In recent months I have seen a specific article return repeatedly to my Facebook newsfeed: Esquire’s now rather infamous list of “80 Best Books Every Man Should Read”—a list full of macho (and occasionally misogynistic) novels by authors ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Charles Bukowski. Flannery O’Connor is the only woman author featured in the list (with her collection of short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find), a fact that rightly spurred indignation in feminist quarters. Flannery O’Connor was thus still very much on my mind as I spent this past Thanksgiving in Savannah, Georgia, her birthplace, an elegant Southern city with charming squares and venerable oak trees dripping with moss and mystery. While there, I visited O’Connor’s childhood home. I am a great admirer of her short stories, and O’Connor is widely considered one of the greatest American writers, as well as perhaps America’s greatest Christian writer. Touring the house in which she spent the first thirteen years of her life, I discovered some of the influences that shaped O’Connor’s work. But I also found my mind returning to that Esquire list, and thinking about the larger question it implied: which books by women will men read, and why?
Part of O’Connor’s cross-gender appeal, though not I think the main one, is the shock of violence in her work, and the lack of any hint of that much-maligned quality, “sentimentality.” Along with the Southern Gothic grotesquerie of some of her characters, these elements make her short stories particularly memorable. These traditionally “masculine” elements are not requisite for literary merit, though the Esquire list might suggest so. But O’Connor had the literary merit, too.
What allowed O’Connor to write such brutally affecting work in the first place? Listening to my tour guide in the O’Connor house, I got the sense that Flannery was quite free of some of the constraints often imposed on women who write, including the imperative to be ladylike in her life or writing. In her house, there is a photograph of Flannery as a small child sitting next to a friend, grinning widely and with her legs spread out in an unselfconscious, decidedly un-demure posture. She seems to have been remarkably free in many ways of patriarchal interference. Her father was indulgent of his only child, and died when she was fifteen. She had a prickly relationship with her mother, but strong-willed Flannery tended to win in every conflict. She was defiantly indifferent to conventional standards of beauty and glamor, as her trademark dark-framed glasses attested. Perhaps being an only child also allowed her to revel in her eccentricities. As there were no siblings to serve as gauges for normalcy, she defined normalcy as she wished, for example by proclaiming at six years old that she was an adult and was putting away childish things. Even the Catholic Church’s dominating influence (the beautiful St. John the Divine Cathedral is directly visible outside her parents’ window) turned out to be entirely beneficial for her work. Her writing is saturated with her Catholic faith’s arc of sin, grace, and redemption, though this grace and redemption are always hard-earned, full of violence and struggle and conveyed with black humor.
O’Connor’s own life was not free from struggle. She was diagnosed with lupus, the disease that killed her father, just as her career was taking off. She continued to work, and when loved ones sent her to Lourdes, a cathedral where many believe miraculous healings can occur, she prayed “not for my bones, but for my book.” Eight years after her death at age 39, her Complete Stories won the National Book Award.
One can’t help but think O’Connor’s tragically short yet independent life shaped the tone of her writing. For a stark contrast, one might look at the life and work of another female genius and author, Charlotte Brontë. Brontë spent her life on the bleakly beautiful Yorkshire Moors, a motherless child with a grim patriarch for a father. She grew up honing her genius against the equally sharp minds of her siblings, inventing imaginary worlds to which they were intensely attached. She died, having lost all her siblings to consumption, at age 39 (like O’Connor), of severe morning sickness during pregnancy. Admittedly her sister Emily, despite similar autobiographical constraints, wrote a novel (Wuthering Heights) as impersonal, brutal and violent as anything by O’Connor. But in Charlotte’s case the pressures of gender which shaped her life bled into her novels, lending them a tone of mingled self-repression and defiant indignation that only adds to their power as a testament to Victorian women’s experience.
From my own experience, Brontë is not a woman men generally read, unless assigned Jane Eyre as coursework. Besides O’Connor, the other female author I most often hear the Average Educated White Male cop to reading is Jane Austen; he will also generally acknowledge respect for Virginia Woolf, whether or not he’s read her. Why Austen (or Woolf, or O’Connor) and not Brontë? I believe it comes down partly to tone, and the extent to which autobiographical experience shapes tone. Brontë’s early male reviewers were shocked by the strong will of Jane Eyre’s heroine, and denounced Villette as nothing but “hunger, rebellion, and rage.” As I have suggested, Brontë’s works are indeed full of intense pain and anger. They call out gender inequality directly. They express the anguish of the silencing and repression society imposes on women, and of the self-silencing and self-repression it also demands of them.
Jane Austen may be less discomfiting to the male reader because, while she writes about the traditionally female subjects of courtship and marriage, she does so with satirical detachment, with barbed wit and sly humor. Any digs she makes at the patriarchy are subtle enough to be disregarded if you’re not looking for them. As for Woolf, she saw it as a serious artistic flaw for a writer to let her pain and anger seep into her writing. In her essay “Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights,” she deprecated this flaw in Charlotte Brontë, noting that all the “force” of Brontë’s writing “goes into the assertion, ‘I love,’ I hate,’ ‘I suffer,’” and seeing in her an “untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things.”
Forty years later, second-wave feminists would reclaim the compatibility of personal anger with artistic expression. Poet Adrienne Rich, who once declared that “anger can be a kind of genius if it’s acted on,” saw in precursors like Woolf far too much caution in tone. In “When We Dead Awaken” (1971), she wrote of reading Woolf’s seminal feminist essay A Room of One’s Own that:
“I was astonished at the sense of effort, of pains taken, of dogged tentativeness, in the tone of that essay. And I recognized that tone. I had heard it often enough, in myself and other women. It is the tone of a woman almost in touch with her anger, who is determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached, and charming in a roomful of men where things have been said which are attacks on her very integrity … Only at rare moments in that essay do you hear the passion in her voice; she was trying to sound as cool as Jane Austen, as Olympian as Shakespeare.”
She adds: “[T]oday, much poetry by women—and prose for that matter—is charged with anger. I think we need to go through that anger, and we will betray our own reality if we try, as Virginia Woolf was trying, for an objectivity, a detachment, that would make us sound more like Jane Austen or Shakespeare.”[i]
Now, after another four decades, there is fortunately less overt concern over whether a woman writer sounds too angry or not angry enough. But Woolf and Rich both seemed to recognize that a tone of anger, or what could be perceived as anger, or bitterness, or complaint, in a woman’s writing was enough to scare away male readers, or to stop them taking their work seriously.
The tendency to regard women’s writing in general as more frivolous than men’s is nothing new. It’s the old complaint: Novels like Moby Dick, with nary a female character in sight, are “universal,” while a novel with predominantly female characters is invariably “chick lit.” (Some of the covers that have been given to novels written by even such canonical female authors as Austen and the Brontës confirm this suspicion). One might think this has become less the case, as the literary canon has grown more diverse and inclusive. But lists like Esquire’s continue to keep reading compartmentalized; they insidiously suggest that we have nothing to learn from those not like us, that men should read only manly books by other men (and maybe Flannery O’Connor), and that other works have nothing to offer them. They also allow male readers to avoid anything that might be confrontational in tone, anything that might challenge their own experience of the world.
I also suspect that the white male reader’s avoidance is doubly likely when he is faced with a text whose author is a woman of color, or a lesbian, or anyone likely to have experienced oppression on multiple levels. The Average Educated White Male might never say so, but his resistance to reading such a work is a resistance to having to acknowledge those oppressions. This perpetuates the very silencing of marginalized stories that many of these texts fight against. What’s worse, many white male readers seem to suspect (though again, they’d never say so) that if a novel as respected as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, is by an African American woman, the acclaim it receives must be due, at least in part, to political correctness.
Continuing to believe that books by those unlike us have nothing to offer us, or that they are inherently overrated, or that they are inferior or merely “strident” if they express anger, robs reading of its most crucial moral value: the chance it gives us to look through different eyes, to live in someone else’s skin, to empathize. It’s temptingly easy to read only books that confirm one’s own worldview. But how limiting, how constricting! Reading should shatter boundaries of gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture, rather than shore them up. I remember reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness in a feminist literature course and being compelled to begin revising the conservative notions of homosexuality with which I’d been raised. On the level of culture, one of the things that have made Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling Afghanistan-set novels (from The Kite Runner on) so valuable is that they are powerful vehicles for empathy with those we often view as “other.” We impoverish ourselves as readers and as human beings if we seek in our reading only mirrors to reflect ourselves.
None of this is to say Flannery O’Connor shouldn’t be featured on a list of 80 best books. She absolutely should; in my opinion, she should be pretty near the top of that list. But let’s question the assumptions that leave her alone there, bereft of female comrades.
[i] Citations from The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English, Vol. 2. 3rd ed.