lead; my version of fun is mostly about elaborate in-jokes and backyard parties and going to the movies when everyone else is at work, not sports or Las Vegas or the ends of decency – it was about finding something out, something else.
Books about boys and men and their spheres of life had, and to some degree still have, a de facto larger, longer perspective. Even now, women’s experience in the public, social and cultural worlds tends to be limited compared to men’s, particularly when it comes to fiction-ready pursuits involving adventure, travel, danger, transgression and physical expression.
Writing – especially fiction – feels like the form best suited to our individual, imaginative projections: my lineup of favourite movies, shows and music is totally different than the pile of books I go back to over and over; in those other mediums, I seek out the particulars of so many different experiences and perspectives, but it’s in books by men, and usually the white and straight and middle-class, and especially the ones whose own biographies are as dramatic as their novels, where I feel the most like a voyeur in an experience not otherwise available to me.
I went backpacking by myself just once, and was told every day – mostly by men – that I shouldn’t be alone. (Then I got robbed and went home early, anyway.) Not exactly Bruce Chatwin-esque, right? Even women who are much more adventurous and interesting than me – which is a lot of women – don’t, and can’t, have those same possibilities of the world available to them. Things have changed since my writers started writing, but not that much. As long as danger and consequence and expectations and life, generally, is so different for men and women, I’m going to be more likely to get stories about what all of that is like, from men.
The freedom and abandon that I want in fiction drifts, loose and buoyant, in Jack Kerouac’s second novel, The Haunted Life, which is being published for the first time. Written in 1944 when Kerouac was 22 years old, the manuscript was, allegedly, lost in a taxi and later found in a New York dorm room, before being sold by Sotheby’s in 2002.
The book, about college track star Peter Martin and what he knows will be his last idyllic, untethered summer at home with his friends in Galloway (a proxy for Kerouac’s Lowell, Mass.), anticipates Kerouac’s later, wilder work in both form and content: Peter considers his potential routes toward adulthood from the perspective of a sunny, small-town porch: a morning “at times held so much wonder that Peter deplored his physical limits”; his life was “too good to last.” Peter’s late-ish youth is a perfect, unobstructed conduit for his fantasies and daydreams. His potential is expansive and ready.
Youth is, maybe, when this all coalesces: in The Haunted Life and elsewhere, the quality that so many male writers can bore into, further into their lives, is all of that freedom and abandon; what could be more collectively desired from writing? The possibilities, especially of fiction, are supposed to be endless, which is maybe just what everyone like me is looking for.
The Haunted Life: And Other Stories By Jack Kerouac Da Capo, 192 pages, $27.50
Kate Carraway is a writer based in Toronto.
Follow me on Twitter: @KateCarraway