Bibliotherapy, the Russ Pledge, and Toni Morrison

BelovedBibliotherapy – dealing with your crises and angst in life by reading appropriate books – sounds like a wonderful idea. Many people I know have “self-medicated” by reading something powerful over the years.

So The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You, a book by two one-time English majors (Ella Berthoud, now an artist, and Susan Elderkin, a novelist) suggesting appropriate books for various conditions, appealed to me. The authors provide sessions in bibliotherapy with some others through the School of Life.

But I was disturbed by the article on the book in The New Yorker. All the books mentioned in the piece were by men even though the authors and the reviewer are all women. A quick look at the book’s website worried me more: most of the books mentioned there were also by men.

I decided I needed to see the book to find out what books the authors actually recommended, so I bought the ebook edition. Given that the book is a list of conditions, in alphabetical order, with suggestions for books that might address them, it’s not a book for reading straight through. However, I have grazed it, and gone through the list of authors and books.

By my reckoning, 222 of the 751 books mentioned are by women – just under 30 percent.

Why would women recommend so many books by male authors? Why would a woman writing about this book feel the need to mention only male authors in her article? While some of the listed books by men are great books – One Hundred Years of Solitude, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Little Prince – others are very overrated (I’ll let you make your own list of those).

Further, there was a definite dearth of feminist work. They recommend several books by Margaret Atwood, but not The Handmaid’s Tale. Likewise, books by Doris Lessing are included, but not The Golden Notebook. I saw nothing by Marge Piercy, nothing by Joanna Russ, nothing by Gwyneth Jones, even though this is a book that mentions science fiction and fantasy. (No Octavia Butler either, now that I think about it.)

Here’s why I think they did it: They wanted to be taken seriously. That explains both the limited number of feminist works and the fact that the number of books by men is more than double the number by women. You don’t get taken seriously if you promote work by women. In fact, the authors are probably skating onto thin ice by having 30 percent women authors, since a lot of people seem to think that once the number of female persons hits 30 percent, women are taking over. (I’m just waiting for the outcry when the U.S. Senate hits the 30 percent mark.)

I suspect most women working in traditionally male fields have done something similar. If the world in which you’re trying to make it is defined as male, you do what you can to signal to the powers that be that you’re just like the boys.

In fiction, that means citing male authors as your guideposts, even if you’re female. Tramp Press, an Irish publisher founded by two women, asks those who submit to them to list their influences. According to a recent article, of 148 influences named in recent submissions, only 33 were women.

I’m sure I’ve done this both consciously and unconsciously as a writer and elsewhere. I remember sitting around with a bunch of guys – lawyers, martial artists, writers – trying to think of things I could say to make sure they took me seriously.

And yet – funny thing – I almost always write about female characters, which is probably a dead giveaway that I’m not the right kind of serious. As Nicola Griffith has been pointing out of late, books by and about men are the ones that win prizes.

That probably means I was wasting my time doing the male bonding bit. I’m never going to fit in so long as I keep writing about women having adventures. And since that’s the main reason I write, I’m not likely to stop doing it. Besides, the truth is that most of my influences in science fiction have been women writers. (I’ve read a lot of male writers in other genres, but in SF/F I tend to read more women.)

So let me encourage all of us – including the authors of The Novel Cure – to consider signing on to Nicola Griffith’s latest tweak to the Russ pledge:  Don’t just talk about women writers; talk about women writers who write about women.

Here’s one from me for today. In the U.S., there has always been an obsession with the idea of the Great American Novel. It has a varied history, but I always think of it as something taken very seriously by the male writers of the first half of the 20th Century – especially Hemingway – who strove to make it clear that writing was a “manly” activity.

If there is such a thing as a Great American Novel – one novel that sums up this country – it has to be Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Nothing else gets at the original sin found at the core of U.S. history as well as that book does.

I’m glad to note that it is listed in The Novel Cure.



Bibliotherapy, the Russ Pledge, and Toni Morrison — 5 Comments

  1. A thoughtful and passionately stated observation that is important for all female authors and writers to be cognizant of. I agree with your point about the obsession with the ‘Great American Novel’ but disagree that it is ‘Beloved’-that title selection is just as exclusionary as your premise.

    • You could be right. There are other great American sins and virtues. It’s probably an impossible task to write one book that gets at everything. I just think Beloved gets a lot closer than, say, The Great Gatsby or anything by Hemingway.