Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Potomac Review, and Los Angeles Review among many others. Cut Through the Bone was Long Listed as a notable collection by the 2010 Story Prize.
“Rohan’s stories are, more than anything else, about loss . . . and about the odd, endearing, and desperate ways that people fill the void or ignore it.”
“These stories create a sense of loss in the reader, an ache, but thankfully they avoid dull cynicism. Instead, they bear witness to the difficulty of living for oneself while sacrificing for others."
“In this unforgettable collection, Rohan reveals her mastery in finding the danger of ordinary objects, the way they come alive when her characters hold them in their hands.”
"This is a marvelous collection, filled with moments that startle and shatter."
" . . . beautiful and inventive, tender and absurd, quirky and heartbreaking, dark and strange and devastating."
"Ethel Rohan’s women, despite their wounds, are strong of spirit."
There’s much ado right now about the books I should be reading. I say this particularly as a man, having all the proper parts and such, whatever that has to do with my reading preferences.
You see, evidently, Esquire Magazine seems to think it does, having recently released their list of 75 Books Every Man Should Read. It’s chock full of what you’d expect it to be chock full of: Bukowski, Carver, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Vonnegut, Hemingway, et alii. And what’s really making news is that it is particularly devoid of names like Woolf, Shelley, Atwood, Plath, et aliae. Not even Harper Lee made the list. In fact, the only female on the whole damn thing is Flannery O’Conner.
I was glad to see Jezebel respond with their own list, but just as perturbed that it was titled 75 Books Every Woman Should Read. While not quite as devoid of male writers as Esquire was of females, still only 3 males made their list. And, I know, I know. Jezebel’s list was made in direct response to Esquire, so there should be some expectation that they’d offer approximately 75 amazing female writers to provide some balance, but I think Brian Carr puts it best of at Dark Sky Books’s blog:
“Why the polarization? Why the exploitation of emotions? Attention: as long as people pander to the edges there will be no advancement. It’s as American politics works today. Affirmation less than information. Enrage rather than engage.”
Which is exactly what happened. Over at HTML Giant, Roxane Gay came out swinging.
“Esquire is a men’s magazine so it makes sense that a reading list they curate will reflect certain themes and biases. What’s troubling though, is the implication that men should only read literature written by men, that men don’t need to bother with books written by women, and of course, that the only great books are those written by men. What other message can we take from a list where seventy-four books are written by men and only one is written by a woman? Women writers are being done a disservice but the far greater disservice here is to men. This list not only perpetuates the erasure of great writing by women, it cultivates the erroneous and myopic notion that men only want to read a certain kind of book. If I were a man, I’d find this list insulting.”
And, she’s right. I probably would feel insulted, but somewhere along the way, I’ve developed some sort of thick skin. I’m not easily insulted, and to be honest, rather than rage, I felt a sadness. I supposed what I see in this list, in a disheartening and probably naive way, is a reflection of myself, an ease of forgiveness. Just last January, after putting on a reading here in Indy that included a line up of all males, I took a good, hard look at the titles on my Vouched Books table: 23 titles in all, only 2 of them by women.
I didn’t even realize it while it was happening right in front of me.
I guess I’m saying I can relate, and what saddens me most is Esquire probably won’t do what I did and make an attempt to balance the scales. It was easy for me to replace some of my titles with new titles by female writers. But, even if there are people working at Esquire who would like to, there’s likely too much hubris throughout the editorial staff to do anything to make this right.
Of course, I don’t even have the answer of how to “make this right?” Sure, they can re-release a more balanced list, but there are greater issues at stake here, to which I can’t begin to pretend I have any answers.
I wonder if Esquire knew, whether it was their intention to have an all male list sans Flannery. I assume it’s in large part pandering to their audience. I mean, their teaser description for The Grapes of Wrath is simply, “Because it’s all about the titty.” I assume it’s in large part the intention to get men to read at all, to provide something of a starter list for a man who doesn’t already love the word, and should that man choose at random, he’s much more likely to develop a taste for books starting first with one of these more brutish books, and maybe it’s their hope these men would branch out from there. But Roxane is right: whether intentional or not, it is sad and unfortunate the implied assumption that it is not necessary for a man to read female writers (except Flannery), that a man wouldn’t fall as much in love with reading were he to first read The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood) or To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee).
I guess what bothers me most is the idea of “a man’s literature.” That a man would (should?) be most drawn to a literature that is tough–literature that might contain the phrase “muscular prose” on its jacket copy, literature about fishing, drinking, blue collars, hunting, etc.
I think about Cut Through the Bone, written by Ethel Rohan who is very much a woman. Of course it’s not going to be on this list. It’s less than a year old, too untested to list among so many classics, and well, let’s be honest, I’d be surprised if anyone at Esquire has even heard of Cut. But, I wonder how the Esquire-man might respond to a book like CTTB. I would be talking out my ass if I tried to guess; I am not an Esquire-man, nor am I particularly interested in becoming one.
I want to believe Cut would be welcomed like a prodigal child. I want to believe in the Esquire-man, that maybe a book like Cut could speak to him, that he could see something of himself in these narrators similar to what he could see of himself in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Mostly, I want to believe this man, or any man, doesn’t need a fistfight to find himself.