I’m Less Misandrous & Other Surprises: A Year of Avoiding Male Authors

[ETA 12/31/2015: How could I have forgotten to include mentions of Ms. Marvel and Bitch Planet? Well, it’s not that they aren’t awesome and important and enjoyable. Hardly. I’m getting a tattoo or two based on them. It’s more that, because I subscribe to them on a weekly basis via Comixology rather than read them on a volume-by-volume as I do with Saga, I forget that they count as books I’ve read, too. I also neglected to include Madalyn Murray O’Hair because her work was the last book I finished for 2015. I’ve also added an image in the hopes that my face won’t continue to be the main image. That’s just weird. But it’s not working?]

In 2015, I decided that my reading habits were too white-and-male focused. It was unsurprising given my background and identity (polyamorous queer genderqueer atheist ex-Muslim who majored in philosophy) that I had unwittingly read mostly white and male authors in my adult life, but I decided that it was something worth changing. In 2015, I focused on non-male authors, and in 2016, I will be reading non-white authors.

I was hardly alone in taking on such a challenge as well as, like the others who talked about the issue, dealing with the backlash. Reverse racism. Reverse sexism. Discrimination. Hypocrisy. Irony. Identity politics. Etc. The usual. Certainly, the criticism wasn’t all thoughtless or reactionary. There were commenters on various posts concerned with my definition of whiteness (a fair question), my lack of focus on international marginalized authors (a fair criticism), and the systemic issues at hand with publishers (unfair when put on me personally, as I am an individual uninvolved with and rejected from academia, but certainly a fair point about society).

Imperfection in terms of my criteria wasn’t enough to convince me that what I had planned to do lacked in value, however. There are many matters I intend to eventually get my head around and address both by writing about them and by doing more challenges in the years to come. For now, I want to address what happened to me when I, armed with recommendations as well as my personal backlog, spent my year intentionally reading only non-male authors.

Most of what I read this year I had acquired through garage sales, used bookstores, giveaways, thrift stores, friends, Kindle First Look, and the Kindle Lending Library. Very few were specifically sought out and/or acquired during the year for the purpose of the challenge.

My Top Ten 2015 Favorites

In no particular order:

  • Valencia by Michelle Tea: Both recommended and loaned to me by Greta and Ingrid. I’ve enjoyed Tea’s writing online, but her memoirs are engrossing longer reads.
  • Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin: Read as part of the weekly little book club I do with Danny. Earthsea has been on my list for years and I’m glad I finally got around to it.
  • The Red Tent by Anita Diamant: Another that had been on the list for years. I obtained it for free through BookMooch.
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: Found through reading a non-fiction historical-survey-type book on feminism. I cannot sing the praises of this book enough. It is thoughtful, interesting, and intersectional in the best ways.
  • Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski: I read it thanks to multiple recommendations as well as for a book club at a retreat I attended. It has changed the sex lives and thinking of many people I know for the better.
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit: Read because I enjoyed the original essay. The coiner of the infamous term “mansplainer” writes a book on mansplaining, and it succeeds. Of course.
  • Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Gilman is one of my favorite feminist fiction authors, so finding out that she had a utopian work made me immediately buy it. Almost a proto Woman on the Edge of Time, but tackling fewer issues and much, much more humorous and directly misandrous.
  • Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk: Obtained due to multiple recommendations. A big well-written and strong argument against the more dubious forms of evo psych and its often accompanying Naturalistic Fallacy.
  • The Madame Curie Complex by Julie Des Jardins: Obtained due to multiple recommendations. Interesting take on the complicated history of women in science.
  • The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith: Acquired to read before the movie came out this winter. The word “pulp”, when accompanied by “lesbian”, brings to mind all kinds of sordid and sultry sorts of impressions. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this book is restrained, tender, and subtle.

This very nearly became the Year of Fiction by White Women.

I picked up Links: A Collection of Short Stories from the free table at FOG Con 2014. I became aware of The Vorkosigan Saga (I’ve completed Shards of Honor and Barrayar so far) through an author I met at FOG Con, Mary Anne Mohanraj. The Exes came by way of a Librarything Giveaway I entered on a whim. What Janie Saw / Janie Face to Face and The Giver Quartet were sequels to books I’d read years before. The Price of Salt I acquired because I heard that Carol was coming out and I wanted to read it first; the inverse is true for Madame Doubtfire. Grim Tales, The Misremembered Man, The Mermaid’s Sister, Gilded, As Red As Blood, The Bird Eater, Helen of Sparta, Younger, and Life and Other Near-Death Experiences came by way of Kindle First, Kindle Lending Library, or other discount/free Kindle offers. Five Quarters of the Orange, The Book of Ruth, and The Children of Men were physical books I had heard about through the grapevine over the years and acquired for free or nearly-free.

Apparently, throughout my pre-challenge life, it had been remarkably easy for me to acquire novels and short fiction anthologies authored by white women. Others have had similar experiences.

On the other hand, my store of books by authors of color for 2016 is less than half the size of the (literal and figurative) pile of books authored by white women I had acquired before my 2015 challenge. To wit: I’ve still got a healthy physical pile and even healthier digital backlog of books written by white women.

The physical leftovers.

I ended up avoiding reading most of what I had by women of color to save it for 2016. Thanks to that move, as well as more conscious consumption of more writers and thinkers of color online, I have enough to read this coming year.

Old Reading Habits Don’t Die

I’ve always been a completest, so I had to check out What Janie Saw / Janie Face to Face, The Giver Quartet, and Go Set a Watchman when I found out that they existed. I was burning with curiosity as to what happened to the characters I’d known so well as an adolescent. Caroline B. Cooney disappointed me, but Lois Lowry did not, while Harper Lee left me feeling mostly emotionally vulnerable and somewhat conflicted.

I tend to want to read the book before I see the movie (which I was able to do with Carol / The Price of Salt — both the movie and book are excellent, by the way), but if that doesn’t happen, I try to read the book whenever I am able. After Robin Williams died, I poked around for information on him and found out that Mrs. Doubtfire was based on a British YA novel, Madame Doubtfire, so I read it. The novel turned out to be more bitter and real about men in divorces from women than the movie is, which I appreciated.

Trashy YA is forever my guilty pleasure, so I went ahead and read The Mortal Instruments Books 1–4. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get around to the next books in that series, as I had fun with them but was ultimately unimpressed. Rearranged made its way onto my list thanks to my teenage love of Desi-authored and Desi-featuring YA.

As a longtime fan of retellings, particularly feminist-angled ones, I enjoyed the heck out of The Red Tent, Helen of Sparta, and Priam’s Daughter. The former reminded me that not all white feminist-authored feminist classics are as much of a problematic slog as, say, The Feminine Mystique or The Wide Wide World, and opened my mind to reading one of my favorite books of 2015 and of all time, really, Woman on the Edge of Time.

Jane Yolen had never disappointed me before with her many retellings. I read my first non-retelling by her in the graphic novel Foiled! and it was excellent.

I tend to buy books by people I enjoy reading for free online because I’m nigh-guaranteed to like the work and because I like to reward good writers. Accordingly, I acquired and read Really Terrible Bible Stories vol. I: Genesis as well as Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and What We Can Do about It, and was happy I did in both cases.

I Feel Less Misandrous

Oh, my goodness. Was not having to deal with men being sexist and condescending in my reading the best thing about this? Quite possibly! In all other areas of my life, from work to cons to social events to Facebook to blogging to Twitter to filial obligations, I have to, at least to some extent, grit my teeth and deal with men being that way. To say that not having to do so as a reader was a tremendous boon is an understatement.

I didn’t enjoy The Little Merchanic and Other Feminist Fairytales overmuch, but it is a less condescending (and shorter!) version of Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. I didn’t hear it in my head as a male voice droning at me. That alone made me complete it so that I could recommend it as thoughtfully as possible.

‘Splaining aside, I’ve spent my life being expected to relate to male characters who overlook women or who are outright misogynists. I’m supposed to remember that it’s “just fiction” and pretend as though representation doesn’t matter. Like most female-types who love reading, I learned to relate to even the most woman-hating male characters as a survival technique, but I can’t say that I missed doing that this year. Not even a little. I hate doing it so much that I skimmed, then rage-quit, a female-authored piece of sci-fi called Walk To End Of World, even though it was making good points about misogyny through its overly-sexist characters.

There do, of course, exist male authors who do a great job of writing female characters who don’t make me physically cringe. There exist far more who do, or who don’t bother to have female characters at all. Female authors haven’t that — dare I use the “p” word? — privilege, so you get female-authored science fiction like Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, which centers around a male character but doesn’t actively hate or dehumanize or utterly ignore women. I very much enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea (women background characters! no active misogyny!) and The Farthest Shore (queer-baiting of the most fun kind, at least in my head-canon), but Tombs of Atuan is my favorite so far in the series.

[Spoilers for the Earthsea series in the following paragraph.]

This is not just because it centers around a powerful female character, but because it quite delicately and subtly tackles the issues faced by female heroes that simply aren’t the reality for male characters. Ged/Sparrowhawk gets to be a powerful individual on his own without giving up much of himself, uses his incredible powers to fuck up majorly but earns the chance to redeem himself through that mistake and even gains power because of it, and strikes out on his own without earth-shattering consequences. On the other hand, Tenar/Arha has to have her individual identity eaten to come into her power, can’t make any kind of mistake (not even a minor social gaffe) without consequences, and is forced to retire in honor but to the sidelines after she dares to strike out on her own — if you can even call it her own, since she is aided and abetted significantly by Ged/Sparrowhawk — and the most rebellious and significant of her choices (i.e. to strike out on her own) leads to literal earth-shattering.

While recasting characters written to be men with women in genre fiction across all media is a step in the direction of achieving equality, stories that deal with the unique consequences of doing what men do while being a woman are far more interesting to me. It’s similar to why colorblind casting is not terrible but not the end-all be-all, either. We need more stories about people who aren’t white and/or men that take their identities into consideration in a matter-of-fact way. I did not expect to find such a story by accident. But I did. Hell to the yes.

[End of spoilers for the Earthsea series.]

On a related note, reading Men Explain Things to Me was gratifying and fun and oh-so-timely given what I experienced at the American Atheists Convention this year. Bitch Planet Volume 1 was also a great romp as far as validating feelings about my experiences of sexism (and also many other -isms) in my life, but it takes it to 11 in a way that feels so very future, wow.

With Regard to Women Authors of Color, My Subcultures Are Showing

As I mentioned before, it was too easy for me to read white women. To add to that, the only reason I read the women of color I did was through the subcultures in which I am involved. I read Mary Anne Mohanraj’s Without A Map because I’ve read some of her sci-fi and met her at FOG Con. Bad Feminist and Whatever Works: Feminists of Faith Speak happened because I am part of online feminism. Like a lot of people, I read We Should All Be Feminists thanks to Beyoncé. xoJane told me about about Brick Walls. I picked up Woman at Point Zero for a very very nominal fee at the aforementioned American Atheists Convention.

Prior to critically and thoughtfully examining my reading proclivities, I didn’t tend to acquire and/or read books authored by women of color except when they came to me by way of non-person-of-color-centric hobbies and communities. I changed that this year and 2016 should mean my doing even better on that front.

I Was Hungrier for Girl Gay Than I’d Realized

From erotica (Hungry Ghost, The Marketplace) to memoir (We Can Fix It!, Valencia) to pulp optioned for a film (The Price of Salt), the queer stuff I read this year made me realize that I really want to read more by-and-for non-straight women. I thoroughly enjoyed everything I read this year in that categroy, but the books served to whet my appetite rather than satisfy it, to the point where I’m considering a queer-centric (if not queer-exclusive) reading experiment for 2017.

I Can Stop Reading a Book…

I mentioned earlier than I rage-quit Walk To End Of World after trying to skim it. I did the same with Sluts (so bad that I wanted a refund and I paid exactly nothing for it) and Free to Be: How I Went From Unhappily Married Conservative Bible Believer to Happily Divorced Atheistic Humanist in One Year and Several Complicated Steps (too disjointed and repetitive for me). Yet those three aren’t close to the worst books I’ve ever encountered, and in the past, I’ve managed to finish books I’ve liked even less out of a sense of obligation (completist, remember?) and desperation (I had limited access to reading materials as a child). I’m grateful my thinking has evolved.

…Yet Be More Accepting of Female-Authored Imperfections

Once upon a time, in order to fit in with “the boys” and have them accept me as “not like other girls”, I used to insult and berate girls and women. This tendency to judge women more harshly than I would men applied to my reading as well. Compounding my lack of tolerance for anything other than perfection in women was my performative femmephobia. I actively shunned things that are traditionally associated with women and girls as inherently inferior to things that are traditionally associated with men and boys.

I’ve been trying to get better, of course, and this year was an active exercise in that sort of improvement.

Where before I’d have shunned a work of erotica like Mistress of the Spices (née Between Sisters, SVP! Part 1) for being corny and hammy, while embracing even worse corn/ham in porn, I rolled with it. It wasn’t the best book in the world but I enjoyed its sensual and consumerist (no really, the fashion and cosmetic brand-whoring was rather charming in its artlessness) aspects without guilt about its lack of literary quality, just like millions of men every day enjoy terrible porn, a not insignificant number of which feature luxury hot-rods, without feeling guilty about the porn’s lack of cinema-level quality.

The same elevation of enjoyment over quality, though not sexualized, applied to my approach with The Host. I couldn’t make it through Twilight despite my most valiant efforts, but The Host? I tore through it. Loved it. No shame. Strip SMeyer (if you haven’t read the Sparkle Peen Summaries of the Twilight saga, by the way, do yourself a favor and do it) of her “sneaky” Mormonism and Mary-Sue-ing and she isn’t a bad YA author.

I was warned about Caitlyn Moran’s How to Be a Woman for a lot of reasons which, after reading it, I found to be incredibly and painfully valid. I also really, really loved her passage on mainstream pornography and what is has done to the common sexual imagination. I’ve read far more books written by far more problematic men, and I’m not entirely convinced that I ought to write off the works of feminist women more quickly than I would with non-feminist-identifying (or even outright misogynist) men. This isn’t to say that I’m not critical, as I most certainly am. Going for problematic works authored by problematic women is something of an ass-backwards way to go about rectifying the problem, though, so I don’t know if I’ll be willingly doing that again. Instead, I’ll likely be as critical and dismissive of men authors as of women ones.

Another flawed woman I read this year is Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the firebrand who founded American Atheists. Her An atheist epic: Bill Murray, the Bible, and the Baltimore Board of Education chronicles the case that made a name for her in the public eye and is a fascinating look at a complex person through her own words.

Similarly problematic is Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. Some of the passages, especially towards the end, were just plain horrid and misleading. Still, it helped lead me to Woman on the Edge of Time, so it was worth every wince.

Woman: An Intimate Geography is probably best-known for being quoted in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. The book is utterly flawed and problematic, but its reframing of biological fact from a cis female-centric (rather than cis male-centric) perspective was innovative in its time. Like many of the cringe-inducing works I’ve read by men in the past, I completed reading it for my edification and to better define my socio-cultural and historical context.

On the much milder end of patience-testing was Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. I can say that I both liked it and didn’t like it depending on what aspects of it are being discussed.

Old-Timey Feminist Works By White Women Can Be Awesome

Years ago, I read The Feminine Mystique to better contexualize and understand second-wave feminism, but it bored me to tears and annoyed me with its marked lack of consideration for women of color. The experience disproportionately colored my feelings about reading older feminist works, something I worked this year to overcome. I approached The Wide Wide World with a similar goal in mind as I had with The Feminine Mystique; while I wasn’t quite as bored and annoyed by it, my impression was still “meh.”

The other, older works of feminist bent I read were not so disappointing. Women Respond to the Men’s Movement: A Feminist Collection educated me on just how far the Men’s Rights Movement has changed — and fallen — since its inception. There is also Woman on the Edge of Time (have I mentioned it yet? Because it’s awesome). I had no idea that speculative open-ended feminist sci-fi could be so intersectional and so good.

The Wide Wide World was not the only “rediscovered” feminist-inclined work by a woman that I read this year. Married Love; A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties, Herland, and Mathilda are all books written long ago by women whose values are definitely on the side of female equality, but that weren’t widely read in more recent history. I loved them all for very different reasons: Married Love for its old-timey frankness about sex, Herland for its sci-fi aspects and gentle misandry, and Mathilda for its ability to be both overwrought and subtle (bonus: it was written by the first sci-fi author, a woman you may have heard of).

I Need to Read More Woman-Authored Non-Fiction on Not-Feminism

The reason I love The Toast is that it is a site that is feminist but isn’t mostly or really about feminism, or at least not Feminism 101. Similarly, Paleofantasy and Scatter, Adapt, Remember are not feminist works about women in particular but approach their respective subject matter with an implicitly feminist understanding of the world. This is A Good Thing and I want more.

Come As You Are, God’s Brothel, and The Madame Curie Complex aren’t “about” feminism, either, but take a firmly feminist approach and are woman-centered. All three changed my life significantly and for the better. The first altered my approach to my own sexuality and sexual agency. The second made me more aware of how bad sexist cults can be in the United States. The last alerted me to the obscene gaps in my historical knowledge of women’s contributions to science as well as provided me with a great argument against tokenism and ladder-kicking when it comes to women in science.

I Faced a Few Conundrums

Hypothetical: If your boyfriend gives you Macho Sluts after a very hot visit with him and he tells you it was seminal to his sexual development, and the author was very well known as prominent lesbian activist when he wrote it, do you read it in a year when you’re not reading any men?

The answer ended up being yes, yes you read it anyway if you are an impatient Heina in 2015, but not without feeling guilty for the potential for misgendering. I didn’t read Patrick Califia because I think he’s not a man, I read him because boyfriend! erotica! hot stories about lesbians! written by someone whose politics are as hot and explicitly-stated and great as the sex-writing! More importantly, Patrick Califia himself doesn’t think his transition made him any less a lesbian when he identified that way (highly problematic article alert with that last link, but it contains the relevant quotes) and also that, though transition was right for him, neither “man” nor “woman” quite fit him.

But still. Guilt. All the guilt. And I read it anyway.

I felt less politically guilty about Saga Volume 4 and Saga Volume 5, but they were still questionable: written by a man but drawn by a woman, featuring a diverse-in-every-way cast including plenty of men. I read them anyway.

I’ll be facing a similar conundrum about the aforementioned Bitch Planet as well as the new Ms. Marvel in the coming year. 2015 meant Ms. Marvel Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4. Kamala Khan was created by a (rather bad-ass) woman of color and a white man. Both Ms. Marvel and Bitch Planet are penned by a white woman (in the case of the former, one who is a convert to Islam) and drawn by a man of color. Both feature people of color and lots of women. Easy pass to both.

And what about the anthologies? The Best American Erotica, Volume 14: Dangerous Games and Getting Bi feature the writings of plenty of women but also men. Did they count for my 2015 challenge? I guess that I decided on some level that they did, since I read them anyway.

And what about the stuff I read not because I sought it out and dedicated time to it, but because it was there? I made my way through the picture-heavy Tiaras: Past & Present because I had time to kill at a coffee shop and I like shiny things. It’s about a most femme sort of object, and is written by a man, and I read it anyway.

My friend Sasha (who is doing his own challenge as we speak) brought Guys Can Be Cat Ladies Too with him when he came to visit for a weekend. I read most of it in a socializing setting with him, his partner, and my partner. It was there, and it is written by a man, and I read it anyway.

Despite the potential lapses and political dilemmas, I definitely achieved my goal of focusing on non-male writers. I did what I set out to do. So I read them anyway.