In Search of Female Authors

Posted on August 31, 2010

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Recently, I discovered a new dating website called alikewise.com, which connects people purely based on their literary tastes. I began filling out my profile, going through my mental rolodex: Infinite Jest* by David Foster Wallace, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. “Funny,” I thought, not for the first time. “I’m not listing any books written by women.” A disconcerting blankness, and then I eventually came up with Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, House of Incest by Anais Nin, and A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor.

I’m not saying that there aren’t any good female authors. There are certainly plenty of women writers who I would consider, objectively, good: the contemporary authors Isabel Allende and Toni Morrison come to mind, along with Austen, Woolf and everyone else from the high school reading list. But as with other authors from such “reading lists”, I can generally say that I’ve read all of their stuff once, but don’t feel particularly compelled to revisit it. I also have a special place in my heart for certain female memoirists and essayists, like Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, and for diarists, like Anais Nin and Sei Shonagon.

But it’s been ages since I’ve read anything by a female fiction writer that’s made me hold my breath.

Authors I like tend to challenge the fundamental structure of a novel. Cloud Atlas consists of six novellas that are nested inside each other like layers of an onion. Hopscotch, by Cortazar, can be read in two different orders – either by going through chapters 1 to 55 and omitting the rest, or by starting at chapter 73 and “hopping” to chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 166 and so on. It is a “book of books”, besides the two standard readings, there are 166! – 2 possible chapter-sequences. It’s the Choose Your Own Adventure of Argentine expatriate literature. And of course, there’s Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow, where the narrative explodes mid-air, but not before some interesting crackles and flashes.

I also enjoy the surreal, the shocking, and the just-plain-weird. There’s Donald Barthelme, for example, with his stories about porcupines and overgrown men in the skin of eleven-year-olds; and Haruki Murakami, with his obsessions with women’s ears, 100% perfect girls, and bakery robberies. I love William Vollmann’s Rainbow Stories, which expose a wide range of human suffering from Thailand to the Tenderloin. (If I were a man, I would have wanted to be like William Vollmann.) Finally, there’s Borges, whose writing contains all these qualities, plus an added layer of mindfuckery that compresses a novel-worthy experience into just three or four pages. If I were to pick a single writer to read for the rest of my life, it would probably be Borges.

The protagonists in the stories I like, when human, tend not to be terribly sympathetic characters, and have a habit of wandering, dopily, into strange situations. Generally speaking, as well, there tends not to be a clear narrative thread or obvious conflict-climax-resolution structure in place. There’s just, well, interestingness.

Thus far, I’ve had a lot of trouble finding female authors that produce my particular type of interestingness. Long ago, I read parts of Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool; she probably comes the closest, although it’s hard to quantify why without a fresh read. Back in the day, too, I was a huge fan of Ursula K. LeGuin, and I’ve enjoyed a book or two by Margaret Atwood. I’ve also been told that I would like Zadie Smith, but haven’t gotten any further than the first pages of White Teeth. Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, with its metafictiony slant and obvious ambition, was a solid romp but didn’t show me anything new.

One book that really made an impression on me was Wetlands by Charlotte Roche. I bought it for a friend of mine after she gave birth and flipped through a good chunk of it before reluctantly sending it off. It’s the unrestrained rantings of a young woman, of great brilliance and questionable sanity, who’s being hospitalized for anal surgery. Arousing in places and stomach-turning in others, it brings up nearly every bodily fluid from snot to smegma. When talking with friends, I’ve described it as “the book version of a great big hairy vagina.”

Hairy vaginas aside, though, I’m still on the lookout for exciting new women’s fiction.

*A love of Wallace, on the whole, makes a guy about 10% more attractive. For better or worse.

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