Last spring, as I awaited answers from MFA programs, I began to pressure myself to “catch up” to my hypothetical peers. I had a long list of the writers I felt obligated to read, and, because of the way the canon and literary culture works, most of them were male. It’s not that I didn’t want to read books by women. It’s just that I felt a greater urgency to read books by men.
As anyone with Internet access knows, the #MeToo movement has swept its way through culture and seeped into the literary world. Last spring, several popular writers were exposed, and I read the media coverage of it all with a sort of disgusted fascination. Even some beloved authors from my childhood were creeps. Who would be the next man to fall? I had no way of knowing. Anyone was suspect.
I reached a certain breaking point as I sorted through my mental “to be read” pile, culling titles left and right. I thought about all of the men I no longer had interest in reading and the threat that that list would grow.
So I just stopped reading men at all. It turns out that it’s very easy not to read things.
It was pretty easy even with stories all around me. I’m a compulsive clicker, and I am way more likely to read a short story I see linked on Twitter than a collection. That was simple enough—I just had to keep scrolling, and it was like the story disappeared. When I moved to Virginia for grad school, I had to pack up all of my books and then unpack and organize them in my new place. That was harder—actually holding books by men, putting them into the “unread” stacks. But I stuck to my guns. I put those books down and picked up women-authored ones in their place.
I was initially worried about my writerly development—surely I had to read these books, otherwise I wouldn’t learn what I needed to learn. But it turns out that without that feeling of obligation hanging over me, I read more adventurously and found a slew of new writers who inspire me.
The world kept on spinning. I lived. I read stuff I was happy with. I wrote stuff I was happy with. When I began my MFA classes in August, I no longer felt like I needed to catch up with anybody.
I wouldn’t want to force my reading policy on anyone, but it’s evident that people need to try a little harder to read women. In 2018, Lauren Groff pointed out in her New York Times “By the Book” profile that male authors featured in the same column rarely mention female writerly influences. “Something invisible and pernicious seems to be preventing even good literary men from either reaching for books with women’s names on the spines, or from summoning women’s books to mind when asked to list their influences,” she said. A subsequent analysis of a hundred interviews in the column found that though female writers mention male and female writers with the same frequency, male writers “mention other men four times as frequently as women.” Before change comes naturally, people need to make a pointed effort.
It’s spring semester. I can feel the summer looming: soon I will be freed from syllabi and will choose my own books to read. While I’m not sure I will impose rules on myself again, I know that I’ll be reading with an increased conscientiousness.
Sarah Boudreau is a first year fiction MFA at Virginia Tech.