Emma Knight is a co-founder of Greenhouse, an award-winning organic beverage company, and co-author of The Greenhouse Cookbook and the forthcoming How to Eat with One Hand.
At a cocktail party in the 1980s, a young married couple was introduced to Margaret Atwood. “My wife has read all your books,” the husband allegedly told the 5-foot-4 literary giant. “And what do you read, little man,” she is said to have replied. “The business pages?”
Whether the tale of this exchange has made it through the decades intact I cannot tell you. What I do know is that more than 30 years later, it is possible to be considered a well-educated, well-adjusted adult male without ever (or while hardly ever) having read a book written by a woman. I learned this at my kitchen table recently, when the man I love turned out to be one such specimen.
Further probing has revealed that the problem – which I believe has its roots in outdated reading lists, in a human tendency to look for ourselves in what we read and in the way women’s literary contributions continue to be marketed and perceived – is not limited to my household. To do a poll of one’s friends and acquaintances is to see that otherwise cultured and even enlightened individuals the world over are walking around in 2021 with a hole in their heads where women’s voices should be.
At a moment in time when the work force participation gains women have made since the 1980s have been lost in a matter of months, it is especially urgent that we make room in our minds for female perspectives.
“That’s impossible,” I said to my husband. “They couldn’t have let you graduate from high school without having read a book by a woman.” But to the best of his recollection, they had. They had let him graduate from an all-boys school with a clocktower, no less, followed by two prestigious universities.
Aghast, I went looking for what his former high school is currently advising boys to read. I found two lists of reading suggestions posted by the English department (not the curriculum, but an indicator of what educators think teenaged boys will find compelling). Of 28 titles, only one is by a woman: Anne Rice’s 1976 gothic novel, Interview with the Vampire.
My husband is not a vampire. He has been surrounded by women with strong views all his life. We have written screenplays and founded a company together. However, he believes that few women write books on subjects that interest him. He likes business books by successful entrepreneurs, for example. A search for these by female authors turns up a lot of pink covers with “girl” in the title. I can see why he does not think these books are for him; clearly, neither do their publishers. What a shame. I am a female entrepreneur, and I have spent a full three years of my working life (thus far) either pregnant or breastfeeding every few hours. My husband knows how that differs from his experience. This may not be true for all men who like business books, and I will venture to guess that some could benefit from taking a walk in a #girlboss’s loafers.
There are, meanwhile, those who persist in believing that the writing of women is inferior, or perhaps tainted with the smells of laundry detergent, hairspray and hysteria. In a 1998 essay for Harper’s, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” Francine Prose labels this affliction gynobibliophobia. Her title comes from Norman Mailer’s assertion in Advertisements for Myself that “the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic …” (he goes on). Ms. Prose uses the literary equivalent of blind taste tests to show what should be obvious to anyone who regularly reads outside their chromosomal arrangement: “there is no male or female language, only the truthful or fake, the precise or vague, the inspired or the pedestrian.”
My dad once told me that reading a book is as close as you can get to another person’s consciousness outside of love. My dad, by the way, counts Margaret MacMillan, Heather O’Neill, Lisa Moore, Louise Penny and yes, Margaret Atwood, among his favourite authors – and he may have attended a cocktail party or two in the 1980s. Ms. Atwood (real or in anecdotal superhero form) cannot be expected to intervene in the reading habits of all men, one by one. I’m counting on you to do that. The solution I propose is straightforward: annually, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, let’s all buy a book by someone who identifies as female, and then read it. How better to celebrate women than by listening to what they have to say? Heck, big man, you might even enjoy it.
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