Books by dudes for dudes, books by chicks for dudes
Late Thursday, Esquire magazine posted a list of essential books that it described as "an unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published." The list is heavy with books about men -- men unhappy in relationships (by Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Philip Roth), men fighting wars ("The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, "Dog Soldiers" by Robert Stone, "The Naked and the Dead" by Norman Mailer), men facing down danger (Jack London's "The Call of the Wild," Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian") and men dealing with dames (John Updike's "Rabbit, Run," James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice"). As of this writing, the list -- which has almost everything -- is still at the top of the magazine's homepage.
What hasn't the list got? Well, just one of Esquire's 75 Books Every Man Should Read was written by a woman. Maybe that's because Flannery O'Connor had such a hard-to-resist guy-ish title: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
In the online kerfuffle that ensued, some hypothesized that Flannery may have been mistaken for a dude. More important, people wondered why on earth guys thought that guys should read books written only by guys.
The editors of Joyland, a website focused on short fiction, responded quickly and, with calls out to friends, Facebook and Twitter, compiled its own list of excellent suggestions: 250 Books by Women All Men Should Read. Included in the list: Zadie Smith, Kelly Link, Marilynne Robinson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lydia Millet, Doris Lessing, Djuna Barnes, Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, Clarice Lispector, Iris Murdoch, Shirley Jackson, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop and many more.
What no one seemed to notice is that Esquire's list, although it bears Thursday's date, was actually originally published three years ago, in September 2008, for the magazine's 75th anniversary. At the time, Anya Yurhcyshyn wrote:
I’m sure everyone’s gonna find something to freak out about – For Whom the Bell Tolls instead of The Sun Also Rises, no Jesus’ Son, not enough women writers...oh well. Like we gleefully admit, it’s biased. We all (as in the entire office and much of our extended staff — and I’m the one who had to type up the . . . master list) nominated a bunch of books that we love and want other people to read because they thrill us in some way. Magazines always do some sort of 'best books ever’ list and there are never any surprises, so what’s the point of agreeing with everyone?
It would have been nice if Esquire had recycled this preface when it hauled up its old list and popped it online, or otherwise mentioned that it was a list that had been posted before. But maybe the pressures of the looming holiday weekend were a little too much.
Esquire's list is long. It would take most people at least a year to read all 75 books if they stuck to it and read about a book a week. But it is also clearly too short -- not just because it almost entirely skips women, but because it's so slanted toward a kind of constructed male identity of soldiering and confronting nature and, well, dude-itude. Any man who learns about relationships from Carver, Cheever and Roth is going to need a list of marriage counselors, too.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Ernest Hemingway writing outdoors (undated). Credit: Associated Press