In yesterday's post, I suggested that women have emerged as the big fiction readers of our time because they are less bound to masculine or feminine identity. I was thinking this through based on my own experience of reading fiction as a young person, free of the constant gender radar that has to classify books "for girls" or "for boys" (i.e., meant for me or not meant for me).
The other side of the story, or another side of the story, is that the magical full surrender to the voice in the book wasn't the same when I began to be perceived as a woman, out there in the world, probably around age 15 or 16. The first book I remember making me recoil, as a woman, was Kerouac's On the Road. I liked the exuberance of the language, at times, but I never became the gallivanting Dean and Sal as I had once become poor funny, wandering Holden Caulfield; I kept thinking about all of the people that had to keep cleaning up after them, the trail of indistinguishable girls.
The recoil became more extreme in my twenties, when, for a stretch, I only wanted to read books written by women. This wasn't a deliberate decision; I only noticed after the fact. It was an unconscious search that had to do with wanting to write, which suddenly made a difference in what I needed to read. Even former friends like Neruda became problematic. (What do you do with a concept of existence that finds its answer, its relief, in the oblivion found in "conquering" the body of a woman, if you yourself are a woman?) And for a time, yes, I did reject reading the novels that are crudely lumped into the adult version of "boy books": works by Hemingway, Cormac MacCarthy, Philip Roth, John Updike, Don DeLillo, all classified as more important than the books I was looking for.
That kind of reductionism is as unfair, of course, as the dismissal of "girl books" we women are always on about. It was useful for a while, to help process the damage that things like street harassment, sexual violence, job discrimination or simple condescension begin to inflict on you when you're a woman waking up from childhood. Literature exists to help us think about our lives, after all, not to fulfill a reading quota. But gender distinctions break down at some point; trying to draw a strict line only ends up denying the experience available to you. My book diet is more balanced now, I still don't to manage it consciously. (Not to say it's not worth searching out lesser-known works by women, they may offer what you are actually in need of.)
This dance between masculine and feminine sensibility in my reading habits reminds me of the spectrum in which women are allowed to experiment with their external identity. Over the course of years I, like many women I know, have sampled, adopted, discarded and returned to various iterations and degrees of masculinity and femininity in dress, haircuts, speech, manner. Again, it seems like this fluid approach is more conventionally acceptable for women to exercise than men, which I think is connected to the point about reading and women's capacity for identification across gender lines. The constraints on men implicit in this status quo seem to me another kind of damage.