Literary Hub

David Hayden: “Men Still Too Often See Their Writing as the Canon”

One winter afternoon in 1981, I was between shifts as a kitchen porter in a big sea-front hotel in Blackpool. I had a brown manila pay packet in my pocket with £16 and change in it. I stood in a branch of W.H. Smith, looking at the classics. The books that I had not read. I crouched and took a small white paperback from the shelf, carefully opened the thick, blotting paper pages and read: One has pierced me. One is driven deep within me. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. I was in. For good.

Ten years later, I was working in a bookstore myself. Any workday morning, I would walk up and down the lumpy red carpet of a bookshop in Preston holding a green catalogue and a leaky biro, checking off the missing and the present—Willa Cather, My Antonia, Barbara Comyns, Who Was Saved and Who Was Dead, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Clarice Lispector, The Apple in the Dark, Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage—but only volumes three and four—Christina Stead, The Beauties and the Furies, Gertrude Stein, Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes . . . I would finish my stock check and place another order for the books that I would read, and would try to get others to read.

When my book was published, I supposed, naively or optimistically, or likely both, that the writing by women that has had a huge influence on me would be visible in my work and worthy of discussion, inasmuch as the book was worthy of any critic’s time at all. I was wrong. I was very fortunate to have many searching and, for the most part, sympathetic reviews, and I am reluctant to appear ungrateful to these writers, but of the many comparisons of my work—to fiction writers, poets and filmmakers—not a single one was to a woman.

There is a stubbornly persistent discourse that is comfortable discussing “Serious Books by Serious Men” in a critical imaginary inhabited only by other “Serious Men.” It elevates male writers and makes female writers disappear—and almost every major male writer that comes along is examined within its parameters. After all the critical work—by Joanna Russ, Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and many, many others—men still too often see their writing as the canon, the real thing, the main event, the essential. Most men’s habits of reading seem largely untouched by feminist critiques of literary culture. Are the works of art that women make necessary to men? As readers, or writers, or both? The novel as we know it would not exist without women writers, to take one weighty example, so clearly they are. Historically, women’s effort has disappeared into men’s art in the form of domestic labor, physical and emotional; that much is widely known, if infrequently acknowledged. Women’s art has long vanished there as well.

In reader surveys, it is discovered again and again that men who read, read other men, almost exclusively, and that women who read, while favoring women writers, read across gender far more equitably. The ways in which books are packaged, marketed and publicised reflect this reality. As the VIDA Count shows, in most cultural media, men’s writing is given far more cultural weight than writing by women—more bylines, more publication, more reviews. And for all the othered others, there is even less cultural room to exist.

“Critics should not boost male writers by simply placing them on the giants’ shoulders of their greatest male predecessors as they plot credible lineages.”

What does it mean to read only books by men, and for the most part—and let’s face it, much of the time exclusively—white men? It means, in part, that the reader participates in the idea, which runs, invisible and toxic, through our culture, that the default human is male. And, so often partnered with this, that maleness is unitary, obvious and unchallengeable in other ways, encompassing the hallucinations and actualities of race, sexuality, and class. What happens when readers don’t push into the prevailing wind, don’t strain against the tide? What happens when, as readers, we do not travel across the structures and the lines of the obvious and the given, seeking out the openings, the intersections? We get what is served and consider it freely chosen. We might experience culture as nature, as fundamentally unchanging and unchangeable. And, most of all, we might turn away from each other.

Men reading only, or largely, male writers often do so as an unreflected-upon exercise of taste; thinking, it seems, that they are not missing much. But they are imposing upon themselves an enormous loss of connection with half and more of humanity and rejecting an immense gain of vision and understanding in a dazzlingly expanded universe of books. There are significant insights to be gained from considering all genders’ writing as existing in one republic of letters. Where the male writer is—or claims to be—unaware of the debt he owes to his female antecedents, nonetheless male artistic choices are drawn from a culture that is alive with the literary and artistic achievements of women. Critics should not boost male writers by simply placing them on the giants’ shoulders of their greatest male predecessors as they plot credible lineages. Criticism would be revitalized by a broader, more complex and fairer understanding of influence.

When a person sits down to write, they have a body, they have memory, they have their entire somatic functioning and everything that is embedded there. Writing is a practice where a singular means is drawn out of all that stuff and shaped into something that can be shared with a few or many people, or with no one but the self who writes. People write out of their skin and their memory and their blood, out of history and culture, out of every hour they have lived, out of everything that they have read, everything that they have not read, everything they have heard and misheard: the reserves of their entire sensory experience. All that is felt and thought and all that resides deep inside them beyond thought. There are an almost infinite number of connections that a writer can make with this, and if they can make those in language, and are not lost costively within themselves, then they are writing.

*

Over the eight years I spent writing my collection, my reading helped keep me in touch with the pulse and purpose of writing, as well as being a pleasure and a release, as well as being everything else that reading, and writing, is. I gravitated to books that read the reader while the reader reads them. Darkmans by Nicola Barker, The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen, Love’s Work by Gillian Rose, Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley, Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil, A Body of Water by Beverley Farmer, Dictée by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway, Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Event Factory by Renee Gladman, In Night’s City by Dorothy Nelson; the stories of Diane Williams, Grace Paley, Lucia Berlin, Eudora Welty, Maeve Brennan, Christine Schutt, Katherine Mansfield, Claire-Louise Bennett and Eley Williams; poetry by Vahni Capildeo, Adrienne Rich, Claudia Rankine, Emily Dickinson, Audre Lorde; essays by Susan Howe, Mary Ruefle, Elizabeth Hardwick; everything by Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf. And, not least, the books of Susan Cooper, Tove Jansson, Pat O’Shea and Joan Aiken that I read aloud to my children. This is nothing like an exhaustive accounting of the air I breathed while writing—and rewriting and rewriting—the stories that became my book. If I were to attempt such a summary it would be as long, or longer, than the book itself. But here I have set down, in this brief and partial way, some of what I owe, as a debt of love to these writers and their work.

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