*Continuously being added to and expanded. If you have any recommendations, send them below and add to the list!
I’d read the twelfth description of Aomame’s breasts when I placed Murakami’s 1Q84 down on the table. I tried to remember the last time I’d come across a detailed description of the bulge of a man’s penis beneath his jeans on the pages of a book. I couldn’t recall any such instances (coincidentally, soon after beginning this reading list, one quickly arose through a long, sharp corduroy form in Hitomi Kanehara’s Mambo.)
Sure, Murakami might be an extreme, hypersexualised example of male narration, best captured in this bizarre and out of touch statement:
“Aomame mourned the deaths of these two friends deeply. It saddened her to think that these women were forever gone from the world. And she mourned their lovely breasts – breasts that had vanished without a trace.”
And perhaps not all male writers are as openly frank about their obsession with breasts (although that’s only a ‘perhaps’):
But the same bland and empty phrases kept emanating from bookshelves like, “a girl with perfect hair and skin and bone structure,” (Jonathan Franzen), and ‘Cass was the youngest and most beautiful of five sisters… the most beautiful girl in town (Charles Bukowski), and oh, Franzen again “there were very few women who could top her combination of beauty and youth.”
And they completely and utterly bored me.
It wasn’t just the continuous returning to the, often secondary, female character’s physical form which was boring. The female characters themselves, born of the male imagination, were inherently boring too. They were either mysterious, enigmatic figures with no backstory or they were otherworldly, intoxicating beings made up of entirely, it seemed, skin and flesh and hair and nothing more. Manifestations of the male character’s lust, there often to assist him on his journey of self-discovery and existential understanding, to guide him into to the otherwise impenetrable ‘female’ world of emotions and raw feelings (“Annagret’s beauty had broken something open in him… and so he was also crying” – another one of Franzen’s many gems,) to save or absolve him in some delicate, moving way.
Returning to Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram a decade after first reading it, and still just breaking into the first chapter, I come to a near 6-page ramble about a female character’s ‘full lips’ and ‘fine nose’ and ‘lovely green eyes,‘ her captivating charm, her dreamlike way of floating through crowds like his ‘guardian angle.’ Big.fat.yawn. Sure, the male character is enraptured by a woman he perceives to be beautiful. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary here, a recounting of an experience of lust and attraction, one felt and experienced by so many across the entire gender spectrum in the throes of a new romance. A rush of hormones, an insatiable desire to drink in their entire form and being.
I was just tired, I realised, of reading about heterosexual male lust and attraction – one that is so forcefully dominant in its particularity that all of society has mobilised behind it to uphold and support.
My bookcase looks a lot different today than it did a few years ago, having spent my teens and twenties consuming a steady stream of male-centred narrative, when education reading syllabuses were topped with Karouacs and Dickens, Updikes and Orwells. The male narrative became such an embedded part of my psyche that, at one point, I could only write short stories with a male protagonist because that’s the only type of character that felt substantial and real enough to play a leading role. What does this say about the sort of female characters I’d consistently come across – underdeveloped, half-formed, passive figures, defined more by their physical appearance and measure of attractiveness than any psychological, deeply human traits?
And so, my voyage into the non-male literary world begins – a lifelong journey that starts at the peak of the 2021 lockdown in South Wales and continues outwards, to South Korea and Nigeria, Syria and Peru. Does this mean I’ll never read a book written by a man again? Of course not – I’m too big a George Saunders fan, for one. But it does mean I’ll spend the rest of my reading years actively seeking out non-male authors as I explore what else is out there – beyond the plump cheeks, gravity-defying breasts and well-formed noses.
Send your recommendation!