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Ethel Rohan

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."

– Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine

“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.”

– Kevin Wilson, author of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

"This is a marvelous collection, filled with moments that startle and shatter."

– Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

" . . . beautiful and inventive, tender and absurd, quirky and heartbreaking, dark and strange and devastating."

– Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody,

"Ethel Rohan’s women, despite their wounds, are strong of spirit."

– William Walsh, author of Pathologies

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Cut Through the Bone

What Is a Man's Literature?


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.

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  1. Molly Gaudry said on 06/06/11 at 9:49 am Reply

    Great post, Chris. I missed all the excitement and upset over this because I haven’t been keeping up with my Reader as much as I’d like; however, I want to point people over to Roxane’s blog because The Atlantic quoted her HTML Giant response!


  2. Corey Beasley said on 06/06/11 at 10:57 am Reply

    So on point, Chris! And strange — before I clicked over here, i had just made a comment on Molly’s recent post, asking how gender might affect the reading of Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water, a book that some might unfortunately pigeonhole as intended for women before they even pick it up. I’m hoping that more people will see through Esquire’s marketing pitch, but if nothing else, maybe it will provide more steam for this conversation.


    Molly Gaudry said on 06/06/11 at 11:02 am

    Corey, I was just going to send you over here! Ha! But since Jackie asked over at my post: “What does it mean to be a woman,” let me ask that here: “WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A MAN?” Men? Women? Boys? Girls? What do you think?

    Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 11:05 am

    Totally agree, Corey. I mean, on one hand, it’s great that the Esquire list piqued so much conversation regarding the topic of gender balance, and of course I wonder whether there’d be nearly as much conversation if it had been a more balanced list. Like would people have called it out and praised it and encouraged it for being so balanced if it had been?

    I’ll have to check out your comment about CoW. I’ve always feared the same reaction, as I carry CoW on my Vouched Books table, and of course it’s a pretty easy sell to women customers, but I’ve made it a point to try to sell it to men as well. I read it and took a lot of greatness from it, and think it has a ton to offer male readers, given the right mindset.

  3. Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 11:08 am Reply

    Molly, that question is right on point. I actually kind of wanted to ask that question more pointedly in my post, but hoped the readers would be able to tease that question out, especially when I talk about how uncomfortable I am with the concept of “a man’s literature,” because of the implied sub-question of “what does it mean to be a man?”


    Molly Gaudry said on 06/06/11 at 3:59 pm

    I hope you do end up talking about this more — maybe you and Mike Young, since you’re our resident men. I mean, on the broader scale: What *does* it mean to be a *man*?

    To be honest, I can’t say I ever really thought about this. I’ve thought a lot about *woman* — about restrictions, limitations, rights — but I haven’t given enough thought to *man* (though I’ll be interested to find out more from you, just from what you write here).

    Brian said on 06/08/11 at 10:56 am

    My thoughts in response to both Chris and Molly’s questions/comments and Beasley in general. I think Molly’s statements re: what it is to write as a woman (limitations, etc) are a really good starting point for the “man” discussion. Perhaps, in a “by default” sort of way. By that I mean, perhaps we define literary manness not so much by what it is, but by what it is not — yet this poses several problems, not the least of which is that it sets up men or manness, literar-ily speaking, as somehow antithetical to womanness. Or, instead does manness “suffer” from the glut of freedom? Is manness nothing because it is, in a way, able to be everything — in that it lacks the strictures of woman/minority/other (not to conflate the 3) literature?

    The converse to that, I suppose, is that someone like myself (a poet, and therefor inherently sensitive, I say with my tongue buried in my cheek) feels some limitation and restriction. I do in my own writing, BECAUSE of (or despite?) the fact that I am a white male in America ages 19-35 (the anti-minority). The same sort of pressure/discomfort I feel in reading and writing persona poems/prose. An anxiety of reaching/over-reaching.

    Finally, what of the dangers of finally pinpointing a set of easily identifiable “man-tags” in writing? Or the same for “women’s” lit? Certainly we would find outliers, in this case, members of the out-group which “outperform” in-group members. Would such a discovery, say Ursula Le Guin being more, what we find/define to be “man’s lit” than perhaps Froer, or vice-versa, be destructive in some way to femininity/masculinity of either the author or reader? Have I hedged enough? Sure.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/08/11 at 1:51 pm

    I definitely think it’s dangerous territory to really define maleness and femaleness in literature, as I think it’s similarly dangerous to define it in life. And that’s not to discount the very obvious differences between men and women, not just physically but psychologically and emotionally.

    And really, I ask the question, “What is a man’s literature?” more tongue in cheek than anything, because I think at its base, that question seeks to define roles, which is where the danger really comes in. You can recognize difference without assigning roles, but once you say “Man’s literature is violent,” then you are essentially saying, “It’s a man’s place to be violent,” and I just don’t think that’s true.

  4. Dorothee Lang said on 06/06/11 at 11:43 am Reply

    Thanks for opening this interesting discussion. And good question: “Like would people have called it out and praised it and encouraged it for being so balanced if it had been?”

    Seeing it from this angle, the whole thing makes me think of the big fuzz about the New Yorker story issue last year. The hook there wasn’t gender, but age: “Summer Fiction: 20 Under 40”. The result was similar: huge media coverage, discussions, an alternative list (by Dzanc), which led to even more discussionss, one of them titled: “The Lists We Love to Hate: First the New Yorker, Now Dzanc?”

    A thing that went unnoticed about the NY list: it was gender-balanced. I put a feature together for the blueprintreview blog back then, with this line: “The 2010 summer issue caused a stir, and discussions about the validity of such lists, and the methodology – which probably were both expected and intended by the editors.

    My guess is: same probably goes for the Esquire editors. maybe they even thought of the New Yorker list effect when planning the issue.


    Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 2:08 pm

    Yes! Exactly. I guess I feel like we’re spanking publications for being sexist pigs, but not praising the publications that are actually striking a healthy balance. It’s the exact opposite of what every psychologist says you’re supposed to do to encourage a specific behavior.

    Can that be applied on a sociological level in this regard? I don’t know. But it makes sense. If these magazines are driven by how much traffic they can attract, and they know they’ll attract more traffic through a controversy of some sort, does that affect what they’re publishing?

    What would happen if we started making more noise for the true champions, rather than for the assholes?

    Victoria Barrett said on 06/06/11 at 3:12 pm

    Though I can’t find evidence of it with a quick search, more than one savvy reader has pointed out to me that the Esquire list is a couple of years old, reheated for that web post, and somehow this time everyone noticed and responded to it.

    For me, this speaks to the important work of groups like Vida; we’re primed to pay attention to this now in a way that we weren’t two years ago. Though it doesn’t look like it, this is progress.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 10:29 pm

    Agreed, V. However tedious the subject might seem, it’s a worthwhile conversation to have and continue having. I hadn’t heard that about the recycling of this list, but I do like your point about VIDA’s work, and how just that these issues are being raised so often is evidence of progress. That gives me a lot of hope, actually.

  5. Ethel Rohan said on 06/06/11 at 11:51 am Reply

    Another great post, thanks Chris. Thanks too for bringing more attention to the two excellent essays from Roxane Gay and Brian Allen Carr.

    I can’t pretend to have any easy answers or solutions either. What also saddens me about this growing gender ‘much ado’ is the suggestion that we should just be glad and grateful a magazine of Esquire’s reputation and reach published ANY recommended reading list.

    Maybe I’m naive too, Chris, but this ‘at least’ attitude seems flawed and defeatist. It’s not enough to publish ANY recommended reading list and it’s especially grievous to publish a recommended reading list that’s ignorant, negligible, and damning.

    I would not have felt enraged if Esquire had published a narrow list of ’75 Must-Read books by Men for Men.’ But I do take great issue with Esquire’s list of “The Greatest Works of Literature Ever Published” that includes only one woman writer.

    ’75 Must-Read books by Men for Men.’ This brings us back to the question, ‘what does ‘men’s literature’ mean?’ I don’t know. I do know that men and women are different, yes. But are our differences learned? I think to a great degree, yes. Regardless, writing and reading are universal acts. If it’s true (and I believe it is) that we read and write to know and understand ourselves better, to figure out what it is to be human, then I can’t imagine how or why our reading and writing would be limited by gender.


    Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 2:46 pm

    Mike Meginnis and I were just talking over lunch today about how this “at least”/”defeatist” attitude is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s amazing how much response there is when you stand up and say, “Books are fun, damn it!” I do that at least once a month for Vouched, and spend hours upon hours talking to people about how much they love reading. People WANT to read! My friend Dano is a fantastic example of this. She’s always been kind of “meh” about reading, until she started reading some of the books I’ve recommended to her on the Vouched table. Now she chews through paper like a badger.

    People are tired of these same old lists. Not only was I appalled by the lack of females on that list, I felt like Barry from High Fidelity after Rob puts “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his top 5 list of side one/track ones: “Oh, that’s not obvious enough Rob. How about the Beatles? Or fucking… fucking Beethoven? Side one, Track one of the Fifth Symphony… How can someone with no interest in music own a record store?”

    Don’t get me wrong. That list had some phenomenal selections, but a vast majority of it felt very old hat, very safe.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/06/11 at 7:18 pm

    I agree, Victoria. There’s a lot of noise around these gender issues in lit of late and while I know it irks many, I do believe it’s progress and that such discussions and debates are important. How else to bring about continued awareness and change? Thanks for sounding your voice.

    Matt said on 06/08/11 at 8:55 am

    I started thinking to myself, “which women writers have I even read?” when I started going through this post. I of course thought of J.K. Rowling. I felt a little self conscious that that was the first thing I thought of. Then I thought of Simone de Beauvoir and that made me feel more open minded, and Susan Sontag.

    I thought of a few more, but all and all it was a struggle. I also thought to myself why were 2 of the first 3 women writers philosopher/theorists and I came to a conclusion. As a student studying art, their books were given to me by professors or recommended by people I respect.

    I’m not a writer and can’t keep up with all the books or follow the discussion among those who are intimately involved with literature. The books that I end up reading are the ones that someone told me were important to read.

    Part of it is that so few books by women are put forth as the greats that for people like me, trying to find good books inevitably you get directed toward men. Maybe women more often get directed toward women, and men to men, even in conversations with friends but I look at the lists too, and choose by a combination of the ones I’ve heard of and what I think I might be interested in.

    I’m at work and this is just the beginning of the thought but I’m putting it down to record where I go from here

  6. Christopher said on 06/06/11 at 12:29 pm Reply

    To assume that there is anything definable as “man” and “woman” in 2011 is simply backward and, yes, insulting. Because my biology identifies me as “man,” I should read certain literature? What Esquire is saying is that these are the books that should shape the kind of “man” who buys their product. Maybe the type of man who reads their products is the type of person still stuck in the 50s when men were men and women were women–and there was nothing in between.

    I am man; hear me roar. And the authors I identify with (love) are Jincy Willett, Lucy Ellmann, Jonathan Safran Foer and of course Virginia Woolf.

    I live in Germany where gender plays an incredibly big role in the type of literature, movies and TV the masses like, so this type of nonsense gets boring.


    Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 2:35 pm

    It has become somewhat of a tedious topic, I agree. And like you said, it’s baffling there continues to be a sort of fight for the divide between men’s culture and women’s culture–that a man should be this way and read this tough, “masculine” literature, and that a women should be this way and read a demure, “feminine” literature. It’s a load of garbage. When I think about 2 of the 3 books featured here this month at TLP, Chronology and Cut are a couple of the toughest books I’ve read in a good while, both written by females, and both tackling particularly “feminine” subject matter, but doing so in a way that demands, rather than begs, attention.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/08/11 at 10:10 am

    Matt, thank you so much for joining the conversation. You’ve sounded your voice as a reader and said essentially I don’t know what’s out there beyond these lists and the canon. You touch on exactly what’s so dull and damaging about the Esquire-esque lists and the canon–they do have great reach and influence and they do MISguide, restrict, and oppress. The more we can spread word of the the excellence offered by contemporary writers and give readers rich choices the less we’ll see this gender and cultural imbalance. Give readers broader choices and access to books that matter and we’ll have a better world.

  7. Jordan Blum said on 06/06/11 at 1:26 pm Reply

    I’m not surprised by the gender bias and exclusions. Perhaps this is going on a tangent, but people were surprised that “American Psycho” and “The Hurt Locker,” just to to name two, were directed by females. I suppose men can’t be sensitive and women can’t be vulgar. As for Flannery O’Conner, I haven’t read much of her (I actually just got the book Esquire recommended), but her stories of a man stealing a leg and a crazy man killing an entire family in a forest seem to satisfy the stereotypical interests of men.


    Dawn. said on 06/06/11 at 2:11 pm

    That is so true, Jordan. I was intending to make that point but you did a much better job.

    I also agree with Christopher above–the assumption that anyone’s assigned sex should have anything to with the literature they consume is both ludicrous and insulting. Assumptions like these are so ingrained in our culture and I am so sick of all of it.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 2:29 pm

    I welcome this tangent, as I’m not so sure it’s a tangent but a complimentary topic. I think that to define a literature that a man and woman should rightfully CONSUME directly implies a literature that a man and woman can rightfully PRODUCE, too.

    You’re right to assume that O’Conner’s writing contains a sort of grotesque that places her in the ranks of what a “man” might enjoy in literature, and it’d be interesting to go back and look at some of the reviews of her work at the time to see if they have any sort of “surprise that a woman would write such horrific fiction” bent to them, similar to that of the surprise that Bigelow got for creating The Hurt Locker.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/06/11 at 7:25 pm

    I agree, the mention of movies isn’t a tangent. Needless to say I was cheering for Bigelow and that was less about gender and much more about excellence. The gender debate will only become truly tedious when the underdog and longshot is no longer determined by sex.

  8. Tim Jones-Yelvington said on 06/06/11 at 1:57 pm Reply

    It seems important to me not to isolate Esquire’s list from its context alongside the rest of the magazine’s output, which is also lit — or at least language and cultural/media production, and which regularly plays a role in constructing an answer to this question that is posed of “What are men?” or “What is masculinity?” in some gross, reactionary and violent ways. One way of saying this is, “What exactly did we expect from Esquire?” But probably a better way of saying it is, “Esquire, come the fuck on already.”


    Ethel Rohan said on 06/06/11 at 7:33 pm

    It’s ridiculous that any magazine thinks it can stay afloat and vital by narrowing rather than broadening its readership AND its understanding of its readership.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 10:39 pm

    It really saddens me, the myth they perpetuate by that pandering. It’s such a narrow way to live and think and breathe. Of course the question remains, “What did we expect?” I just tend to be one of those naive people who always hope and hope and hope.

  9. Dennis Mahagin said on 06/06/11 at 4:26 pm Reply

    Esquire is a dinosaur with no teeth, and a death rattle; a Mailer-esque rag which reeks of chauvinism much like the scratch n’ sniff cologne in their pages you have to wade through, and wade through — trying to find a table of contents which you never do find, which the editors and “typesetters” arrogantly eschew, in favor of some hipster-esque “hunt and peck,” employed no doubt so you have to breathe in all the more of that hideous

    corporate cologne.

    Why doesn’t Esquire just fold up, and die?

    It’s 2011, right?.

    Meanwhile, I hope that by posting here I make everyone connected to that corporate newsletter bristle with sad, ineffectual, misogynistic hate.

    Having said that, I hope I’m not too late to win those two very excellent books, written by

    Women, for poets.


    Ethel Rohan said on 06/06/11 at 7:38 pm

    Dennis, I’d much rather see Esquire thrive than see it die. Because the only way the magazine will thrive and stay current is by leadership and staying ahead of the culture. I fear though Esquire will fold. Not because people won’t read or pay for the magazine, but because it’s fast losing its connection with the culture and thus its relevancy.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 10:14 pm

    I’m with Ethel on this one. As annoying as this list and its ilk are, especially its prevalence around Esquire, I’d much rather see it thrive and use its influence for good–to shift its focus, even if gradually so as to not completely throw its current readership. It sounds all conspiratorial when I think about it in my head, Esquire slowly shifting its aesthetic to, in a certain way, manipulate its current machismo readership into a more open-minded, less ego driven mindset. I don’t know. It’s late. I’m rambling.

  10. Amber said on 06/06/11 at 5:17 pm Reply

    And we keep perpetuating this crap, too. Every few years (or really, every few months) I see some crisis article in the NYT or some respectable publication or blog about how BOYS AREN’T READING! and then a list of books to encourage boys to read. Which are usually all by men and usually feed into some sort of “male” gender stereotype, like outdoorsy, survival, sports, adventure, high fantasy, etc.

    This irks me to no end for three reasons: ONE: We are not addressing the ACTUAL reasons boys aren’t reading (for example, oh, they are being given wussy, girly books and therefore think books are lame–OHS NOES) and TWO: We are introducing a whole new generation of boys-who-will-be-men to the idea that all books worth reading are by men and perpetuate said stereotypes and THREE: We are telling girls (especially girls like I was) who read adventure and fantasy and sci fi and survival and other such books that these are books, sorry honey, for men and you should go and read Black Beauty or the Babysitters Club already. (Two books (and series) I absolutely detested and was given as gifts by grandparents many times.)

    Can we not just all be people? I am forever grateful to my parents for raising my brother and I together, making sure we both got Barbies and GI Joe dolls, and that we both shared all of our books and so while he (and I) read Matt Christopher and Gary Paulsen, we also both read Pippi Longstocking and the Ramona books. We are not perfect adults, me and my brother, but we are certainly not “gendered” in any traditional way and our kids won’t be either, not if we have anything to say about it.


    Ethel Rohan said on 06/06/11 at 7:48 pm

    Amber, I often wonder how I’d mother boys. I’d like to think well and no different from how I raise my girls. My daughters’ Catholic school socializes the children by gender from day one — with separate lines and the dining hall divided down the middle by gender and separate sex ed and on and on, and it infuriates me no end. Sexism is learned and avoidable. Thanks for being part of the solution.

  11. jesusangelgarcia said on 06/06/11 at 5:17 pm Reply

    Have you seen Jason Diamond’s Vol. 1 Brooklyn response to the same Esquire worldview going on at NY Daily News?

    None of this makes sense to me. I used to read Dylan Thomas not b/c he was a raging alcoholic but b/c his words burned on the page, firing my addled adolescent brain. I didn’t learn to become a drunk from this; I learned to be more human (and hopefully a better writer).


    Ethel Rohan said on 06/06/11 at 7:49 pm

    I look forward to reading the link, Jesus. Thanks for contributing to this discussion. I love your comments. It’s not about gender, it’s all about the burn 🙂

    Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 10:27 pm

    I wish I could Like this comment. I don’t really have anything more to say other than I like this comment; it burns me.

    jesusangelgarcia said on 06/07/11 at 12:46 am

    Like good Welsh whiskey, aye.

    Ellen Parker said on 06/08/11 at 2:07 pm

    Yes. You responded to Dylan Thomas’s words on the page. Perhaps, at least initially, you knew nothing about Dylan Thomas as a person–none of the usual list of “facts” about him. But the words leapt off the page and took hold of you. As writers, we can have this beautiful anonymity–we can talk to people just by using these dark symbols on a page or a screen–readers can’t see our gender, color, age, nationality, state of sobriety, “hotness,” ugliness, etc. And, as readers, we can approach each new page (or screen) with our minds completely open: we’re leaning in, thinking, Talk to me. Then we can either “hear” the writer, or we can’t. The writer’s humanity, as Jesus said, can speak to us. This happens to me as often with male writers as it does with female writers. So when Esquire publishes a long list of recommended books that includes only one woman writer, I’m like, Really? Only one woman writer in your life ever spoke to you? This seems dishonest to me. It seems pathological. It seems “fixed.” I don’t believe it. Do you know what I mean? As a reader, I don’t understand it. It feels like a lie to me, and I turn away.

  12. Don said on 06/06/11 at 6:04 pm Reply

    It’s not just Esquire. I was in a bookstore the other day, and the Fathers’ Day book display was stupid… all bad athlete biographies, books about grilling, etc. Athlete biographies and grilling books are fine, but is that really all that “father” means?

    (No books by women on the display.)


    Ethel Rohan said on 06/06/11 at 7:53 pm

    I’ve seen those ‘men’s’ book displays, they’re everywhere! What has to be especially insulting to men is the AMOUNT of grilling books on the market — how many times do they think men have to be told the same thing, and to limit men to the grill too, pleeeez.

    Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 10:17 pm

    You forgot golf. Fathers also need golf.

    Should we start resorting to guerilla tactics? Should we start peppering these Father’s Day displays with awesome literature written by females? Or.. or cookbooks that actually have the man working with…an oven?! For shame, man!

    (I baked banana bread last Saturday morning. I wore an apron. The apron got flour on it. That shit was delicious.)

  13. Doug Paul Case said on 06/06/11 at 7:02 pm Reply

    I’m inclined to think much of this stems from a culturally-rooted place of insecurity—on both sides of the argument. The men, both at Esquire and generally, who are worried about the numerical decline of literary-inclined boys make misguided lists under the false impression that a book written by a man will appeal to a male audience (why JK Rowling chose to publish that way) and spark some interest. Then advocates of women writers cry foul from a separate place of insecurity: that their work isn’t being met with the same respect (when many times I suspect it is, if from a different segment of the reading public).

    I think the conversation should instead be moved to question why we read, and why we teach children to read, in the first place. Why does literature exist? I’d always been told from my parents and lit instructors it was to learn something new about a piece of the world I would never see, and it was under this assumption that I grew to love books like ‘The Good Earth’ and ‘Black Boy,’ which spoke about experiences I would never have. And while I might enjoy (or find more relatable) books like ‘The Ice Storm’ more, that doesn’t mean I’ll take more away from it.

    Which is why I’m tempted to say all such lists are self-destructive. There’s no way to know who will read the books from the list or what changes those books will have on readers. The list that will teach me the most about the larger world is probably significantly different than the list that would teach you. Complaining about it is a step, but we must to more to solve the problem: We must remind ourselves what the purpose of literature ultimately is.


    Chris Newgent said on 06/06/11 at 10:26 pm

    Freaking great points, Doug. I was actually, at one point, trying to work this greater question into my post, and couldn’t make it fit with a transition I was comfortable with, so I’m really glad it came up here in the comments.

    I think literature (all art really, but specifically literature because of how it truly interacts with our mental processes in a very active way by way of having to process the language–i.e. you can’t just glance at a work of lit and move on down the gallery) exists as an act of empathy. Like you said, to read about another’s life (be it character/speaker/narrator), to invest in that life and care what happens next, is an act of ultimate empathy, and what better an exercise of empathy than to read something written by someone unlike yourself, whether culturally, morally, gender, etc.

    I think these lists and the subsequent bantering about whether they are balanced or not are necessary, if for no other reason than to raise and maintain awareness (like Victoria mentioned earlier). The logical next step is to begin moving the dynamic to the greater question of “Why literature/art?”

    Dawn. said on 06/06/11 at 10:40 pm

    Great points, Doug. And I agree with Chris and Ethel above–I believe reading literature is an act of empathy and concurrently a way of knowing ourselves. This (and Ethel’s fabulous book) reminds me of a Michael Martone quote I read somewhere recently: In the stories we tell ourselves, we tell ourselves.

  14. Ethel Rohan said on 06/06/11 at 8:00 pm Reply

    Excellent points, Paul, thank you. I especially like, “I think the conversation should instead be moved to question why we read, and why we teach children to read, in the first place. Why does literature exist?”

    Your questions make me feel incredibly optimistic because I believe we read to see and know ourselves in trouble and in action, and ultimately in transcendence, and therefore literature will never become obsolete.


    Ethel Rohan said on 06/07/11 at 12:22 am

    Doug, I’m so sorry, I called you ‘Paul.’ My brain is fried. I almost married a man named ‘Paul.’ I guess the name has sticking-power in my addled brain. Thanks, again.

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/08/11 at 10:12 am

    Dawn, I love the quote, thanks for sharing. That’s why contemporary lit is so important, we need to tell ourselves now so we can tell ourselves.

  15. Kyle Winkler said on 06/06/11 at 10:37 pm Reply

    My measly coin flip into this fountain here consists of…: I remember long ago hearing that you should write what you know. That wizened chestnut has been polished to look like a brown marble. Less than long ago, in defiance of brown marbles, I decided to try and write into the mind of the opposite of who I was: women. When I say opposite, I mean, firstly genetic, anatomic, existential. I connect with women, I have female friends. But a man will never really know how a woman lives and vice versa. Even more so, as an adult male, I have no idea what it’s like to be a young girl. So I went there. I wrote into the lives of young women. This looks and feels ridiculous to write, but I’ve found myself edging into that area, simply b/c I was gently prodded away from it. Do I do it well? That’s hard to say. Probably not. But I don’t begrudge myself for trying.

    It also doesn’t hurt that some of my most influential & favorite authors are women, as well.

    Being a man, and reading manly literature is a false dichotomy, b/c, what’s womanly literature? Also, what’s the relationship between your gender and your devotion or allegiance to that gender. Answer: none. Hate it, love it. Your choice. What is there to choose from really? I’ve read Shirley Jackson and had my ass handed back to me on a pike. My masculinity has been severely tweezed, judiciously slit-up, and decidedly analyzed thoroughly, and better in some instances, by women more than men.

    As for the source…Esquire was once a flagship for great fiction, now sunk. It’s been reborn from the flames of the 90s as a How To with fashion and rare pieces of interesting-ish journalism. I understand the level of discontent with its reading list. But when I see stuff that so desperately panders to one half of the species, I tend to shut my looking-balls down and think about peanut butter on toast. Which, coincidentally, tastes better than dying periodicals.

    Cheers to you all.


    Chris Newgent said on 06/07/11 at 2:10 pm

    And how!

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/08/11 at 10:18 am

    Kyle, I’ve spent nine years (off and on) writing a novel in the close 3rd POV and my protagonist is a forty-seven-year old Dublin man. So, um, pray for me!

    Thanks for joining the conversation. I’m craving PB and toast NOW.

  16. Ethel Rohan said on 06/07/11 at 12:16 pm Reply

    And the winner is . . .


  17. Lidia Yuknavitch said on 06/07/11 at 10:45 pm Reply

    of course the problem with just letting cultural mouthpieces like esquire or anyone ejaculate more male exclusive “greatness” upon our faces without any response or uproar is that it silently sanctions it.

    i wish we lived in a world where the “greatness” of literature had a perfectly gender balanced scale, but it does not. and jesus. it’s 2011. so those of us fighting as women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, and everything in between sexual, as well as minority writers from other categories have to keep looking at a “canon” that excludes us and calls it “great.”

    i suppose i have to get in the boat with those who say it’s no longer an intellectual or aesthetic or theoretical discussion.

    if all you are reading is books by men, stop.

    if all you are buying is books by men, stop.

    the “story” of what we read is not predetermined.

    we ARE the readers.

    my friend lance olsen and i have similar discussion with regard to mainstream fiction vs. experimental fiction. if all you are reading and buying is mainstream or commercial fiction, stop.

    i mean really, we’re not passive widgets. it’s pretty fucking easy to just stop being complicit in the problem…

    as for books like mine, uber unapologetic in terms of being written by a woman through a woman’s body for ANY humans who have bodies and lives, or books of any sort written by women, the call is what it has always been.

    stand up.

    do not apologize.

    do not say things like “it doesn’t matter if i’m a woman writer.”

    until it doesn’t matter, it does.

    i don’t desire a neutered society or literature. i desire a fully present — intellectually, corporeally, spiritually, ethically — society and literature. that means all the bodies. all the literatures.

    and i don’t mean to fart in church, well maybe i do, but DANG. that means letting go of the MARKET and CRITIC call telling you what to read and why…

    love lidia


    Ethel Rohan said on 06/08/11 at 10:23 am

    To steal from and to Chris N.’s comment earlier, I wish we had a ‘LOVE’ button, Lidia.

    You’ve actually inspired and uplifted me, Lidia, with these excellent thoughts, and I feel empowered.

    We ARE the readers and buyers. We HAVE the power.

    Thanks XX

    Chris Newgent said on 06/08/11 at 1:56 pm

    Very true, Lidia, and reading some of the more recent comments, I feel like it’s maybe easy to infer from my post that I mean to neuter literature or art, which I don’t. I think it’s really important to note the differences between men and women, but to not assign roles to them, because to assign roles to them is to limit us as readers, writers, artists, or most importantly, as humans. And most of all, I’m for the limitless, I’m for possibility.

  18. Adam said on 06/08/11 at 1:05 am Reply

    I’m not sure what constitutes a man or a woman, apart from anatomy, but when I write men, they usually have a relationship to violence. They feel they must be violent to express themselves, and to give themselves power, but they also regret this need in ways they can’t admit, even to themselves, and keep this remorse in box, the way Anthony Weiner kept his internet habits in a box. Finally, the barriers break down.

    I suppose that when I write women, the women are trying to react with a kind of consistent dignity to their relationships with men who act like this, while still pursuing their own desires and goals. In an unrelated matter, I really love Dirty Dancing. It’s a chick flick, yes?


    Corey Beasley said on 06/08/11 at 10:06 am

    Interesting points, Adam — just to go along and play devil’s advocate to a lot of the (also excellent and well-put) points here so far, gender does become crucial from a character standpoint, no? Is it regressive to consider issues of stereotypical masculinity — ala McCarthy, for example — if you’re a male writer? And, as a male reader, what if that’s simply what most interests me — reading about my own specific experience and seeing other writers theorize on it? Is the problem then that many writers who are doing so are also male? What does everyone think?

  19. Andy Farkas said on 06/08/11 at 2:46 am Reply

    First, I find it hilarious that they list Kurt Vonnegut here, since in one of his essays (I can’t remember which), he says that he’s happy he no longer lives in a time where a man working in the arts has to go to a bar and punch somebody to prove he’s a man.

    Secondly, the “what does it mean to be a man” question has come up and “what is men’s literature” has come up too. I admit, I don’t think of myself as a “man,” I think of myself as a “guy.” To me there’s a difference (and this may be my own view of the two words, so I am by no means universalizing). When I think of the word “man,” I immediately think of Ernest Hemingway. And I have no interest at all in being Ernest Hemingway. I like some of his books and some of his short stories, but I have no interest in being him. Guys, on the other hand, have the y chromosome, and all the other physical stuff that goes with being a man, but guys don’t have any particular character they have to fill. Hemingway had to show that he was tough and strong and, well, manly. I can’t be asked to care about any of that.

    So, in the way I’ve laid it out for myself, a “man’s literature” would be what Hemingway would want to read. What’s “guys’ literature,” then? Since guys don’t have any particular character they have to fill, their literature is based on whatever their personal taste is. In my opinion, it would be impossible to make a list for “guys’ literature” because it would always depend on which guy was being asked.

    And this gets me to the other idea that’s been brought up: the idea of lists in general. I remember when I first saw the movie “Citizen Kane” that I’d been told it was, and say it with me now, “The Greatest Film Ever Made.” I watched it and didn’t like it at all. Then I said, “Wait a minute, instead of watching this as ‘The Greatest Film Ever Made,’ how about just watching it as a movie?” So I did. And I loved it. Is it my favorite movie of all time? No. Do I think it’s the best movie of all time? No. But I still really like that movie. Consequently, I stopped putting much stock in lists. Instead, I encourage people to push the books they love, but not to immediately expect that other people will agree.


    Corey Beasley said on 06/08/11 at 10:09 am

    Nicely put, Andy! I think lists propagate because people — by nature — link to have things ranked and scored for them. That’s not a slight, I like lists very much. So, of course they’ll be subjective. On the other hand, isn’t it useful to have people who really are unusually well-versed in a field (film, in your example) express what they believe to be the best (or, maybe more usefully, the most important) works in that field?

    Ethel Rohan said on 06/08/11 at 10:32 am

    Thanks, Andy. I like this, “it would be impossible to make a list for “guys’ literature” because it would always depend on which guy was being asked.

    Yes, let’s push ourselves to shout about the books we love and also push ourselves to take risks as readers and buyers — read and buy work outside of our usual radar and ‘comfort zone.’

  20. Mary Jo TC said on 06/08/11 at 8:08 am Reply

    Hi Molly and Chris! Sorry, but I didn’t have time to read all the comments before responding. I hope this wasn’t already said.

    I feel like we can’t blame only the list-makers when they are perpetuating, not creating, this gap in reading habits where men read mostly men and women read mostly women. In many ways I feel like they’re reacting to a reading culture that has already been in place long before they started writing and making lists. Of course, they’re not trying to change it in a positive way, either.

    Personally, I feel like I have to accept at least some responsibility for this skewed reading culture. Last year, I taught 2 male-dominated high school English classes. I mean, one girl in one class, and none in the other. And they weren’t just guys, they were guys in the “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mechanics Academy,” which explained the numbers, and which in my school meant they aspired to be auto mechanics. Once I saw my roster, I totally redid my reading list. The Joy Luck Club was out, and The Things They Carried was in. I didn’t push my students to read books by women. I knew my life as a 24-year-old, five-foot, first-year, female teacher was already going to be hellish enough in those classes, and I didn’t want to add to it by creating student resistance by assigning “girls’ books.”

    Of course, none of these students were “readers” in the first place, so I don’t think I changed their habits for the worse, and I felt like getting them to read anything at all was a triumph, but I didn’t help the situation. I think it starts in schools and in childhood though. It starts with the fact that teachers and parents and librarians recommend “boy” books for boys and “girl” books for girls. And since in a classroom, boys are generally the more resistant readers, teachers often make the whole class read “boy” books, creating a reading culture where women are more likely to read a male author than vice versa.


    Corey Beasley said on 06/08/11 at 10:15 am

    Mary Jo — I’ve had similar internal battles when deciding what to include and what not to include on my syllabi. The last time I taught a lit class, I realized that I had three books by men and one book by a woman on the list; but, one of those books was The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and one was Bastard Out of Carolina, both of which deal with homosexuality at least as much as they deal with heterosexuality. So, that just brought up MORE questions about whether or not I was giving space to enough perspectives and experiences. In the end, I decided not to swap anything out, thinking, “These books are great books, and that’s what matters,” but I do find myself wondering about it even a year down the road.

    Jackie said on 06/08/11 at 10:32 am

    Hi everyone! Mary Jo, as a short, young woman who teaches, I too have struggled with this. I usually get around this a little by choosing a theme (but how do I choose the theme, you ask? A process similar to this one.

    Teaching an undergrad lit course last semester, for example, the theme I used was “monsters and love,” and I was surprised that Dracula (written by a man–a long time ago) was much more popular than Maximum Gaga (a retelling of sorts of the minotaur myth, written in 2009 by the awesome, female Lara Glenum).

    At the time, I chalked it up to level of difficulty: Dracula is more straightforward prose, while Gaga is poetry; Dracula uses language and syntax in pretty recognizable ways, while Gaga uses slang and vulgar language plays with syntax.

    But now I wonder how Maximum Gaga would have gone over had the author been male– like the author would have had “permission” to be dirty? They took all of Bulgakov’s naked women and Satan’s Grand Ball in The Master and Margarita in stride.

  21. Ethel Rohan said on 06/08/11 at 10:43 am Reply

    Mary Jo TC,

    Thanks so much for joining the conversation and for your honesty. You underscore the importance of getting more writers and books ‘known’ and thus offering you and others like you more choices for your syllabi and personal reading lists.

    You’re right, the obstacles and challenges to reading and what to read start very early. But the pity is in offering boys and girls reading choices based on gender versus excellence. Give any boy and any girl a gripping read that pulls them in and carries them off and it doesn’t matter WHO wrote it. I’m just banging my pans to ask the author be someone beyond the usual and overdone.

    If a child/student hates to read, they hate to read. Shoving books at them by authors of the same sex is ridiculous and destructive — offer them excellent books by authors of either sex and let be …

    If you can take a few moments to read any of the comments here, Mary Jo TC, I urge you to read Lidia Yuknavitch’s. I found her comments to be empowering and I think you will too.

    You ARE the reader, buyer, and teacher. You CAN bring about positive change.

    Thanks again.


  22. Ethel Rohan said on 06/08/11 at 10:50 am Reply

    Hi Jackie,

    A book I love and that would have fallen beautifully into your theme is ‘Frankenstein.’ Maybe for a future class?

    You raise excellent questions and points, and you’re right, absolutely there’s restriction around what a woman writer ‘can dish out’ and what readers are willing to take from a woman writer. As it is in the culture, so it is in the literature.

    More reasons to broaden our reading span and range and support the brave band of women writers raising their voices about the worlds they live in and all too often have to fight in and overcome.

    Thanks again.


  23. DK said on 06/08/11 at 2:32 pm Reply

    I don’t have anything to add here that hasn’t already been covered, but I do want to thank everyone here (and over at HTML Giant) for treating this very touchy subject with the thoughtfulness and intellectual rigor it deserves. Admittedly, I have a tendency to avoid “girly” literature for writers who were more guy-oriented (HST, GM Fraser, Dave Barry, etc.). Whether that’s ignorance or socialization, I can’t say, but I’m trying to branch out now and read more female authors/stories, and the tone here is encouraging me to continue. Being part of a conversation that engages me to explore, rather than one that scolds me for not starting way earlier, makes all the difference.


  24. Art Bushnell said on 06/08/11 at 10:58 pm Reply

    I am intrigued by this entire string and where it has traveled. As an older man, I came of age in a time when fathers were not as involved in the home as mothers were. So it was mothers who read to their children.

    There was a strong perception of what was “male” and I guess authors like Hemingway would be at the top of that list. But mothers weren’t reading Hemingway to their young boys.

    And, as a result of that up-bringing, when I became a father, it was more important to be involved with my childrens’ lives and with what they read. That’s why I read them “To Kill A Mockingbird” when they were probably much too young. But it remains my “favorite” book (if one can really have a favorite out of so many different styles of books and writing).

    When I look at lists like this, I wonder about the age of the list makers. I wonder if there is also an age-ism coupled with the implied sexism.

    I would hope we had reached a time when we are all people touched by what we read (the earlier empathy thread is spot on).

    I am a sucker for a good novel. I am currently reading”Doc,” by Mary Doria Russell. I am so glad I did not miss this read of what might be traditional male territory (the old West) because it was written by a woman.

    Thanks for having such a thought-provoking discussion of literature. I can not wait to see where the Lit Pub takes us all.


  25. Ethel Rohan said on 06/09/11 at 12:58 pm Reply

    I love your comments, Ellen Parker, thank you. Hear, hear! How great to blow the lit world wide open and get more readers to stop turing away and turn to more books.

    DK, you’ve no idea how happy your comments make me. I’m a champion of discussion and exploration and education and, yes, branching out. Bravo.

    Thanks so much, Art, for joining us and for sharing. Interesting point re agism and I too wonder how that plays in here. I also look forward to seeing where The Lit Pub takes us all, it’s so exciting in its mission, vision and inclusivity.


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