Sunday, March 27, 2016


A friend brought to my attention this wonderful "essay" by Rivka Galchen in the New Yorker, The Only Thing I Envy Men.

I write "essay" after looking for how the magazine labels it. It's a memoir (probably) but it reads like a short story, with wit, poignancy, and unexpected twists.

She starts off discussing "women writers" and I expected her to envy men that they hold the default position. This is true in part, but it runs much deeper that; it pokes gentle fun at our gender biases, but then picks away at the biological basis for how men and women form different emotional attachments.

Let me tell you why I love this "essay." Go read it first, I don't want to spoil it for you. It's short and lively.

First, doesn't it make you want to read everything? Helen DeWitt, Dorothy Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, Jane Bowles, Even Virginia Woolf. The joy of recognition: yes, I've read Natsuo Kirino.
For many years, Shirley Jackson was nearly the only "woman writer" I had read. Then, around age twenty-five, I had the blunt experience of looking at my bookshelves and noticing that my bookshelves were filled almost exclusively with books by men. Which was fine, I wasn't going to get in a rage about it, I loved those books that I had read. But I was unsettled, since my bookshelves meant either there were no good books by women, or I had somehow read in such a way as to avoid them all. I had never had my Jane Austen phase or Edith Wharton phase or even George Eliot phase, I associated those writers with puberty, or "courting," both things that repelled me. (I now know I was stupid to feel that way.) But, like I said, I wasn’t going to rage at myself, or at the world, I was just going to try to read some books by women. But where to start?
Second, it turns the issue of gender biases in literature and publishing on its head. What makes the writing of a woman writer so womanly? What makes Walser and Kafka sound "female," in Galchen's opinion? I love how she persists in believing Denis Johnson is a woman, even while being surprised that his book was written by a woman.

Third, it goes where good girls don't. It considers the possibility of (female) sexual behaviour without bearing the burdens of its consequences. It considers motherhood without the burden of children. The possibility of covert babies.

Fourth, it makes me wonder about the metaphorical children, the creative works that authors nurture and give birth to, letting them make their own way in the world. Do men and women relate to those offspring differently? Are women held to task for these children, while men more easily dissociate from them?

The essay comes from Galchen's book, Little Labors, due out in May. I'll be checking it out, along with everything else she's ever written.


Stefanie said...

Excellent essay! Thanks for the tip. I will definitely be on the lookout for this book when it gets published.

theresa said...

I loved this piece too. Bold and innovative!