Of all the things in the heavily gendered world of self-help and advice that make me cringe, few things set me off more than a man who sets to explain to heterosexual women how to change themselves to suit them, and vice-versa. The suggestions tend to rely on the kinds of stereotypes that people tend to claim we know aren’t true but are free to use in “satire” anyhow, are based on the idea that one size fits all, tend to offer advice like “be more self-confident” that one should do for one’s own benefit and not to get into a relationship, and are rather hetero and cis-centric. I admittedly cannot write from a queer perspective, but I’m pretty sure people are just confusing in general and, regardless of gender, have confusing wants and needs.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised that when Marie Claire (the women’s magazine) ran this blog post, I wanted to tear my hair out. This is about where my friend Rachel would ask me what else I would expect from them—and she’s right, you know, but I end up subjecting myself to these things anyhow. The article is called “8 Ways to Use Books to Flirt (Even if You Don’t Read Much).” The parentheses kill any hope that I may have had for the article; if you don’t like reading, why use it as a flirtation tactic? Alas, this could have been the green light for women who are too afraid to flirt with their intelligence. Instead, it underestimates both our emotional and our intellectual maturity.
The article consists of an interview with academic and author Jack Murnighan, author of Beowulf on the Beach, a book which attempts to bring sexy back to the Canon of western literature by teaching people what was fun and wonderful about these books in the first place–a noble goal. Marie Claire blogger Maura Kelly decided that his spirit of librosexualty (my friend’s and my term for bibliophilic) gave him the credentials to teach women to pretend they’ve read more than they actual have to get men. I suppose as far as these things go, the article is by no means the worst offender: it at least encourages reading and concludes that a woman talking about something she’s passionate about is the most sexy thing of all, which of course is something I can really get behind. But it made me furiously angry—I think I may have said, “Bite me,” out loud, which is not something I usually say (though I do occasionally say random things aloud when I read something particularly, erm, stirring.)
What made me so angry about it is that for all of Murnighan’s attempts to make literature accessable and Maura Kelly’s fawning over him (“If you have a crush on Jack after reading this, I understand,” she writes,) the article, whether intentionally or not, operates under the assumption that women don’t read the more “difficult” classics of literature. In fact, the very premise assumes that women do not read as often as men. I don’t want to blame Murnighan entirely for the condescending message of this article; though he agreed to the interview and played along with the premise, Kelly’s questions underestimate either her own potential or, perhaps worse, the potential of other women to be intellectual (or, for that matter, assume that a knowledge of the Western Canon is the only way to be smart, intellectual, or well-read, which is rather ridiculous in its own right.). But the worst part about this article is that it does not actually encourage women to read these books because they’re sexy books, which seems to be one of Murnighan’s goals as a writer, but instead he encourages us to use the sexiness inherent in these books as a veneer. Or, as Woolf would have it: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man [or, in this case, “male literature,” whatever that means] at twice its natural size” (A Room of One’s Own, II).
This became abundantly clear to me when Kelly asked the unforgivable question: “Are there books that are more likely than others to make a guy start talking to a woman in the coffee shop? ” Of course, Murnighan’s first suggestion is Lolita, which he considers to be the literary equivalent of a short skirt (his phrasing, not mine) because women only wear short skirts for the male gaze and not because it’s hot outside, or they just happened to like the skirt. I have to admit that I’m not so sure I’d be comfortable dating someone who was attracted to the fact that I was reading Lolita because he thought it was a suggestive, edgy book. It is, after all, about child rape. It’s written in some of the most incredible prose, yes, but, nevertheless, it’s about child rape.
Frankly, the whole notion of picking my reading material with the goal of attracting sexual attention is completely bizarre to me. I would never have considered it. It feels like an intrusion into a world where literature exists as a pleasure I can enjoy by myself, for the benefit of myself, and if it turns out that a friend, crush, or lover happens to enjoy it too, they may join me in my delight, but their entrance is natural and incidental. It is not a world set up for voyeurism, if that makes sense. So when Kelly and Murnighan add books to the list of things that I’m “supposed” to check for what signals they send to the male population, it feels like an unforgivable intrusion. It took long enough for me to train myself to dress for myself. But, alas, just as we are not supposed to drag men to chick flicks, expect them to drink cosmos, or watch “Sex in the City” (because ALL women do all of those things, and we do it because we don’t realize how torturous they are for men), we must monitor our taste in literature if we want to be intellectually sexy:
…if a woman is reading a book by an author who is considered a “guy’s writer”–like Cormac McCarthy–that’s likely to get her a lot more attention than if she were deep into Pride and Prejudice. Similarly, a woman reading James Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past on the train would probably turn a few heads.
Firstly, I’d just like to note that I once attracted male attention in a coffee shop for discussing Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Granted, I don’t think that book actually gets heavily gendered in terms of its marketing, but it’s got a unicorn in the title, so I’m counting it anyhow. Reading Murakami on the MAX has gotten me none. This is fine, actually, because, well, I’m reading.
But okay, in all seriousness, the comparison here is so off the mark I don’t know where to begin. Jane Austen is an artist of plots. Some people wonder what’s so literary about her because she doesn’t use dense, heavy symbolism, but it’s important to keep in mind that that’s not what she was trying to do. At a time when so many of the novels out there were clumsily constructed, Austen had her plots so perfected that in Emma, every single twist in the novel is hinted at on the first page, and yet they still surprise you. That takes skill, control and craft–she definitely deserves her spot in the Canon.
In the context of this article, what Austen does is so different from Joyce that it comes off as making a woman reading Pride and Prejudice seem shallow and laughable. A person reading Joyce probably has a reference book or at least a notebook to mark stuff down nearby because Joyce is intentionally trying to confuse you. He doesn’t want his readers to have an easy time. Austen’s insistence on clarity does not make her fluff. Also, P&P has gotten the chick flick treatment in our cultural imagination, from TV shows like “Lost in Austen,” to the book Me and Mr. Darcy, from the recent film starring Kiera Knightley, and, my personal “favorite,” a chick-lit. edition complete with a “Why you should read this book” introduction by Meg Cabot. As much as I feel Austen deserves more respect than that, choosing P&P (Not even Persuasion or Mansfield Park,) to represent “women’s literature” (a distinction I dislike anyhow) as opposed to something by Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende or George Eliot—to rattle a few examples off the top of my head—he’s making us look shallow, lost in our little Georgian world and waiting for our Mr. Darcys to come.
I’m just glad he didn’t include Hemingway. That would have been insufferably cliché.
The gross insult in this article is that he’s trying to invite women to the table of flirty, sexy intellectuals, to the fold of people who enjoy using the word “swyve” instead of “fuck,” who talk about Milton’s portrayal of angel sex, who would rather proclaim their love with Donne than use stock quotes from Romeo and Juliet (not that Shakespeare isn’t wonderful), but he’s ignoring that there are plenty of women already there. It’s a gendered invitation, not a call for more readers (of the Western Canon.) He’s encouraging us to read more “masculine” authors if we want to turn heads (Which I actually find bizarre because in his book he does give women authors their due.) instead of reading what we like, or (and this is a criticism I have of Beowulf on the Beach as well) encouraging people to go out and read what they like. Between Kelly and him, I’m not sure who is worse: Kelly insists we want and need lines to parrot, and instead of saying, “that’s really a bad idea,” he gives them to us like some kind of Professor Higgins of the Western Canon.
Oh yes, speaking of the Canon, in both this and his book, he’s also sticking to a very strict view of what the Canon is, which limits it to a distinctly white cross-section, and the he throws Márquez in as the sensual Latin American, which just bothers me, though I have to admit that 100 Years of Solitude is intentionally sensually written. Still.
The logic of the article reminds me me of that in articles written by men in the 1800’s who advocated for women’s education not because we’re human and deserve it but because it would make us more interesting for men. I’ll admit that this logic had its use back in the day because people were still unsure that women were human (and I guess you could say the same thing for now,) but it’s lost its edge. Completely.
And the worst thing about all of this is that I would love to get behind Murnighan’s message if he would just make it unisex (and be a little less condescending. Oh, and realize that “Time Passes” is one of the sexiest parts of To the Lighthouse, but I guess that’s not technically gospel fact as much as I like to pretend it is. Yes, I went to a bookstore today and looked up Beowulf on the Beach, why do you ask?). People teach classic literature as if it were boring, and that cheats everyone out of a lot of fun.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I think books are sexy. I think reading is sexy. One of the best things I got out of being an English major—aside from the life-changing lessons of critical thinking, brain-expanding empathizing, and learning to analyze and deconstruct—was a sense of just how human, in a beautiful, dirty, imperfect sort of way, literature can be. Tradition may hold it up on a pedestal, trapped in a glass case and surrounded by a halo of purity, but great literature was written by great authors, who were and are, just like us, humans, writing to work things out or share what they think they’ve worked out. I love Paradise Lost, for example, because its author was a person who, having lost everything, was still trying to justify the ways of G-d to man. Though I find about a million things to love about Milton, I’ve always loved the sense that he writes not from a position of authority, but as an “essay”-ist, in the sense of the French essayer, which means to try. I can never see it as a stuffy, boring work because it’s so human in the most wonderful of ways. Yes, it’s literature’s humanity that makes it divine.
One of the sins of how many people teach literature is that they make it sound like it was all written by asexual geniuses from heaven instead of, as Wilde would have it, in the gutter looking at the stars. Some teachers of literature become the people Yeats describes in his poem, “The Scholars:”
Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
(Yes, yes, this poem also reminds me of just how white and male the Canon is too, but that’s an issue for another post.). Much of literature does come from love (though of what varies,) and so I would agree that literature is tailor-made for intellectual courtship between two librosexuals. I’m not going to deny that one of the things that hooked me about Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels was that his love for Harriet Vane only grew when he realized she could quote from and understand as many works of literature in as many different languages as he could. I’m not denying that I find Busman’s Honeymoon incredibly sexy at parts because they’re quoting John Donne at each other. But Wimsey didn’t have to urge Harriet to join the joust of intellectual wordplay; sensing he was game, she drew out her… I don’t remember what she first quotes in Strong Poison, probably because, admittedly, I haven’t read it, and I think it’s fallen out of favor whatever it was. But it was a classic, and it was probably very sexy.
So I ask again: What good is knowing a random snippet of Boccaccio’s Decameron if you can’t follow through? Why joke about the Wyf of Bath’s (they spelled it with a “y” back in the day) foul mouth if you don’t have fond memories of when you first realized what she meant that she wanted a husband with both the finest purse and “nether purse,” or are able to use it to trigger a discussion of your favorite Canterbury Tale, be it one of the really filthy ones like “The Miller’s Tale,” or one of the tamer ones like the courtly “Knight’s Tale,” or the ever-popular “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” which is often simplified into children’s literature? If this kind of banter and discussion doesn’t scream “date night” to you, or you just don’t like literature (which is fine too), or you feel affected talking about it, then why pretend to it? Or, for that matter, if you want to flirt using books, why does it have to be limited to the Canon anyhow?
What is sexy about anyone of any gender pretending to be interested in something they’re not? Or, if they are interested in learning more about Canonical literature but haven’t read much yet, what’s sexy about pretending they’ve read more than they have? Honesty is always good (or at least it should be.)
I apologize for the rather obnoxious name-dropping in this entry, but I’m doing it to mock the very idea that women inclined to this sort of flirting need lines to parrot. Yes, I will admit that this kind of flirting sounds like fun if I were doing it naturally and my flirtation partner has a similar interest in literature (otherwise I’d just feel like I was showing off, and that would be gross.). I’ll also admit that I do admire Murnighan’s desire to show people just how fun literature can be, and it scares me that I’d probably get along with him if he didn’t seem to be such a condescending git. Nevertheless, whether it was pressure from Kelly (“Girls, girls, what have we done to ourselves?” Okay, that one was Tori Amos at her most lucid.) or his subconscious longing to find his Harriot Vane (though I don’t know if he’s read Sayers), or a little of both, he has only succeeded in suggesting that female would-be-intellectuals (or, perhaps from both of their perspectives, women who would only read if it means a relationship) remake themselves in the image of male academia, and that, my friends, is no way to flirt.
In closing, I can only turn back to Woolf, as part of my not-so-secret goal in life to convince as many people as possible that Virginia Woolf is human, funny, and sexy:
Life for both sexes — and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the pavement — is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. –from A Room of One’s Own, chapter II