The other day, while making a list of the 10 best books I’ve read in 2021 – it’s a thing of mine, making lists – it struck me that most authors on it fell into one of two categories: women, or people of color born in non-English speaking countries. Only four white males made the list. This is the first time that’s probably happened for me, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.
I’ve read hundreds of books in my life, maybe thousands. I’d be willing to bet that 90% of them were written by white men from English-speaking countries. That’s partly my doing, and partly the doing of the education system I was brought up in. Students of my time and place (20th century, United States) were fed a steady diet of Shakespeare, Twain, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald, with the occasional Jane Austen tossed in.
When I got to college (university, for you non-Americans), I was pointed toward contemporary authors – and that list was also dominated by white males from English speaking countries (John Updike, Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, John Irving, Graham Greene, George Orwell).
As an adult I started reading exclusively for fun again. My non-fiction tastes ran to books about sports, history, politics and pop culture, and my fiction tastes ran to crime novels and the occasional social satire. This time I did the choosing – and I mainly chose white male authors from English-speaking countries (Chandler and Hammett, Hiaasen and Ellroy, Richard Price and Jim Thompson). The exceptions were a pair of African American crime novelists: Walter Mosley and Chester Himes.
The only woman author I read consistently was Flannery O’Connor. I can’t think of a single other one.
Well, I’ve evolved over the last couple of years. I have made a concerted effort to read more women authors, and more authors from outside English-speaking countries. I wish I could say it’s because of some great progressive awakening. But it’s mostly because I’ve just about hit my ceiling of white, male authors.
I have all but exhausted the bibliographies of many of the authors I would normally gravitate to. I’ve taken a shot at reading a bunch of classic lit in recent years – Dickens, Melville, Joyce, Dostoevsky – and much of it just bores the ever-loving shit out of me. I’ve taken a stab at reading classics of more recent vintage – Updike, Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, Jonathan Frazen, Michael Chabon – and much of that bores the shit out of me, too.
So when one well runs dry, you try another one. In my case, it meant expanding beyond my comfort zone into the zillion or so other authors out there who aren’t white or male.
In the last year or so, I have read four of the best books I ever will read, all of them written by women, three by women of color, none from the United States. These four books, in no particular order, are:
“White Teeth” by Zadie Smith
“Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata
“Music Love Drugs War” by Geraldine Quigley
“Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
I’m still reading “Half of a Yellow Sun,” and I can barely put it down. It’s a novel by a Nigerian author, published in 2006, that follows the lives of various people navigating the turbulence of that country in the 1960s. Sometimes I think maybe it’s the best thing I’ve ever read.
I sometimes thought the same thing about “Music Love Drugs War,” set in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s.
I sometimes thought the same thing about “White Teeth,” set in London during the waning decades of the 20th century.
These are books by women authors who might not even land in the Top 20 of greatest women writers (well, maybe Zadie Smith would), not when you consider who usually lands on that list: Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Agatha Christie, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Walker, the aforementioned Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott, etc.
Here’s something I’ve recently decided, fairly late in life, based on a fairly small sample size, and as someone who writes for a living: Women, on average, are better at writing than men. I’m not even sure it’s close. And I’m not the only dude who thinks so, either.
In a 2017 column for The Guardian, novelist John Boyne kicked up quite a stir when he stated, matter-of-factly, that “women are better novelists than men.” He (like me) was not necessarily comfortable with the generalization. But he did make some pretty sound points:
“First, perhaps it is the historically subservient role women have played in society that has made them understand human nature more clearly, a necessity if one is trying to create authentic characters. Having been expected to bring up families while running a home and catering to society’s expectations of what women should be, they have a better grasp of human complexity. My female friends, for example, seem to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in men’s heads most of the time. My male friends, on the other hand, haven’t got a clue what’s going on in women’s.
“Second, many male writers, particularly younger ones, approach their work as if they – and not the books – are what’s important. They obsess about establishing a reputation, while ignoring the importance of just writing something good…. Female writers, on the other hand, seem more concerned with just writing good books.”
I agree with most of this, if not all of it. My experience tells me that women are often just as clueless about men as men are about women. But much of the rest of it does ring true. I do believe that on the whole, women are better observers because they have to be. They have to read situations and environments as a defense mechanism, whereas most men can stumble blindly along without ever wondering for a second whether there might be something out there to be worried about. The ability to observe is a hallmark of good writing.
Beyond that, women tend to read more than men, and when you have more experience with something, you naturally develop a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
I do know this: Women authors have all but taken over the modern literary landscape. From another Guardian article, published in May 2021 and headlined “How Women Conquered the World of Fiction:”
“Over the past five years, the Observer’s annual debut novelist feature has showcased 44 writers, 33 of whom were female. You will find similar ratios on prize shortlists.”
I have personal experience with this, by the way. I often enter my fiction in contests. I’ve only won one outright. I came in second in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition (won by a woman). I’ve placed high in a few others. And the winners’ lists are invariably dominated by women.
And do you know why? Because they can do things with words and stories that many, if not most, men simply can’t do, or don’t, or won’t. The books I’ve read from certain women authors simply paralyze me in ways that male authors usually don’t. There is an edge and honesty to their work – brutal and pure, unforgiving and uncompromising – that comes barreling through in books like “White Teeth” and “Half of a Yellow Sun.” It’s impossible to describe, and even more impossible to replicate.
Is this a generalization? Maybe, maybe. Maybe I’m overthinking the difference between male and female authors. But the thing is, I read an awful lot – more than just about anyone I know. And I’m pretty sure I’m not just imagining this.
The title of this blog mentions a “creative reckoning.” It’s a reference to my own place in the writing universe. The “reckoning” basically boils down to this: I am a writer of a certain set of skills, and if I stick to those skills, maybe I’ll carve out a small niche in the publishing world. But I can’t expand much beyond them. I’ve tried, but the key just doesn’t fit into the lock.
I’ll just have to learn to live with that, I suppose.
Anyway, here’s a list of the 10 best books I’ve read this year. Note that they weren’t necessarily published in 2021. Just that I read them in 2021. This is in no particular order of merit:
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
Every Man a Menace, Patrick Hoffman
Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor
Tough Luck, Jason Starr
Music Love Drugs War, Geraldine Quigley
The Cocktail Waitress, James M. Cain
In a Lonely Place, Dorothy B. Hughes
Wild Swans, Jung Chang
Half of a Yellow Sun: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
*The image is from WordPress. I may not have permission to use it. Sorry.