Last week, Esquire came out with a list of "75 Books Men Should Read," described as "an unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published." Of course, Esquire is a men's magazine, so they are perhaps expected to take a male-centered approach to fiction. The list is replete with novels by hard-living, macho writers like Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and Henry Miller. Fair enough. But of the 75 books on the list, guess how many were written by women?
One. One! The only book written by a female on the list was A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. No doubt, lists such as this are always imperfect. And based on the list's above-description, it appears a casually constructed bit of fun, rather than a definitive ranking for posterity. But while there is no reason to take offense to every slanted statistic one comes across, out of the 75 "greatest" books, just one by a woman? Not even Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?
Over Twitter, everyone from Publishers Weekly to independent booksellers tweeted their disappointment. Roxane Gay wrote at HTML Giant:
What’s troubling though, is the implication that men should only read literature written by men, that men don’t need to bother with books written by women, and of course, that the only great books are those written by men. What other message can we take from a list where seventy-four books are written by men and only one is written by a woman?
If this most recent list of great books was the only instance where women were woefully underrepresented and where the wrong message about great writing was being sent, that would be one thing. Such is not the case. We keep having this conversation over and over and over again. Editors continue compiling these lists of great literature that completely ignore great literature by women as if books by women were never written, as if that literature doesn’t matter, as it that literature is somehow less deserving of an audience than the same old books trotted out every time we talk about great books.