I’m Asking Men To Pay Me $5,000 To Read Jonathan Franzen
By Amy Collier
“You couldn’t pay me to read anything by Jonathan Franzen. Just kidding, if someone wants to pay me $1,000 or more, I will,” I joked on Facebook during International Women’s Day. “Post on Craigslist,” a friend suggested. So I picked up a copy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a wry 1920s look at gender performance and sexual politics, took the picture seen above, and titled the ad “Seeking Generous Man to Finance My Reading of Jonathan Franzen.” The Craigslist ad quickly turned into a Kickstarter, and when multiple people told me I was lowballing, $1,000 changed to $5,000. Depending on how this goes, I might have to read something by Jonathan Franzen, but at least I will have $5,000 for my time.
This would be something of a departure for me. In the last year, I have not read a single novel by a man.
Count the names of novelists on your bookshelf to see the gender breakdown of authors. If you’re anything like me a year and a half ago, you won’t even finish counting because you will be too depressed. If you are even more like me, you will then start a website called Uncovered Classics, a book review site that promotes overlooked female writers of the 20th century, a demographic that I had largely neglected without realizing it for most of my adult life, despite being a writer myself. Reading books by these incredible authors who I’d never heard of made me realize that much of the time we read books by cis straight white men not because they’re the best, but because they’re compulsory.
Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels currently includes nine books by women, all white.It includes no women of color and only six books by men of color. You know the rest of the names on that list: Hemingway, Lawrence, Miller, Salinger, and on and on. They are names frequently seen on high school and college reading lists throughout the U.S., frequently discussed in literary circles. Perhaps most terrifyingly, these were the authors helping shape my thoughts — and the thoughts of most people raised on the Western canon — for many, many years. What happens to our worldview and our understanding of gender roles when female authorial perspective isn’t considered legitimate, and when even the female in literature is written by men?
Jonathan Franzen, depending on who you ask, is either a literary golden boy or a horrible misogynist, which I suppose makes him both. The vast majority of writers I know and trust would focus on his misogyny over his status. Yet so many writers, even writers who don’t really like him, have read his work. Why?
Because we are expected to. Because it is canon.
Despite the wording of my Craigslist ad, the issue is not singularly about Jonathan Franzen, who is one example of many. (Though Purity sounds like a particularly awful book.) This project is about the way male authors are elevated and made compulsory by a male-dominated literary establishment, even when they hurt and alienate everyone else. You could replace Franzen’s name with any other male author who has been criticized for misogyny but who is still generally embraced by the literary world and it would mean the same thing in the context of my ad. Books by male authors usually contain misogynist elements, because we live in a misogynist world and that misogyny permeates culture. But I already have to live in that misogynist culture; I don’t want to go seek out more of it just because you said so. So sure, I’ll read a novel by Jonathan Franzen. If you pay me $5,000.
I am joking and I am not. It takes a lot of time to read a book. You spend a tiny but measurable portion of your life doing it. You sit with the psychology of a book, even when it’s not in your hands and in your eyes. So how much would it be worth it to me to read a book I don’t really want to read, one that is even disempowering to me and other women? Well, I have a price list laid out in my Kickstarter, and I will absolutely read the books mentioned at the prices specified. It is no more ridiculous a request than the expectation that I read Franzen (or any of a slew of other male authors) for free, while the authors I’ve come to love over the past year — Dora Alonso, Nella Larsen, Anita Loos — go largely unnamed and undiscussed.
Should the Kickstarter fail, then great. I will never have to read Jonathan Franzen and I can spend my time doing something else. Should I make the goal, then great. $5,000 is quite a lot for reading a book. It can go to funding other projects. It is a win-win for me.
I hope that this calls attention to the erasure of women and the overwhelming maleness (and overwhelming misogyny) of the works we treat as obligatory. Why are women so often missing from literary canon? Even when they are included, why are they mostly white and mostly straight? What narratives are we cutting out and why? What narratives do we embrace and why? Given that we live in a white supremacist heteronormative patriarchy, the answer is somewhat obvious.
When publishers, media, and schools prioritize male authors, they mandate narratives that reinforce toxic masculinity and misogyny. Women are expected to read terrible male canon, and we are expected to do it with intellectual gratitude. Men are not and never have been expected to mostly read books by women. Women are not and never have been expected to mostly read books by women. Everyone in the U.S., of any gender identity, is expected to mostly read books by cis straight white men. Unfortunately, it is in part a numbers game due to historical bigotry within the publishing industry itself. For a long time, these men were the only ones allowed by society to write at all. Still, authors who don’t fit this bill are not as rare as the courses you took in school would have you believe.
I’ve spent the last year reading books by women, but I would have to do that for years just to break even. Like almost anyone who grew up in the American educational system, I’m in female-author debt. Organizations like VIDA are hard at work on calling attention to imbalances in representation of published authors in contemporary literary magazines and book reviews, thus ensuring a better future for women writers. But we also need to acknowledge what has already been highly regarded historically and is therefore taught academically.
Obviously, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, etc. are not just going to go away. There is value to male-written canon. There is value in discussing why you might consider aspects of a book misogynist. But there is no value in expecting women to perform this labor constantly. There is no value in allowing these male authors to define female experience. The works taught in school, the first or even only place where many people encounter literature, are severely imbalanced, and this imbalance demands rectification. Women should not be expected to grin and bear it through every class period, or to hand-hold educators and peers while explaining what is wrong. We need to make space to criticize the canon, and to alter it. Perhaps institutions can reevaluate and edit their reading lists for parity. Or give women partial tuition refunds.
Let’s take a good hard look at this and correct the ways privilege manifests in institutions. Let’s bring more women into literary canon and criticism.
Failing that, let’s have at least one woman get adequately compensated for her forbearance.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece said that Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels included seven women. There are nine.