All I want to read lately are books by women. More specifically, books by women that have abandoned everything: financial security, relationships, common sense, in the name and pursuit of art.
It feels like an apprenticeship of sorts. I’m working backwards and forwards through time while great female artists explain to me what they did, how they got where they are, and what the journey was like. I learn something from each one, a new tenacity, a freshly opened brain, or a confidence to push through the bounds of genre. It almost feels like cheating, but I guess most learning does when you’re doing it right. I’m discovering a hack, the hack is just information.
Part of the joy in reading about art in the 1960s and 70s is experiencing an art world that seems less muddled by commerce. Today it feels like created work is only as important as your Instagram following, your words only as significant as the publication they’re recorded in. Making money is no longer a happy byproduct of art, it’s a shadow that hangs over it throughout the process. I know art and money have always been messy, in How a Person Should Be Margaux, a painter, considers going to Yale, where “all the big artists ha[ve] gone.” She decides against it: “But then she thought No, that’s awful — because there were just too many people who could not, and it seemed like it shouldn’t be the rule that you have to attend Yale. ‘In the end,’ she said, ‘it felt too unfair to even think about.’” Still, it feels good to be nostalgic for art for art’s sake. And we’ll start right there.
Just Kids by Patti Smith.
This is Patti Smith’s story of pursuing art with Robert Mapplethorpe in 60s and 70s New York. In those years, they didn’t yet know what kind of artists they would become. Just Kids watches them try and fail at different mediums, never giving up because the elusive center they’re chasing, the art, is worth it.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus.
Chris Kraus takes no prisoners. This book is all a sort of experiment, a novel based on Kraus and her husband Sylvere’s letters to an artist named Dick about Kraus’s infatuation with him. Along the way, Kraus defends female desire, gives readers a crash course in female art and the politics that surround it and lets you look inside her head as she’s creating something.
Reborn by Susan Sontag.
Is there anyone’s brain you’d rather be inside that Susan Sontag? Her records of what she’s reading, writing and experiencing as a teenager give an entirely new dimension to her other works.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti.
For a more contemporary take on female artistry, I give you Sheila Heti. Heti writes autobiographical books that she calls novels because of the effort that goes into shaping them. In the Paris Review she said that when you read a novel, “you map it also onto an imaginative world. A novel takes up more space.” And that’s what she wants for her books. How a Person Should Be is a story of writing a play, friendship with the painter Margeaux, and discovering how a person should be in the world.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson.
Bluets is a prose poem, laced with ideas of memoir and philosophy. Maggie Nelson explores the color blue and grief with artistry and poise.
Collected Stories by Lydia Davis
Out of these books, this is the most removed from autobiographical reality and the struggle of creating art. Lydia Davis’s voice is the voice you want inside your head. She has the gift of making all of her stories seem incredibly real, it’s impossible to tell where her life stops and fiction begins. These are mostly flash fictions, so it’s an easy book to duck in and out of. It has permanent residence on my nightstand.