This week, we read a great interview with Meg Wolitzer (whose just-released novel The Interestings is currently being enjoyed by more than one member of this office). “Men,” she says, “with very few exceptions, won’t read books about women.” Though not exactly a new idea, this pronouncement gains a little force by coming hot on the heels of GQ‘s “The New Canon: The 21 Books from the 21st Century Every Man Should Read,” which contains (you guessed it, drumroll please, etc.) three books written by women. Though we won’t disparage any of the books that made the list, we will offer our own — as an attempt to work towards ameliorating the problem laid out by Wolitzer and neatly exemplified by GQ. After all, though there are three books by women on their list, only the Munro could really be said to be primarily about them. After the jump, 21 books by and about women that we think every man should read.
The Handmaid’s Tale , Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is essential reading no matter your gender, and this chilling depiction of a dystopian future is one of her best. In the Republic of Gilead, women’s rights have been completely eradicated, and the country is ruled by a racist, homophobic, misogynist, ultra-conservative cult. As our editor-in-chief Judy Berman quipped, “This is every woman’s worst nightmare that men have never thought about.” So think about it.
Bad Behavior , Mary Gaitskill
Gaitskill’s incredible collection is filled with women walking the borderlands — of sexual experience, of self-actualization, of family. This book digs under your skin, titillates, forces you to re-evaluate everything you ever thought about sex and love and what it means to be a person in the world. This book is terrifying.
A Guide to Being Born , Ramona Ausubel
This one doesn’t come out until May, but we’ll recommend it now for good measure. Ausubel’s luminous collection is organized around the origins of life — that is, the stages of love, conception, gestation, and birth — but her stories aren’t as simple as all that. Men may never be able to feel the fetus in their stomach and be sure that it is a three-headed giraffe, but with this collection, they’ll at least get a taste.
Bossypants , Tina Fey
Everyone likes Tina Fey, so this shouldn’t be too hard a sell. The comedian’s memoir is (obviously) hilarious, but also filled with reflections on being an awkward girl, a woman in show business, and a mother. You bros will be laughing so hard that you won’t even realize you’re learning about what it’s like to be a real-life lady.
Speedboat , Renata Adler
In her aforementioned interview, Meg Wolitzer laments, “Something nebulous and thought-based – a book of ideas – people seem much more willing to have that from a man than a woman.” Well, here is exactly that: a loose, penetrating, ruthless, glorious novel about a young journalist making her way through New York City.
The Bloody Chamber , Angela Carter
The modern fairy tale, whether in retelling or creation, has become a ripe area for feminist thought, for explorations of sexuality, for wit and irony and vulgarity to seep out of what was once a prim little moralistic package. No one does this better than Angela Carter, whose rich retellings of the classic tales thrum with blood and language.
The Flamethrowers , Rachel Kushner
Here’s a special lure for all you male readers: girl racing motorcycles across salt flats. Past that, the book is gritty and searing and immediately essential, a subtle novel about art and love and truth and a woman on a knife’s edge. Read it.
Self-Help , Lorrie Moore
No one does wry brilliance better than Lorrie Moore. In this collection, she will teach you everything you need to know: how to talk to your mother, how to be an other woman, how to become a writer, how to live. Darkly comic and dazzling, it’s a way inside the head of all the smart women you’ve ever known.
Heroines , Kate Zambreno
In Heroines, Zambreno traces the impact — or rather, the exiling — of the female experience on and from literature, untangling the stories of “the mad wives of modernism” both historical and fictional, “who died in the asylum. Locked away, rendered safe. Forgotten, erased, or rewritten.” Enlightening and intense, it’s a must-read.
Kindred , Octavia Butler
In this novel, a 26-year-old modern black woman is suddenly (and then repeatedly) transported back in time to a slave plantation in the antebellum South, where she is subjected to all the harshest parts of slavery as she protects the son of a slaveowner. Rarely does social criticism come with such incendiary storytelling.
The Left Hand of Darkness , Ursula K. Le Guin
All right, we’re cheating with this one a little, since it can’t be properly said to be about women at all — instead, it’s about a human man who travels to an alien planet populated by a race of beings who are genderless, or rather unisex, able to assume either binary gender during reproduction. The novel is beautiful and filled with timeless philosophical insights as to the nature of humanity and society — a definite classic we’re happy to make an exception for here.
Dora: A Headcase , Lidia Yuknavitch
Yuknavitch’s protagonist, the 17-year-old Ida, is a modern reincarnation of Freud’s famous bisexual case study Dora, whom our most famous shrink deemed “hysterical.” Ida may be a bit “hysterical” too — but she’s taking back the term. She’s raunchy, irreverent, filled with the desire to strip naked in the middle of “Nordfucks” or shave her head, sidekicked by a beautiful gang of weirdos. “I want to create new girl myths,” Yuknavitch said of the book. We think everyone should read them.
The Second Sex , Simone de Beauvoir
“I hesitated a long time before writing a book on woman,” De Beauvoir begins. “The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new. Enough ink has flowed over the quarrel about feminism; it is now almost over: let’s not talk about it anymore.” This was in 1959 — and the sentiment is as fresh now as it was then, just like (most of) the rest of De Beauvoir’s lucid book, equal parts literary and philosophical. All else aside, it’s one of the most classic feminist texts in the language. And men should read more of those.
The Woman Warrior , Maxine Hong Kingston
Maxine Hong Kingston’s take on the memoir blends her personal experiences with traditional Chinese folktales, examining the Chinese-American experience as well as the female one, taking on the cultural source of oppression, something we could all do to think more about. She writes: “There is a Chinese word for the female I — which is ‘slave’. Break the women with their own tongues!” So why even be a girl? “I refused to cook. When I had to wash dishes, I would crack one or two. ‘Bad girl,’ my mother yelled, and sometimes that made me gloat rather than cry. Isn’t a bad girl almost a boy?” This is the kind of thing most boys never have to think about.
The Bell Jar , Sylvia Plath
It’s pretty much a given that everyone should read The Bell Jar, but we’ll just drive the point home again — it’s a look into the conflicted mind of a tortured genius snuffed out too soon.
The House of Mirth , Edith Wharton
There is so much in this book that carries over perfectly to the modern era. Sure, maybe not the idea of tableaux vivants as party diversions, but the double standards for men and women, the vicious social games women play with each other, the perils of depending on another person — these issues are all alive and well. Plus, the novel is phenomenal. Can’t go wrong.
Excellent Women , Barbara Pym
John Updike, male of all males, called this high comedic novel “a startling reminder that solitude may be chosen and that a lively, full novel can be constructed entirely within the precincts of that regressive virtue, feminine patience.” What the never-married, witty but mild-mannered Mildred Lathbury would have to say about that, we cannot say.
The Complete Claudine , Colette
Though Colette’s frisky stories aren’t nearly as scandalous today as they were when they were first printed, she is still a giant of French literature, and her writing is just about as daring, sexy, gorgeous, and smart as she. As this book’s introduction describes it, Colette is “[a]ccessible and elusive; greedy and austere; courageous and timid; subversive and complacent; scorchingly honest and sublimely mendacious; an inspired consoler and an existential pessimist — these are the qualities of the artist and the woman.” A must for any reader who sees female writing as only one thing.
Drinking With Men , Rosie Schaap
Men love bar stories, right? Funny, smart, and insightful, Schaap’s memoir as a drinking buddy will make you a better person.
Inferno , Eileen Myles
Some men might be put off by a “poet’s novel,” but we bet they’ll be on board once they read that killer first line: “My English professor’s ass was so beautiful.” Myles can be difficult, but she can also be incredible, and in this story of a young poet’s self-actualization, she’s both. Take note.
Persepolis , Marjane Satrapi
We maintain that Satrapi’s beloved graphic memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution is a must-read for absolutely everyone, so including it here is a no-brainer. What does it mean to be a tough little girl into rock music in a country that suppresses their women? What does it mean to be a tough little girl? Satrapi will tell you with grace, humor and delightful illustrations.