This is an extremely roundabout way of saying that I believe there are books in this world that most women have read. These books tend to overlap with the books that men don't read, or are encouraged not to read. It's not new or groundbreaking to point out that women buy books more often than men do, but books that are specifically gendered as feminine tend to receive a whole lot of scorn. (Scorn and terrible cover designs.) A man who writes a book primarily for other men (like, say, The Corrections, or All the Sad Young Literary Men, or any of the FUSWG canon) is perceived to be more serious and literary than a woman who writes primarily for other women. Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich both made this point, in their own ways: men can and do write for men with no difficulty, whereas women have to perform for both genders, or maybe just for the guys, if they're going to be taken seriously. Lots of girl-focused books (I refuse to utter the term "chick lit") are, in fact, poorly written, broadly stereotypical, and regressive - but then again, so is the work of Chuck Palahniuk and Nick Hornby, and as far as I can tell I may never stop hearing people praise those men.
I sometimes contribute to a blog for young women. The writing staff of that site once received an e-mail reminding us that we should be fun for guys as well as girls. I spent a while puzzling over that one. Then I turned in an article about birth control and waited for the site's male commenters to show up and call me a whore again. To be fair, they had a lot of fun with it! That's another sad fact about writing while female, one which several of my friends can confirm: write about sex, or clothes, or anything traditionally feminine, and people will call you a vapid slut. Write about the issues of the day, and people will call you a stupid bitch who should stick to writing about sex and clothes. Write about dieting: you're anorexic. Write about the pressure to be thin: you're a pig. Girl stuff isn't to be taken seriously - and it is allllways open to insult and ridicule - but God help you if you should try to cover anything else. That's man talk!
Anyway, I had a little epiphany about all this while watching Mad Men - specifically, a scene in which all the secretaries are huddled around a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, giggling about the dirty bits, and Joan reflects ruefully that "men still won't read it." I have no idea whether this was accurate (I am thinking yes, based on other things I've heard and read) but it would make sense for women to be early adopters of Lady Chatterley, because, unlike other novels of infidelity, such as Anna Karenina (which was about wanting "passion," in some vague sense) or Madam Bovary (which was about some woman who'd been corrupted by reading too many sentimental novels), Lady Chatterley was very specifically about a woman learning how to get off. Admit it: at some point in your life, maybe when you were eleven or twelve years old, another girl passed you a dirty book in secret. Everybody knows basically how dude parts work - we certainly hear enough about them - but girls still have to take an active part in digging up information about their bodies. In the early sixties, a book like Lady Chatterley, despite its flaws, would no doubt have been used to aid in the investigation.
Women use stories socially - to form a basis of shared knowledge, to communicate things we're not supposed to know or discuss, to approach difficult personal topics, and to conduct all manner of lady business. Girls still probably get copies of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret at puberty, and after one breakup, I received no less than three copies of Eat Pray Love. It was the first thing that women wanted to do for me: give me a book so that I could understand what had happened. They'd read it; they wanted me to read it; it was the book one read in such a situation. Oprah knows about this stuff. That is why she is rich.
Maybe it is the same for guys! Maybe they are all passing around worn Norman Mailer paperbacks with instructions to read certain passages, or providing each other with giddy recaps of their favorite Hardy Boys novels. I've heard (oh, okay, I've read) that sports, and talk radio about sports, provides sort of the same function: it's a space that is overwhelmingly male, and when dudes get together to talk about it, they're also, in some back-handed way, discussing masculinity. Is it better to stay with your team or your team's city, demonstrating loyalty, or to carve out the best possible deal for yourself, showing independence and assertiveness? Is it better to be a star player, or to negotiate your role on a team so that the team is winning more even if you're spending less time with the ball? Things like that, I take it, are what guys discuss in a sports context. Then again, I am not a dude, so I have no idea!
I am a lady, and I conduct lady business. So: because of all this, and because this is apparently my Winter of Projects (dear God, I love projects), I am taking it upon myself to read books of the girly variety, and to report on them. That, in case you were wondering, is why I have a copy of Little Women in my bag right now. Look - don't even start.