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Is Reading Necessarily a Hostile Experience for Young Women?


In 2007, several n+1 editors discussed books they’d read or wished they had read in college. The series of dialogues was published in a pamphlet called What We Should Have Known. A new pamphlet, No Regrets, which came out this week, reprises the 2007 panel’s questions (What do you wish you had read in college? What books changed you?) but restricts the conversation to women. (New York Magazine's The Cut ran an excerpt last week.) “I decided to include only women” this time, editor and moderator Dayna Tortorici writes in her introduction. “I had several reasons, none of them entirely satisfying.” Among them: Women speak differently when there are no men around.

As 2013 college graduates, we, The New Republic’s three female reporter-researchers, are five years younger than the youngest participant of the n+1 conversations (excluding Tortorici) and about eleven years younger than the average panelist. We are, in other words, precisely the “college-aged” women that No Regrets targets. When we heard it was coming out, two of us wanted to read it. One did not.

It turned out, however, that writing about the pamphlet may already have been assigned. Undeterred, we approached the writer in question: 

Mimi Dwyer: Hi Marc! I have a question for you: Dayna Tortorici tells me you requested a copy of No Regrets. Are you planning on doing a review of it?

Marc Tracy: yes I was gonna write something on it soon--is that alright?

Mimi Dwyer: Well, Linda Julia and I had talked about doing an in-conversation style review since we are all the young women it's aimed at

But if you've already got something in the works we can rethink it

Marc Tracy: I'd started let me give it some thought. this is actually exactly what the pamphlet is about, in a way! (older dude staff writer had gotten wind of it, lady reporter-researchers wanted their own space to discuss it) I mean it really is exactly what it's about

That is what it’s about, and it isn’t. Regardless, Tracy ceded the assignment to us. Here are our varied interpretations. 

I loved Roth for the hilarious, confounding things in his novels. 

The academy—or at least the English department at Bowdoin College, which I attended—seems to be a very different environment now than I’d guess it was even ten years ago, judging by these conversations. The main reason is boring but indisputable: the Internet. It’s so much easier now simply to look up a body of criticism on Wikipedia and form an opinion about it. Using Google Scholar and JSTOR and doing keyword searches for “feminism” or “Chaucer” changes the way you approach criticism. I don’t think I ever had to read an entire book by Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, or Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

The sense of embattlement the panelists feel, of being inundated with all this information and not knowing what is actually useful or worthwhile, is still present, though, even in the digital age; perhaps now it’s stronger, because there is more information and less obvious spaces to be original. Trying to do brand-new feminist readings of texts seemed less appealing when I was in college than it seems to have been for these older women. I knew there would already be a feminist reading of virtually everything I encountered, so it seemed like it would be trite to choose that analytical approach. It had already been done.

In the third conversation, almost every panelist offers an anecdote of when she had her "Henry James moment," as Namara Smith calls it. My own “Henry James moment” in many ways preempted the problem of misogyny, which is so central to so many of the panelists. I read James’ What Maisie Knew in a seminar called “Queer Child,” and it laid out, in Elif Batuman’s words, the “poisonous…dynamics of heterosexuality,” or of declaring any sexuality at all. I left college having learned over and over again, in literature and in life, how couplehood of any form is by nature entrapping, and yet that there’s a resilient desire for it. This prepared me to read the “midcentury misogynists” so decried (and then not) by Emily Gould—Roth, Updike, Mailer, Bellow—and to exist in a world that, as Emily Witt points out, is composed of “Roth-like situations” in which women take on “the role of the bovine female” and the masturbating male narrator gets to be the "the deceptive, neurotic, charmingly flawed hero balancing competing claims for his affection.” I ended up reading a lot of Roth senior year, and from the outset, my adviser warned me that the feminist way of reading Roth would make me hate him, but that I could also read him for the hilarious, confounding things in his novels. So I read him for those things. And I loved it.

The earlier pamphlet was upsetting for me when I read it as a junior, because it discussed college as a time of complete stasis—Mark Greif literally compared being an undergraduate to being buried alive. No Regrets strikes a similar note of being “already over college” before it begins, but it’s clear from all these discussions among people who are on the other side that no one really is.

— Linda Kinstler

No Regrets is inaccessible to the masses, the product of rarefied writers. 

In one of the more honest moments of No Regrets, n+1’s Carla Blumenkranz talks about a secret canon, “a collection of books that will tell you so much about the microculture you’re in.” In any group, certain books hold unusual currency. Sometimes they are neither good nor important, but, as one No Regrets panelist says, demonstrated knowledge of them, within the appropriate circles, becomes “shorthand for intelligence.” No Regrets’ participants—all women, mostly writers and academics, mostly products of faddish humanities departments at elite institutions—surely have their own secret canon.

That canon’s first problem is that it is founded on the notion that meaning is limited by personal identity. Perhaps the panelists’ conversation tilts toward identity politics because of the artificial absence of men. If you don’t buy the premise that men and women require different books, or at least tend to read the same books differently, too bad. The panelists seem unmoved by the notion that the aim of reading is to transcend one’s narrow perch in the world, not to seek others whose perches are similar—and similarly narrow.

Largely because of that stance, the canon in No Regrets is cultivated for the purpose of opposition. “When I was in college, I was reading out of anger,” Dawn Lundy Martin says. Where its 2007 precursor debates the nature and value of the Western canon, No Regrets assumes hostility.

And because it is hostile to the books that shape society, No Regrets is inaccessible to the masses. You know you’re in rarefied company when conversation is giddiest upon the discovery of shared enthusiasm for Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Democratically accessible though their political aspirations may be, Tortorici’s panelists speak their own language. They use terms like “completism” and “dynamics of heterosexuality.” They praise personal irresponsibility—behavior advised here includes neglecting to do the dishes or answer emails. The dialogue smacks of self-indulgence.   

The appeal of the liberal arts ought to be democratic, though, and never more than today, when the humanities are in danger of losing standing because of the ideas that propel conversations like this one. Over the last few decades, humanities departments have politicized and narrowed their work; rarely, now, do they ask grand and eternal questions. What is the beautiful? How does one live morally? Where do laws get their authority? Fervor for the new and a sense of alienation led some humanists to abandon those questions and take up the mantle of No Regrets’ canon—books like Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex and Chris Kraus' I Love Dick—instead. 

Tortorici set out to discuss how and what women should read. But women should read no differently from men. By conceiving of themselves primarily as women, the panelists bar themselves from fascinating and important topics; that self-imposed limitation is what strikes me as the most potent force of exclusion at play here. If some women feel displaced from discourse that has long been dominated by men, the appropriate response isn't to branch away and create a new conversation about marginal topics. It’s lamentable that most writers are men, but the way for women to fix that is to participate and—book by book, tenure by tenure, editorship by editorship—even out the tally. 

— Julia Fisher

I loved No Regrets, but it's an insulated project.

I expected to like No Regrets but I expected it to alienate me. I expected a group of admirable women writers comparing notes on books I should have read. I figured that these aired regrets would make me feel regretful, too. But the book actually made me feel more secure, in part because the discussants talk openly about their intellectual insecurities. Amanda Katz, for example, looks back on her education and realizes, “My god, it’s all holes.” But none of the speakers regret the holes—they regret the brutal way of reading that results from fearing those holes, from fearing exposure as frauds. As Kristin Dombek puts it:

I definitely felt a strong sense of should all the time, of what I should be reading, during that whole period. But when I look back, the thing I regret more is how I read, probably because of the should. I wish that I had read differently.

In a section entitled “Reasons to read at all,” Dombek defends just not reading for a while—like a couple of years. Such admissions make the pamphlet relatable and relaxed. They give hope.

Many of the writers in No Regrets see certain canonical authors as hostile to women. But their responses to this hostility vary. “I remember putting On the Road down the first time a woman was mentioned,” Sara Marcus says. “I was just like: ‘Fuck. You.’” Emily Gould found she loved “midcentury misogynist” Philip Roth. Kristin Dombek could never read Hemingway and wished years later that she had. Dawn Lundy Martin “didn’t have trouble reading masculinist texts like Hemingway.”

There’s no clear-cut moral or ideological response to texts hostile to women in No Regrets. Rather, the pamphlet shows how these women’s theories of reading hostility have changed. A younger Dombek “was such a total pacifist and I would walk out of any movie where there was violence against women,” but Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers was revelatory for her. Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick affected Gould because it “acknowledged that… women who love men are going to have to come to terms with their complicity in their own repression and subjugation, and find ways to address it.”

Similarly, Carla Blumenkranz returns to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence because “it’s an interesting experiment for me to think about a novel that’s fundamentally tolerant of the social norms that it depicts.” The experience of tolerating or accepting a problematic social environment, or feeling implicated or privileged by it, might especially resonate with women who’ve tolerated and internalized a hostile canon. It can be difficult to separate an interest in such tolerance from dumb, mute tolerance itself, though. The moments that get at these nuances are No Regrets’ strongest.

I loved No Regrets. But a female peer of mine from only the most nit-pickingly disparate of backgrounds—different alma mater, different literary heroes—detested it. She hated the premise that women read differently than men do. Her perspective is, ironically, somewhat muted in the pamphlet. It’s an insulated project in that sense. It asserts that the experience of hostility and violence is central to reading as a woman. But the women who reject this notion are of course no less women readers. I wonder how they might enter the fold.

— Mimi Dwyer

Image via Shutterstock.

Correction: This piece originally misattributed the quote, “When I was in college, I was reading out of anger” to Dayna Tortorici. It was from Dawn Lundy Martin. It also referred to "Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers." Tarantino wrote the screenplay, but Oliver Stone wrote and directed the film.