It occurred to me this week, and not for the first time, that my therapist might raise an eyebrow toward my reading habits. Shortly after I began transition in earnest, she started suggesting women’s lit to me, as a way of starting the process of socialization. The first book she recommended was The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, which I had already read and enjoyed, though maybe not as much as she would have liked. She smiled approvingly and further recommended a book by Kris Radish, who I had not read. So a couple of days later, I picked up The Elegant Gathering of White Snows at the public library and started reading it right there. My public library has some mighty comfy reading chairs, so this was no hardship, really. I chose not to check it out. After about twenty pages, I decided that it just wasn’t for me. This happened again with the next writer she recommended, and eventually I realized that she and I were not going to see eye to eye on literary matters. I started heading her off at the pass by having a book with me every time I showed up at her office, usually something daunting and intellectual like Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem or Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. It’s not that I don’t like women’s literature, or books by and about women, however you want to define it. Heavens, no. I mean, I named one of my dogs after Flannery O’Connor and my favorite writer of horror fiction is not H. P. Lovecraft or Stephen King, but Shirley Jackson. What seems to butt against my therapist’s suggestions is the fact that I do have fairly well-developed literary appetites, and some of those appetites are decidedly un-feminine.
My beach reading is usually crime fiction. The more hard-boiled, the better. Right now, I’m reading one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, which are farther away from what we normally think of as women’s literature as anything I can imagine. These are brutal, anti-social, testosterone fueled novels. And I love them. In contrast to my therapist’s gentle recommendations, these are not going to help socialize me in my chosen gender role, but, you know? I don’t care. The irony of this is that I was introduced to the Parker novels through the owner of one of the local used book stores, who is a woman of rare taste and discernment. She introduced me to Parker indirectly, actually, when she recommended one of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels to me. The Parker novels are the secret sharers of the Dortmunder novels, just as Richard Stark is Westlake’s pseudonymous secret sharer. Once I discover a writer that I like I tend to devour their work, and that happened to me with Westlake. I couldn’t avoid his dark half, and once I discovered it, I didn’t want to avoid it at all. After I read a few of these, I had another conversation with the bookstore owner about crime novels, and she mentioned that she once took a reader survey that asked what fictional character the reader would most like to sleep with. Her answer was another hard boiled series character, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. The Travis McGee books aren’t “womens’ lit,” either. So you never can tell. Anyway, I have an appetite for hard boiled crime novels, and I don’t care if those novels pass the Bechdel test or not. It’s nice if they do. Mostly they don’t.
And yet, as phallocentric as these kinds of books are, they don’t hold a candle to the male literary lights of the same period. I usually read more than one book at a time. I have a long commute to work, so I usually have an audiobook going in my car in addition to whatever print book I’m carrying around with me. (As an aside, I always, always have a book with me; it makes waiting in lines ever so much more tolerable). Right now I’m listening to John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. I used to read a lot of Irving after falling in love with Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp. I fell out with him in the late eighties, and this is the first of his books that I’ve read since A Prayer for Owen Meany. It’s been a while. Twenty years or more, I think. The thing that put me on the outs with Irving was the penis game, invented by one of my friends in college, which places an over and under on how many pages it takes for any given John Irving novel to use the word “penis.” I had forgotten about that when I put in the first disc of A Widow for One Year. It didn’t make it out of the first track before the word “penis” appeared. Twice. I’m lucky I didn’t wreck the car.
I don’t read a lot of literary fiction from the second half of the 20th Century. It seems like affluence had a disastrous effect on the male writers of that generation, and where the writers of the 1930s and 40s (your Faulkners, your Steinbecks, your Fitzgeralds) were all taking swings at the fences, it seems like the writers of the fifties, sixties, and seventies were obsessed with their cocks (I’m looking at you, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon). Give me genre outliers like Philip K. Dick or Jim Thompson any day of the week.
Of course, the irony of all this regarding Irving and A Widow for One Year is that the back of the CD box lists it as “Women’s Fiction.” Oh, REEELEE? Well, whatever. We’ll just have to see about that.
I should note that there actually are some pretty terrific female writers of hard boiled crime fiction. If you haven’t read anything by Patricia Highsmith (especially the Ripley novels) or Ruth Rendell or Megan Abbott, you’re missing out.
Also, the fangirl in me couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t mention the completely awesome graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke based on the first of the Parker novels. It’s the bee’s knees.