Some Reading Recs for Anybody Mourning the Possibility of President Warren

Normally I avoid talking about politics online. The reasons for that are probably obvious. But in 2020 it’s going to be impossible to avoid, and you know what? This week it felt personal. I’m not going into my own political ideologies here because frankly I don’t have the bandwidth to have that conversation with The Internet. It’ll suffice to say the narrowing of what was once the most diverse class of Democratic candidates in political history to two straight white male septuagenarians is… somewhat demoralizing.

Maybe this belongs in the “disappointed but not surprised” folder, but there’s a third element here which makes this sting a little more than unsurprising disappointments past, in that it proved America simply is not ready to put a woman in the White House. Elizabeth Warren was everything the theoretically “electable” female candidate was supposed to be: smart, articulate, strong on policy, untouched by scandal, folksy and accessible while simultaneously up to the task of single-handedly dismantling the preposterous vanity campaign of billionaire Mike Bloomberg on live television. And it still wasn’t enough. (Just to add insult to injury, everyone and their mom is already jumping down her throat to endorse Their Remaining Candidate, in keeping with the great American tradition of exploiting women’s labor and expertise without actually empowering them. Not a good look, folks.)

That this primary kicked off Women’s History Month and was punctuated by an International Women’s Day which happened to fall on the only 23-hour day of the year (as pointed out on Twitter by Caroline Moss) is almost too much to stomach. These might seem like trivial coincidences–and at the end of the day they probably are–but the frustration, outrage, and hopelessness many women are feeling right now isn’t trivial at all. They’re sick and tired of watching excellent women lose races, jobs, and opportunities to men who are merely mediocre. Don’t @ me.

On the individual level, there’s not a lot I can do about this. I’m not going to throw my vote away just because I can’t vote for the candidate I wanted to vote for. But neither do I like feeling helpless or (worse) complicit in systemic sexism–hence this post. In the greater scheme of things, a list of good books by women is pretty small potatoes. That said, sexism in publishing rather than politics is something I feel better qualified to speak to, as someone who has observed and experienced and occasionally studied it.

I’ve been involved in the publishing industry since 2014, and in six years you absorb a lot of anecdata. I could bore you with statistics about the disparities in paychecks and publicity for male and female authors. I could give you figures for the gender ratio of industry workers (overwhelmingly female) vs. industry executives (overwhelmingly male). I could show you a hundred screenshots of reader reviews that start with “I don’t usually read books by women but…” I could recount the dozen times I’ve been asked how I dared to write a first-person narrator not of my gender when I have never heard a man asked that question once

I think we’d both rather not do that, so instead I’ll keep it simple: sexism in publishing exists and will continue until people decide to do something about it. One small thing you can do (which is as much a favor to yourself as anybody else) is buy, read, and talk about books by women. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of excellent books by women which you might consider picking up if you, like me, want a way to amplify female voices in a day and age where we pay lip service to gender equality by sticking apostrophes in gas station signs but can’t bring ourselves to stop relegating women to the role of cheerleader, VP, endorsement-to-be-won, or–as a creative writing professor once called a classmate of mine, out loud, in a class that was two-thirds female, in the Year of Our Lord 2012–“a pretty good writer for a girl.”

With no further ado, here’s that juicy recipe you’ve been scrolling through my boring story to get to:

10 Books by Women for Anybody Mourning the Possibility of President Warren

  1. Heather Abel, The Optimistic Decade (2018). This is a rare coming-of-age novel which depicts the trials and tribulations of adolescence without trivializing them. Abel’s teenagers are people, not punchlines. But my favorite thing about this book is its portrayal of political awakening–there are a thousand books out there about first love and first lust, but it’s not so often you find a bildungsroman founded on first ideologies. Abel’s book is as intelligent as it is compassionate, two qualities we could all use more of these days.
  2. Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)I taught this book last semester in a science fiction course, and come December I had a fascinating pile of papers on my desk discussing the web of influence between science, culture, and history. Few novels demonstrate so masterfully the ripple effect of individual human actions, and the long-term impact of systemic inequality. Perhaps most important, though, is Butler’s attention to intersections of identity and how they shape our lived experience.
  3. Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal (2008)Catton won a Booker Prize for The Luminaries in 2013, but I rarely hear anybody talk about her first novel, which is a shame. Set in a New Zealand community rocked by the revelation of an affair between a teacher and student at an all-girls high school, The Rehearsal dispenses with the sordid details in favor of exploring the social repercussions of this abuse of power. When students at the arts academy down the road decide to fictionalize the affair for their final project, they open old wounds and raise uncomfortable questions about ethics, performance, and artistic representation.
  4. Joan Didion, Democracy (1984)This isn’t usually the first book people talk about when they talk about Didion. It’s unlike any other book I’ve ever read in that the author intrudes on the narrative at will–sometimes as a character and sometimes the creator, commenting on how this person or that part of the narrative took shape. It’s a fascinating window into a gifted writer’s process, and an all-too-pertinent portrait of what it takes to be a woman in politics. And with their personal problems subsumed in the geopolitical turmoil at the end of the Vietnam War, the Victor family would have felt right at home in the 2020s.
  5. Keri Hulme, The Bone People (1984)I recommend this book constantly, with the caveat that it comes with a lot of trigger warnings. It’s not easy to read, but it’s gorgeously written–which isn’t surprising considering Hulme’s origins in poetry. Her protagonist, the loosely autobiographical Kerewin Holmes, is an artist and a recluse, an asexual woman of mixed Caucasian and Maori heritage struggling to claim her place in a world which doesn’t know how to categorize her. After an encounter with a deaf-mute boy hiding in her house, she finds herself at the center of a grisly domestic drama which forces her to reckon with the greatest extremes of human cruelty.
  6. Lily King, Euphoria (2014)I’ve been obsessed with this book since the cover art caught my eye while I was working at Barnes & Noble back when it came out. Fortunately, the pages between don’t disappoint. Loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead, Euphoria is one of the most immersive novels I read in the 2010s, but that’s not all it has going for it. King’s depiction of passionate researchers in the flush of discovery is perfection, but she wisely resists the urge to romanticize, and never lets the reader forget that triumph and tragedy are never far apart. (Her new book, Writers & Lovers, is on its way to my mailbox. You can order yours here.)
  7. Iris Murdoch, The Book and the Brotherhood (1987)This isn’t necessarily where I’d suggest you start with Iris Murdoch. It’s dense and often difficult, but also (in my humble but correct opinion) some of her best work. Murdoch has long been a favorite of mine for her inimitable ability to weave threads of philosophy, theology, and literary criticism into a compelling piece of fiction. Her characters have remarkable depth and fascinating dynamics which explore, critique, and often explode our prescribed social roles as parents, children, siblings, students, teachers, spouses, lovers, and friends.
  8. Ashley Ream, The 100 Year Miracle (2016)Set in an insular community in the San Juan islands, this evocative novel foregrounds two women–a middle-aged politician and a young biological researcher–in the story of the titular miracle, six days in which microscopic phosphorescent creatures make the water in the bay glow green. Oh and by the way, they just might be the key to a cure for a fatal disease. Ream’s attention to scientific and political ethics, chronic illness, and aging make this much more than merely interesting speculative fiction.
  9. Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014). This is another one that came out while I was working as a bookseller. Am I biased because there’s so much Shakespeare? Of course. Is it an obvious choice considering the Covid-19 outbreak? Of course. But it’s still a damn good book. Station Eleven remains the most persuasive take on dystopia I’ve ever read, and part of the reason it succeeds is its refusal to fall into the trap of cynicism. It’s not all flowers and sunshine, but ultimately Station Eleven is about where and how we find hope in the darkest of times. God knows we could use that right now. (Mandel also has a new book out, The Glass Hotel. You can find that here.)
  10. Laura Van Den Berg, The Third Hotel (2018)This is one of the strangest books I’ve read this year, and incidentally one of my favorites. Van Den Berg’s tale of two normal, troubled people in a normal, troubled marriage takes shape around a horror film festival in Havana, where the protagonist’s dead husband makes an unexpected appearance. It’s a slim volume which raises more questions than it answers, simultaneously resisting and inviting interpretation–which might just be the point. Clare’s struggle to come to grips with the loss of her husband and his influence on her self-perception is unflinchingly honest and painfully familiar. If you’re not Clare, you’ve known her.

Writing, Reviews, and the Emotional Labor of Social Media

Having any sort of public persona in the 21st century makes you a potential target for hate mail and internet harassment. This is news to no one, and accepted by most people as an occupational hazard–unpleasant, but unavoidable. Across my own social media platforms I usually accrue a handful of unpleasant messages and mentions each week. Nine times out of ten it’s a mundane variation of some criticism of my work or myself which I’ve already heard a thousand times and it’s easy to delete it and move on: the thank u, next mentality which every artist has to cultivate if they don’t want to go stark barking mad. But every now and then there’s a little more vitriol.

This week, I made the mistake of saying readers really shouldn’t tag or “@” authors’ usernames in negative reviews, ensuring that they see the post. (Hashtags–preceded by the ubiquitous #–are a different story, as the author can choose whether or not to track those and see those notifications. That’s not what I’m talking about here.) There are a lot of reasons for this which anybody with a normal sense of empathy can probably deduce without my help. But you might be surprised (I certainly was) how many people disagree and will vociferously defend their right to make sure an author sees every bad review they write. The most common justification is that authors should be interested in seeing constructive criticism of their work. This is a sound theory. Most authors I know are interested in constructive criticism of their work, and they should be. The problem is that this kind of feedback is a lot less constructive than people seem to think. The biggest hitch here is the fact that the work you’re critiquing has already been published; even if it’s an ARC or galley it’s already on its way to press and the author can’t make any changes to it, which relegates that feedback to the category of woulda-shoulda-coulda. Okay, the proverbial devil’s advocate argues, but couldn’t an author apply this feedback to future work? Sure. And they’re probably going to. But this is still a misguided approach, for three reasons: (1) reader feedback is wildly subjective and often contradictory, (2) they’ve already seen it a thousand times, and (3) there’s a big difference between knowingly approaching criticism of your work and being blindsided by it at any random hour of the day somebody feels like posting it.

To elaborate a little: all art is subjective. No book is going to make every reader happy. All authors know this and they fully expect to see some unfavorable reviews. You might see some criticisms you agree with (I see those all the time) and some you don’t (I see those, too), but more often than not you’re going to see one person complaining about something another person loved. There is no accounting for taste. This issue of contradictory feedback is nothing new to a writer who’s already made it far enough in the process to have random readers tagging them on social media. They’ve talked to agents and editors and writing teachers, many of whom have offered them conflicting advice for how to improve their work. For instance, in the last round of feedback on a manuscript my agent and I have been submitting, multiple professional editors–whose entire job is to improve a writer’s work–gave us completely contradictory opinions about what the book’s strengths and weaknesses were. Hard to know what to make of that or how to put it into practice. Now multiply it by several thousand amateur reviewers on the internet and you have some idea what navigating reader feedback is actually like and why it’s not nearly as helpful as it might sound. Moreover, by the time a book hits the shelves, the author has already seen a dizzying array of reviews, from Kirkus to Goodreads. Chances are, you’re not telling them anything they haven’t already heard.

Let me be clear about something here: I’m not suggesting readers shouldn’t bother writing reviews or should only write nice reviews in order to spare an author’s feelings. That’s antithetical to how publishing works; people use reviews and recommendations to decide what they might like to read, and your average man-on-the-street opinion is often more valuable than whatever the professional reviewer at the NYT had to say, because most readers aren’t thinking about who deserves a literary prize or a six-figure advance on their next book. They’re just looking for something they’ll enjoy, and community reviews are often how they find it. If you didn’t like a book, that’s fine. You can and should express that opinion. But making sure the author sees it by tagging their username or handle is unnecessary. Actually, it’s kind of cruel.

If that seems over-dramatic, allow me to contextualize. Once I’ve explained how this kind of constructive criticism really isn’t all that constructive, the follow-up is usually the argument that if you’re making art for public consumption you should have a thick skin and not let this sort of thing bother you. Again, the logic is sound. Authors know their work isn’t perfect and not everyone likes it and they should be open to hearing negative feedback. However, that doesn’t mean they need to hear it every minute of the day. Most authors, especially midlist or indie authors who aren’t making six-figure book deals, have other jobs. They don’t have the luxury of just sitting around all day reading reviews and musing over how to improve their work. Even if they did, to expect anyone in any job to be prepared for a performance review at any given time–whether they’re on the clock or not–is, frankly, ridiculous. But social media has made this possible and, moreover, has led some readers to treat it as a kind of inviolable right. If your profile is public, you’d better be prepared to hear how much someone hated your book whenever they feel like telling you, whether you’re eating breakfast or watching TV or trying to get a workout in. What readers who are really adamant about this may not realize is that criticism is only constructive if you can approach it when you’re in the right frame of mind for it–and when you are, you can gird your loins and browse those hashtags or sort through the pile of two-star reviews on Goodreads. But trust me, no writer is in that frame of mind when they’re just eating breakfast or watching TV or working out or doing any of the other mundane things that normal humans do. Those all-hours call-outs aren’t helpful; they’re just demoralizing. Few things suck more than swiping a notification on your phone while you’re just going about your business, only to be reminded of all the worst things you’ve already heard about your book. And yet, if you suggest that readers reconsider tagging an author’s username in a bad review, you will get a lot–and I mean a lot–of pushback.

Inevitably, these arguments take a turn toward, “Well, if you can’t take it, you should just get off social media.” Here’s why that suggestion is also not as helpful as it might seem: unfortunately, most authors need social media to reach readers. Now more than ever publishers are depending on authors to do a lot of their own publicity, and this includes reminding people that your book is out there as often as you can without becoming annoying (a very difficult line to walk, by the way). Publishing is a never-ending battle to stay relevant and visible. So as simple as the solution might seem–Don’t like social media? Just delete it!–it’s not a feasible option for authors who don’t have a lot of marketing dollars behind their books, and the authors who do probably have a publicist to handle this sort of thing for them anyway. If you’re not that lucky, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: you need to be able to use social media to connect with your audience, but the trade-off is that you have to be prepared to see not-so-constructive criticism of your book literally whenever a dissatisfied reader feels like making sure you see it.

The real irony here is that for the most part, bad reviews don’t bother me. I was an actor for the most awkward years of my life; from fourteen to about 22 not only my artistic performance but my physical appearance were subject to pretty brutal criticism, sometimes about things over which I had absolutely no control. (When I was a junior in college a director told me I wasn’t a bad actor but I could never make a career of it unless I lost fifteen pounds, dyed my hair blonde, and–here’s the kicker–became two inches shorter.) People have been telling me I’m terrible at things which are really important to me for most of my life, and I do have a sense of humor about it. A backhanded compliment from the NYTBR was so funny to me I put it in my Twitter bio. My favorite review of my book is a two-word one-star insult on Amazon which my PhD cohort (who know me well enough to know how hilarious I’d find this) had printed on a coffee mug which now sits on my desk where I can show it to my students when they’re upset about a grade. What I take issue with is not a reader’s right to criticize. I take issue with the idea that readers have a right to force their bad reviews on an author anytime and anyplace. What bothers me even more is that the suggestion that we don’t do something just because it’s unkind and unnecessary seems, to some people, so outrageous.

To be fair to the reading community, this is something a lot of authors and publishing personnel and other book lovers are talking about, and many readers agree that tagging authors’ usernames/handles in bad reviews is bad form. Still, there are plenty of people who are quick to start hurling the “special snowflake” sort of insults at writers who have the audacity to say they really shouldn’t have to be notified of bad reviews all day. The false sense of distance and anonymity fostered by social media simply makes it easier than ever before to be mean. Fifty years ago if you wanted to make sure an author knew you hated their book you would have had to make a phone call or go up and knock on their door, which probably sound, to a modern reader, like insane things to do. You could also write a letter, but writing a letter and mailing it requires enough thought and effort and expenditure that you would have to stop and ask yourself, “Is this really worth it?” And maybe it is. Maybe a book was so offensive to you that you felt a deep need to bring your grievances to the author’s attention. Fine. Post the letter. But the ease of social media has made it unnecessary to ask that question: namely, what ensuring an author sees your bad review accomplishes besides making their day a little worse than it might have been otherwise.

Long story short: Readers don’t have to like every book, but they also don’t have to make sure the author knows it. It’s a small kindness, but it costs nothing.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

M