There’s a John Waters quip that’s been bandied about the web as long as horny literati have had an online presence: “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” The advice takes a personal library, however modest, as evidence of intellectual curiosity, or insurance against the odds that a would-be lover is in some way inert, closed off to exploration. Waters later amended this quote to note that exceptions can be made for the very attractive: “I like the idea emotionally, but if they’re cute enough — who’s looking at their books?” he asked with his usual charm.
He didn’t paint the opposite scenario: when the bookcase is the red flag.
Imagine finding out a guy owns everything L. Ron Hubbard ever wrote, or only gruesome nonfiction about war, or an assortment of the toxic trash I spent the summer reading for our Bro Bibles series. I recall someone tweeting about the discovery that the person they were dating had a vast collection of Georges Simenon mysteries — and the subsequent fear that he might murder her. Even if the situation isn’t that dire, there’s a strong possibility that your dude doesn’t have a single woman author on his shelves. Men remain curiously shameless when it comes to admitting they don’t read outside their gender. Straight guys fishing for first dates won’t even put books by women in their profiles.
In an Electric Literature essay deconstructing the phenomenon, writer D. Arthur found such men weirdly obstinate and self-sabotaging. It hadn’t occurred to them, she wrote, that any successful effort to court her “might include announcing that they admire women like me,” i.e., witty, talented creatives. The word “admire” is instructive here, as it describes an interest and appreciation absent anything like sexual chemistry or obligated respect. (Consider how, for a moment, the only woman that billionaire Elon Musk followed on Twitter was Grimes, his girlfriend.) “Admire” functions the same way in this discussion of how to tell whether men believe in feminist politics or just parrot them:
The point is to figure out if dudes can praise a woman, or speak highly of her work and character and perspective, without necessarily expecting a kind of reward. If they can’t, well, it doesn’t always mean they’re guilty of something as serious as sexual misconduct or assault — the kind of stuff that would get your name onto a crowdsourced list of shitty men in your industry — but it probably does indicate a blind eye toward these problems and complicity in a culture that dismisses them as unimportant, exaggerated and spurious. When you’re able to recognize the accomplishments of women who aren’t relatives or potential romantic partners, you’re better disposed to hear out, say, a psychology professor who has the courage to inform the world that a man attacked her.
When I answer the “Which women do you admire?” question for myself, I’m drawn back to the bookshelves. Because writing is what I do, I read as much as I can, and many of the women who impress me are writers themselves. What I want to stress is that this does not happen by accident. A couple of years ago, I felt a shift in my literary life — a change for the worse, you’d have to call it. It was like a curdling. For a long while I had taken my pleasure in acidly misanthropic novels, often by dead European men. That in itself is no crime; these books are vicious and funny and thrillingly subversive. But over time, as they piled up around me, I felt the genre closing in. My escape tunnel was dug by women authors, who of course can be just as cutting and twisted, though often without the steady hum of narcissism that fuels the male writers’ protagonists. Their anti-heroines spoke of a similarly broken universe yet offered a totally fresh slant on it.
Eventually, I came to a private rule: If I’d just finished a book by a man, the next I picked up had to be a woman’s. Now I scarcely have to remind myself, because women are who I want to read. Kay Ryan is my favorite poet; I consider Joy Williams the finest short story writer alive; Patty Yumi Cottrell had a gobsmacking debut last year; Mary Robison’s novels are an uproarious delight; Barbara Ehrenreich continues to be one of our sharpest social critics; I am shaken and moved by Claudia Rankine’s lyrical texts on race, the body and consciousness itself. (How sad that I earned an English degree at the same college Rankine attended and only learned much later, by accident, that she is an alumna.) These women and others in the field excite and challenge and provoke where men’s prose had come to resemble, for me, the stagnant, faded comfort of the overfamiliar — the book as a child’s dirty blankie. There’s no denying it: They’re better.
I’m not telling you this to pat myself on the back; to the contrary, it was often women I admire who introduced me to the women writers I never realized I needed. I am trying, instead, to explain how revitalizing this was, and how stupid I felt for slogging through all that Cormac McCarthy I hadn’t really enjoyed when the devilish satires of Mary McCarthy were right there in the bookstore next to his work. I’d been trying to build up a body of thought in my chosen profession with one hand tied behind my back, cheating myself out of countless other narratives. If you’re passionate about an art, a science, a sport or a business, you owe it to yourself to seek out the women who are mastering it, and to study how they do so. Otherwise you’ll never get more than halfway to anywhere good.
And once you do value women’s abilities and insights, once you are open to their stories, it won’t be an option to look the other way when they point to currents of institutional misogyny, the daily threats they face or a fraternity of silence that protects their abusers. Listening to and believing women shouldn’t start when they come forward as survivors, with mealy-mouthed “as a father of daughters” contextualizing. No, the listening and the believing must begin well before that to have any impact. Because women aren’t their trauma alone, and until you have a sense of their gifts and aspirations, you will never be sufficiently furious at the indignities men make them suffer. For any revolution to occur, one has to understand the cost of choosing not to fight.