Ever find yourself loving a book and then realizing that its treatment of women is entirely unfair and ridiculous? What about picking up a well-known misogynist author like Hemingway just to see what all the fuss is about and realizing that yeah, he’s a total misogynist… but his books are really good. Often, misogyny is a turn off in literature, but there are some books, some really good books, that manage to stand out even while being sexist in the extreme.
I hate this... and not only because I feel like an author capable of thinking about things in ways that blow me away is being lazy if he can’t break out of stereotypes about women. That’s frustrating enough, but the real reason it always gets to me is that it makes me question myself on some level. Because being honest with myself requires me to acknowledge that, yes, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is misogynistic, and that also, yes, I enjoyed it a lot and think it’s an awesome book. And this presents an immediate and troubling question: What does that say about me?
Do I think sexism in books somehow doesn’t matter? Deep down, am I not as much of a feminist as I think?
It’s a little bit like catching yourself singing along to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” except worse, because that at least you can concede is “catchy” while still firmly being of the opinion that it is awful. But what about novels that you think are good? Not just entertaining reads or fun stories, but good? What do we do with Brave New World or On the Road or Taming of the Shrew or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or just about anything written by Raymond Carver? How do we justify enjoying their work, even when sexism is integral to it?
I unfortunately seem to run into this all the freaking time, but I think I’ve finally figured out how to approach it. The first step is admitting to yourself that you do like these things, and that’s okay. It’s a little bit like how I have to continually own up to the fact that I liked Twilight when I first read it, before it got huge and made me question the whole thing deeper. Am I embarrassed about this? Sure, but at the same time, you can’t help what you like. Enjoying a book is not something that you can decide to do or not do. It’s something that happens.
It’s also important to remember that liking a few sexist novel does not define your entire taste in books. I personally read all kinds of books, all the time. I read young adult and fantasy and Man Booker Prize-winners, sometimes all in the same month. Sometimes that month is called this October. So I try not to feel bad about liking things I’m “not supposed to” even if I happen to agree with the reasons I shouldn’t like them.
Still, I do believe it’s important not to deny the problems with works of literature, whether those problems are overt sexism or racism or homophobia or just a simple (but still important) lack of diversity. You can’t pretend that things you like are perfect or that you only like perfect things. People are complicated. Books are complicated. Being okay with what you like doesn’t mean you think everything about what you like is okay. I’m happiest when I’m not trying to pretend I think The Great Gatsby isn’t sexist or Edith Wharton isn't anti-Semitic just because I don’t want it to be true.
But whatever you do, don’t be ashamed of your tastes. Shame should be reserved for things you do, not for who you are. If I’m a person who enjoyed Twilight then screw it, that’s apparently who I am. And if I can let myself off the hook for that then you can get yourself off the hook for liking Hemingway. It doesn’t mean we let Hemingway off the hook. It just means we get on with our reading lives.