This week, Salon published a great interview with Meg Wolitzer (whose just-released novel The Interestings is currently being enjoyed by more than one Flavorwire staffer). "Men," she says, "with very few exceptions, won't read books about women." Though not exactly a new idea, this pronouncement gains a little force by coming hot on the heels of GQ's "The New Canon: The 21 Books from the 21st Century Every Man Should Read," which contains (you guessed it, drumroll please, etc.) three books written by women.
Though I won't disparage any of the books that made the list, I will offer my own—as an attempt to work towards ameliorating the problem laid out by Wolitzer and neatly exemplified byGQ. After all, though there are three books by women on their list, only the Munro could really be said to be primarily about them. Below are 21 books by and about women that every man should read.
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is essential reading no matter your gender, and this chilling depiction of a dystopian future is one of her best. In the Republic of Gilead, women's rights have been completely eradicated, and the country is ruled by a racist, homophobic, misogynist, ultra-conservative cult. As Flavorwire editor-in-chief Judy Berman quipped, "This is every woman's worst nightmare that men have never thought about." So think about it.
Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill
Gaitskill's incredible collection is filled with women walking the borderlands—of sexual experience, of self-actualization, of family. This book digs under your skin, titillates, forces you to re-evaluate everything you ever thought about sex and love and what it means to be a person in the world. This book is terrifying.
A Guide to Being Born, Ramona Ausubel
This one doesn't come out until May, but I'll recommend it now for good measure. Ausubel's luminous collection is organized around the origins of life—that is, the stages of love, conception, gestation, and birth—but her stories aren't as simple as all that. Men may never be able to feel the fetus in their stomach and be sure that it is a three-headed giraffe, but with this collection, they'll at least get a taste.
Bossypants, Tina Fey
Everyone likes Tina Fey, so this shouldn't be too hard a sell. The comedian's memoir is (obviously) hilarious, but also filled with reflections on being an awkward girl, a woman in show business, and a mother. You bros will be laughing so hard that you won't even realize you're learning about what it's like to be a real-life lady.
Speedboat, Renata Adler
In her aforementioned interview, Meg Wolitzer laments, "Something nebulous and thought-based—a book of ideas—people seem much more willing to have that from a man than a woman." Well, here is exactly that: a loose, penetrating, ruthless, glorious novel about a young journalist making her way through New York City.
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
The modern fairy tale, whether in retelling or creation, has become a ripe area for feminist thought, for explorations of sexuality, for wit and irony and vulgarity to seep out of what was once a prim little moralistic package. No one does this better than Angela Carter, whose rich retellings of the classic tales thrum with blood and language.
The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner
Here's a special lure for all you male readers: girl racing motorcycles across salt flats. Past that, the book is gritty and searing and immediately essential, a subtle novel about art and love and truth and a woman on a knife's edge. Read it.
Self-Help, Lorrie Moore
No one does wry brilliance better than Lorrie Moore. In this collection, she will teach you everything you need to know: how to talk to your mother, how to be an other woman, how to become a writer, how to live. Darkly comic and dazzling, it's a way inside the head of all the smart women you've ever known.
Heroines, Kate Zambreno
In Heroines, Zambreno traces the impact—or rather, the exiling—of the female experience on and from literature, untangling the stories of "the mad wives of modernism" both historical and fictional, "who died in the asylum. Locked away, rendered safe. Forgotten, erased, or rewritten." Enlightening and intense, it's a must-read.
Kindred, Octavia Butler
In this novel, a 26-year-old modern black woman is suddenly (and then repeatedly) transported back in time to a slave plantation in the antebellum South, where she is subjected to all the harshest parts of slavery as she protects the son of a slaveowner. Rarely does social criticism come with such incendiary storytelling.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
All right, I'm cheating with this one a little, since it can't be properly said to be about women at all—instead, it's about a human man who travels to an alien planet populated by a race of beings who are genderless, or rather unisex, able to assume either binary gender during reproduction. The novel is beautiful and filled with timeless philosophical insights as to the nature of humanity and society—a definite classic I'm happy to make an exception for here.
Dora: A Headcase, Lidia Yuknavitch