James McNeill Whistler’s “Reading by Lamplight” (1859)
I was in the kind of college honors program that high school seniors who spent their childhoods reading books with a flip light under the comforter when they were supposed to be asleep dream sweetly about. The icon was an owl. It was full of insanely smart, very strange people. The t-shirts we wore (only somewhat ironically) read “education for a life, not a living.” Part of this program, which was also a major, was a required year-long freshman year world literature course. Most of the courses read The Odyssey. They read Shakespeare and Milton and Oscar Wilde. They were assigned by a lottery system at orientation.
At eighteen I was just beginning to learn how to be more of who I was and less of the mask I had to wear in the space where I grew up. It took much longer than I like to admit, and so it was Fate or the hand of God or mere lucky chance that shoved me into the class I hadn’t wanted: Dr. Lisa Moore’s World Literature class.
Dr. Moore’s class was, in retrospect, one of the most formative experiences of my life. I had grown up in a culture that respected women theoretically, but didn’t believe in them. I had grown up with so much internalized misogyny, so much subtle sexism, that when I had seen the course description of her class beside the others, at eighteen years old, I had scoffed. Who would choose to read a bunch of books no one had ever heard of when they were planning to become an English professor (lol)? I needed to read real and serious books, books that were acclaimed.
It took me much longer than Dr. Moore’s two semester class to understand that all of those words are words used to exclude women’s work, that there is a system of gatekeeping so subtle and so powerful that we do not even realize it is in place. Dr. Moore’s class read real and serious and acclaimed books, and every single one of them was written by a woman. We read George Elliot and Aphra Behn, Alison Bechdel and Toni Morrison.
Despite having grown up reading plenty of women writers — Agatha Christie and J.K. Rowling, and Jane Austin for example — I didn’t think they were what serious people read. I didn’t ever think of what they had done as high art or worthy of study because they were so frequently dismissed as trivial.
I did some research to try and find a list of required reading for high school English students. Turns out there isn’t one which seems… insane. But what’s even crazier about that is that it means that across the country high school teachers can choose to assign whatever books they want and they all choose The Catcher in the Rye. I have a good friend teaching high school english in D.C. who makes such an effort to bring her (mainly black, mainly low income) students books written by people they’ll identify with. They are reading Invisible Man right now. I did not have a single work of literature assigned by a black American writer until Dr. Moore’s class in college.
I’m getting a little lost in this writing because there is so much here. Here’s what I’m trying to say:
A dude slid into my mentions yesterday on Twitter. He was mad because I dared to tweet something about women’s sports that implied that maybe their failure to succeed wasn’t the fault of the athletes. “But. What about supply and demand?” he said.
My mentions since the moment I became a writer have been full of men with the biggest boner for an extremely rudimentary version of Supply and Demand.
Not to *get into Capitalism here* but Supply and Demand is a fucking lie. Supply and Demand is a concept that exists in a world long ago, in an idyllic space where everything can be given equal value. Each piece of fruit is laid out on a table equidistant from the consumers and they are allowed to choose in a vacuum without any outside influence, what they want to buy. This is not how the world works. Capitalism flourishes on artificial demand: on someone in power telling us what we want, flooding the market with supply, and then making it so prevalent we think it is our best option. (this is not an economy newsletter but please question the concepts you barely learned in junior year of high school)
In literature, the titans of artificial demand are only beginning to change guard. We are not supplied at any stage with work by women and people of color in the classroom, and so we must learn to demand it outside of the system set up for us.
What it takes is exposure, I guess. The first step to reading more books that are not written by straight white men is awareness. It is actively learning about books by other people and choosing to read them. It is questioning whether the books handed to you by the Powers that Be are worth your time. It is realizing that just because the things you know are always in front of you does not mean they are the only things, and giving women’s work a chance. I sound like a mom trying to get her kid to eat brussels sprouts saying, please just try it you might like it. And that sucks. We shouldn’t have to do that with women’s work. But for now we do. For now we are still fighting for exposure and recognition before we can fight for equality.
CHALLENGE: I am going to be taking an audit of my library in the next couple of weeks: counting how many of the books I own are by women, men, people of color, white people. I’ll send you what I find in a few weeks, but consider joining me in this count, and send me an email if you do!
In Friday’s subscriber-only newsletter I will be recommending a book that is deeply strange and profoundly moving and that fucked me up so much I haven’t been able to really commit to another novel since finishing it!